My grandfather - a conservative Catholic - was a wise and funny man. He used to quip that he was against prayer in the public schools because he was convinced that they would teach children the wrong way to pray. This simple and folksy logic actually reveals some profound insights: it is an acknowledgement that ours is a pluralistic nation, and that in such a free and open society, there are many different religious traditions; it is an admission that on some matters of faith, Catholics are not willing to compromise; and it also expresses a measure of acceptance that all of this is just fine. I think it even illustrates his gentle yet piercing sense of humor, the comment coming as it did back at the height of the animus-filled debate over prayer in the public schools.
Which brings me to the topic of marriage. Right now, gay marriage is a contentious issue for people of faith, much like the issue of school prayer used to be. In Minnesota, led by the bishops, the Catholic Church has come out in support of a constitutional amendment to permanently ban gay marriage. Frankly, I am not sure what is driving the Catholic campaign against gay marriage, nor do I understand why the church has chosen to take such a stand at this time. If I had to guess, I would say that it is a top-down effort by the Church to re-assert its moral authority in the United States at a time when it has been rocked by scandal and its influence is waning. It certainly does not seem like a widespread and spontaneous expression of anti-gay sentiment by its members.
In a way, I can understand why this debate is so important to Catholics. For Catholics, marriage is more than a long-standing and powerful institution; it is a sacrament: a sacred rite that binds its recipients to each other and to the church. Catholic marriage has many tenets: it is a lifelong, indissoluble commitment and the only proper place for sexual expression. Procreation is seen as a primary purpose. Marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics is circumspect and even frowned upon. And so on. In a formal and strict sense, the church does not recognize non-Catholic marriage because its expression outside of the church does not enshrine these tenets as its foundation.
I have seen a fair number of essays and other commentary by Catholics that purport to explain why everyone should oppose gay marriage. Really, though, all of these arguments simply express why people should oppose Catholic marriage for gays. Essentially, they reiterate Catholic beliefs about coupling, reproduction, and sexual morality. Forgotten or abandoned in these essays is that there are other ideas about marriage that simply do not conform to Catholic beliefs.
Religious people of many faiths, as well as non-religious people, define marriage differently, and some religious organizations openly embrace marriage between same-sex couples. I am certain that Catholics do not want to have the marriage standards of another faith imposed upon them. So they should not seek to impose their standard on others. This is the heart of the matter, and everything else simply clouds this essential truth. Whether or not the amendment passes, Catholics will continue to define and to celebrate marriage in their own way. Similarly, passing this amendment will not alter the expression (or lack thereof) of marriage by non-Catholics.
In short, the issue of gay marriage really does not challenge or undermine Catholic marriage as an institution in any way. Instead, this issue offers another, deeper challenge to Catholics: to find the humanity and the good in people with whom they disagree. I do not say this glibly; this is one of the most difficult challenges that we as human beings face. And it is a sacred as well as civic duty to do so.
Catholic Minnesotans should choose to protect the religious and personal liberty of non-Catholics so that those outside of the Church may find fulfillment and practice their beliefs in their own way. Or they should choose to protect the Catholic sacrament of marriage from being misused and diluted by forcing it upon a reluctant public. Either way, let's all take my grandfather's advice: leave Catholic teachings and practices to Catholics. Vote No.
Update: This essay is a plea to Catholics to reject the Church's anti-gay marriage position on the grounds that the State of Minnesota does not administer the Catholic sacrament of marriage, and never will. For those interested, here is the first essay I wrote on the subject of Minnesota's anti-gay marriage amendment, and it includes a more expansive plea for marriage equality.
Update II: I wrote two additional essays that respond to the "natural law" arguments against marriage equality. "Natural Law" is commonly invoked by Catholics to mask the religious nature of their opposition to same-sex marriage. You can find these essays here and here.