Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Welcome to the new Roe v. Wade for marriage: the Supreme Court has handed down its wide-reaching declaration that “same-sex marriage” is a constitutional right and states must recognize same-sex unions contracted as marriages in other states.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Catholic, authored the 5-4 decision, in which he was joined by Catholic justice Sonia Sotomayor. In contrast, all four of the dissenting justices were Catholic.
The decision by the high court to once again try to end the debate on a contentious national issue has provoked strong responses on either side, between expressions of triumph and tragedy.
Here are some excerpts of reactions to today’s decision:
Bishops Decry “A Tragic Error”
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the Obergefell decision a “tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children.”
“Regardless of what a narrow majority of the Supreme Court may declare at this moment in history, the nature of the human person and marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable,” said USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky. ”Just as Roe v. Wade did not settle the question of abortion over forty years ago, Obergefell v. Hodges does not settle the question of marriage today. Neither decision is rooted in the truth, and as a result, both will eventually fail. Today the Court is wrong again. It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.”
Rhode Island’s Bishop Thomas Tobin had some strong words, referencing Pope Francis: “A thousand courts may rule otherwise, but the very notion of ‘same-sex marriage’ is morally wrong and a blatant rejection of God’s plan for the human family. As Pope Francis taught while serving as Archbishop in Argentina: “Same-sex marriage is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is a move of the ‘father of lies’ who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, the USCCB’s chairman for the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, stated: “I am bitterly disappointed that the majority of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to overturn the definition of marriage, which has remained unchanged for more than two millennia. Marriage is the lifelong exclusive union of one man and one woman, a font of unitive life and love as well as the foundation of a stable family and society.
“Marriage is rooted in creation: God created marriage in the very same breath as He created the human person, and for the Catholic Church, that will not change.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia took to Facebook to say the high court’s decision was not a “surprise,” but the slow unfolding consequences will be.
“The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on marriage is not a surprise. The surprise will come as ordinary people begin to experience, firsthand and painfully, the impact of today’s action on everything they thought they knew about marriage, family life, our laws and our social institutions. The mistakes of the court change nothing about the nature of men and women, and the truth of God’s Word. The task now for believers is to form our own families even more deeply in the love of God, and to rebuild a healthy marriage culture, one marriage at a time, from the debris of today’s decision.”
The Michigan Catholic Conference, led by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, stated the court’s redefintiion of marriage “represents a profound legal turning point in the contemporary and cultural understanding of spouses and family.”
“Going forward, the Supreme Court’s decision to redefine marriage will have a significant ripple effect upon the first amendment right to religious liberty. It sets the Church’s teaching about marriage in opposition to the law and will create inestimable conflicts between the state and religious persons and institutions. As the impact of the decision plays out over the coming weeks and months the Catholic Church will continue to preach the truth about marriage and will promote, in the public square, this truth as what is good for society and our world.”
The Archdiocese of Washington was not too sanguine about the decision’s affirmation of religious liberty in its statement: “The Court’s opinion rightly affirms the freedom of religious organizations to continue to express and teach the truth of marriage. Nonetheless, the Court’s ruling has the potential to create circumstances in which the Church’s teaching and practices may be perceived to conflict with civil law. As such situations arise, the local Church will have to undertake a moral evaluation to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the manner in which it will respond to this conflict.”
New Ways Ministry vs. Courage
On a much different wavelength than the U.S. bishops, New Ways Ministry, a self-described “gay-positive” ministry that the U.S. bishops said in 2010 does not present an authentic view of Catholic teaching, announced that it “rejoices with millions of U.S. Catholics that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided in favor of marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples.”
“While the U.S. Catholic bishops have consistently opposed marriage equality measures on all fronts, Catholic people in the pews have had a different perspective from their leaders. The lived faith of Catholic people has taught them that love, commitment, and sacrifice are the essential building blocks of marriage and family. Their daily experiences interacting with lesbian and gay couples and their families has taught them that these relationships are identical to heterosexual marriages in terms of the essential qualities needed to build a future together, establish a family, and contribute to social stability and growth.”
“The U.S. bishops now need to reconcile themselves to the new social reality of marriage equality, as it is poised to spread to all 50 states.”
Courage, an apostolate that ministers to persons with same-sex attractions in a manner faithful to Church teaching, gave this statement: “Mindful of the guidance of Pope Francis, and the priorities set for the Church by the Synod on the Family, Courage remains committed to ministering to this underserved community and, through the EnCourage apostolate, to those who love them. We are daily inspired by their joyful embrace of chastity and of the freedom that it gives them to love authentically, and believe that their compelling stories are a powerful witness to others.”
White House Tweets, Catholic Hopefuls Respond
President Barack Obama has weighed in via Twitter praising the decision: “Today is a big step in our march toward equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else. #LoveWins.”
Former governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, a Catholic and the underdog against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic primary, tweeted his own support as well: "So grateful to the people of MD for leading the way on this important issue of human dignity and equality under the law." A few hours later, O'Malley posted himself along side activists tweeting: "So excited that #LoveWon—had to take part in the celebration! #SCOTUS #marriageequality."Of course, a number of GOP Catholic presidential hopefuls seeking to replace him in 2016 have opined their dissent from the high court's ruling.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush stated, "I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision...It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., stated the "decision short-circuits the political process that has been underway on the state level for years."
“While I disagree with this decision, we live in a republic and must abide by the law. As we look ahead, it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal added the ruling "tramples on states’ rights that were once protected by the 10th Amendment of the Constitution."
"This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision," he said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum compared the high court's decision to the infamous Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases: "Today, five unelected judges decided to redefine the foundational unit that binds together our society without public debate or input." He highlighted his past leadership on the Federal Marriage Amendment of 2004.
None of the GOP hopefuls have weighed in on the bills submitted to the House and Senate from Rep. Steven King, R-Iowa, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., respectively here and here, that potentially would have prevented the high court from ruling by withdrawing its appellate jurisdiction from marriage cases. It is a power granted to Congress under Art. III, sec. 2 of the Constitution.
The Republican-led House passed a similar bill in 2004 called the Marriage Protection Act, when Democrats controlled the Senate. Once the GOP regained the Senate, controlling both Congress and the presidency, the MPA kept languishing in committee and never received another floor vote in Congress.
Catholic Supreme Dissents
Four Catholic justices -- Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas -- had powerful dissents against the majority.
Chief Justice Roberts: "The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now. I agree with the majority that the 'nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.' As petitioners put it, 'times can blind.' But to blind yourself to history is both prideful and unwise."
Justice Thomas: "Had the majority allowed the definition of marriage to be left to the political process—as the Constitution requires—the People could have considered the religious liberty implications of deviating from the traditional definition as part of their deliberative process. Instead, the majority’s decision short-circuits that process, with potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty."
Justice Alito: "The decision will also have other important consequences. It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent."
Justice Scalia summed up the decision as a "judicial Putsch" that lacked even a veneer of law: "A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy."
"They are certain that the People ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to bestow on them the power to remove questions from the democratic process when that is called for by their “reasoned judgment,” he said.
"The five Justices who compose today’s majority are entirely comfortable concluding that every State violated the Constitution for all of the 135 years between the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification and Massachusetts’ permitting of same-sex marriages in 2003. They have discovered in the Fourteenth Amendment a “fundamental right” overlooked by every person alive at the time of ratification, and almost everyone else in the time since…These Justices know that limiting marriage to one man and one woman is contrary to reason; they know that an institution as old as government itself, and accepted by every nation in history until 15 years ago, cannot possibly be supported by anything other than ignorance or bigotry. And they are willing to say that any citizen who does not agree with that, who adheres to what was, until 15 years ago, the unanimous judgment of all generations and all societies, stands against the Constitution."
Will Charity Prevail?
As the high court's decision exploded on social media, the Catholic bishops and various Catholic figures called people to exercise charity and civility.
Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine, responded to the vitriolic debate on his Facebook page that "No issue brings out so much hatred from so many Catholics as homosexuality."
"God wants us to love. And not a twisted, crabbed, narrow tolerance, which often comes in the guise of condemnations, instructions and admonitions that try to masquerade as love, but actual love."
Catholic music legend John Michael Talbot also weighed in on his Facebook page, suggesting how Catholic and various orthodox Christians might respond.
"We can either curse the darkness, or light a candle. I choose to lovingly and respectfully light a candle with the light of Jesus Christ. We can bemoan it, criticize those who don't agree with us, or focus on Christ, step out of the boat of our safety zones, and walk on water with Jesus! This includes love for all people regardless of secular or religious orientations."
"It is only when people change that nations can change," he added. "When we change the hearts and minds of each person within our culture, then our laws will reflect that change as well. This happens one human heart at a time. It has changed mighty empires in the past. It can again. For now, our laws reflect the secular humanism of the people within our culture. So, let's pray that this will change through simply living the Gospel of Jesus Christ with integrity, respect, and love for all people everywhere. All things are possible with God!"