WASHINGTON — Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its June 26 ruling that found a constitutional right to same-sex “marriage,” the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a passionate repudiation of the 5-4 decision and an unapologetic defense of Catholic teaching on marriage.

“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 Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., in a statement that referenced biblical teaching, Catholic doctrine and natural law.

“It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.”

The court’s landmark decision was expected by Church leaders.

Over the past decade, as the campaign for “marriage equality” advanced across the nation, many of them had written pastoral letters and sponsored media campaigns that warned against redefining marriage. Some had led state ballot initiatives that effectively barred same-sex couples from legal marriage.

Yet, when the court issued its decision on June 26, Church leaders properly marked the occasion as a turning point with likely dangerous consequences.

As faithful shepherds, they signaled their unchanged commitment to teach that God intended marriage to be a union of one man and one woman and to defend the right of children to be raised, when possible, by their natural mother and father.

Many expressed alarm regarding the ruling’s impact on religious freedom, even as they urged Catholics to respect and welcome persons with same-sex attraction. There were stern moral judgments that described the court’s decision as a “tragic error” and a smattering of more nuanced opinions that revealed a desire to mitigate church-state tensions in a changing world.


Love and Truth

However, Archbishop Kurtz’s forthright articulation of Church teaching set the tone and the course for the bishops in the aftermath of this momentous decision. It also signaled an intent to use the ruling as a teaching moment for an anxious flock.

“Jesus Christ, with great love, taught unambiguously that, from the beginning, marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. As Catholic bishops, we follow Our Lord and will continue to teach and to act according to this truth,” stated Archbishop Kurtz.

He called on the faithful to love their neighbors, “even those who hate us or would punish us for our faith and moral convictions.” And he urged all those “in positions of power and authority to respect the God-given freedom to seek, live by and bear witness to the truth.”

Finally, he rebuked judges and lawmakers who endorsed same-sex “marriage”: “The law has a duty to support every child’s basic right to be raised, where possible, by his or her married mother and father in a stable home.” 

Compared with President Barack Obama’s ringing endorsement of the court’s decision as the proper fulfillment of the Constitution’s guarantee of “equal protection of the law,” Archbishop Kurtz’s firm statement of faith was all the more striking.


‘Recipe for Tyranny’

During a day that featured the façade of the White House bathed in rainbow-colored spotlights and millions tweeting their support for the ruling, the USCCB head’s moral rebuke to the court was echoed by other Church leaders.

“This decision reflects a deep confusion about the meaning of marriage, the family and the human person; about individual liberty; and about the role of the courts and legislatures in our democratic system of self-government,” stated Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami issued an even stronger repudiation of the decision: “Allowing ‘an act of the will’ to be substituted for ‘legal judgment’ is a recipe for tyranny.”

A number of Church leaders who reacted to the ruling highlighted natural-law principles that undergird Catholic teaching on marriage, which the Church hallows as a sacrament.

Even as the court attributed a moral equivalence of traditional marriage with same-sex unions, these bishops reminded their flocks that the fundamental rights of spouses and children existed prior to the power of the state to redefine marriage.

“Marriage is a natural institution that predates and precedes governments and government regulation,” read a statement issued by Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, who articulated national-law principles that once guided the state’s interest in marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

“Society needs an institution that connects children to their mothers and fathers, and marriage is the only institution that by its nature is able to accomplish this,” said Archbishop Coakley.

“Children have a basic right, wherever possible, to know and be loved by their mother and father together in a stable union.”

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., who had fought repeated efforts to change Rhode Island's marriage laws, until legislation was approved in 2013, defended the unchanging nature of a bedrock institution.

“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,” stated Bishop Tobin.

“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.’”

Statements also clarified the connection between biblical teaching on marriage and natural law.

“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,” stated Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.


Consequences for Religious Freedom

While many Church leaders focused on the dangers that the court’s decision posed for the rights of natural parents and their children, a number expressed alarm about the consequences for religious freedom.

The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy “recognizes free-speech rights of religious people to speak and advocate, but does not acknowledge the free exercise of religion, the right to implement Church teaching and the right to follow Church teaching when interacting with the broader society,” noted Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the bishops’ point man on religious freedom.

“Today’s decision, I believe, will give rise to many challenges and legal controversies, and we will do our best to protect ourselves, in terms of how we organize and run our ministries, and to advocate for protections at the state and local levels.”

Indeed, recent litigation initiated by same-sex couples who were denied services for their weddings by Christian businesses and the campaign of attacks on state versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act point to the challenges ahead.

Yet Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the vice president of the bishops’ conference, vowed that Church leaders would not back off from their defense of religious liberty.

The Church will “support public-policy issues, including a version of the marriage and religious-freedom act.


Reaffirming Respect

Church leaders were at pains to balance their expressions of outrage and dismay with a clear regard for the dignity and respect due every person.

“Certainly, every citizen of this land, regardless of their sexual orientation, deserves to be respected in their personal and civic life,” stated Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, where same-sex civil marriage has been the law of the land for more than a decade.

While Cardinal O’Malley also expressed his “sadness” and “disappointment” at the decision, a few Church leaders offered a more nuanced and necessarily subdued message.

“[T]he Catholic Church has an abiding concern for the dignity of gay persons,” stated Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago.

“This respect must be real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the Church’s commitment to accompanying all people.”

Archbishop Cupich, who used part of his June 26 statement to express support for the court’s latest ruling on the Affordable Care Act, sought to draw a distinction between civil and sacramental marriage.

The court’s “redefinition of civil marriage has no bearing on the Catholic sacrament of matrimony,” he said.

The Chicago archbishop appeared to stake out a limited sphere of influence for the Church — ideally, a position that would mitigate any direct threat to the free-exercise rights of Church institutions, but also one that would restrict the Church’s voice on this matter in the public square.

Further, Archbishop Cupich’s statement seemed intended to reassure same-sex couples and their families that he welcomed future collaboration and saw no need for tensions.


Teaching Moment

But if some Church leaders opted to maintain a low profile, most used the historic decision as a teaching moment.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington provided the most comprehensive response to the court’s decision, with point-by-point answers to a range of questions about the Church’s now-unique stance on marriage.

Like many of his peers, Cardinal Wuerl drew a bright line between civil law and religious teachings proclaimed over millennia. But he also offered a more developed treatment of the role and significance of sexual complementarity in the Church’s understanding of marriage.

“Our faith is not based on human preferences, but the revealed word of God,” said Cardinal Wuerl, quoting Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 19. “Married love is unique in God’s plan for the bodily union of a husband and wife.”

Most strikingly, he directly engaged claims by homosexual-rights groups that have charged that Christian teaching on marriage fuels bigotry against persons with same-sex attraction.

“Church teaching and common sense make a distinction between who a person is and what that person does,” he said.

“We are also called to follow God’s plan and the moral law expressed, for example, in the [Ten] Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the reflection on the Last Judgment (Mark 10:17-21; Luke 18:18-22; Matthew 5, 6 and 7; Matthew 19:17-20; Matthew 25:31-46),” the Washington archbishop said. “The ancient maxim ‘Love the sinner, but hate the sin’ is central to our behavior, because it refers to all human beings.”

His calm dismissal of the charge that opposition to “marriage equality” necessarily constituted an act of discrimination fortified the faithful as they stood apart from the celebratory mood on television and social media.

Yes, practicing Catholics might well feel like outsiders in their own country. And so the bishops offered a final consideration to those who might be tempted to set aside their objections to redefining marriage and enter into the festivities.

The high court’s decision to impose the will of a slim majority on the entire nation, sweeping away state laws that barred “marriage equality,” brought to mind another landmark ruling: Roe v. Wade. That decision was supposed to “settle” a divisive national debate, but did no such thing.

Back then, in the early decades following Roe, it was the Catholic bishops who kept the issue alive.

That responsibility will likely fall to them again, as they grapple with a more hostile age of intolerance toward Christian sexual ethics. And their statements carry an implicit invitation to the faithful to accompany them on this pilgrimage of faith.

No doubt, their somber tone reflects a measure of regret for their own failure to effectively catechize their flock, with reportedly more than half of baptized Catholics now supporting “marriage equality.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. bishops rightly marked this historic moment as a turning point in the culture. Before long, Catholics will see whether this day of reckoning will be a turning point for the Church as well as one that injects a new urgency in the mission of bishops, pastors and the laity to proclaim, defend and live Jesus’s teaching on marriage.


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.