Editor’s Note: This column is part of the Register’s ‘Decade in Review’ series. Other pieces include: Fundamental Transformation of a Nation, Culture: The Decade in Review, Africa’s Young Christian Communities Are Now in Islamic-Extremist Crosshairs and Latin America’s Lost Decade.
WASHINGTON — The political and cultural landscape has shifted for U.S. Catholics in the past decade on significant issues like marriage, religious liberty and abortion.
As 2020 begins, a look back at these issues reveals some key turning points where the Church took a stand for a true understanding of the human person and the common good, even where it was unpopular and led to legal battles.
An area that has seen possibly the most change over the past decade is marriage. Ten years ago, political leaders, including President Barack Obama, affirmed the then-majority belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman. But Obama’s position shifted on the issue, and the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, declined to rule on the state of California’s democratic rejection of same-sex “marriage” in Proposition 8, and ultimately redefined marriage in the United States via its landmark 5-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015.
Public support for same-sex “marriage” in the U.S. has grown from 44% in 2010 to 63% in 2019.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded to the Supreme Court’s 2015 redefinition of marriage, calling it “a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children.”
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the bishops’ conference at the time, wrote, “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.”
The ruling had the consequence of legal battles for religious institutions like Catholic schools and Christian bakers and florists. Many Catholic adoption agencies have closed, and some continue to fight lawsuits. Before the Obergefell ruling, in fact, Catholic adoption services closed in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., due to state requirements that providers place children with same-sex couples. Post-Obergefell this continued in Illinois and Buffalo, New York, where Catholic adoption services were ended. The state of Michigan reached a settlement in April 2019 with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), mandating that all adoption agencies work with same-sex couples. Becket Law filed a lawsuit in response on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities. Becket also petitioned the Supreme Court in July on behalf of Catholic Social Services, a foster-care agency with which the city of Philadelphia will not place children due to their refusal to place children with same-sex couples.
Catholic analysts Ryan Anderson, Heritage Foundation expert on marriage and family, and Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently noted in USA Today that the effects of Obergefell went far beyond what same-sex “marriage” proponents said at the time. “Same-sex marriage advocates told the public that they sought only the ‘freedom to marry,’” they wrote.
“Same-sex couples were already free to live as they chose, but legal recognition was about the definition of marriage for all of society. It was about affirmation — by the government and everyone else.”
“It’s unsurprising that once a campaign that used to cry ‘live and let live’ prevailed, it began working to shut down Catholic adoption agencies and harass evangelical bakers and florists,” they emphasized. “This shows it was never really about ‘live and let live’ — that was a merely tactical stance.”
The Transgender Movement
The redefinition of marriage was followed by an intensified push to rethink sexuality as a spectrum, not a biologically determined male-female dichotomy, with the rise of the transgender movement.
“If we can’t see the point of our sexual embodiment where it matters most — in marriage — we’ll question whether it matters at all,” Anderson and George wrote of this phenomenon. “Hence the push to see gender as ‘fluid’ and existing along a ‘spectrum’ of nonbinary options.”
In 2016, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice and Department of Education issued guidance requiring that “when a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.” While that guidance was rescinded by the Trump administration in February 2017, efforts to institutionalize “gender” policies have continued legislatively and judicially.
The U.S. bishops wrote an open letter in December 2017 emphasizing that “gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt. The state itself has a compelling interest, therefore, in maintaining policies that uphold the scientific fact of human biology and supporting the social institutions and norms that surround it.” A June 2019 Vatican document argued that the transgender movement aimed “chiefly to create a cultural and ideological revolution driven by relativism, and, secondarily, a juridical revolution, since such beliefs claim specific rights for the individual and across society.”
In the U.S., the legal battles over these “specific rights” have played out in such instances as the Supreme Court currently considering whether sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Department of Education is investigating a Title IX complaint brought by three Connecticut female high-school track athletes over a state policy allowing biologically male athletes to compete in female sports if they identify as females. Other cases include a Christian teacher filing a lawsuit after being fired for refusing to use preferred pronouns and a custody battle over a 7-year-old boy whose mother claimed he has a female gender identity and whose father disagreed.
Life and Religious Liberty
Despite concerns during the 2016 election cycle about Donald Trump’s rhetoric and past, Catholics found an ally on the issues of religious liberty and abortion with his election. President Trump not only reinstated the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy ban on funding abortion overseas in 2017, revoked by his predecessor eight years earlier, he also expanded it to include Department of Defense funding.
And honoring his pledge to appoint federal judges supportive of pro-life perspectives, he appointed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And the Trump administration defunded Planned Parenthood to the tune of $60 million in August 2019, through a Health and Human Services (HHS) rule barring Title X funding recipients from referring for abortion.
Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow for The Catholic Association, told the Register that over the past few years “the biggest tension in America” on the life issue “is between the people at a local level and their institutions and the courts.”
McGuire pointed to the “tidal wave” of pro-life legislation that’s been passed at the state level that is subsequently overturned at the courts, as well as consistent public polling that shows a large majority of Americans oppose abortion past the first trimester of pregnancy.
She said one significant step by the Trump administration and the Senate to aid the will of the people on the pro-life issue is the appointment of “a record number of constitutional judges who will maybe change that pattern of the will of the people on the issue of abortion being overturned at the courts.”
In 2013, the Little Sisters of the Poor went to court against the Obama administration over their refusal to comply with the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”
After years of litigation, the Supreme Court vacated the lower-court rulings against the Little Sisters and ordered the government to find another way to provide low-cost contraceptives to women. The Trump administration’s HHS issued a final rule in 2018 with a religious exemption for the religious order.
In 2018, HHS also announced a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in its Office of Civil Rights to “restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom.” However, the Little Sisters’ battle is not over, as they are back in court again and petitioned the Supreme Court last October after a number of states, including California and Pennsylvania, challenged their religious exemption.
“The issue of religious liberty and health care has been one of the biggest issues of the last 10 years,” McGuire also noted. “The Trump administration has done a truly excellent job of working to protect the religious liberty and conscience rights of health-care workers, but right now it’s fragile because there’s just a very strong push to force people in the health-care industry to violate their beliefs.”
One policy area over which the U.S. bishops have sparred with Trump is immigration. Over the past decade, the issue has seen heated rhetoric but few meaningful solutions. Catholic social teaching urges a balance of the right of a person to migrate for his or her own livelihood and the right of a country to regulate and control its borders in a just and merciful way.
In 2012, the USCCB praised Obama’s implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which deferred deportation for those who were brought to the country as children, but noted that it was only a temporary solution. Speaking on behalf of the bishops, Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, subsequently opposed Trump’s efforts to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the USCCB has filed an amicus curiae brief against rescinding DACA as the Supreme Court weighs the Trump administration’s attempt to do so.
In November 2019, Bishop Vásquez wrote that “we continue to urge Congress and the president to work together to find a permanent legislative solution to the plight of all DREAMers, including DACA beneficiaries. In the meantime, ending DACA would disrupt DACA recipients’ continued contributions and integration to our country and could needlessly separate them from their families. Not allowing these young people to continue to utilize DACA to reach their God-given potential is against the common good and our nation’s history of welcoming the immigrant.”
When it comes to human dignity and the common good, another intense battle over the past decade involves the legalization and normalization of assisted suicide. The practice of physician-assisted suicide now is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, as opposed to just three states a decade ago.
Jennifer Popik, the director of medical ethics for National Right to Life, told the Register in March that “a lot of states are really on the cusp of legalizing it,” and the group is “concerned that it’s this sort of snowball effect. People don’t see the dangers.” In 2014, the story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old terminally ill woman who traveled from California to Oregon to die, was widely covered. The New York Times recently published a glowing profile of Belgian Paralympic champion Marieke Vervoort who died through euthanasia. However, Belgium’s permissive euthanasia laws have come under international scrutiny after it was revealed that doctors there permitted terminally ill 9- and 11-year-old children to be euthanized.
With the increasing popularity of the practice in the U.S. and abroad, religious leaders from Catholicism, Judaism and Islam presented a declaration to Pope Francis in October declaring their joint opposition to it. The statement said that the Abrahamic religions “oppose any form of euthanasia — that is the direct, deliberate and intentional act of taking life — as well as physician-assisted suicide — that is the direct, deliberate and intentional support of committing suicide — because they fundamentally contradict the inalienable value of human life, and therefore are inherently and consequentially morally and religiously wrong, and should be forbidden without exceptions.” McGuire attributed part of the success of the assisted-suicide movement in the U.S. to its “effective job of making the issue about dignity.” She said the Church’s challenge “is to help the culture understand not just the idea of the sanctity of human life from conception till natural death, but the idea of suffering. We’re a culture that doesn’t appreciate suffering in any way.”
“Pope Francis has been a very effective voice” on the issue, McGuire said. “He linked the issue of abortion to assisted suicide and talked about a culture that ignores or discards people who are on the margins, who aren’t ‘useful’ to society anymore.”
Register staff writer Lauretta Brown is based in Washington.