From Marco Rubio To Pope Francis: Can Catholics Oppose Gay Marriage Without Being Homophobic?

Mr. Rubio
U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) questions U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson on U.S.-Cuba relations during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

"If you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) lamented during a recent radio interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Rubio, who is currently seeking the Republican nomination for president, has long wrestled with that question of what is anti-gay versus anti-gay marriage, repeating over the years that he does not oppose gay people, just legal marriage equality. The Catholic Church has evolved to a similar position in recent years, condemning homophobia -- hate speech, assault, some forms of discrimination -- without supporting gay marriage. Here’s how Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin explained the Church’s views to The Independent.

“Anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. They are not just homophobic if they do that — they are actually Godophobic because God loves every one of those people,” he said. “Anyone who grew up in Ireland would have told jokes that were pointed at the gay community… it is part of the culture we grew up in, but we have to grow out of it.” “Just because a person isn’t in favor of gay marriage doesn’t mean that one is homophobic — let’s be very clear on that.”

Church Teachings, Secular Laws

In the Catholic tradition, marriage is a sacred bond that can only be joined by a man and a woman who are open to having children. Arguably, people who are permanently and irreversibly infertile (say a woman who has had her ovaries removed for a cancer treatment) should not marry. However, civil marriage in the U.S. makes no such distinction. As Slate writer Katie McDonough observes, opposition to gay marriage laws conflates the roles of the Church and the roles of the state.

“Civil marriage is a contract. As it stands, gay and lesbian couples who live in states without equal marriage can still marry in churches that recognize their relationships. (Presbyterian and Lutheran churches can perform ceremonies for same-sex couples, for example.) Churches also have discretion when it comes to straight couples: Catholics who get divorced can’t remarry in some churches unless they get an annulment.”

Catholics aren’t voting members in the church, and there’s no forum for members like Rubio to debate policy. When it comes to civil law, the majority of Catholics actually disagree with Rubio, and disagree with the Church. Around 55 percent of Catholics support marriage, while around 75 percent support the use of contraception, according to a 2013 Pew study. On abortion, Catholics are split along racial lines. A majority of white parishioners believe it should be legal in most cases, while a majority of Latinos believe abortion should be banned in almost all cases.

The Catholic Church has softened its tone on gay rights, with Pope Francis famously saying “Who am I to judge?” when asked about a pro-gay movement inside the Vatican. Catholic Democrats openly oppose legislating Church doctrine. Joe Biden, the Catholic Vice President, recently applauded the results of Ireland’s historic May referendum. Yet Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin classified it as more than the modification of a civil contract. For him and the Pope, it’s a direct assault on religion and society.

“The church must take account of this reality, but in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelisation. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity,” Parolin said.

Marco Rubio’s support for marriage inequality -- he thinks that states should be able to exclude same-sexs couples from marrying -- teeters on the edge between support and opposition. Shed the homophobe label, and he avoids losing young and libertarian voters. Keep the “defender-of-marriage” profile, and he might with enough evangelicals to make it through the primaries. Ultimately, the debate over Rubio’s views might not be about legislation. Unlike Ireland, the U.S. is unlikely to change marriage laws through a vote, and certainly not a national one. The Supreme Court, currently considering a major LGBT marriage case, is likely to rule in favor of equality advocates. In other words, Rubio is hedging in a debate where he doesn’t have much power, as a senator or a president.

I’d Go To A Gay Wedding, I Just Wouldn't Legislate It

“Ultimately, if someone that you care for and is part of your family has decided to move in one direction or another or feels that way because of who they love, you respect that because you love them,” Rubio recently told Jorge Ramos. “If someone gets divorced, I’m not going to stop loving them or having them a part of our lives,” he added, referring to Church doctrine on annulment.

Sen. Rubio and Cardinal Parolin do have their defenders, even among gay rights supporters. In a heartfelt piece for the Atlantic published in 2013, Brandon Ambrosino argued that anti-gay marriage didn’t necessarily mean anti-gay. In the piece, he argued that dismissing gay-marriage opponents and skeptics was unfair, and counter-productive.

“As a gay man thinking through the issue of marriage equality, I’ve come to the conclusion that, although it’s a no-brainer for me, this issue is complicated to a great number of people. To demonize as anti-gay the millions of Americans currently doing the difficult work of thinking through their convictions is, in my opinion, very troubling.”

For that act of contrarianism, Ambrosino has been called a “parroter of anti-gay talking points.” Others attacked it with more than invective. Zack Ford, section editor at a progressive D.C. blog, said that he and other marriage advocates are merely calling a spade a spade.

“As editor of ThinkProgress LGBT, I have regularly labeled groups and individuals as “anti-gay,” ‘anti-transgender,’ and ‘anti-LGBT.’ In fact, I’ve even used the b-word — bigoted — to describe those who openly oppose the freedom to marry or other forms of marriage equality. That’s because these descriptors are apt; ‘bigotry,’ in particular, accurately describes individuals who discriminate against a class of people because of prejudiced ideas they have about that group,” Ford wrote.

Rubio and his constituents don’t see themselves as bigots. In fact, they see themselves as targets for discrimination. It’s a narrative that’s grabbed hold of the Republican base, from the War on Prayer (in schools), to the War on Christmas (“If it's happening in your community, let us know by submitting your story,” Fox News writes.)

"We are at the water's edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech, because today we've reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater," Rubio said in the radio interview. "So what's the next step after that? After they're done going after individuals, the next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the catechism of the Catholic Church, is hate speech. And that's a real and present danger."

Rubio’s slippery-slope argument might not change many minds (“Massachusetts has been issuing marriage licenses to gay couples since 2004, and, last I checked, the state hasn’t moved to raze its Catholic churches,” McDonough argues). Yet there’s no doubt that the poll-savvy political operative is articulating the genuine concerns of his constituents which, as Ambrosino points out, number in the millions. How to confront that antagonism is likely to confound LGBT activist and allies for years to come. Yet if the course of recent history continues, at least the law will be on their side. 

What do you think?