Same-sex marriage and the Catholic Church is focus of conference at YDS

By Matthew Vogel ’13 J.D./M.A.R.
Editor’s Note: Matthew Vogel, a joint degree candidate in Divinity and Law, was one of the organizers of the Oct. 22 conference at Yale Divinity School on the topic “Same-Sex Marriage and the Catholic Church:Voices from Law, Religion, and the Pews.”  Following is his report on the conference.

An Oct. 22 conference at Yale Divinity School, “Same-Sex Marriage and the Catholic Church: Voices from Law, Religion, and the Pews,” brought to the school’s Marquand Chapel academics and activists, lawyers and parish workers, and clergy and laity to examine Roman Catholic teaching on sexual diversity and the bishops' response to the legalization of same-sex marriages in Connecticut from legal, ethical, and pastoral perspectives. A rich mix of voices from people committed to both the Church and their faith made clear that this is an issue that transcends doctrine and exposes burning ecclesiological questions such as the place of the laity in the Church and the role of the hierarchy's voice in the public square.

PanelMichael Perry and Pamela Karlan, law professors from Emory and Stanford law schools respectively, opened the gathering—the third in a four-part series of  “More Than a Monologue” conferences—with this religion in the public square question. Their engaging exchange examined the legalization of same-sex marriage from human rights and U.S. constitutional law perspectives. Perry argued forcefully that the right to religious liberty, as enshrined in human rights law, requires the recognition of same-sex marriage and Karlan cautioned that a foundation of liberty alone would not suffice, that, in order to truly find any stability in the U.S. constitutional context, same-sex marriage must also be grounded in our country's fundamental notions of equality.

Patricia Beattie Jung, of Saint Paul School of Theology, and her chief interlocutor, Joan Martin from the Episcopal Divinity School, undertook the day's ethical investigation. Jung articulated a cogent and deeply Catholic ethical framework supporting same-sex marriage, and, in response, Martin issued a series of strong challenges for those who would try to think and act ethically regarding issues of human sexuality and sexual identity in today’s world. Surfacing the important religious and ethical issues swirling around same-sex marriage and setting them in stark relief, their fruitful exchange pushed participants to take seriously and think critically about the words of Psalm 68, “God sets the lonely in families” (also the title of Jung’s lecture).

Panel 2A late-morning panel following the Perry-Karlan exchange brought together a former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice, a renowned Catholic ethicist, a Catholic layperson, and one of the couples who were plaintiffs in the 2008 Kerriganv.CommissionerofPublicHealth Connecticut Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage in Connecticut. They discussed that court decision and the Roman Catholic hierarchy's response to it. Justice Joette Katz, who was in the majority that decided the case, led the conference participants through the court's reasoning, which was largely based on the very notions of equality Karlan had urged. Catholic layperson Michael Norko and Kerriganplaintiffs Janet Peck and Carol Conklin each spoke movingly and forthrightly about the anger, pain, and anguish they have experienced as a result of the Connecticut bishops' critical response to the decision and the Church's teaching more generally.

SpeakerSeveral of the commentators throughout the day referred to a statistic first drawn out by Boston College ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill during the morning panel. She observed that, according to a report released in March by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority – almost three-quarters – of lay Catholics support the legal right of same-sex couples to marriage or civil unions, more than any other Christian denomination in the United States. For Cahill, as for many at the conference, this statistic, particularly in light of recent statements from Pope Benedict XVI and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan about the importance of Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage, illustrated not only the degree to which the Catholic hierarchy are out-of-step with ordinary, in-the-pews U.S. Catholics, but also the extent to which those Catholics filling the pews have been apparently largely content to passively follow the bishops.

This concern with the role of the laity in the Church and engagement with those who do not support same-sex marriage marked the smaller afternoon breakout sessions that followed the Jung-Martin exchange. Designed to address a series of topics specifically with respect to same-sex marriage – parish ministry, campus and youth ministry, the role of the laity in the Church, and Scripture – these dialogical, conversation-driven gatherings opened up a space for everyone, whether long-time expert or relative newcomer to the issue, to share questions, concerns, reflections, and plans for the future. As participants reported back to the conference about their conversations, the concern for and commitment to the Church was palpable, as was a stirring and heartfelt yearning for a Catholic Church that listens to and welcomes all people of good will – and for ways lay Catholics can make that happen. One couldn’t help but think that perhaps conferences such as this will help lay Catholics find their voices so that within the Church there truly can be more than a monologue.

Principal organizers of the YDS conference included Michael Norko ’10 M.A.R., associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of New Testament Diana Swancutt; and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes.

Other conferences related to the overall initiative, “More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church,” were held at Fordham University (Sept. 16), Union Theological Seminary (Oct. 1), and Oct. 29 at Fairfield University.

Posted: 11/06/2011