By Maureen Fiedler
Note: This commentary was first published February 24, 2012 by the National Catholic Reporter.
Yesterday, our State Senate here in Maryland passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. This follows similar action by the House of Delegates last week, and it makes Maryland the eighth state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. Our governor, Martin O'Malley – who is a Catholic – pushed for the bill and will sign the bill into law.
In this, O'Malley joins other Catholic governors who also recently approved same-sex marriage: Andrew Cuomo of New York and Christine Gregoire of Washington state.
O'Malley's signature might not be the end of the story in Maryland, however, because opponents of the measure are hoping to put the question on a ballot referendum this fall. So the ultimate decision could be made by Maryland voters. Currently, the polls show a solid majority of Marylanders favoring the measure, but who knows what a large dose of negative campaigning might do?
Part of that negative campaigning, you can be sure, will come from the Catholic bishops. Yet they might profitably do what the three Catholic governors have done: read the handwriting on the wall.
The issue of same-sex marriage is really a "settled" issue, politically speaking. It is only a matter of time before all 50 states legalize it. Why? Look at the polls. Young people strongly favor it. Indeed, most of those under 35 wonder what all the fuss is about. Most know gay or lesbian people who have long since been out of the closet and see no reason to hide their sexual orientation. For the younger generation, this is not an aberration, and knowing such folks is a part of their lived experience. So why can't they marry if they love each other? To most young people, the answer is obvious.
It's no coincidence that governors like Cuomo and O'Malley (both of whom could be thinking about a run for president in 2016) see the trends moving rapidly in direction of such equality.
The bishops might profitably re-examine old positions and – at the very least – stay out of the potential fray in Maryland in the fall. Same-sex marriage is defined these days as a civil rights issue, and there will come a time when the bishops will not want to be cited in history as against civil rights for gay and lesbian people. (The Vatican was defending slavery as late as 1866 – not something to be proud of.)
Moreover, their position further alienates young people, not something the church needs these days.
Many Catholics might say, "Hey! Church teaching is not up for grabs. It cannot change with the wind."
True, but it can change. It's well to remember that Catholic teaching has changed for good reasons over the centuries on a number of serious issues: usury, religious freedom, scriptural interpretation, even slavery. (For documentation, see my first book, Rome Has Spoken.)
Maybe it won't take centuries this time.