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New Report Invigorates Pro-LGBT Catholics

by Joseph Erbentraut
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Friday Apr 1, 2011
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A new report that shows unprecedented levels of support for LGBT equality among American Catholics has only invigorated those who continue to seek a more gay-friendly church.

The Public Religion Research Institute reported 71 percent of responding Catholics were in favor of gay and lesbian couples legally entering into civil marriages "like you get at city hall." Even when a similar question referred specifically to "same-sex marriage," 43 percent of respondents remained in favor. Seventy-four percent of respondents said gays and lesbians should at least be able to enter into legally-sanctioned civil unions. And a solid majority, nearly three-quarters of respondents, also favored laws protecting gay men and lesbians against discrimination in the workplace.

The report noted Catholics are more supportive of legal recognition of same-sex relationships than members of any Christian denomination, as well as the American public as a whole.

Catholics for Equality is a relatively new organization working to mobilize and increase the visibility of pro-LGBT lay people who are speaking out against the church’s still hesitant leadership. Its executive director, Phil Attey, told EDGE the report’s findings were not surprising.

"It’s not a surprise that people of faith support equality," he said. "So many of our faith traditions compel us to support social justice and above most are Catholics. Our social justice tradition-taking care of the less fortunate, misunderstood, oppressed and downtrodden-is part of the fabric of who we are."

The report, expectedly, has its fair share of detractors.

Prominent Catholic blogger Thomas Peters wrote on CatholicVote.org that the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr., Fund and other pro-LGBT groups financially supported the report-and it is therefore not independent. He further pointed to the report’s finding that Catholics who attend Mass more often were less likely to support marriage equality.

Peters, it should be noted, is a cultural director for the National Organization for Marriage. Attey noted the Southern Poverty Law Center continues to investigate NOM for what he argued has been the group’s continued use of misinformation that has demonized LGBT Americans, potentially qualifying it as a "hate group."

Another critic of the report; Mark A. Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls, also described the report’s margin of error of six percent as troubling in an interview with the Catholic News Agency. And Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, stressed those who attend Mass regularly adhere to more traditional church teachings.

"Catholics who are Catholic in name only can be expected to entertain a secular vision of morality, i.e., one that prizes radical autonomy," he said. "Those who are serious about their religion look to more authoritative sources for guidance."

Regardless; Attey and other activists are confident the report reflects real progress among lay Catholics, progress the church’s leadership will need to address as they continue to play an active funding role in the efforts to block legal recognition of same-sex couples in many states. In Maine alone, more than 50 dioceses from across the country donated more than $550,000 to help thwart marriage equality in late 2009.

Attey further described the level of support, even on the low end of the report’s margin of error as generally "off the charts."

"These numbers are so high that these groups are scrambling to figure out how to stop the inevitable social change that these polls mandate," he added.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, also described the levels of support indicated in the Public Religion Research Institute’s report as not all that surprising. As part of Equally Blessed, a coalition of pro-LGBT Catholic groups, DignityUSA led a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill earlier this week to address the report with lawmakers.

She hoped the report will help to "normalize" support for LGBT equality among Catholics who may have previously felt outnumbered by those whose beliefs remain in line with the church hierarchy.

"These numbers are mostly a continuation of a trend and the result of more Catholics being out to their families, coworkers, neighbors and other Catholics, as well as some push back, I think, against the hierarchy’s attempt to dictate Catholics’ stances on civil issues," said Duddy-Burke.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, one of the original groups offering a spiritual haven to LGBT Catholics, felt the report reflected ever-growing support for queer issues within the church. He dismissed the response of some conservative leaders that the issue simply confuses pro-equality Catholics.

DeBernardo recently released a book titled Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach that has been in high demand. It was recently approved for a second printing.

He hoped pro-LGBT Catholics will remain visible and vocal in their support as the groundswell of faith-driven LGBT advocacy grows. Such support contributed to Maryland nearly passing a marriage equality bill earlier this month. Governor Martin O’Malley and other Catholic lawmakers supported the measure.

"It’s not confusion," said DeBernardo. "People know what the Catholic tradition of justice is and Catholic lay people have been interacting and dialoging with lesbian and gay people. Faith is not just teaching, but faith is also experience. I think these results are surprising to some people who hear the voice of bishops and think that’s the voice of Catholicism, but in fact the Catholic people are very much in support [of this] and that support is just going to keep growing."

Despite these positive signs, the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to marriage equality cannot be understated. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, hinted on 60 Minutes this week that passing marriage equality bills could ultimately open the door to incest.

"We would say, marriage by nature, marriage by definition, is between man and woman, for life, giving children. Don’t tamper with the definition," Dolan said. "Where would then the tampering stop?... I mean I love my mom. I don’t have the right to marry her. OK, so there are certain rights and attractions in life that are very beautiful and noble, but don’t entitle you to marriage."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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