Everyone is surely aware of the controversy over laws recently passed in Indiana and Arkansas designed to protect the consciences of Christian believers and others in certain lines of work, such as caterers or bakers, who might object to being closely involved in the preparations for a same-sex wedding celebration by having to decorate a cake, say, with Bill and Steve Forever on it, or something of the sort. I am certainly in sympathy with the intent of such laws and would not myself want to appear to sanction or give approval to such a gross violation of the natural law as same-sex unions are.
But while I agree with those who object to their having to facilitate such ceremonies, I think that there is more to consider here than simply the question of an individual right to religious liberty. For the entire controversy highlights what happens when a society connected by political bonds begins to come apart with regard to its moral and cultural bonds.
The United States of course has no officially established religion, but until fairly recently a broad Protestant consensus provided the moral and cultural framework that any society requires. Catholics and other non-Protestants pretty much had to fit into that framework as best they could. Whether it was the prohibition of alcohol or the approval of divorce, the nation adhered to a Protestant moral framework. In the case of divorce, Catholic moral theology texts had to give guidelines to Catholic judges and lawyers as to how far they could or could not participate in it. Catholic caterers and florists doubtless served wedding ceremonies for the divorced, or for Catholics marrying outside the Church, even though the first is a violation of the natural law and the second of the Church's ecclesiastical law. Generally the concept of remote material cooperation was held to excuse such actions, and judges were specifically permitted by moral theologians to grant divorces or even preside over a wedding ceremony between two divorced persons if "a refusal would involve him in very grave difficulties or complications," as a 1946 book by a moral theologian written for Catholic professionals puts it. But the point to be noted is that it was the Protestant consensus that ruled and Catholics had to make the best of it. At least in the southern states the Protestant consensus supported segregation and the prohibition of interracial marriages until the 1960s, and Catholics, whatever their own views, had to more or less go along with that consensus, by not establishing interracial parochial schools, for example, or by counseling an interracial Catholic couple to go to another state to get married.
Now certainly a pretended same-sex marriage is a more fundamental violation of the natural law than the marriage of divorced persons, but still both do violate the natural law. Protestant morality historically accepted the one but not the other; Catholic morality condemns both.
In recent years I have seen little concern on the part of Catholics for the fact that American marriage legislation is thoroughly Protestant in its origins and inspiration. But now all this is changing as the Protestant consensus evaporates. Even though Catholics have been content to live within a Protestant marriage culture that for centuries has allowed institutionalized adultery in the form of the marriage of divorced persons, it is only when these Protestant norms are challenged, in the form of legal same-sex unions, that we become exercised and demand the right to opt out of the new prevailing consensus.
There were those who held that interracial marriages were prohibited either by Sacred Scripture or by their distorted understanding of the natural law, and who refused to go along when the Protestant social norm changed. Such people were mostly marginalized, their schools lost their tax exemptions, no one took seriously their arguments, and they essentially were banished from public view, except when someone brought up a school such as Bob Jones University for a good laugh.
Now I hope it is obvious that I would very much regret it if the same thing were to happen to Catholics. But my purpose in writing is first to remind ourselves that for a long time we did accommodate our conduct to an essentially alien, because Protestant, moral doctrine on marriage and on many other matters, and second, to say that it is hard to see how a society can function without broad shared moral norms. In many instances those who object to such moral norms can be allowed a sort of shadowy existence on the cultural margins, as is mostly permitted to the Amish or those who still object to interracial marriage. But if that option is allowed for Catholics and we willingly accept it, this must be only as a holding pattern, a strategy for regrouping. For we cannot allow the Catholic Church to be permanently pushed to the margins of society. Our task, given to us by our Lord, is to evangelize, not simply to lead a quiet Amish-like existence, disturbing no one and in turn not being disturbed.
A last thought. Paradoxically, our very acceptance of American society has, in my opinion, contributed to our threatened marginalization. For we pretty much always accepted American culture on its terms, not ours. We failed to challenge American society, to challenge its materialism, its aggressive wars, its injustices of all kinds, its intellectual pragmatism. We have failed not only to offer the whole Gospel, a Gospel preserved only by the Catholic Church, but we have kept hidden, often even to ourselves, the Catholic cultural heritage which differs so drastically from American Enlightenment Protestant culture. We made material cooperation with alien morals and an alien culture the norm, and now perhaps we will be punished for our continual compromises.
But whatever happens, whatever legislatures may enact or courts decide, the Catholic Church in the United States must not seek simply to reestablish the culture of compromise, to attempt to fit into an alien culture rather than to transform it. We asked for little and in the end it seems we will get nothing. Next time we had better ask for everything and leave it to God as to how much we get.