Why the Catholic/same-sex marriage correlation?

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USA Today‘s Cathy Grossman at Faith & Reason and the Boston Globe‘s Michael Paulson at Articles of Faith have been pondering my little correlation between the proportion of Catholics in a state and the state’s support for same-sex marriage, so let me offer a possible explanation.

It’s fair to point out (as Michael does) that Catholics tend to be concentrated in liberal states like Massachusetts, New York, and California, where there are a lot of non-Catholics (Jews, say) who we know support same-sex marriage. But what needs to be looked at are the actual rates of Catholic support for gay marriage. According to a recent WaPo-ABC News poll, white Catholics were evenly split (as opposed to white evangelicals, only 20 percent of whom supported it). That may understate Catholic support, however, at least in some places. For example, in 2003, a poll taken in working class, heavily Catholic Hudson County, New Jersey, found that over 60 percent of Catholics supported gay marriage, as compared to 30 percent of Protestants.

Cathy offers the suggestion that what’s going on here is Catholic social justice principles outweighing the magisterium’s natural law arguments against non-heterosexual unions. We here at the Greenberg Center tend to argue (see One Nation, Divisible, chapter 3) that New England, anyway, is a place where Catholics remember their own minority status well and so don’t want to inflict their current majority views on those who feel otherwise. But I’d like to propose a third idea: that it is because Catholics value the idea marriage so highly that they don’t want to deny it to those who want to embrace it.

It’s important to recognize that in the Catholic thought-world, marriage is the most potent of terms for describing relationships other than the conjugal union of one man and one woman. A bishop has for centuries been considered to be “married” to his diocese. And religious women wear rings to signify their marriage to Christ. What “marriage” signifies in the Catholic imagination, in other words, is the most powerful of spiritual bonds. Under the circumstances, it’s just plain obvious that that two people who want to commit themselves to each other, regardless of gender, should be married, isn’t it?