With Rhode Island’s legalization of same-sex marriage yesterday, New England becomes the first region in the country to go all in for SSM. Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the Union, and New England the most Catholic region. Given the Church’s staunch opposition to SSM, an explanation would seem to be in order.
Simplest, of course, is that New England Catholics don’t pay much attention to what the Church teaches. But that just begs the question. What differentiates them from Catholics in other parts of the country is their greater reluctance to impose the teachings of their faith on the rest of society.
As my colleague Andrew Walsh and I argue in One Nation, Divisible, our book on religion and region in American politics, New England Catholics retain a vibrant communal memory of once having been a disfavored minority subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous Yankee behavior. Rather than return the favor, they have chosen to do better unto others than was done unto them. Why should the Catholic proscription of SSM prevail against the wishes of those who have no part of it?
Such privatization — or, one might say, communalization — of Catholic marriage doctrine sits poorly, of course, with bishops who believe the doctrine to be inscribed in natural law and thus incumbent on all people at all times. But for New Englanders all politics tends to be local, which is to say less about big ideas than about reconciling your preferences with mine.
It’s a lesson that Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence would do well to take to heart. Tobin, who did all he could to keep SSM from coming to Rhode Island, was in a monitory mood as he faced the inevitable. Declaring himself “profoundly disappointed,” he warned that
because “same-sex marriages” are clearly contrary to God’s plan for the human family, and therefore objectively sinful, Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies, realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others.
Of course, it can also cause scandal when you disrespect your neighbors’ customs and mores.