It is not terribly surprising that gay marriage advocates won a decisive legislative victory in New York state last week. After all, New York is one of the nation's most socially liberal states, and could be expected to be on the vanguard of the steadily rising trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage. What is startling, at least in theory, is that they triumphed without much of a fight from the Roman Catholic Church.
The New York Times called the church's passivity "befuddling to gay-rights advocates." New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan didn't travel to the state capitol to lobby against the bill, but rather made his strongest statement against it on a call-in radio program. In 2009, after assuming the office once held by the politically potent Cardinals Francis Spellman and John O'Connor, Dolan told reporters that he wouldn't "shy away" from the gay marriage battle. But in the end, Dolan, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, did little more than run the flag of Catholic teaching up the familiar flagpole. His heart clearly wasn't in the fight.
The archbishop was undoubtedly correct to describe the pro-gay forces as "very strong" and "well-financed" -- but what is the Archdiocese of New York, chopped liver? Though greatly diminished in power from the glory days of Cardinal Spellman, there is no bully pulpit like the one Dolan has. Given the razor-thin margin of victory for the pro-gay side, it's entirely possible, even likely, that a fully engaged Archbishop Dolan could have won this round for his side.
Dolan told reporters that he was feeling down after the legislative loss. Please. Any pity for him is unearned, given that he and his team have had years to prepare for this struggle, and to educate lay Catholics and the wider public about what was at stake in this issue. And yet they fought with a half-heartedness that is simply stunning given the vivid, calamitous language the archbishop used to describe the threat. comparing America under gay marriage to life in authoritarian China and totalitarian North Korea.
No man who really believes those things would have confronted the challenge with such bizarre maladroitness, skittering off to a bishops' meeting in Seattle when crunch time came in Albany. It's as if Churchill, having delivered his famous "finest hour" address in the Commons after France's surrender, caught a train to the shore for a Tory Party conference. If gay rights champions are befuddled by the contrast between Dolan's red-meat rhetoric and his milquetoast leadership, what must conservative Catholics think?
The Catholic Church's position on same-sex marriage could hardly be clearer. So why do so many Catholic clerics have so much trouble effectively articulating it, not only in the midst of a vital political fight, but from the pulpit on an average Sunday morning?
It's not just the Catholic leadership. Bishops of the Eastern Orthodox churches, whose teaching on same-sex relations is equally ancient, and equally strong, are possibly even more tongue-tied than their Catholic counterparts. Metropolitan Jonah, the primate of my own church, the Orthodox Church in America, finds his authority effectively shattered by the Synod of Bishops, in part because they resented his signing the Manhattan Declaration in support of traditional marriage.
True, Michael Dahulich, the OCA bishop of New York and New Jersey, issued an archpastoral letter condemning the New York legislature's action. But one wonders how active the bishop and Empire State Orthodox clergy were in the fight when their voices might have made a difference?
Though evangelical leadership is, in general, far bolder and more pro-active on the issue (but still losing its young), the legislative rout of traditional Christians on the same-sex marriage front will likely continue. The conservative (in principle) clergy have no real idea how to respond meaningfully to pro-gay arguments.
Some splutter with exaggerated rhetoric that make the traditional Christian position look ludicrous. Others, despite their personal convictions, fear the fight as distasteful and divisive, and prefer to content themselves with pro forma statements of church teaching -- as if they were more interested in soothing their own consciences than defending the right.
Paralysis and ineffectiveness on the same-sex marriage issue is a symptom of a deeper and broader moral failure. Five decades into the Sexual Revolution, church leadership in this country still has not figured out a credible way to respond to its radical challenge to Christian sexual ethics.
If our pastors, priests, and religious educators avoid speaking directly, intelligently, and convincingly about the meaning of sexuality for Christians, we should not be surprised when the laity takes its cues from the popular culture. If you've been coasting for years, do not plead befuddlement when you try to kick your moral leadership into gear, and get little traction.
A decade ago, I reported a story for National Review about how the Netherlands went from being a bastion of bourgeois Christian virtue to a showcase for hedonistic secularism in a single generation. In one of my interviews, a Dutch academic said that when the countercultural gale began to blow in the 1960s, the country's religious leadership swiftly surrendered because it had lost confidence in the truth of its own teaching on sexual morality, and, in turn, faith in its own ability to persuade others.
The Dutch collapse seemed to happen overnight. In truth, these tectonic social shifts never do. The peculiar diffidence with which the most important leader of the largest Christian church in America fought for traditional marriage -- this, in spite of his stated belief that same-sex marriage imperils our civilization -- might well say a lot about which way the wind is blowing today.