Commentary: Why the LDS and Catholic churches parted ways on the Respect for Marriage Act

They understand the world, and their place in it, differently.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building, shown in March 2022, in downtown Salt Lake City. A Religion News Service columnist says the Utah-based faith has distinguished itself over the past few years by making good-faith efforts to reach compromises on LGBTQ issues.

The Respect for Marriage Act that President Joe Biden will sign into law Tuesday is a bona fide compromise.

It does away with the federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton a quarter century ago, and ensures that same-sex couples enjoy all the federal benefits of marriage and that their marriages be recognized by every state in the union — but need not be performed in them. It also protects religious organizations and their employees — but not other institutions and individuals — from being required to provide “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

The religious protection was inserted to secure enough Republican votes in the Senate to achieve a filibuster-proof supermajority. It also secured the support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which issued the following statement last month:

The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints related to marriage between a man and a woman is well known and will remain unchanged.

We are grateful for the continuing efforts of those who work to ensure the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

We believe this approach is the way forward. As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding.

As Latter-day Saint general authority Seventy Jack Gerard told the church-owned Deseret News, “(W)hat we’re trying to do is go forward protecting our religious rights while at the same time respecting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have a very different view.”

In fact, the LDS Church has distinguished itself over the past few years by making good-faith efforts to reach such compromises on LGBTQ issues. Most notably, in 2015 it backed the so-called Utah Compromise, legislation that added sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah’s nondiscrimination laws in housing and employment while providing exemptions for religious institutions and their affiliates, along with protections for religious expression.

This was a far cry from 2008, when the church went all out in a successful campaign to persuade California voters to pass a referendum restricting marriage to a man and a woman. And its support of the Respect for Marriage Act is a far cry from the approach of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In July, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, sent a letter to senators urging them to defeat the bill. “People who experience same-sex attraction should be treated with the same respect and compassion as anyone, on account of their human dignity, and never be subject to unjust discrimination,” Cordileone wrote. “It was never discrimination, however, to simply maintain that an inherent aspect of the definition of marriage itself is the complementarity between the two sexes.”

Similarly, after the U.S. Senate voted 62-37 to advance the Respect for Marriage Act, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Religious Liberty, issued a statement declaring that his church “will always uphold the unique meaning of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman” and pronouncing as “insufficient” the act’s religious liberty provisions.

Wedding cake bakers, faith-based adoption and foster care providers, religious employers seeking to maintain their faith identity, faith-based housing agencies — are all at greater risk of discrimination under this legislation.

The bill is a bad deal for the many courageous Americans of faith and no faith who continue to believe and uphold the truth about marriage in the public square today.

Underlying the policy divergence of the two religious bodies are historically derived differences of self-understanding and tone.

On the one side, the LDS Church has always been a minority faith, one shaped in significant measure by persecution because of its distinctly different (if now abandoned) understanding of marriage. For Latter-day Saints, there is a built-in recognition that their views may set them apart from the rest of society.

On the other is Roman Catholicism, the established religion in a medieval world where the church determined the bounds of licit behavior for everyone. “The pagans are wrong and the Christians are right,” says the 11th-century Song of Roland. That worldview underlies the USCCB’s unwillingness to respect an understanding of marriage different from its own — one shared, notably, by most American Catholics these days.

Then there’s the difference between the LDS Church’s phrase “our LGBTQ brothers and sisters” and Cordileone’s “People who experience same-sex attraction.” It’s the difference between acknowledging members of one’s own community and identifying a sinful proclivity.

While Latter-day Saint elders know marriage as a lived experience, one to which their LGBTQ brothers and sisters may understandably aspire, these American bishops consider it a theological category, one that is reserved exclusively for people of a certain sort.

To be sure, not all Catholic clergy share this point of view. In a documentary released last year, Pope Francis himself said, “Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable over it. What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

In Germany, where priests regularly bless the unions of same-sex couples, Cardinal Reinhold Marx has called for a change in the church’s teaching on homosexuality. “Homosexuality is not a sin,” he told the weekly magazine Stern last March. “It corresponds to a Christian attitude when two people, regardless of gender, stand up for each other, in joy and sorrow.”

In other words, the USCCB’s response to the Respect for Marriage Act is one more example of the degree to which the USCCB is marching to the beat of its own traditionalist drummer.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)