National and local Catholic leaders are roundly criticizing President Barack Obama’s statement of support for same-sex marriage.

He made the statement May 9 during a television interview. The Catholic Church teaches that marriage by definition is meant to be the exclusive, life-long commitment between one man and one woman and that sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful.

In December 2010, Obama said his views on same-sex marriage were “evolving” and said that he would continue to ponder the issue. An Associated Press story May 10 quoted Obama as saying he wanted to announce his support for such unions “in my own way, on my own terms” but acknowledged that earlier remarks by Vice President Joe Biden prompted his announcement.

On May 6, Biden, a Catholic, said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex couples marrying, adding that they should get “the same exact rights” heterosexual married couples receive.

Some critics questioned whether Obama’s May 9 statement in favor of same-sex marriage truly represented a so-called evolution in thought. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, pointed to Obama’s previous record as proof that the president has supported same-sex marriage in the past.

“In 1996, when Barack Obama was up for a state senate post in Illinois, he said he supported gay marriage. Eight years later, when he set his sights on the U.S. Senate, he discovered his Christian roots and said he was against it,” Donohue said.

Donohue also referred to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in which he stated his opposition to homosexuals marrying, but also opposed Proposition 8, a ballot initiative in California that affirmed marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said Obama’s May 9 statement in support of same-sex marriage was “not surprising” given his administration’s previous actions “that erode or ignore the unique meaning of marriage.”

Mike Phelan, director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life Issues for the Diocese of Phoenix, agreed.

“It’s alarming to see the leader of our country come out in favor of redefining our most fundamental, cornerstone institution,” Phelan said. “To see it in print by the leader of our nation — it’s the first time it’s ever happened — is sad and yet not surprising.”

Phelan said the effort to move the United States toward legalization and acceptance of same-sex marriage is a preliminary step toward an ultimate goal of removing the male-female distinction.

“We really have to help people understand what is at stake in fundamentally redefining the most basic institution in human society,” Phelan said. “Already in some of our institutions of higher learning, there is the refusal to acknowledge merely two genders.”

Phelan said this drive toward relativism in the area of gender represents a desire to “obliterate the image of God.” Obama’s statement in support of same-sex marriage will “change education, change religious freedom, and will confuse young people particularly even further about what the family is.”

‘Staggering’ shift

Some of that confusion regarding the meaning and purpose of marriage is already being seen among Catholics of all ages. A March poll conducted jointly by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service found overall Catholic support for same-sex marriage to be 59 percent, with 36 percent of Catholics opposed.

Support by Americans overall is at 52 percent, with 44 percent opposed.

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, the legislative arm that represents the Dioceses of Phoenix, Tucson and Gallup, N.M. as well as the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Eparchy of Phoenix, wasn’t surprised by the national poll numbers showing majority support among Catholics for same-sex marriage.

He recalled, however, the way poll numbers regarding same-sex marriage shifted dramatically in Arizona after strong catechetical efforts.

Back in 2008, Arizona voters were considering an amendment to the state constitution barring same-sex marriage. Two months prior to the election, support for the amendment among church-going Catholics was a dismal 44 percent.

“During September and all of October, however, the bishops worked on a number of different high-profile projects that changed these results dramatically week after week,” Johnson said.

Those efforts included a joint statement in favor of the amendment by the Arizona bishops, a video endorsement by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted that was read at all Masses, and the distribution of 100,000 copies of Bishop Olmsted’s book, “Catholics in the Public Square.”

By the end of this broad catechetical effort, there was a nearly 40 percent swing in the number of churchgoing Catholics supporting the marriage amendment. Post-election polling showed 82 percent of church-going Catholics voted for the amendment, which ultimately passed.

Johnson called the active Catholics’ response to the education effort on behalf of marriage — and the accompanying shift in poll numbers — “staggering.”


Donohue used Obama’s statement of support for same-sex marriage as a springboard to encourage similar action at the federal level.

“The time has finally come to pass a constitutional amendment affirming marriage as an institution reserved to the only two people who can naturally produce a family, namely a man and a woman,” Donohue said.

Bishop Olmsted said the debate regarding same-sex marriage needs to be viewed in light of the true meaning and purpose of marriage.

“It’s a question of who we are as human beings, what does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a woman, how did God create us and what is marriage,” he said. “Marriage is a God-given institution. It’s not created by governments — it’s recognized by governments, just as the right of human freedom is.”

Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., agreed that marriage is not a partisan issue.

“[It’s] a matter of justice, fairness and equality for the law to uphold every child’s basic right to be welcomed and raised by his or her mother and father together,” he said.

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Catholic News Services contributed to this story.