Catholics in the US are traditionally very liberal, politically and culturally. The Democratic Party welcomed Kennedy, after all, when conservative elements of society were still treating Catholics like undesirable foreigners. Google “How the Irish became white” some day for an eye-opening education in anti-Catholic prejudice that remained very strong in the US right through the early 1960s.
But anyway, US Catholics, for many reasons including history and Catholic theology itself, ended up identifying as liberals and Democrats. In the process, they became as exposed to progressive ideas about gender and sexuality as most American liberals did. Hang out with progressive people, you start identifying with their ideas.
Add to that the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church. That’s an oxymoronic idea, but bear with me. Catholics lay people in the US are used to bishops and priests telling them how to think. It’s not like some churches that are more democratic or voluntary. I mean, if you’re a Methodist, and you don’t like what they teach, you just find a different church that suits you better.
Catholics have not traditionally had that luxury. Doctrine is strictly centralized, and until recently, the parish system also kind-of-strictly enforced. You went to church based on where you lived. Changing parishes was not a casual thing to do. Priests and bishops frowned on it.
So … what did liberal-minded, sort-of-rebellious American Catholics do? They kept their Catholic identity but developed a tradition of ignoring, or mostly ignoring, what their priests and bishops taught.
You can see that with divorce and contraception, for example. The Church teaches that those things are dreadful sins. To this day, priests rale against condoms and birth control pills. What is the American Catholic response to the sermons? A great collective yawn as they drive to the pharmacy after church for more of Trojan’s best.
And now, with something like 80% of American Catholics ignoring the priests about LGBTQ equality, the Church has a big problem. The Vatican has ruled that Catholics in the United States must vigorously oppose same-sex civil marriage — with practical measures when possible.
So … priests and bishop, who are taught to value obedience to the hierarchy, are actually doing that. That’s why bishops are purging same-sex married staff from Catholic institutions.
But American Catholic lay people don’t value obedience. They feel they have a stake in their churches, schools, and charities. And they really don’t much care what their priests have to say — other than in the vague, advisory sort of way most non-Catholic Americans care about what their clergy have to say.
And that’s a huge, existential problem for the Church right now. The pews are emptying out rapidly as young, liberal Catholics emulate their liberal Protestants peers by finding other places to worship or practicing private spirituality.
The more stubborn the bishops become, the more lay people begin to re-evaluate their identity and loyalty, especially when they see the clash as fundamentally challenging their core values.
The big question is this — who blinks first? Will the Church change enough to retain an appeal for young people? Or will they dig in their heels and go down with the ship? Which has already happened in places like Quebec, France, and much of the rest of traditionally Catholic Europe, where the Church has all but ceased to exist in any meaningful way.