GAY MARRIAGE, equal marriage, civil unions, domestic partners, whatever you call it, the issue will be with us for a while. Here in Massachusetts we will eventually get to vote, either on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage but allow civil unions or, if activists have their way, straight up or down on equal marriage. Nationally the issue is an effective organizing tool for politicians, even more for political pastors, far too useful to be allowed to fade away. At the moment that phrase ''gay marriage" weaves together so many of our anxieties that it overwhelms substantive questions of law and ethics, ends rather than opens dialogue.
We would surely benefit from genuine public debate about homosexuality: We all have a lot to learn. Real debate might force us to speak persuasively to one another, to listen to opponents, and to distinguish substantive public questions needing resolution from understandable religious and moral differences we can live with. But so far we have had debates and a lot of posturing, a lot of it by religious leaders trying to revive their flocks by insisting passionately that their integrity is at stake in these fights about gay sex. Catholic and evangelical leaders, focused on gays and their dreaded ''gay agenda," hardly notice the damage they do to one of their most important responsibilities: to share with others in building and sustaining a public moral consensus on the basis of which we can make morally acceptable decisions about our common life.
The issue of gay marriage adds to the mounting disrespect so many feel about politicians, but I fear it is also undercutting the prestige and authority of Christian religious leaders. We all need to think harder about how we approach this issue.
First, there is the issue of simple honesty. For many Christian moralists, and certainly for Catholic bishops, the issue is gay sex, not gay partnerships. The official Catholic position is basically that sodomy is really bad, gravely immoral, even though we may not be able to make it illegal.
Most Catholics, even bishops, have no problem with single-sex households: Friends may live together, perhaps even adopt children. The majority, though far from all, would allow homosexuals to be included under antidiscrimination statutes. That has changed a bit as Rome warns that such statutes may initiate a slippery slope to gay marriage, but in Maine recently the bishop took no position on an equal rights proposal. Similarly church leaders, including Archbishop Leveda of San Francisco, recently named to succeed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have been willing to accommodate local domestic partnership ordinances as long as they are not framed in such a way as to lend public endorsement to homosexual sex.
Even in Massachusetts, Bishop Daniel Reilly, before retiring as bishop of Worcester, told the Legislature that, while the church could not approve of gay marriage, it was ready to have a conversation about the legal rights of all couples. A few days later, after severe criticism from movement extremists that he was opening the door to civil unions, Bishop Reilly withdrew his suggestion.
Still, Catholic pronouncements generally speak in measured tones about civil rights, but passion emerges when they touch on the acts of gay sex. Homosexuals are persons, but their orientation is ''objectively disordered" because the orientation is toward, not marriage or intimacy, but sodomy. It would be very helpful to public understanding if religious leaders would make it clear that their major concern is sodomy, actions that our people have decided are private and need not to be dealt with by law.
Second, American religious congregations of all sorts are profamily.The desire to pass on a heritage of faith and culture has long been the single most important factor shaping American congregational life. People, not just children, do best when there are stable, loving marriages, so we all have a stake in strong marriages and strong families.
Most congregations do well at helping couples prepare for marriage, and they try hard to assist couples in troubled marriages or experiencing separation and divorce. It is not so clear that they do as well supporting couples in the day to day work of strengthening their relationship amid the strains of contemporary life.
Would congregations or denominations that are most vocal against gay marriage as a threat to the family welcome objective tests of their effectiveness as advocates and friends of couples and families? Are couples happier, are adultery and divorce less frequent, are children more successful because they belong to such churches? Are the answers to such questions so clear that church leaders should be deferred to on questions of marriage and family life?
The argument is being made that churches can now best serve couples and families by fighting to restrict access to marriage to ''one man and one woman." If the focus is on children, we all make an understandable presumption in favor of heterosexual marriage. Ideally we think children should be nurtured by the man and woman whose love gave them life, though many of us are open to the possibility that children could benefit greatly from the love and guidance of a same-sex couple.
The Massachusetts Catholic bishops did not need to consider these questions. Even though they now claim to base their campaign on ''the defense of marriage," they made not the slightest effort to consult their pastors, their most respected couples, or any lay leaders before pronouncing against gay marriage. By acting without reference to pastoral experience, unfortunately, they not only weakened their case on gay marriage but further damaged their genuinely helpful efforts to support family life in other areas of social policy, such as income support, full employment, and affordable housing.
The third and by far the most important question is: Should love be considered? Marriage, after all, is not just about sex; it is also about love.
Among Catholics, marriages that are childless, for whatever reason, are still sacramental, witnessing to the love of God. Wise Christian advisers of couples speak of the gift of self to the beloved other, of unconditional mutual acceptance, of pursuing such ideals by habits of respect, dialogue, and daily attention. The goal is a unity of heart and spirit and, yes, body that makes real the pledge to become ''two in one flesh."
Dig deeper in Christian wisdom and find the most outrageously attractive of Christian claims, that the reality that lies beyond the horizon of our knowledge and experience, at the edge of the universe and in the deepest reaches of our own consciousness, is best named as love. God is love, revealed in the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth, so genuine love is the very presence and experience of God. Where do we find God? In love for one another, and that includes the day to day decision to love this person, with whom one lives.
If there is any truth in these claims, then the big Christian question about homosexuality is not sodomy but whether these people, too, can experience that love in intimate personal relationships.
One night almost a year ago dozens of members of the Massachusetts Legislature stood before their colleagues and described what they had seen of love among homosexual relatives and friends, some legislators themselves. So, too, in most Catholic conversations, among people and pastors when bishops aren't listening, you hear about persons, sons or daughters, neighbors or friends. Often the story will be about how a particular gay person, like so many straight people, moved beyond immature behavior and found a partner, with whom he or she seemed to have a deep, committed, faithful relationship, and how that person now seems to flourish.
As for what happens in the bedroom, the healthy American instinct is that we really don't know, and we leave that to their conscience. But we see fruits of love, they are often good, and we all are beneficiaries. A theologian before the state Legislature said that the church was against sodomy but was trying to listen to the experience of gay people. That upset ecclesiastical authorities but pastors know that it is true. Listening, and wondering, is an increasingly common experience of pastors and a growing number of people.
So one moral question is sodomy, another is love. And you don't have to be a Christian to understand that love is good. We are all better off when we and our friends and neighbors and coworkers and children love and are loved. What happened in those towers and those captured airplanes on 9/11? Hundreds of people called people they loved to speak at the end of love.
So try an experiment. The next time an argument starts about gay marriage, see what happens if you ask: Does love matter, or doesn't it?
David O'Brien is Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.