Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

May 29,  2006  



Speech promoting Catholic doctrine irks college grads

By Thomas F. Coleman

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the use of birth control is a serious sin.  The same holds true for sex outside of wedlock, unmarried cohabitation, and homosexual relations.

The position of the Catholic Church on these topics gained considerable media attention in April.  The Catholic University of St. Thomas found itself in the midst of a controversy after it issued formal rules forbidding faculty and staff from sharing a hotel room with a romantic partner on school-sponsored trips. 

Things first heated up at the university about a year ago when a choir director was told she could not share a hotel room with her lesbian partner during a school trip to France.  A few months later, an unmarried heterosexual couple, both professors at the university, were told they could not share a room during a school trip to Australia.

Just when feelings on both sides of the issue started to calm down, along comes Ben Kessler, a senior who had won the university's 2006 "Tommie Award."  The recipient of this honor, who is chosen by a vote of students, faculty, and staff, is invited to give a speech at the university's commencement ceremonies.

Kessler, an all-America football player who plans to become a priest, chose to focus a major portion of his speech condemning students who use birth control and supporting the position of the Church against unmarried cohabitation.

Some members of the audience started booing Kessler.  Others got up and walked out. 

University officials received so much negative feedback about the speech that a few days later Kessler issued a public apology for offending the audience.

What was Kessler thinking?  Did he really believe that members of the student body would be held hostage to a barrage of moral views which many of them do not accept?

Apparently he did, but Kessler certainly did not do his homework.  Public opinion surveys conducted during the past decade have consistently shown a liberalization of attitudes of Catholics, especially young people, on topics such as birth control, premarital sex, and homosexuality.

Surveys conducted in the last few years show that:

* 49% of Americans feel that it is okay for an unmarried couple to cohabit.  More than 70 of liberal Catholics hold this position, as do 38 percent of traditional Catholics.

* 62 percent of liberal Catholics believe the law should recognize legal agreements between same-sex couples.  Some 36 percent of traditional Catholics support such recognition.

* 61 percent of American Catholics disagree with the pronouncements of the Pope that birth control is immoral.

* 96 percent of sexually active Catholic women above the age of 18 use a modern method of birth control.

* 75 percent of Catholics believe that a person can be a "good Catholic" even though he or she does not obey the church's teaching on birth control.

Sociologists Dean R. Hoge of The Catholic University of America and James D. Davidson of Purdue University conducted a study in 2003 to explore Catholics' views on various church teachings. The study divided respondents into four age groups, labeling each generation according to the era in which they came of age.

Only in the 63-plus age group did a majority of respondents say homosexual acts are always wrong (69 percent), abortion is always wrong (55 percent) and premarital sex is always wrong (64 percent). In the three other generations combined, less than one-fourth considered premarital sex always wrong, 35 percent said abortion is always wrong and 39 percent said homosexual acts are always wrong.

Hogue and Purdue concluded that "tomorrow's Catholics will be more individualistic, more tolerant in the area of sexual morality, less inclined to defer to teachings of the hierarchy, less committed to Catholic institutions and less involved in parish life."

With studies such as these in mind, seminaries might consider teaching would-be priests, such as Ben Kessler, to feel the pulse of their audience before selecting topics for sermons. If they don't tread lightly, hard-line priests may someday find that they are literally preaching to the choir -- because the rest of the church pews may be empty.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.