Last week, Fr. James Martin, S.J., claimed on Facebook that
once again, the Supreme Court is poised to take up the question of whether someone can refuse to do business with a same-sex couple because it offends their Christian beliefs. But notice that these business owners don’t have a problem with (nor should they) serving non-Christians.
Pointing out that Christian business owners routinely do business with people who deny the divinity of Christ, Martin concludes,
So if this is about a business owner’s conscience being offended by serving a person with different beliefs (or a person who practices something that they find offensive) then the most generous interpretation is that their consciences are being highly selective.
The only matter that seems to offend the consciences of these few Catholic and Christian business leaders is same-sex marriage. So let’s not call this a case of “religious liberty.” Let’s call it what it is: homophobia.
By no means is Martin offering “the most generous interpretation.” His characterization of the facts of the case can fairly be called calumnious, since by his “remarks contrary to the truth, [he] harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (CCC 2477).
The case in question, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, is not about “the question of whether someone can refuse to do business with a same-sex couple because it offends their Christian beliefs.” Lorie Smith, the web designer at the heart of the case, has repeatedly said that “while I’m happy to serve everyone, and I have served everyone, including those who identify as LGBT, there are certain messages I am unable to promote through my business.” Even the Tenth Circuit, which ruled against Smith, conceded that she is “willing to work with all people regardless of sexual orientation” and is “generally willing to create graphics or websites for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (‘LGBT’) customers” but refuses to create “websites that celebrate same-sex marriages.” Instead, the legal question before the Supreme Court is, in the Court’s own words, “whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”
I mention this to defend Smith’s honor from Martin’s libel, and also to suggest that clear moral thinking requires distinguishing between loving sinners and hating sins. If you were a web designer, and someone asked you to create a pro-white supremacy page, what would you do? You legally can, and morally should, refuse. And if a Catholic priest publicly calumniated you online by claiming that you “refuse to do business with white people because it offends your beliefs” and calling you “white-phobic,” you would rightly conclude that he was being intentionally dishonest and wasn’t interested in preaching (or hearing) the truth.
Fr. Martin has elsewhere suggested that the axiom “love the sinner, hate the sin” promotes “a healthy demarcation between the person and the act. We can love and reverence a person who may have committed heinous sins.” That’s why it’s disheartening to find him obfuscating this important distinction in attacking Smith, arguing that “the offense could be about either a person or an act,” and that it would be a case of “the selectivity of conscience” in either case. He argues that “no one” argues that it’s wrong for a Christian to create “a website (or a cake or anything else) for a bar mitzvah, a Buddhist yoga retreat, a Muslim community center’s activities, or, more to the point, a non-Christian wedding.” But of course, plenty of faithful Christians would refuse to help promote a Buddhist yoga retreat. Benedictine College even renamed its yoga classes to avoid any association with Buddhist or Hindu religious practices.
Fr. Martin is right to highlight how difficult it can be to know how to behave conscientiously as a Christian in the public square. We can easily fall into a sort of selectivity in how we apply our moral principles. But that’s not a reason to ignore conscience (or to slander conscientious Christians). Instead, it’s a reason to think about moral principles carefully. In addition to distinguishing persons from actions, we should also distinguish “actions done by non-Christians” from “actions contrary to Christianity.” The simple fact that a thing is done by non-Christians isn’t enough to make it immoral.
Assuming we’re talking about an action contrary to Christianity, the next question becomes: how directly involved with it would you be? In technical terms, this is a question of formal versus material cooperation with evil. The Catechism is clear that “we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them,” including “by participating directly and voluntarily in them” or “by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them” (1868). Web and cake designers, by creating something specific to the event, are “participating directly and voluntarily” in a way that others (e.g., food vendors) might not be.
Finally, “conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful” (CCC 1783). In the case of a non-Christian wedding, Catholics believe in the validity of what are called natural marriages, unions between unbaptized people “by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (canon 1055 of the Code of Canon Law). Whether we’re talking about marriage ceremonies in ancient Greece, or the wedding feast of Cana, or two Buddhists getting married today, we readily affirm the validity of these natural marriages. Marriage is unique among the sacraments in this way: Jesus takes something already existing and raises it “to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.” But notice that even natural marriage is between “a man and a woman.” The idea of “gay marriage” rejects not only what Christianity has to say about marriage, but what the ancient world already knew about it from reason alone, severing marriage’s natural connection to procreation and family. Participating in that is a world apart from designing a cake for the (valid but non-sacramental) marriage of two unbaptized people.
Faithful Christianity isn’t a matter of offering one hour a week to God or being Christian in your free time. If it means anything at all, your faith should inform how you live and behave throughout your workweek. And that includes how you can shine the light of Christ in an increasingly un-Christian (and even anti-Christian) public square without cooperating with evil.