I am a Catholic who supports civil marriage for same sex couples.

Research shows I am not alone. I am part of the majority.

In the spring of 2011, the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., published a survey showing that 71 percent of Catholics supported some kind of civil recognition of same-sex relationships. This past spring The Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Catholics explicitly support marriage for same-sex couples. This is a higher level of support than among Protestant Christians.

How do Catholics like me support civil marriage for same sex couples even though our bishops oppose it?

We Catholic supporters are simply living the values we learned from the nuns and priests in our youth. We learned that family is of prime importance. We learned that the family functions best when supported by loving relationships. We learned that those relationships must be characterized by fidelity, lifelong commitment, mutual respect, love and the nurture of children.

All Catholics share these family values, no matter what we think about civil marriage for same sex couples. Our differences of opinion occur when we apply these values to family structures that have only recently become visible in our society.

It is our responsibility, as Catholic laypeople, to decide how to apply our beliefs and values to the new family circumstances. This is called using “prudential judgment” or more commonly, using our conscience. The Vatican II Council called our conscience the “law written by God” in our hearts.

It is the responsibility of bishops and popes to teach us our creeds, traditions and sacraments. But they go beyond their role when they tell us how to vote.

Cardinal Newman wrote that the authority of one’s conscience cannot be overruled by the hierarchy: “Conscience cannot come into conflict with the Church’s or pope’s infallibility, which is engaged only on general propositions … a pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.”

The Church tells us the importance of family. Our conscience tells us how to support families in our daily lives.

My conscience is formed by listening to our bishop, but also by paying attention to the world around me.

Twenty years ago, the idea of two people of the same sex getting married was inconceivable to me. Times have changed. I have watched same-sex couples raising children together, taking kids to soccer practice, baking cookies for PTA meetings, and teaching their children the value of hard work and of caring for others in need. I watched their kids go on to college and live productive lives. And I have thought about the family values of fidelity, love and commitment.

Don’t these committed same-sex couples already have marriages in every important sense of the word? And, shouldn’t state laws honor these relationships by calling them by the only word that accurately describes them — marriage?

Today, my conscience says to vote yes for marriages for same-sex couples. I have not reached this decision in spite of being a Catholic. I have come to this conviction precisely because I am Catholic. Years of Catholic teachings, my Catholic values, and my sense of God’s spirit moving in the world, all have informed this judgment.

Maine Catholics must think and pray about the vote on Nov. 6. Cast off fear. Examine your conscience. Listen to the voice within your heart. Talk to fellow Catholics.

Frank O’Hara of Hallowell is a board member of Catholics for Marriage Equality.

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