After months of false starts, the Illinois House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and reports suggest that Pope Francis's recent comments about homosexuality may have played a small but significant role.
At least one Catholic lawmaker cited the pope's statement as she explained her recent decision, and Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, also a Catholic, used the pope's words to articulate his own reasons for supporting the bill. Previously, he had been criticized for not pushing hard enough to rally support within his congressional chamber.
Other factors played into the shift that made passage through the House possible Tuesday, including two US Supreme Court decisions this summer in favor of gay marriage, according to observers. But with polls showing public opinion moving toward greater acceptance of gay marriage, the events in Illinois raise questions about whether opposition among Catholic lawmakers could be waning.
Pope Francis caused international ripples in July, when he warned that the Roman Catholic Church had become too focused on its opposition to homosexuality, asking, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"
At that point, the Illinois bill had passed through the state Senate but was languishing in the House. The House convened in both January and May without voting on the bill, as its supporters struggled to assemble a majority amid a tide of organized opposition, with churches among the leading opponents.
But according to The Chicago Tribune, Pope Francis' comments "sparked a wave of soul-searching by several Catholic lawmakers who had battled to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sworn duty to represent their constituents who were increasingly supportive of gay rights even as Cardinal Francis George remained opposed."
State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D), who had spent much of the summer undecided, voted for the bill on Tuesday, telling the Tribune, "As a Catholic follower of Jesus and the pope, Pope Francis, I am clear that our Catholic religious doctrine has at its core love, compassion, and justice for all people."
And House Speaker Madigan (D) echoed the Pope's words in the Tribune, adding a legal twist: "For those that just happen to be gay – living in a very harmonious, productive relationship but illegal – who am I to judge that they should be illegal?"
Though he was an early supporter of the bill, his commitment to it had been question. But on Tuesday, advocates told the Tribune that he had been instrumental in rounding up the needed votes in recent weeks – and Madigan told the paper that he had personally helped persuade at least five legislators to support it.
The bill passed, 61 to 54, and Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has promised to sign it, making Illinois the 15th state to legalize gay marriage.
The Chicago Sun-Times noted how the statement had a neutralizing impact on the arguments of local Church leadership:
"Despite harsh rhetoric on the issue from Cardinal George and other [local] Catholic leaders, their positions against the bill were severely undercut by several statements from newly installed Pope Francis that were widely interpreted – as Madigan himself did Tuesday – as more welcoming to gay and lesbian couples."
The Tribune also pegged the Supreme Court decisions this summer as instrumental. "Supporters said efforts to pick up votes were boosted by events that unfolded since May, the first being the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling that struck down the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of receiving federal benefits," writes the paper.
Local Catholic officials were dismayed by the House vote.
"We remain concerned about the very real threats to religious liberty that are at stake with the passage of this bill," said the Catholic Conference of Illinois, in a statement released Tuesday. "Today's vote to redefine marriage in the State of Illinois is truly grievous," said Bishop David Malloy, in a separate statement.
But according to a poll released Oct. 22 by Fako & Associates of Lisle, Ill., state voters who identify as Catholic support gay marriage by a 2-to-1 ratio. This is dramatically higher than the rate of approval among Illinoisans in general (52 percent), according to the same poll.
Once the new law is signed by Governor Quinn, gay civil unions, which have been legal in Illinois since 2011, can be converted into marriages.