Don’t look at me — I was the one arguing that the state should get out of the marriage business entirely, and that the only true state interest in marriage, from a secular point of view at least, is enforcing paternal responsibility, which has no connection to same-sex relationships.  This latest poll from Quinnipiac only surprises me to the extent that Catholic voters seem to be ahead of the general population in redefining the legal definition of marriage while still identifying as Catholic:

American voter support for same-sex marriage is inching up and now stands at 47 – 43 percent, including 54 – 38 percent among Catholic voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

This compares to a 48 – 46 percent statistical tie among all voters on same-sex marriage December 5 and reverses the 55 – 36 percent opposition in a July, 2008, survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University. …

“Catholic voters are leading American voters toward support for same-sex marriage,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Among all voters, there is almost no gender gap, but a big age gap. Voters 18 to 34 years old support same sex marriage 62 – 30 percent; voters 35 to 54 years old are divided 48 – 45 percent and voters over 55 are opposed 50 – 39 percent.[“]

This seems surprising for two reasons. First, as a rule, the Catholic voting bloc doesn’t truly lead much anymore. They tend to just reflect the current status quo of the general electorate. This kind of gap from the topline finding is unusual, and perhaps speaks to the demographics of self-identifying Catholics in the US — more centralized in urban areas, trending younger, but perhaps more culturally and ethnically identified than practicing.  Only 31% in this sample attend Mass every week, and another 12% “almost” every week.  By contrast, 39% either “never” attend Mass or only attend a few times a year, with 18% only attending “once or twice a month.”

The other surprise is the significant majority presented in this poll that is willing to let the state redefine what is a sacrament in the religion with which these voters are affiliated.  It’s certainly intellectually possible to separate the church function in marriage from the state function, and a good number of decent and well-intentioned members of my faith make that argument.  Unfortunately, in the real world, those functions have been linked, and it’s not too difficult to see what will happen in the future if the state redefines marriage.  Eventually, a refusal to perform these unions will result in state sanctions and potentially the end of the ability of the church to perform one of its core sacramental duties; the HHS contraception mandate shows the demands popular culture will make on those of faith, and the penalties for refusal.

Also, not to hammer the point unnecessarily, but marriage in the Catholic faith is not a utilitarian tool for worldly pleasure.  It’s a mirror of the internal life of the Trinity, which like its progenitor creates life and operates on both a material and spiritual plane to help us attain the holiness that will eventually (we certainly hope) bring us into that Trinitarian presence for eternity.  That’s why it’s considered a sacrament, and why the Church teaches that marriages have to be open to new life in order to operate in a fully sacramental way — which, by the way, is the reason that the next Pope isn’t going to bless same-sex marriage or contraception, no matter how much the media wants it.  Now, secular voters aren’t required to believe this, but one might think that Catholic voters would.  The question of whether they have been taught this by their churches is certainly open to debate, however.

Yesterday I met author Christopher Ferrara, who wrote a provocative book called Liberty, the God That Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama, which explores some of these issues. Chris is also president and chief counsel of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, which takes the cases of Catholics facing legal action for living their faith in the world, especially focused on pro-life issues.  Chris and I discussed these issues yesterday at the media center here at the Vatican:

I may catch up with Chris later to discuss more of the issues facing this conclave and the Catholic Church in the US.

Update, 3/11: The Catholic League responded yesterday by questioning Quinnipiac’s methodology:

‘Leaving aside the not insignificant fact that the sample size of Catholics was a mere 497, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent, there is something so bizarre—that would be the kind word—about a much more problematic methodological issue: Quinnipiac asked Catholic voters 14 questions on issues of interest to them, and on all but one the survey disaggregated the answers on the basis of church attendance. The one exception was on same-sex marriage.

In other words, we know how Catholics think on issues ranging from celibacy to whether the new pope should come from the U.S. or not; we also know how they split on these subjects on the basis of church attendance. But all we know about the issue that is receiving top billing in the media—gay marriage—is the aggregate figure.

This takes on added significance when we consider that 4 in 10 of the Catholics sampled do not practice their religion (28 percent go to church “a few times a year” and 11 percent say they “never” attend). That these nominal Catholics are precisely the biggest fans of gay marriage is a sure bet, though the poll fails to disclose the results.

The Quinnipiac Polling Institute has some explaining to do.’

Via reader Karla.