As Catholics across the United States continue to debate the legality of gay marriage, Fr. Joseph Palacios, S.J., adjunct professor of sociology, has taken the lead on helping to found Catholics for Equality, a new organization devoted to rallying Catholics in support of gay rights.

Palacios, who serves on the group’s board of directors, said the organization is focused on changing the political debate and civil laws by reforming the Catholic Church’s doctrine.

“Catholics for Equality is an organization intended to move the moveable middle of Catholics,” he said. “We honor the separation of church and state and recognize that civil law applies to all. It is something left to society and not to religion.”

Although Catholic doctrine staunchly rejects civil marriage for gays, Palacios’ organization endorses same-sex marriage, and the Georgetown professor readily points to the progressive leanings of many American Catholics. Forty-eight percent of American Catholics support gay marriage, whereas only 46 percent of all Americans do, according to a May 2010 Gallup Poll.

“Catholicism, as a religious group, is one of the most progressive Christian groups in the [United States],” Palacios said.

“We have a long tradition of social justice in serving the poor and unfortunate members of society. Providing [LGBT people] with equal rights is part of our responsibility as members of the Catholic community, the Eucharistic community, where no one should be excluded.”

He acknowledged dissent among many Catholics in the United States.

“[The opposition] comes from very conservative Catholics for whom gay rights is not even a debate. These are the people who think homosexuality is an illness to be cured,” he said.

For a religion consumed by debate over the issue, Palacios called for a simpler take.

“In my opinion, sexuality is a great mystery. No one has the final word on it,” he said. “The fact remains that we have gay and lesbian family, neighbors [and] co-workers . who need to live their lives and who deserve equal rights.”

Catholics for Equality was founded this January, and now has chapters in D.C., Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland and California. The organization focuses on communication through social media and grassroots organizing, with the goal of helping both Catholic and secular gay-rights organizations.

Though a member of the clergy, Palacios has encountered little direct opposition to his activism. While Georgetown’s Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic group, has written a letter to University President John J. DeGioia voicing its opposition to Catholics for Equality, the university’s official stance remains neutral.

“Georgetown University does not endorse external organizations as a matter of general practice and would not institutionally support entities whose primary position is counter to church teaching,” university spokeswoman Julie Bataille said.

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