It is indeed a difficult and confusing time for American Catholics.
Gathering last week at their annual fall assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, US Catholic bishops failed to pass "The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times".
Spearheaded by Bishop Stephen E Blaire, the document was to "communicate the bishops' concern for people hurt by the economy, especially the jobless and those living in poverty" and reiterate Catholic social justice teaching at the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops. It is difficult to immediately discern why.
Recent press around Catholic objections to the Health and Human Services mandate that insurance providers for religiously-affiliated hospitals and universities cover contraception might lead to an expectation that socially conservative bishops overruled social liberals.
In fact, the opposite may have been the case. During Tuesday's discussion , much of the opposition seemed to come from bishops who thought the document was too tame.
They asked why it did not apply Catholic social teaching to protest the decline of labour unions; deregulation of the financial industry; out of control defence spending; and government cuts to programmes that alleviate poverty. And they promptly followed the vote by resoundingly calling for Dorothy Day, the controversial pacifist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, to be recognised as a saint.
Pundits who point to Catholics' preference for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in the presidential election as evidence of their spirited independence from their bishops might need to think again. Certainly, there are reasons for this conventional wisdom.
The members of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops still oppose abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, among other social trends. And Gallup polls of recent years show Catholics apparently leaning in the opposite direction, more tolerant than the general public of almost everything from extramarital affairs through embryonic stem cell research to same-sex relationships.
But viewed from the direction of the bishops' recent discussion, American Catholics actually seem to be heeding their bishops quite closely on justice issues. In an email to members, Steve Krueger, president of Catholic Democrats, called Obama's re-election "a victory for the Catholic Social Justice Tradition that has guided the conscience of our nation for over a century".
It's this dimension of Catholic moral thought that apparently captivates a full 60 per cent of American Catholic voters today, including the Latino voters who swung fully 76 per cent for Obama.
Same-sex marriage may be one of the strongest indicators that Catholics are following their bishops' teachings meticulously - in the social justice direction. Unlike voters in France , where concerted efforts by French bishops are eroding formerly strong support for same-sex marriage, thoughtful Catholic voters here apparently cast votes for same-sex marriage advocates and measures.
And those votes were likely informed by the teachings of and the example of American bishops. How that can be explains some of the variety and unpredictability of the so-called "Catholic vote" and the diversity of Catholic social opinions.
In the week before the election, Catholic parishes all over the country distributed "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" , a 2008 summary of principles formulated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to guide voting in elections. Surprisingly, this recycled short handbook may be the strongest argument in favour of gay and lesbian marriage out there.
To be clear, the American bishops oppose same-sex marriage on theological grounds. In their letter on marriage , they have described marriage as "a permanent, faithful, fruitful partnership between one man and one woman". They insist that family is built on the foundation of marriage. And they embrace the Catholic teaching that a homosexual orientation is intrinsically disordered. This is not, admittedly, a promising starting point for an argument for same-sex marriage.
But their equally strong social justice claims point in this direction. The bishops implore Catholics to vote for people and measures that "protect human life and dignity" and to "oppose policies that violate human life and weaken its protection". The question is "how we treat the weakest among us" and how we "help overcome poverty, racism and other conditions that demean human life".
It is that mandate inherent in Catholic social teaching that likely encouraged many Catholics to support same-sex marriage.
After all, all children are vulnerable and need protection from demeaning conditions. As it turns out, children of same-sex parents are much more vulnerable than children of opposite-sex unions. Often, only one parent has legal guardianship of children, affecting everything from who can sign permission slips to whether consent can be given for emergency medical treatment.
Children have few rights to support or nurture from the other parent if the parents split; children may not have access to a parent's medical benefits; their parents don't automatically inherit from each other, jeopardising their children's welfare in case of the death of one; if the custodial parent dies, or becomes ill, the children are often removed from the other parent and placed with relatives or in foster care.
If the parents have the time and financial resources to make legal arrangements that circumvent such problems, those arrangements will probably be null if they move to or even visit a different state. And many fewer parents than might be expected can afford to create these legal safety nets.
According to a 2011 report by the National Council on Family Relations , poverty rates for children of same-sex partners are over twice the poverty rates for children of married, straight parents: fully 20 per cent overall and highest for minority parents. Adding financial precariousness to their legal vulnerability puts these children doubly at risk.
What all of this means is that whether or not anyone agrees that gay and lesbian couples have a claim on the legal and social benefits of marriage, their children clearly need them, and badly.
On children's issues particularly, the bishops haven't just talked the talk of social justice. They have walked the walk, putting children's welfare first. They have argued that immigration policy should avoid the evil of family separation.
Parents should be able to remain together and children should be kept with their parents. In the case of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families , the bishops' response has admittedly been more anguished: public policy should support parents' "personal virtue" in pursuing paid work or in marrying, for instance.
But ultimately they argue that social institutions and government must step in to support parents in the care of their children when circumstances prevent parents from doing so on their own. What matters is that children be well cared for within their families and that their families have access to the resources they need to do that, whether or not parents are married.
For the bishops, in other words, concern to support children's care in their families trumps the concern over the shape those families take, which often or even usually does not fit the bishops' own ideal of a faithful, permanent, heterosexual marriage.
When it comes to same-sex marriage, then, many Catholics likely responded to their bishops' social justice plea to protect the vulnerable by voting their carefully-formed consciences: in favour of candidates who support giving the children of same-sex couples the protections of marriage.
They listened to their bishops more carefully than conventional wisdom suggests. And if campaign strategists are paying attention for the next round of elections, the Catholic social justice vote will be on the list of new wisdoms that guide the next major campaign.
Cristina LH Traina is Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University, where she is a scholar of childhood ethics and Roman Catholic social ethics. She is part of the Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship of The OpEd Project.