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The Catholic war against gay marriage (continued)

THE CHURCH HAS a history of political lobbying, of course. Over the years, the Catholic hierarchy in Massachusetts has mounted similarly vigorous campaigns on "life" issues. In 1973, after the US Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the state’s four bishops led the charge for a federal constitutional amendment banning abortion. The lobbying effort lasted about seven years, and took place "with much less reservation about direct involvement from the Church" than the current campaign on same-sex marriage, according to David O’Brien, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester. Back then, priests often physically placed pro-amendment brochures in the hands of lay people while urging them to get involved. Says O’Brien, "I can remember being handed leaflets at mass."

Likewise, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who led the Boston archdiocese from 1944 to 1970, and his counterparts across the state launched a major campaign against contraception in the late 1940s and early ’50s. O’Brien recalls seeing the pamphlets on the Church’s stance scattered in his childhood home and stacked in parish pews. He even remembers his father, a proud Catholic, calling his state rep and senator to push the anti-contraception line.

In the early 1900s, meanwhile, when William Cardinal O’Connell headed the Boston archdiocese, he spoke out against the women’s-suffrage movement. The idea of women having the right to vote and engaging in the political process, says Boston College history professor Thomas O’Connor, "struck him as unbecoming and not in keeping with the ideal of womanhood in the mind of the Church." Then, in the mid 1920s, O’Connell mobilized Catholic clergy and laity to defeat a federal constitutional amendment banning child labor. His reasoning? He feared such a measure would lead the way to giving the federal government authority over Catholic schools.

Given this long history of activism, experts would have been surprised had the Catholic hierarchy remained silent in today’s constitutional debate over civil marriage. O’Malley and his colleagues think of the same-sex-marriage issue "as a hole in the dike," O’Connor says. "The way they interpret it, what’s at stake is not just two people getting married, but rather the breakdown of what they see as traditional, moral, Christian society." It would be unusual, he says, if they didn’t speak out.

Still, the MCC’s Avila says that the current campaign in favor of a state-constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying — in particular, the mailer sent to one million Catholics across Massachusetts — represents unparalleled involvement in politics and public policy for the Church. He attributes the intensity partly to what he describes as "the extraordinary nature of the court ruling." As he explains, "The [SJC] ruling not only impacts on Massachusetts citizens, but will have national implications. So the Church has felt a special obligation to stop it, if at all possible, before it happens."

O’Connor also notes that O’Malley is going about his lobbying efforts much differently than his predecessors O’Connell and Bernard Cardinal Law would have. "He’s calling out his troops," explains O’Connor, who views this lobbying strategy as a response to the criticism, often repeated in the wake of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, that the hierarchy is too authoritative and secretive. Indeed, critics have argued in the past year or so that the bishops need to be more open and dependent on the laity. "Well," O’Connor says, "that’s exactly what O’Malley is doing. He and his bishops are politicking, but they’re doing it under the rules of new Church policies."

At the same time, the intimidation tactics used against legislators in this debate — the pressure to think twice about attending mass or church functions — reflect a larger conversation within the Catholic Church generally. Today, more and more bishops are calling for a policy to hold Catholic politicians to account. Just last November, Raymond Burke, then-bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin (he now heads the St. Louis archdiocese), suggested that Catholic public officials who defy Church doctrine should be banned from communion or kicked out altogether. Burke singled out US Representative David Obey (D-Wisconsin) and barred him from receiving communion until Obey "publicly renounced" his support for abortion. The discussion is bound to get more heated. Especially since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the governing body of the American Catholic Church, has threatened to excommunicate any Catholic politician who takes a position contrary to the edicts of Rome — not just on abortion, but also on "defense of marriage."

"A growing number of fervent fundamentalist Catholics are anxious to push this," O’Connor says. "They argue, ‘Don’t let legislators weasel out of positions.’ If they don’t take the right stand, they’re not real Catholics. Excommunicate them."

SO WILL THE Church’s aggressive campaigning work? Holy Cross’s O’Brien, for one, isn’t so sure. He criticizes the lobbying effort for what he calls "a high level of incompetence on the part of the four bishops." He questions the wisdom of the Massachusetts bishops’ alliance with the Coalition for Marriage, the umbrella organization opposing same-sex marriage in this state. The coalition is primarily driven by many of the right-wing groups prominent at the February 8 rally on the Boston Common. There, O’Malley took the podium after Concerned Women for America’s Sandy Rios showed her homophobic colors when she declared that the "truth of homosexuality" means a lifetime of AIDS, syphilis, and early death. When O’Malley delivered his own speech an hour later — beginning with, "We’re not here, as some characterize us, as hate-mongers" — his presence served to validate not only national figures such as Rios, but also extremists in the crowd. Mixed among the signs touting the anti-gay-marriage let-the-people-vote mantra, for example, were ones that declared HOMOSEXUALITY IS NOT NORMAL and NO HOMOS NEED APPLY. "That’s what I mean by incompetence," O’Brien observes. "At least for a moment, the bishops lost control with these far-right troops."

Larry Kessler, the coordinator of the Catholic Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), which has lobbied legislators to support same-sex marriage, and which sent O’Malley a February 5 letter begging him not to attend the Boston rally with Rios and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, concurs. In settings like the Boston anti-gay-marriage rally, he says, "You get the sense that Catholics are a breath away from using hateful terms like faggots or dykes."

Interestingly, on the third day of the ConCon, O’Malley published an op-ed in the March 11 Boston Globe, in which he implored same-sex-marriage opponents to find "unity in our opposition but charity in the way the debate is conducted." Observers like Kessler and O’Brien see the op-ed as the archbishop’s attempt to regain control of the anti-gay-marriage campaign. "It was clearly an effort to disassociate the Church from the homophobes," O’Brien says.

If the Church made a mistake by aligning itself with ugly characters, it also may have erred in attacking politicians who have proven effective on a host of Catholic issues. Currently, there are about a half-dozen legislators who support same-sex marriage and who also happen to defend the Church’s views on abortion, stem-cell research, and other "life" issues. In short, they’ve been reliable advocates for the Church. Yet all of them have felt the heat from angry Catholics because they’ve voted in favor of same-sex marriage. Where is the wisdom in going after such legislators? "It seems the bishops are not as concerned with [political] effectiveness so much as with identity politics," O’Brien says. By lashing out at friendly pols who disagree with it on one issue, he adds, "The Church isn’t so much interested in winning but in manifesting its own integrity by speaking out."

Of course, it would be inaccurate to say that the Church’s lobbying has had no effect. There are undoubtedly some House and Senate members who have backed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage because of pressure from constituents, including Catholic laity and clergy. But the campaign has left a bad taste with many legislators — and strengthened their resolve to support the right of civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples, which, they are all careful to point out, has no bearing on Church policy. Representative Torrisi voices the sentiment common among Catholic politicians voting against the Church on this issue when he says the pressure has left him more determined to do what he believes is right. "I’m not going to vote for something I don’t believe in just for the sake of keeping my job," he says.

The cantor puts it more bluntly, "I just don’t respond well to threats."

Torrisi and a number of his colleagues, meanwhile, can’t help but see the Church’s current fight as somewhat hypocritical. How can a spiritual organization that places greater significance on covering up priestly assaults on children than on stopping an epidemic of abuse funnel so many resources into barring same-sex couples from civil marriage? How can an institution that never once sent out a mailer detailing the ills associated with the sex-abuse scandal do so with gay and lesbian unions? The Church’s lobbying seems especially maddening in light of what has happened to former Springfield bishop Thomas Dupre. While legislators were debating an anti-gay-marriage amendment at the February 12 ConCon, Dupre abruptly resigned his post after accusations surfaced that he had sexually assaulted two teenage boys in the 1970s and ’80s. (One of his alleged victims, a 40-year-old gay man, came forward only because he was outraged by the bishop’s outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage.) Dupre is now facing a criminal investigation for child molestation. Says Torrisi, "The Catholic leadership on this issue is hard to swallow. With everything else going on in the Church, gay marriage is the least of its worries."

Even Church experts agree that the Church’s moral authority has been weakened by the clergy sex-abuse scandal. "People are saying, ‘After the mess you made of sex in the Church, how can you possibly speak out on other sexual matters?’" says BC’s O’Connor. "It would seem to me that O’Malley has a difficult job in trying to accomplish what he’s doing in the face of the serious lack of credibility resulting from the scandal." To be sure, there is something bizarre about proclamations from the Vatican declaring that children raised in same-sex-parent households by definition suffer from abuse — a theory that is not supported by child experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics — when compared to the Church’s own role in covering up child molestation by priests for decades.

Then there’s the issue of à la carte Catholicism. While many Catholics have responded to O’Malley’s plea to lobby their legislators to ban same-sex marriage, many others have not. And while many priests have preached that same-sex marriage is immoral, many others have congratulated representatives and senators who back full equality for gay and lesbian couples. Says the CASJ’s Kessler, "A significant number of Catholics aren’t in sync with their bishops on this issue at all."

What that means for this unprecedented campaign remains to be seen, of course. But O’Malley and his bishops have already intimated that they could end up on the losing side of the battle for same-sex marriage in this state. At a January 16 joint press conference unveiling the one million glossy brochures that would soon fan out across the state, the bishops openly questioned whether their efforts would "inspire more people to talk to legislators, which in turn may encourage legislators to do the right thing," something their written statement asserted as their goal. All the bishops can do now is hope for what they would consider a win. Otherwise, as they put it in their January 16 statement, "We will have to answer to God for anything we fail to do."

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: March 26 - April 1, 2004
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