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Spotlight Report

Bishops eye pastors to fight gay marriage

Want Catholics to press legislators for amendment

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/29/2003

The four Catholic bishops of Massachusetts are asking every pastor in the state to remind worshipers this weekend that the church opposes same-sex marriage, and to urge lay Catholics to lobby the Legislature for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman.

After a year in which the state's bishops were largely silent on public policy matters as they grappled with the clergy sexual abuse crisis, they are now launching their broadest effort in years to influence the Legislature. The four bishops, of Boston, Fall River, Worcester, and Springfield, are asking pastors to read statements on their concern about same-sex marriage, and are asking that announcements be put in church bulletins, telling parishioners how to contact legislators.

The bishops say they decided to speak out because they are concerned that the state Supreme Judicial Court may decide the Massachusetts Constitution allows same-sex marriage, and because legislative testimony last year by three priests who oppose a constitutional amendment may have led to confusion about the church's position on the issue.

''The bishops have a right and a duty to remind Catholics of what it means to be a married couple, and they are reminding people that everyone has a right to let their legislators know what they believe marriage is,'' said Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester, in an e-mail reply to a question from the Globe. ''It is not an anti-anything statement, but a reminder that marriage holds a unique role in the history of mankind and should be respected for what it is, a union of a man and a woman who seek to live a new life focused on the best interests of that new couple and their potential family, not just each other's personal interests.''

The bishops' statement, which has been mailed to all pastors and posted on the website of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, was condemned by gay Catholics and welcomed by opponents of same-sex marriage.

''I'm encouraged that the church is stepping up to speak on this issue,'' said Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a Newton-based organization that opposes same-sex marriage. ''This has been a difficult time for the church, but that does not negate the importance of this issue, and the need for the Catholic Church to speak with one voice on this subject. So I applaud the church for taking this stand, even at the risk of being misunderstood.''

But Marianne T. Duddy, executive director of Dignity/USA, an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, mourned the bishops' effort.

''Any Catholic family who has a gay or lesbian family member who is in a committed relationship will be extremely insulted and angry if they hear this read from the pulpit or are handed a copy as they attend Sunday liturgy,'' said Duddy. ''To see the bishops using their influence to uphold discrimination is tragic.''

Church officials acknowledged that they had been temporarily silenced by the sexual abuse crisis last year, when a measure to ban gay marriage was killed in the Legislature. But the bishops are now reentering the public policy fray. Last month, with little fanfare, the bishops issued a statement on the state budget, declaring that ''the poor must have the greatest claim on our resources.''

''Here in the archdiocese of Boston, because so many of our resources were rightly being directed toward dealing with abuse, and because we had been so wounded by it, we weren't able to respond to the various social and legislative issues that were going on at the time,'' said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for Bishop Richard G. Lennon, interim administrator of the archdiocese. ''Now that a lot of the dust has settled around the issue of sexual abuse, and now that we've got good programs in place and have the resources to handle those things that still need to be taken care of, we can also attend to many of the other realities of our life as a church and as a society.''

In their statement, the bishops declare that allowing same-sex marriages ''will have devastating consequences here and nationally.'' They argue that if any couple can get married, regardless of gender, ''the state will no longer be able to promote the union of a man and a woman as uniquely beneficial to society.'' They also contend that ''the Catholic Church and other private institutions with moral objections will be forced to change their employment and other policies to recognize other relationships as marriage, or face discrimination lawsuits.''

At the same time, the bishops quoted from a 1996 church document opposing same-sex marriage, issued by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, that says ''individuals and society must respect the basic human dignity of all persons, including those with a homosexual orientation. Homosexual persons have a right to, and deserve, our respect, compassion, understanding, and defense against prejudice, attacks and abuse,'' it adds.

Some priests welcomed the bishops' statement.

''I approve the bishops' statement and hope the leaders of the other Christian churches in the Commonwealth will take a similar stand,'' said the Rev. Francis A. Sullivan, an adjunct professor of theology at Boston College.

And the Rev. Joseph M. Hennessey, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Kingston, said, ''I absolutely agree with the bishops' statement concerning marriage, and plan to have it inserted into my parish bulletins this weekend, and briefly mention it verbally, perhaps urging folks to contact their legislators.''

But other priests are unhappy with the church's position. Yesterday, the Rev. Stephen S. Josoma, the pastor of St. Susanna Church in Dedham, called the constitutional amendment ''clearly discriminatory, unjust, and fear-based.''

''The argument that same-sex marriage somehow threatens or weakens the institution of marriage or society is vapid and baseless,'' Josoma said. ''Remove prejudices, stereotypes, biases, and fear, and there would be no argument.''

Last year, in the midst of the sex abuse crisis, when a legislative committee held a hearing on a proposed ballot initiative that would have banned gay marriage, lobbyists for the Catholic bishops attended the hearing but did not testify, while three Catholic priests, the Rev. Thomas J. Carroll of Boston, the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin of Newton, and the Rev. Richard Lewandowski of Fitchburg, testified against the measure.

The Rev. William M. MacKenzie, a retired Boston priest, said he doesn't believe the church should be so concerned with civil law.

''No matter what is legislated, the church will continue to teach as it has for 2,000 years concerning marriage,'' MacKenzie said. ''If civil law calls same-sex unions a marriage, it does not make it so.''

The position articulated by the bishops this week is not new. In addition to the 1996 statement by the bishops' conference, Bishop Kenneth A. Angell of Burlington, Vt., was a leading critic of that state's decision in 2000 to allow same-sex couples to register their relationships as ''civil unions.'' And just four months ago, the Vatican issued a doctrinal note on the participation of Catholics in political life.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/29/2003.
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