Gay Marriage Debate Could Put Weakened Church to the Test in Mass

By Jennifer Peter
Providence Journal [Boston MA]
Downloaded December 13, 2003

BOSTON (AP) - The Roman Catholic Church's once-potent lobbying presence on Beacon Hill will be put to the test in coming months as bishops face the first major hot-button issue since the priest sex abuse scandal: the possible legalization of gay marriage.

The legislative debate about gay marriage will place the Catholic Church in Massachusetts on the front lines of a national cultural battle for the first time since the sex abuse crisis rocked its foundation and toppled its leadership.

Soon after the mid-November high court ruling, which could pave the way for the nation's first gay marriages by mid-May, the state's four bishops issued a strong statement, which was read at parishes across this deeply Catholic state, denouncing the decision as a "national tragedy."

In recent days, the church's representatives have been meeting with conservative groups from across the country to come up with ways to promote a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Political observers question, though, how effective the Roman Catholic church will be in lobbying the issue after the clergy sex abuse scandal - erupting with allegations against defrocked priest John Geoghan but mushrooming into hundreds of allegations - tarnished its reputation and diverted its attention away from the political arena.

"This certainly will test the Catholic Church's viability on the hill in the post-Geoghan era," said Paul Pezzella, a Beacon Hill lobbyist. "I think they've lost some of their moral footing, but perhaps people can look beyond the scandal."

Others question whether the church's first major foray back into state politics should be on an issue that deals with issues of sexuality.

"I think it's a huge mistake," said Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant. "If I were giving them PR advice I would tell them to focus on the many positive things that they do in so many areas, including health care, housing and caring for those who are needy. On other issues, they have limited credibility with people."

The church's lead lobbyist in Massachusetts, however, argued that same-sex marriage is a social policy question that goes to the very core of Catholic teachings and cannot be ignored.

"Whether the crisis happened or didn't happen, it's necessary for us to be involved. We're there, we're present and we're working hard on it," said Gerald D'Avolio, who represents the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

About half of Massachusetts' 6 million citizens are Catholic - including the House Speaker, Senate President, and more than half the members of the state House of Representatives.

The church has long been a potent lobbying force on Beacon Hill, helping to defeat death penalty legislation in 1999, weighing in on court nominees, and delaying bills that would require health insurers to provide contraceptive coverage or create buffer zones around abortion clinics.

In early 2002, however, the institution was shaken by revelations that church leaders, including Cardinal Bernard Law, had responded to accusations of child sexual abuses by simply transferring accused priests to new parishes.

Over the past year, the church's attention has been diverted by the resignation of Law, who for 18 years had been a powerful voice in Massachusetts' religious and political circles, and the settlement of lawsuits filed by hundreds of alleged sexual abuse victims.

The scandal, which has had worldwide repercussions, has inevitably been felt on Beacon Hill, observers say.

"Their moral authority has been weakened, but it hasn't disappeared," said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political scientist. "I think the real question is to what degree they're going to mobilize, to what degree local parishes are going to contact local legislators and say this is important."

Quite separate from the scandal, others say, the church's political influence was already on the wane in the state and nationwide due to the disintegration of the once-monolithic Catholic voting bloc, which could be predicted to espouse certain positions or support certain candidates.

Recent polls also have indicated that about half of Massachusetts citizens support the Supreme Judicial Court gay marriage decision and that, in many ways, Catholic voters are not always in lockstep with the church on many issues.

"There's no such thing as a Catholic vote anymore," said Stephen Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. "We're still one of the most Catholic states in the country and what the bishops say here will always get a lot of attention. But the crisis in the church undermined the authority of the bishops because it weakened their credibility."

Catholic lawmakers said that the church's teachings and lobbying efforts can play a role in their decision, but will not govern how they vote.

"I respect greatly what the church has to say but at the end of the day I have to vote in the best interest of my constituents," said Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, D-Chelsea, who leads the Judiciary Committee. "Whether we realize it or not, we make decisions based on the way we were brought up."


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