For Bishops, Wrong Fight

By Eileen McNamara
Boston Globe
January 18, 2004

It is a measure of how little the Catholic hierarchy in Boston has learned in the last two years that the city's archbishop thinks that Catholics sworn to uphold the law owe their first allegiance to the church.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley was well within his rights to denounce the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision upholding the legal right of same-sex couples to marry. He went off the rails, however, when he tried to recruit Catholic lawyers and judges as foot soldiers in his holy war.

"Your baptism and your profession invest you with a great responsibility," O'Malley told Catholic members of the bar at the annual Red Mass, as if the dictates of one did not sometimes clash with the demands of the other. That gay marriage, like divorce and abortion before it, conflicts with church teaching is a theological challenge for Catholics, not a legal one. The Catholic Church is free to withhold its marriage sacrament from same-sex couples; it has no authority to deny them the marriage licenses the SJC says they are entitled to.

One would have expected the distinction between church law and civil law to be clearer to those in the chancery after two years of their crass maneuvering to shield from legal scrutiny serial child molesters and self-interested bishops who protected predatory priests for years. Instead, O'Malley is operating as though the old hierarchical structure of the church is still in place. It is not. It crumbled with each new revelation of rape and coverup.

Catholics are no less divided about gay marriage than nonbelievers or adherents to other faiths but they are no more likely to ignore the line of demarcation between church and state. That is bad news for the four Catholic bishops of Massachusetts, who pledged on Friday to wage an "unprecedented" campaign on behalf of an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. What makes O'Malley and Bishops Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester, George W. Coleman of Fall River, and Thomas L. Dupre of Springfield think that Catholics will be any more inclined to follow their orders about the right of homosexual couples to marry than they have been about the right of heterosexual couples to use birth control or to dissolve an unhappy marriage?

The truth is that they won't; each will follow his or her conscience. It is hard to fathom how the bishops have failed to notice that the days of treating the Catholic laity like compliant children are over. If the last two years have taught the people in the pews nothing else, it has taught them that their church leaders are in urgent need of remedial education about human sexuality. These bishops should be asking questions, not issuing directives.

The prelates' assault on the state Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in support of gay marriage is premised on the dubious assertion that "a redefinition of marriage in the long run is going to be harmful," in the words of O'Malley. In the four-page pamphlets being sent by the bishops to 1 million of the state's 3 million Catholics, they fail to specify the exact threat posed by couples, many with children, who want nothing more than to legalize their status as a family. How such a plea for stability undermines the rearing of children remains a mystery.

Rather than present a cogent argument against the extension of basic civil rights to same-sex couples, O'Malley and his colleagues are resorting to the kind of histrionics favored by secular talk-show hosts. Opponents of gay marriage are being "intimidated" by a culture of "political correctness," they claim, ignoring the stranglehold that social conservatives have on Washington, as well as Beacon Hill.

If this is the way the Catholic Church in Massachusetts hopes to reassert its moral authority after the sex abuse scandal, it has picked the wrong fight. The law, like the laity, will no longer bend to its will.


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