The Catholic War against Gay Marriage
The Catholic Church Has Cultivated a Campaign of Harassment against Catholic Legislators Who Support Marriage Rights for Same-Sex Couples. Will It Work?

By Kristen Lombardi
The Boston Phoenix [Massachusetts]
Downloaded March 27, 2004

ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS: religious protesters have turned out in force to demonstrate against civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples.

THE MOST POWERFUL local opponent fighting against the civil-marriage rights of same-sex couples is the Catholic Church. For months, the state’s four bishops — led by Boston archbishop Sean O’Malley — have mounted an unprecedented campaign to sway the votes of Catholic politicians on Beacon Hill. It began in earnest in June 2003, with the release of the bishops’ first statement denouncing same-sex marriage. On November 18, 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) determined that the ban on civil marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional, Archbishop O’Malley urged state legislators to thwart the SJC ruling. Within a week, he and his fellow bishops issued a joint statement opposing the historic ruling, which was either read from the pulpit or distributed at mass across the state — or both. On January 16, the bishops mailed a four-page, glossy brochure to one million Bay State Catholics urging them to work for passage of a constitutional amendment that would bar lesbian and gay couples from marrying. O’Malley has even aligned himself with radical evangelical Christians in the battle against gay marriage. On February 8, the Sunday before the first day of the constitutional convention (ConCon), the archbishop addressed an anti-gay-marriage rally on the Boston Common organized by Your Catholic Voice and featuring representatives from national right-wing groups like Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council. He asked the 3000-strong audience to "stand together" to "affirm marriage and family" and then read from a February 6 statement opposing gay marriage that had been signed by 3000 religious leaders statewide.

But an even more intensive lobbying effort has taken place behind the scenes. Interviews with 10 state representatives and senators, only one of whom agreed to let his name be used, suggest that the Church has — intentionally or not — fostered a campaign of harassment against legislators who support civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples. Much of the lobbying from Catholic priests and parishioners opposed to full equality for gay and lesbian couples has been routine: petitions and postcards delivered to the State House coupled with phone calls and e-mails from parishioners to their legislators. It’s also true that the Church’s position has a powerful friend in House Speaker Tom Finneran, who is a devout Catholic and strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. On March 11, for example, a legal memorandum written by Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon and five other law professors and addressed to the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the Church’s lobbying arm, was placed on every legislative seat in the House chamber where the ConCon debate occurred. The memo argued against a "compromise" amendment that would ban gay marriage while establishing civil unions because it would raise "serious religious liberty issues — particularly with respect to the Church and other traditional religious organizations." Two sources tell the Phoenix that Finneran must approve any materials that make it onto the House floor; Finneran spokesman Charlie Rasmussen did not return a Phoenix phone call seeking comment. Regardless, the appearance of the Church document on the House floor puzzled some legislators. As one state representative explains, "I thought that we were dealing with separation of church and state."

But much of this lobbying — which has taken place in churches and behind closed doors, far away from the public eye — has been a lot more aggressive. Catholic representatives and senators — in particular, those who have voted with the pro-gay forces — have been, in the words of one state senator, "batted from pillar to post" by priests, deacons, and monsignors. Some have been openly denounced from the altars of churches in their districts. Many have fielded viciously homophobic correspondence from Catholic constituents, some of whom have suggested that legislators who favor same-sex marriage do not have the right to attend church. Others have been invited to speak at Catholic functions, only to be disinvited on the basis of their pro-gay-marriage votes. The months of badgering have left many Catholic lawmakers feeling abused. As one legislator, without a hint of sarcasm, puts it, "I would describe the Church’s tactics as thug-like, diabolical, and totally void of openness."

TAKE THE CASE of one Catholic legislator who has amassed a solid pro-life record. One day before the March 11 ConCon, the legislator was paid a visit by Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a pro-life advocacy group closely tied to the Boston archdiocese. The legislator assumed the pro-life advocates wanted to discuss pending measures on stem-cell research. Instead, they began the meeting by denouncing same-sex marriage. "I was stunned," the legislator recalls. "I don’t see a nexus between the pro-life movement and this issue."

But the advocates did. They argued that lesbian couples would be likely to utilize in vitro fertilization to become pregnant — a procedure that the group considers a "serious violation of life." And so they asked the legislator to support a constitutional amendment barring same-sex couples from civil marriage. The request struck the legislator as a cheap trick: "They created a rationale to get involved in this discussion. They manufactured a reason to bring more manpower on behalf of the archdiocese and to put more pressure on pro-life legislators."

The tactic shows how creative the Church has become in its lobbying. Far more typical, though, is the torrent of nasty mail endured by Catholic legislators over the past four months. Take David Torrisi, a North Andover representative who supports same-sex marriage and who has consistently voted with pro-gay forces. He attends St. Michael’s Church, in North Andover, which happens to be the second-largest Catholic parish in Massachusetts. Torrisi has been inundated with phone calls, e-mails, and letters from people who identify themselves as parishioners at St. Michael’s or one of the other five parishes in his district. While Torrisi is careful to note that many of the contacts he’s received have been respectful, "a good 10 percent" have lashed out at him in what he calls "really disconcerting" ways. They have, for instance, condemned him to "burn in hell." Or declared him "a sinner" who must face God’s wrath for supporting "the homosexual lifestyle." One person even called his parents and, Torrisi says, "told them what a terrible job they did raising me."

He’s also been threatened by two clergymen in his district who’ve said they will find someone to run against him if he doesn’t change his vote. "I’ve had a couple priests say to me, ‘We’ll have to find someone else who can respect God’s will,’" the three-term representative says. (Though Torrisi stresses that neither priest comes from his parish, he declines to name those who have tried to intimidate him.) But the viciousness has left him wondering how he and these angry parishioners could possibly come from the same church. "I grew up with the principle ‘Love thy neighbor,’" he explains. "But some calls that I’ve received don’t come across as being too Christian."

Another state legislator from a district north of Boston has become the subject of repeated sermons delivered from the pulpit. On the Sunday before the February 11 ConCon, an area priest invoked the legislator’s name and implied that this "good Catholic" would toe the line by voting in accordance with the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage. But by the following Sunday, after the legislator had cast a vote against the Church’s position, the priest had changed his tune. This time, according to the legislator, the priest "challenged my upbringing. He said I would have voted a different way if I’d been raised right by my parents." As the ConCon continued, the same priest ratcheted up the rhetoric. Once he even compared the legislator to one of the biblical figures who betrayed Jesus Christ. "People called me afterward and said, ‘He’s just out of line.’ They thought that priest had gone too far."

Fortunately, this legislator didn’t hear the sermons firsthand; they were described to the politician afterward by others who had. But the same cannot be said for a state representative from yet another district north of Boston. A devout Catholic, the rep holds the position of parish cantor. When mass ended on February 8, the Sunday before the ConCon, the rep got ready to sing a closing hymn. Until, that is, the priest let a parishioner up on the altar to address the congregation about same-sex marriage. Urging fellow Catholics to contact the rep, the parishioner proceeded to rail against the rep’s and other area legislators’ recently publicized refusal to limit civil marriage to heterosexual couples. "He was in a diatribe about [area] legislators, saying they would vote against the DOMA," the rep recalls. "I was shaking, just waiting for someone to say, ‘There’s one of them.’"

Later, the parishioner who’d spoken from the altar and his wife approached the rep privately. But when the rep offered counterpoints to the couple’s view — telling them that passing an amendment would mean "adding discriminatory language into the constitution for the first time in this state" — they merely repeated themselves. Says the rep, "The only answer I kept getting back from them was ‘Archbishop Sean told us we need the right to vote.’ They said that four times."

O’Malley has even taken to lobbying legislators personally. Last month, five days before the February 11 ConCon, he called a legislator who is an active Catholic representing a heavily Catholic district outside Boston. At the time, the legislator had not publicly discussed the issue and appeared to be a swing vote to advocates on both sides. The archbishop, according to the legislator, "said he was calling legislators who were undecided and tried to persuade me to vote with the Church." The conversation lasted for approximately 30 minutes. Says the legislator, "We had a long talk and discussed both sides of the issue. But in the end, I voted the way I felt was right." In other words, the legislator — who has sought "spiritual counsel" over this issue from a trusted priest — ended up backing the pro-gay forces. Still, as the legislator says, "You cannot get any stronger in your lobbying than the archbishop calling [Catholic] politicians."

Indeed. Catholic legislators — especially those who disagree with the church’s stance on same-sex marriage — insist that they’ve never seen their church push so fiercely or so thoroughly on any previous public-policy debate. Not on social services for the poor. Not on the death penalty. Not even on abortion. One veteran state senator offers this observation: "I’ve never been so pressured by the Church before. It has leaned on me with an intensity and a consistency that I haven’t seen in any special-interest group."

The Reverend Christopher Coyne, O’Malley’s spokesperson, did not return a phone call from the Phoenix seeking comment. But those who lobby the legislature professionally on behalf of the Church distance themselves from these aggressive tactics. According to Dan Avila, the MCC’s associate director of policy and research, O’Malley has told Bay State legislators that they have an "obligation" not to receive communion if they stake out positions contrary to Church teachings. But, Avila says, "the archbishop has also said that he’s not going to make a public example of any legislator." So if Catholic reps and senators are facing threats because of their stance on same-sex marriage, he adds, "It’s not a directive from the archbishop."

Avila insists that, to date, professional Church lobbyists have been charitable toward legislators. "We are under obligation to be charitable," he says, although he recognizes that the debate’s pitched emotions can lead to "counterproductive" behavior. "To the extent that legislators have been left with the impression of thug-like behavior," he says, "that doesn’t help us."

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 a 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."