Seattle Parishes Refuse to Cooperate in Anti-Marriage Equality Petition Drive

April 15, 2012

Washington State's Governor Christine Gregoire, a Catholic, signs marriage equality into law in February 2012.

A small but significant movement is happening in the Archdiocese of Seattle.   Archbishop Peter Sartrain has asked parishes there to collect signatures on a petition to call a referendum to repeal the state’s new marriage equality law.   So far, three parishes, including the archdiocesan cathedral, have publicly refused to circulate the petition.

According to a news article in The Seattle Times:

“The majority of parishes in Western Washington are expected to make the petitions available — some as soon as this Sunday, following Mass, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

“But pastors of at least three prominent Catholic churches in Seattle — St. Mary’s Church, St. Joseph Parish and St. James Cathedral — have notified members that the petitions will not be made available there.”

Very Rev. Michael Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral, said in a statement posted on the parish’s website that collecting signatures would be “divisive” in the parish, and he appreciated that the archbishop left the decision to do so up to the discretion of  pastors.  Ryan described his decision in a news article which appeared in The National Catholic Reporter:

“I decided to take a preemptive strike by sending out my email (April 11) thinking that many of my parishioners would either boycott Mass this coming Sunday or that they would arrive in a white heat. The tone of my email was low-key and anything but inflammatory. I have received 115 responses to it — when none were required or even expected! — and fully 110 of them have been strongly supportive of my decision. And I mean strongly supportive!”

According to a Reuters news story,

“Using similar language, the pastoral life coordinator at St. Mary’s Church, Tricia Wittmann-Todd, said collecting signatures would be ‘hurtful and divisive’ to her parish.

” ‘I am particularly concerned about our youth who may be questioning their own sexual identity and need our support at this time in their lives,’ she said in a statement.”

Danny Westneat, a columnist in The Seattle Times, cites an even stronger comment from a third pastor:

“At St. Joseph’s in Seattle, the Rev. John Whitney, S.J., said that he couldn’t in good conscience allow signature gathering. In a bit of a broadside in this Sunday’s church bulletin, he writes that Catholic leadership seems deaf to the spirit of its own people, who, he implies, could teach the bishops a thing or two about acceptance of gays and lesbians.

” ‘The leadership of the church sometimes confronts the world as an enemy of the Spirit,’ he wrote. ‘The church needs greater humility and openness.’ “

Westneat also quotes the woman whose opposition to the petition drive got this movement started:

“Barbara Guzzo is the parishioner at St. Mary’s who got this little rebellion going by speaking out against the archbishop’s campaign. She said she’s often asked how she hangs in there with a church that seems afflicted with an ” ‘institutional deafness’ (as Whitney dubbed it in his Sunday bulletin).

” ‘My answer is: because it’s a human institution,’ Guzzo said. ‘I mean it took the Catholic Church 400 years to acknowledge we were wrong on Galileo! But eventually we did do it. We did say, “Oops, we were wrong.”

“She’s not saying that’s coming again anytime soon. But this is how the change often starts. From the inside out.”

While many Catholic dioceses have taken strong measures to opposed marriage equality in legislatures and referendums, none had yet taken the bold step of collecting signatures at parishes to get the question put on the ballot.  The decision to do so remains highly controversial among Catholics in Seattle.  According to the Times news report:

“Calls to the archdiocese have been running about even between those opposed to the archbishop’s stance on the issue and those who favor it, archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni said.”

Additionally, the same report provides background on the question of diocesan involvement in marriage questions. Links to Bondings 2.0 blog posts about the following actions can be accessed by clicking on the highlighted text:

“Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gays within the Catholic Church, called Sartain’s position ‘a very aggressive step — and in the wrong direction.’

“In other states, ‘there appears to be a trend of the church supporting civil unions or domestic partnerships, arrangements short of full marriage,’ he said.

“For example, he noted, the Archbishop of Westminster in England in December came out in support of civil unions. And in New Hampshire this year, the Catholic Church endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples as a compromise to a full repeal of that state’s same-sex marriage law, which has been in place since 2009.

“In 2009, the Diocese in Portland, Maine, opposed marriage equality on a referendum, but did not make petitions available in its parishes.

“Same-sex marriage supporters in Maine are trying again this year to legalize gay marriage, and last month church leaders in that state announced they would not actively campaign against the measure, but would instead educate its members on the issues.

” ‘Education is the proper role for the church; collecting signatures is not education,’ DeBernardo said.

“In Maine, he said, some parishes have reported a loss in membership as a result of the church’s position in 2009.

” ‘That’s important for Archbishop Sartain and others to consider,’ DeBernardo said. ‘This could have a devastating effect, regardless of the outcome.’ “

Letters to the editor ofThe Seattle Times express outrage at Archbishop Sartrain’s petition drive.  Joe Martin writes:

“As a practicing Catholic, married and a proud father of two sons, I was horrified to learn that Archbishop J. Peter Sartain has plans to implement what amounts to a church-sponsored gay-bashing campaign.

“Whatever Sartain and Catholic officialdom thinks of gay people, the proposed inauguration of a petition drive to actively promote the rescinding of the gay-marriage act is a most misguided and contemptuous maneuver on the part of the institutional church in this region.”

Larry Clement writes:

“I have felt St. James Cathedral (and other churches, synagogues and mosques) to be a sanctuary, not only for me, but for others as well. A sanctuary where I could be in the presence of God for a while, away from the troubles outside, including all the dirt, accusations and innuendoes of politics. I also believe that the church must be separated from politics.

“If our archbishop is now allowing signatures to be gathered in or around the church and the services therein, for or against any political matter, my sanctuary is gone. It does not matter to me if the cause is gay marriage or discrimination of any kind, it does not belong in the church. I am saddened, and I am experiencing a great loss. I don’t want to go back.”

Ann Horwitt writes:

“The archdiocese has every right to engage in a political fight against gay marriage but it does so at some peril.

“Churches currently hold tax-exempt status as religious institutions. If the archdiocese of Seattle and other religious groups sponsor political actions such as petition drives against certain laws then perhaps it is time to revisit the privilege of tax exemption.”

Let’s pray that other Catholic parishes in Seattle and around the country will follow the example of these courageous communities.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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