In Washington State and Minnesota, Catholics Can Make the Difference on Marriage Questions

September 17, 2012

Despite the fact that the bishops of Washington State have recently issued a pastoral letter against Referendum 74 which would legalize marriage equality in that state, polls are indicating that voters are not heeding that message.

According to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog:

“Referendum 74, legalizing marriage equality, is leading 56-38 percent in the latest SurveyUSA poll of Washington voters for King-5 News, after being up by a narrower 50-43 percent margin six weeks ago.”

The polling is not as optimistic in Minnesota, which has a constitutional amendment to ban same-gender marriage on the ballot:

“. . .results of a new Public Policy Polling survey show a dead heat:  48 percent support, and 47 percent oppose a state constitutional amendment that would define “marriage” as exclusively between a man and a woman.”

The blog post cites Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul as the strongest opponent of marriage equality in Minnesota.  Catholic institutions have donated $1 million to the campaign to defeat marriage equality.

As we’ve reported before, Nienstedt has forbidden the priests of his archdiocese to publicly express any dissent on this matter.  But that has not seemed to stop some priests from staging a passive protest against the archbishop’s campaign.  When Nienstedt issued a letter against marriage equality this month, 17 parishes, including the Basilica of St. Mary, refused to read the letter at Mass.

The Post-Intelligencer blog points out that Nienstedt seems to have softened his rhetoric even though he has not changed his message:

“But the hard-line archbishop has softened his tone.  As recently as 2010 he warned that anyone who ‘actively encourages and promotes homosexual acts  formally cooperates in a grave evil, and . . . are guilty of mortal sin.’

“In his latest missive, however, Nienstedt speaks of those with ‘same sex attractions’ as ‘productive citizens, community servants, good friends and our beloved family members.’ ”

Of course, Nienstedt is not the only Catholic voice active in Minnesota.  There is the good work of Catholics for Marriage Equality Minnesota,  which is working to oppose the ban on marriage equality.  They been distributing yard signs that say “Another Catholic Voting No” for parishioners to display.  And 102 retired and resigned priests have signed statements urging Catholics to vote “no.”  (Because the ballot question in Minnesota is designed to block marriage equality from being legalized, a “no” vote is a vote in support of marriage equality.)

Catholics for Marriage Equality are active in all four states where marriage equality is on the ballot this fall:  Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington State.

Political experts know that ballot initiatives are won or lost not by poll numbers, but by voter turnout.  The side who gets the most people to the voting booths on election day wins, regardless of what polls say.  If Catholics want to make a difference in these four states, they have to get to the polls that day and get their friends, Catholic and otherwise, to do the same.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Washington State Catholic Pastors’ Refusal Continues to Inspire

August 27, 2012

While we were in Washington State last week doing educational programs on Catholic support for marriage equality in anticipation of that state’s referendum on the issue in November,  Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, and I met with several pastors and parish leaders who earlier this year had refused the local archbishop’s request to use their parishes to collect signatures for petitions  to put the new marriage law to a ballot test.

Our discussion was lively and encouraging.  For one thing, we learned that there were many more parishes that had refused to collect signatures than had made the news accounts back in April.  We knew about a handful, but it turns out there were probably close to twenty that abstained from the collection.  In fact in one deanery (a geographic division) of the diocese, the pastors of all twelve parishes had met and agreed corporately not to allow signature collection.

The pastors we met  said they mostly had two reasons for their refusal:  1) they believed that collecting signatures would cause great divisions in the parishes; 2) many of the parishes have an explicit welcome to LGBT parishioners and their families, and they felt that collecting signatures would be a sign of inhospitality.

Response from parishioners has been universally positive about the decision not to support the signature campaign.  A number of the priests said that the announcements of the decision received standing ovations from their congregations.  The few parishioners who disagreed expressed their thoughts quietly and respectfully, and the priests felt that the decision helped to open up avenues of dialogue.

Fr. John Whitney, SJ

During our discussion, we learned about one pastor, in particular, who has been very public and vocal about not supporting measures to defeat marriage equality.  Fr. John Whitney, SJ, of St. Joseph Parish, Seattle, has added a section to the parish’s website about the upcoming referendum.  In that section, he includes a letter describing his decision as well as his perspective on Referendum 74.    He begins:

“Many of you may have read in the media that St. Joseph, among other parishes, has decided not to allow the gathering of signatures for Referendum 74, which aims at repealing the marriage equality bill passed by the State of Washington. This referendum is supported by the Archdiocese of Seattle, who has asked the Knights of Columbus to collect signatures at various parishes. Although many of you have offered support for the decision not to allow signature gathering here, I believe all of you deserve an explanation of the reasoning behind the decision.

“The primary reason for not allowing this petition is the nature of the worshipping assembly. Women and men of all opinions, orientations, backgrounds, and motivations are welcomed at this altar, and are encouraged to pray for wisdom and unity, even as we all work to create social policies that respect our faith and support each other. The Church should not be a place of coercion, but of discernment, as each member of the Church (as well as each citizen), decides whether a proposal such as Referendum 74 makes us more or less like the Kingdom described by Jesus. To have petitioners at the doors seems to me inappropriately coercive and contrary to the mission of the Church, especially in the Sunday assembly.”

Fr. Whitney goes on to describe why he feels the church is not the place to debate the referendum:

“Further, the nature of the piece of legislation makes it inappropriate to be brought into the context of our worship, I believe, since Referendum 74—like the marriage equality act it seeks to overturn—concerns civil marriage, not the covenant of Catholic marriage, which is a matter of faith and exists in the Church through the ministry of every couple. Although the Archbishop has the right and responsibility to speak and educate the community about legislation, I believe that this level of involvement around the issue of civil marriage is ill-considered, and risks placing the Church on the side of injustice and the denial of civil rights. Thus, I cannot in conscience allow such signature gathering at St. Joseph. I am not telling others how to vote, but I think that a Catholic, in good conscience, can oppose this referendum and should not be pressured to support it in the context of Sunday mass.”

In addition to his statement on the parish website, the pastor also posted Archbishop Peter Sartain’s letter requesting signatures,  and an FAQ sheet from the  Washington State Catholic Conference on why Catholics should oppose marriage equality.  Fr. Whitney explained his approach:

“Finally, I want to be clear that the Archbishop empowered pastors to make the decision about whether or not to allow signature gathering, and that we are not acting in opposition to his leadership. I am committed to offering his words directly to this community, when that is requested, and to encourage all members of the community to read them respectfully and thoughtfully, as part of the formation of conscience for any Catholic. In those rare situations where I may disagree with the Archbishop’s conclusions, I do not intend to use the pulpit or bulletin to debate, since that is not the place. As I have said, I think such debates belong outside the Church.”

He closes with a hope and prayer for unity among Catholics, even those divided by the marriage equality issue:

“It is of primary importance in all this, however, that we know we can be one community, united in heart and mind, only if we believe that every person is loved by God and valued in his or her humanity. We must listen to one another with respect—to the reality of our experiences and the grace of our call, in Christ. Hearing and loving each other is the root to true discernment, for it is in this communion that the Spirit is present and the Church—the true Church, for whom Christ was crucified and to whom he gave his body and blood—made flesh.

“May we hear God in our midst and always live to do God’s will in our world.”

On the website, Fr. Whitney provided a link for people to easily respond to him and/or to the archbishop.

We need more pastors like Father Whitney who speak forthrightly and who encourage respectful dialogue among their parishioners and between parishioners and their pastoral leaders.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


What Did the Bishop Do in Maine? Depends on Which News Source You Follow

March 6, 2012

Bishop Richard Malone

What the Catholic bishop in Maine announced this weekend depends upon which headline you read.

The Kennebec Journal headline read: Maine Diocese says it won’t campaign against gay marriage.

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network heralded: Maine Catholic Bishop Rallies Parishioners to Fight Gay Marriage Measure

Lewiston’s Sun Journal noted: Portland bishop says Catholic Church won’t actively campaign against gay marriage

The Portland Daily Sun stated: Catholic diocese plans educational outreach on traditional marriage.

And across the border in Canada, The Winnipeg Free Press announced: Maine’s Catholic church changes focus in expected gay marriage campaign.

What we do know for a fact is that this past weekend, Bishop Richard Malone of Portland issued a pastoral letter entitled “Marriage  yesterday. . .today. . .and always.”  The varying headlines reveal a difference in interpretation of what the significance of this letter is at this point in the debate about the state’s upcoming referendum on marriage equality.

According to The Kennebec Journal, this news signals that the diocese will stay out of the political debate:

“The Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine will take no active role in a political campaign against a same-sex marriage referendum that’s expected to be on the November ballot, Bishop Richard Malone announced today.

“Instead, the diocese is expanding an existing educational program to better inform church members about the qualities and benefits of marriage between one man and one woman.

“Malone issued a pastoral letter on marriage today that will be used extensively to teach 185,000 Roman Catholics in Maine about the gift of traditional marriage and the need to preserve it as it is.

” ‘We are going to ask them to reconsider their understanding of what marriage is,’ Malone said during a news conference this afternoon.

“Malone said he and other church leaders ‘haven’t done a good job’ providing this type instruction to its members in the past, so many Catholics aren’t informed about the ‘true nature of marriage.’ “

But for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, this letter, is in fact, an involvement in the political debate:

“With another expected gay marriage referendum this November, Maine’s leading Roman Catholic today urged his fellow parishioners to get on board with the Church’s message on marriage. Bishop Richard Malone heads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which represents the state’s estimated 185,000 Catholics. He held a news conference in Portland this afternoon to announce the release of what’s known as a pastoral letter.

” ‘A pastoral letter, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, is a fairly infrequent document from a bishop, a teaching document,’ Malone says. He says in his eight years as bishop in Maine, he has written only three pastoral letters. ‘A pastoral letter examines an issue of importance for the purpose of teaching. And teaching, education, is going to be the main thrust of what our approach to this challenge will be this time around.’

“Malone is referring to an expected statewide referendum on same-sex marriage this coming November. State officials last week verified that gay marriage advocates had turned in enough valid signatures to place the issue on the ballot.”

Lewiston’s Sun Journal takes a middle road, acknowledging that the letter is part of the campaign,against marriage equality, but just not an active part:

“The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland will not actively campaign against a statewide referendum seeking to legalize same-sex marriage, but instead will focus on teaching parishioners about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the bishop announced Friday.

“Bishop Richard Malone unveiled a 22-page pastoral letter titled “Marriage: yesterday . . . today . . . always” at a press conference at the Chancery in Portland. Malone said he wrote it to explain the church’s position on marriage. The document will be discussed at Catholic churches and schools and through the diocesan magazine and radio station.

“ ‘What they are doing is appropriate,’ David Farmer, spokesman for the Freedom to Marry Coalition, which supports the legalization of same-sex marriage, said in response to the bishop’s announcement. ‘That’s what they should do.’

“Malone said the letter will be the heart of the church’s response to gay marriage supporters.

The Portland Daily Sun reporter seemed fairly confident in categorizing the pastoral letter as educational, not pastoral, in part because the bishop announced that this time the diocese will not be making any donations to the anti-marriage equality effort:

” ‘We’re not calling this a campaign,’ said Bishop Richard Malone during a news conference. ‘This is really an exercise of the Bishop’s teaching responsibility, that’s how we’re looking at it. We’re not, for example, going to be putting money into television commercials. I am not going to take up a special collection. . . .

” ‘We as a diocese will not be making donations to the campaign,’ Malone said.

” ‘Our effort this time is going to be solidly, squarely educational,’ said Malone, who heads up a diocese with 57 parishes and nearly 4,000 students. . . .

“The Christian Civic League will head up the political effort to stop gay marriage in Maine, according to Brian Souchet, director of the diocese’s Office for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

” ‘The Roman Catholic diocese will not be part of that effort on an official basis,’ he said. ‘Certainly we share a common goal, insomuch as we’d like to see marriage preserved; this particular effort extends beyond the November referendum,’ Souchet said of the pastoral letter. ‘Even if there were no referendum in November, we’d be here with this document,’ he said.”

The Winnipeg Free Press story seemed to have played it the safest, not seeking to categorize what the effort should be called, but simply noting that it was a change from what happened in 2009:

“The Catholic diocese’s role is in contrast to 2009, when the legislature legalized same-sex marriage and voters later overturned the law. That year, the church took up special collections during services and asked for contributions from other dioceses to help fund the campaign against gay marriage. A top church official took a leave of absence from the diocese to serve as campaign chairman for a group that led the fight against legalizing gay marriage.”

The wide differences in the way this news was reported could reflect a range of political opinions in Maine on the question of marriage equality, with each news source trying to “spin” the news of this pastoral in their direction.

The decision by the bishop not to provide funding to the anti-marriage equality campaign and not to be prominent agent this time around may reflect the fact that their active agent last time ended up alienating so many Catholics who supported marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples.(Bondings 2.0 reported on an op-ed by Bill Slavick which analyzed this latter argument. You can read the op-ed here. You read our post, which summarizes the original article,here.)

It seems to me that the timing of the pastoral’s release as the referendum debate is beginning indicates that the document is clearly intended to influence how people will vote.  The fact that the diocese will not be spending any additional money on the anti-marriage equality campaign is a hopeful sign that the hierarchy may be realizing it is neither effective, nor their role to take such an invested part in the struggle against these initiatives.

What do you think ?

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


‘Catholic Church Doesn’t Need to Take Another Battering’

January 27, 2012

The Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to marriage equality during Maine’s 2009 referendum has had a “devastating” effect on the church there.

That’s the opinion of a Maine parish administrator, and also of William H. Slavick, who penned an op-ed in the Portland Press Herald entitled, “The Maine Catholic Church doesn’t need to take another battering.”  Slavick, a veteran church reformer and peace activist who ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, points out that the hierarchy’s supposed “victory” has been a decisive defeat on the pastoral level, with financial consequences, too:

“Recently, a parish cluster administrator acknowledged that the referendum repeal campaign was, for the church in Maine, ‘devastating.’ No explanation was necessary. We know. The lack of charity occasioned wide discomfort. Some left, often among the better educated and more generous. More stopped attending Mass after weeks of campaign bullying. With $200,000 of diocesan referendum contributions unexplained, many refused to make contributions from which the bishop received a cut. That includes the Sunday offertory collection.”

Slavick’s concern is timely because  supporters of marriage equality have gathered enough signatures to stage another referendum on the issue in November, so a new struggle is very near.   Details about the referendum can be read in an article, “It’s on: Same-sex marriage supporters give it another try,” from Maine’s Sun Journal.

Lest you be inclined to think that Slavick’s worries might be isolated to his corner in Maine, allow me to relate what I learned from a California friend this past summer.  While visiting Los Angeles, I chatted with a friend involved in Catholic LGBT ministry there.  When I asked how his parish’s thriving LGBT outreach was going, he said it had closed.  Why?  Because the hierarchy’s strong rhetoric in the Proposition 8 campaign there in 2008 drove away the LGBT Catholics who had found a home in the parish.

Similarly in the heat of the New York debate about marriage equality in June, 2011, J. Peter Nixon wrote a blog post on dotCommonweal in which he counseled bishops:  “Don’t lose ugly.”

“The bottom line is that opponents of gay marriage—among whom I would include the U.S. bishops—are going to lose this fight.  They may win this year and perhaps even the next few years.  But judging from the polling data I’ve seen, their ultimate defeat is as certain as the passage of time. . . .

“There’s losing, though, and then there’s losing ugly.  The way in which the Catholic Church loses this particular campaign will have an impact on its ability to communicate the Gospel to younger Catholics, to say nothing of the broader culture.”

One of those younger Catholics, Michael O’Loughlin, a blogger for America, offered similar advice in an article on HuffingtonPost.com, “Relationships and the Church:  How to Create a Welcoming Catholicism.”  O’Loughlin offered a plan for the future that has already passed the test of time:

“What is the antidote to this institutional downward spiral, where the church is viewed not as the defender of the weak and vulnerable, but as the enforcer of an antiquated morality? The hope lies in the truth that relationships hold unparalleled power in helping individuals find self-acceptance through God’s radically unconditional love. For every rigid religious doctrinaire, there are scores of individuals, lay and ordained, and even some Catholic bishops, who strive daily to protect and care for those who hurt. Relationships have the power to transform how people relate to the church. Those who long for an inclusive and loving church, to witness prophetically with the hopes of a constructing peaceful and just world, can realize this goal through the power of their relationships. These relationships need not be filled with heroic acts. Rather, simple, kind words and gestures, especially from a friend or pastor, do much to combat the harmful words hurled from the powerful.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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