‘No One’s Listening to the Pope’ or What Washington Catholics Taught Us This Election

November 8, 2012

With marriage equality successfully enacted in Washington State, a former Catholic in Seattle reflected at Salon.com on the growing chasm between episcopal outreach and lay organizing that emerged during this campaign over marriage equality. His article has the intriguing title “No One’s Listening to the Pope.”

Growing up, Dominic Holden emerged in a local church led by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen where African-American civil rights history was widely active and the Vatican’s attempted removal of Hunthausen for Seattle’s hosting of a 1,000-plus member DignityUSA liturgy triggered massive lay outcry.

After coming out and with changes in the Seattle church, Holden left Catholicism which contains a hierarchy he identifies with anti-equality efforts, evident in the silencing and spending practices of those like Archbishop John Neinstedt in Minnesota or Archbishop William Lori in Maryland.

However, in Washington State he notices a promising movement amongst lay Catholics:

“But here in Seattle, the archbishop is facing a confrontation.

“When conservative activists in Washington sought to suspend and overturn a marriage equality law for same-sex couples in January, Archbishop Sartain started strong…Sartain was clearly spoiling for a fight.

“And he got one, but not the one he expected. It’s not clear that Sartain knew what he was in for. After all, Sartain has only been appointed about 14 months before — by a pope who, it must be acknowledged, may have a vendetta against Seattle’s gay-friendly congregations that rebuffed him 30 years prior — and what Sartain got was an outright revolt from the pews.”

Holden notes the vigorous efforts of Washington State Catholics leading up to yesterday’s vote with Catholics for Marriage Equality raising $38,000, publicly witnessing at Mass and the pride parade, running newspaper advertisements, and challenging the Yakima Diocese for illegal contributions. Elsewhere, 63 former priests from the area came out publicly in support of the referendum and pastors, including at the Cathedral in Seattle, refused to allow anti-equality campaigners into their churches.

The author quotes Fr. John Whitney, SJ, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Seattle,

“…who said circulating the petitions in his parish ‘seems to me inappropriately coercive.’
He added in a statement to his congregation: ‘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.’ He continued to counter Sartain’s efforts just last month by telling parishioners in an email that ‘authority never supplants conscience.’”

All of this, accompanied by a diminished public effort by bishops in Washington State over Referendum 74, leads Holden to one conclusion:

“I’ll speculate: the flock is taming the shepherds.

“It seems that Sartain and his counterparts have a real crisis on their hands…The problem for bishops shapes up like this: Priests and laity alike are declaring their intent to ignore the bishops’ moral authority on the so-called conscience issues of marriage and contraception, which represent the bishops’ primary political agendas. The risk for bishops isn’t that these Catholics will leave the church like I did…The risk is that they will stay in the church and empower other parishioners to stand up to the bishops on these and other issues, from married priests to the ordination of women.

“Catholics are setting an example for elections to come. They’re refusing to let the hierarchy speak for them, and even reining them in, just as they did back when I was a kid. Given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has proven it can shift national policy, God bless the laity for keeping them in check. They’re the only people who can.”

In light of a victory in Washington State for marriage equality where Catholics played a key role, Holden’s positive conclusion about these events seems correct. Continued lay involvement that helps to correct and contain the bishops, while presenting a different image of Catholicism in the public sphere is not going away. Hopefully, it has just begun.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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