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