Last week’s appearance of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) March in Washington, DC, inspired several journalists to look more closely at the relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and anti-marriage equality groups.
While we’ve noted before that there is a growing trend in the church of some church leaders speaking favorably of lesbian and gay couples, the road to full acceptance still is a long one. Some of the new insights that these journalists have expressed show that a new relationship between Catholic leaders and the issue of marriage equality, while a challenge, is possible.
The challenge comes from some of the “strange bedfellows” that some bishops are connecting with, politically speaking. Jeremy Hooper, at the Human Rights Campaign’s NOM Exposed blog, points out that in addition to Cordileone’s appearance at the rally, he also continues working behind the scenes with NOM leaders. He was listed as a host of a recent strategy meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, with several of NOM’s top leaders and associates.
Will this continued association with NOM continue? The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters says that it shouldn’t. In a recent column, he questioned Cordileone’s involvement at the rally because he sees NOM as “dedicated to a strategy that is not only counter-productive, which is bad enough, but a strategy that is profoundly un-Christian.”
Winters offers evidence of NOM’s role in stirring up anti-gay legislation aborad as a major reason Cordileone should not have participated in the event:
“Their president, Brian Brown, spent time strategizing in Russia, encouraging that country’s parliament to enact harsh anti-gay laws that do not reflect the kind of love Archbishop Cordileone called for in his speech yesterday. The Uganda parliamentarian, David Bahati, who authored that country’s truly draconian anti-gay laws acknowledges the influence of U.S.-based groups in encouraging him and helping him, including the shadowy ‘Fellowship.’
“NOM’s stateside efforts are not much better. They are smart enough to know that promoting a law that would call for killing gays is a non-starter. But, they apparently are not smart enough to recognize that the great threats to marriage in our day have nothing to do with what gays do. Among the great threats to marriage is a hook-up culture that is to human love what laissez-faire economics is to the world of commerce and finance, a libertarianism in action which, like all that flows from that ‘poisoned spring,’ as Pope Pius XI termed it, devastates the Gospel.”
Winters concludes with a warning to bishops about how they need to shape their future rhetoric and action on the question of marriage:
“Finally, if the leaders of the Church are to become credible again on the issue of marriage, they cannot simultaneously insist that they are not motivated by anti-gay bigotry and then give speeches at rallies organized by bigots. This is not guilt by association. It is recognizing that such participation is a counter-witness to the Gospel. Archbishop Cordileone’s comments about loving those who do not share the Church’s teachings on marriage are, I am sure, sincere, but he betrays his own words when he demonstrates common cause with the architects of draconian laws that seek to deny the human dignity of gays and lesbians. This is obvious to the rest of us. One wonders why it was not obvious to +Cordileone.”
The role that Pope Francis is playing in the bishops’ rhetoric on marriage equality and other issues is also an important factor that needs to be considered. U.S. Catholic’s Scott Alessi notes the ambiguity and ambivalence that seems to characterize the U.S. bishops’ desire to follow Francis’ lead in taking a softer tone in regard to marriage equality and LGBT issues. Noting that some headlines about the recent United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting proclaimed concord with Pope Francis, while others asserted a striking difference between the bishops and the pontiff, Alessi writes:
“As is often the case with such things, the reality is somewhere in the middle. The bishops are a large and diverse group, and I don’t think anyone realistically could have anticipated a radical shift in the conference’s overall agenda. Some bishops have surely been taking the pope’s words to heart and thinking about how that impacts their work, while others are much less concerned with what’s being said in Rome than they are with what is happening in their own backyard.”
U.S. News and World Report published an insightful essay with a title that explains the confusion surrounding the “Francis factor”: “When It Comes to Same-Sex Marriage, Both Sides Claim Pope Francis.” On the pro-marraige equality side, the article quotes Michael Sherrad, executive director of Faithful America:
“Pope Francis has powerfully inspired countless Catholics and other Christians to a new vision for how the church can be compassionate. Unfortunately too many – not all, but too many – of the bishops in the United States and their conservative activist allies have really flouted what Pope Francis has had to say about gay and lesbian people.”
On the anti-marriage equality side, the writer quotes Chris Plant, regional director of NOM:
“[Plant says that] Pope Francis’s tone is in line with the approach he sees his organization taking on the issue. ‘He is focusing on the fact that our dialogue ought to be civil,’ Plant says. ‘We absolutely ask for it to be a civil.’ ”
The U.S. News and World Report article also quoted a seasoned Catholic Church observer, noting the pope’s influence on the debate:
“ ‘I think he wants to move a little bit beyond the culture wars, at least certainly key issues in the culture wars,’ says Rev. Thomas P. Rausch, a Jesuit priest and a professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. ‘He can’t simply change the church’s teachings – the whole church has to be involved in that. But he can change the way that the church is perceived in terms of the range of issues it addresses. And I suspect that is what he wants to do.’ “
In a recent interview with Faith in Public Life’s John Gehring, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, former president of the USCCB and archbishop emeritus of Galveston-Houston, Texas, offered words of wisdom for how Pope Francis’ more compassionate approach can succeed:
“We have to take what he is saying seriously. We need bishops who reflect his style, and laypeople have to be involved so that this Francis era is not just a passing moment but salt and light for our church for many years to come.”
What I like about Fiorenza’s remarks is that he reminds us that if the more compassionate approach is to come about, it depends on lay people, as much as on bishops. We need to remind ourselves of this reality when the going gets tough. A new relationship between marriage equality and Catholic leadership is possible–but we’re the ones who have to help it along.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry