WASHINGTON — When the Council of the District of Columbia signaled its plan to legalize same-sex “marriage” in November 2009, Archbishop Donald Wuerl warned that the move could force the closing of Catholic foster care and adoption programs with city contracts.
In late February, the archbishop made good on that warning, ending Catholic Charities’ city contracts for child-placement services.
Then, on March 1, a day before same-sex “marriage” became legal in the district, the other shoe dropped: Spousal benefits would no longer be available for new hires at Catholic Charities or for staff who might marry in the future.
“Catholic Charities will continue to honor the health-plan coverage that current employees have as of March 1, 2010. As of March 2, a new plan will be in effect that will cover new employees and requests for benefit changes by current employees,” stated a memo issued by Catholic Charities’ President and CEO Edward Orzechowski.
“We sincerely regret that we have to make this change,” the memo continued, “but it is necessary to allow Catholic Charities to continue to provide essential services to the clients we serve in partnership with the District of Columbia while remaining consistent with the tenets of our religious faith.”
The conclusion of a painful internal debate within the archdiocese, Archbishop Wuerl’s decision underscores the challenge legal same-sex “marriage” poses for Catholic bishops charged with defending traditional marriage while securing the future stability of their social agencies.
From the beginning, the archbishop’s sober reaction sparked criticism.
Several city council members openly dismissed the Church’s concerns, with Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) describing its stance as “somewhat childish.” News stories and letters to the editor in The Washington Post featured skeptical reactions from local Catholics who worried that their Church’s position was intolerant and needlessly jeopardized critical services to the poor.
Over the past three months, Archbishop Wuerl has struggled to gain traction for his argument that the council’s narrow religious exemption made compliance with city contracts untenable for Catholic agencies.
“Unlike legislation dealing with same-sex ‘marriage’ in other parts of the country, the district offers no provision for any type of religious exemption,” noted the archbishop,, as he unveiled his new policy.
“Further, the district has redefined marriage in such a way that anyone working with the city must demonstrate they are in compliance with the implications of this new law,” he said.
During the ensuing months since the D.C. Council first took up the issue of same-sex “marriage,” some local Catholic leaders and donors questioned the need for drastic action.
‘San Francisco Option’
Still, a significant number of legal scholars, including some who endorse same-sex “marriage,” have argued that the D.C. Council’s language was too restrictive and the archbishop was right to challenge it
The archdiocese submitted a letter to the elections board calling for a referendum on same-sex marriage, and Archbishop Wuerl directed local pastors to raise the issue from the pulpit.
The referendum effort hit a final roadblock this week, when Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts Jr. denied a request by same-sex “marriage” opponents to stay the District’s law. The following day same-sex couples lined up to apply for a marriage license.
“There are council members who have argued that religious freedom means that priests won’t have to marry same-sex couples. My reaction is: You can’t be serious; that is not religious freedom,” said Robert Destro, a law professor at The Catholic University of America and the director and founder of its Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion.
Archbishop Wuerl reached a similar verdict.
“As an agency supervising foster care and adoption placements, Catholic Charities must confirm the suitability of the couple with whom the child will be placed. If we signed the new city contracts, that requirement would bring the agency into an active role in confirming this new definition of marriage,” said the archbishop.
The plan to close the child-placement programs follows the path of several other dioceses that have grappled with the advent of legal same-sex “marriage.”
But Archbishop Wuerl and Catholic Charities’ administrators still had to tackle a second conundrum introduced through the specific language of the district’s new law: Could they continue to provide spousal benefits without lending moral credence to same-sex “marriage”? Catholic Charities here employs about 900 people.
Some advisers suggested that the archbishop could finesse the issue by adopting the so-called “San Francisco option” — provide benefits to one other individual residing in an employee’s household.
The San Francisco option was initiated by then-San Francisco Archbishop William Levada (now a cardinal and prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to bring his agencies into compliance with a city law governing benefits for same-sex domestic partners — in a state that still upheld the traditional definition of marriage.
By contrast, Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., confronted a new law that redefined marriage to include same-sex unions and directed agencies with city contracts to grant benefits to all legal spouses.
Archbishop Wuerl concluded that compliance with the new law might “create confusion.” In his view, the only alternative was to “restructure the whole benefits plan while still allowing Catholic Charities to continue its service to the poor and needy.”
Another Challenge Ahead
No doubt the decision to end spousal benefits will provoke even more controversy — and could affect the recruitment and retention of Catholic Charities’ employees.
Catholic Charities’ administrators have struggled to minimize the impact of the recent policy changes. For example, by the time the archbishop had closed the archdiocese’s child-placement services, Orzechowski had transferred the entire caseload to another agency, the National Center for Children and Families. It shared Catholic Charities’ philosophy on forming partnerships with foster families and securing permanent placements for children.
“We were looking for an agency that would take all of the children, families, siblings and staff. That was the best and least troublesome approach from a child’s point of view,” said Orzechowski.
At present, Catholic Charities receives about $20 million from the district for a spectrum of social services, including homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Archbishop Wuerl sought to protect those remaining contracts, even as he defended the Church’s right to provide services in accordance with its moral precepts.
When news reports first registered the archdiocese’s concerns about the district’s same-sex “marriage” bill, opponents of the Church’s stance suggested it should be disqualified from participating in city contracts.
Meanwhile, experts who agree with archdiocesan policies on foster care and adoption regret that its natural-law arguments have become a flashpoint in the culture wars.
“Hostility toward Christian morality is leading many people to ignore the science that tells us what is good for children. Children do best when both a mother and father live in the home,” said Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, author of Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, a textbook published by the American Psychological Association. Fitzgibbons teaches a class called Psychological and Neurological Sciences: Gender, Marriage and Family at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C.
For now, the archdiocese doesn’t anticipate any further disruption of its social services. But the Baltimore Archdiocese may soon be drawn into a similar struggle: Maryland’s attorney general just proposed that the state recognize same-sex marriages performed outside its borders.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.