WASHINGTON — Daniel Avila says he resigned from his position at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because of his “desire to see the bishops continue their effective and courageous witness without distraction.”

Avila stepped down Nov. 4 as policy adviser for marriage and family after a column about the causes of same-sex attraction that he wrote for The Pilot, the Archdiocese of Boston’s newspaper, made national headlines. Avila had written that God does not cause such attraction and attributed its existence to Satan — an explanation that Avila now admits was “incomplete” and led to misunderstanding.

In a statement released exclusively to the Register (see below), Avila explained the resignation for the first time. He said he quickly realized that the firestorm following his Oct. 28 column had the potential to obstruct the mission of the nation’s bishops in the public-policy arena.

“The USCCB must advance the Church’s policy positions recognizing the inviolable dignity of every human being and the inalterable nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. These are not matters of speculation for the Church, but risked being obscured by the aftermath from my own speculations,” he wrote.

He said that in accepting his resignation, the USCCB had demonstrated a “commitment to marriage and dignity of all persons.”

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the USCCB, reiterated the bishops’ duty to uphold marriage, saying, “Marriage is and can only be the union of one man and one woman. It is the foundation of the family, the key cell of society.”

She declined to comment on Avila’s resignation, which she called a “personnel matter.”

Mea Culpa

Paulist Father Bob Bowers of Boston wrote a letter to The Pilot’s editor, saying that Avila’s article interfered with the “pastoral ministry and care for GLBTQ Catholics.”

“This article directly and intentionally causes pain for gay Catholics, their families, especially their mothers, their friends and their worship communities,” he wrote. “We call upon the editorial staff of The Pilot to immediately halt all such articles and publications and concentrate instead on the Gospel of Love, to promote understanding, compassion and healing.”

In his statement, Avila reiterated his apology, which has replaced his column on The Pilot’s website. He expressed sorrow for the “needless hurt” he caused.

An editor’s note on the website echoed Avila’s statement of regret, saying “The Pilot also wishes to apologize for having failed to recognize the theological error in the column before publication.”

Terence Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, refused to elaborate on that “theological error,” saying only that the archdiocesan position on the matter has been “widely reported.”

Avila, who served just over four months at the U.S. bishops’ conference, had been writing columns for The Pilot for seven years. When he began, he was employed by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. After taking the USCCB position, he wrote in his own capacity. At the end of each article, he was identified as a former MCC employee who “now lives and works in the Washington, D.C., area.” No mention of his new position was ever made.

Grip of Satan

In his final column, Avila made an attempt to refute the position that God must have created same-sex attraction and, therefore, desires persons with that inclination to find happiness in its fulfillment.

“Whatever natural causes disturb otherwise typical biological development, leading to the personally unchosen beginnings of same-sex attraction, the ultimate responsibility, on a theological level, is and should be imputed to the evil one, not God,” he wrote.

Jeffrey Mirus, president of Trinity Communications, provided commentary about Avila’s column on his website, CatholicCulture.org. Mirus wrote that by attributing so much to the devil, Avila explained too little. Temptations come from the world, the flesh, the devil and as a result of original sin. Personal sin can also weaken human nature and lead to sinful inclinations.

Avila’s focus on Satan made it sound as though all troubles come directly from his hand, which can lead to an erroneous conclusion that those who experience same-sex attractions are “more in the grip of Satan.”

Speaking with the Register, Mirus said the devil can tempt all of us but does not have “unrestricted power over us.”

“Certainly, in the Catholic account of original sin, the devil plays a role in the Fall, but notice that it is ultimately Adam and Eve who are held responsible for their own sin,” he added. “It is not the inclination, or even the temptation, that is sinful, but the actual sin itself. In this case, the sin would be acting on same-sex attraction to gain sexual satisfaction.”

Sensitive Issue

Mirus said it is difficult even to address the topic of same-sex attraction when the larger culture “militates strongly against any treatment of homosexual behavior which does not hold it to be natural and good.”

He called Avila’s resignation, given the cultural climate, “almost inevitable.”

In his commentary, Mirus said, “Avila chose to write on a supremely sensitive issue. He did not get it quite right, and the bishops rather understandably want to control the message, keeping it absolutely free from theological misunderstanding. One would, of course, like to see equal control over Catholics who publish the view Avila attempted to refute.”

Register correspondent Christine M. Williams writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.

Why I Offered My Resignation

Daniel Avila, Nov. 7, 2011
When I submitted on Nov. 2 my apology for my recent Boston Pilot column, I also offered to resign my position as policy advisor for marriage and family with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  My offer was premised on my own realization that my continued employment was fueling public circumstances that could obstruct the mission of the Catholic Church and the bishops in the public-policy arena.  My column, by focusing on a radioactive topic, could be and was being exploited to divert attention from the core public-policy issues.  I was notified on Nov. 4 that the general secretariat of the USCCB agreed upon reflection that the public controversy created by my column had rendered my continued employment untenable, and thus accepted my resignation. 

I offered to apologize and resign voluntarily based on my own conscience and assessments. I was in a hole that I dug all on my own, and it was time to stop digging. My superiors and colleagues treated me with understanding, compassion and prudence. My resignation was not offered nor do I believe that it was accepted because anyone involved thinks that the Church’s role in the definition-of-marriage debate should be reduced. Instead, there is unanimity that the Church’s involvement should be strengthened without distraction. 

My column touched inexpertly and incompletely on speculative matters (see e.g. the online critique by Jeff Mirus; see also Proverbs 12:1), on which the USCCB has taken no position, and yet which were related to the issues of marriage and family that were within the ambit of my official concerns. USCCB must advance the Church’s policy positions recognizing the inviolable dignity of every human being and the inalterable nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. These are not matters of speculation for the Church, but risked being obscured by the aftermath from my own speculations.  My resignation, precipitated by events put in motion by my own doing, will require my wonderful colleagues at the conference to pick up the slack and to find a replacement, temporarily setting back vital efforts on marriage. While you will weather the storm that eventually will pass, I am sorry and apologize for the resulting trouble. Your encouragement can be found in Sirach’s second chapter.

I also reiterate my deep sorrow and apology for any hurt caused by my column among those who especially need to be affirmed in their individual human dignity. I do not take personally but I do take seriously the anger and ridicule expressed toward me on the Internet, by those who do not know me, as a further sign that people with same-sex attraction have suffered greatly and wrongly.  Although one must never be afraid to speak the truth in love to worldly power that same-sex sexual attraction is neither willed by God nor ordered objectively to personal or spiritual good, I take full responsibility for any misperception caused by me that I somehow do not recognize the innate beauty, goodness, dignity and God’s creation and blessing of each and every person. Nor is there any desire on my part to single out any one class of persons as uniquely burdened by the effects of original sin and concupiscence. We are all challenged. But God loves especially those who bear great trials, such as persons struggling with same-sex attraction. Though none of my reflections was intended to hurt anyone, your pain is a tragedy, and I am heartbroken.

This whole experience dramatizes what is at stake in the debate over the definition of marriage and related matters. I apologized because I needlessly hurt people. I resigned because of my desire to see the bishops continue their effective and courageous witness without distraction. Unfortunately, some will take away from this the opposite and erroneous lesson that the Church and people of faith should refrain altogether from speaking out to influence policymakers and recede entirely from the arena of debate, or else risk being hounded from the podium as if the Church’s teaching on marriage itself harmed the common good. 

The bishops have been and will continue to be strong.  Accepting my resignation demonstrates USCCB’s commitment to focusing on the public-policy issues related to marriage and the dignity of all persons and not be sidetracked. Nor will the bishops back down even when falsely charged with bigotry or prejudice simply for teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. The bishops and their staff need the prayers and full support of all of us as they carry out their mission in the very difficult field of public policy.