BOSTON — In a joint letter to Catholics read at parishes May 31-June 1, the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts restated Church teaching on marriage. The letter was a response to a same-sex marriage case soon to be decided by the state Supreme Court.
In the letter signed by Bishop Richard Lennon, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston; Bishop Daniel Reilly of the Diocese of Worcester; Bishop Thomas Dupre of the Diocese of Springfield; and Bishop-Elect George Coleman of the Diocese of Fall River, the clerics reiterated to congregants the Church's teachings on homosexuality and marriage.
The bishops highlighted a 1996 statement of the national episcopal conference on homosexual marriage.
“We oppose attempts to grant the legal status of marriage to a relationship between persons of the same sex,” the letter stated. “No same-sex union can realize the unique and full potential the marital relationship expresses. For this reason, our opposition to ‘same-sex marriage’ is not an instance of unjust discrimination or animosity toward homosexual persons. In fact, the Catholic Church teaches emphatically that individuals and society must respect the basic human dignity of all persons, including those with a homosexual orientation. Homosexual persons have a right to and deserve our respect, compassion, understanding and defense against prejudice, attacks and abuse.”
In the case currently before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, seven homosexual couples are challenging the state, arguing that the commonwealth's constitution gives them the right to marry.
According to Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which is arguing for the homosexual couples, “The suit argues that the right to marry the person of one's choice is protected under the state constitution and, further, that the state cannot justify excluding gay and lesbian couples and their families from the institution of marriage and the hundreds of protections it provides.”
The state Supreme Court heard arguments March 4.
Legislators in Massachusetts have reacted to the Goodridge case with the introduction of the Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment. In their letter, the bishops asked Catholics “to write, call or e-mail your state senator and state representative, and get your friends to do the same” in support of the legislation.
Daniel Avila of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference — to which the bishops directed people for more information — praised the bishops for taking advantage of “a teaching moment” and said calls, e-mails and letters coming into his office suggest the effort was not in vain — and has not been subject to a backlash.
“Feedback here indicates that the statement was received quite well,” he said. “Our intent was to put this on the radar screen of the people in the pews. People are aware now. They know [same-sex marriage] is not just some abstract debate.”
Not unexpectedly, the bishops' letter was not received well by everyone.
National news coverage of the letter focused on protesters at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross. As the Associated Press reported: “At the mention of the statement, about a dozen people, mostly men, stood up and faced the back of the church. Most of them then walked out, with three men walking out at the end of the homily.”
Ann Hagan Webb, a psychologist and New England co-coordinator of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, was one of the protesters.
“The letter written by the Massachusetts Roman Catholic bishops and read at many local parishes last Sunday is nothing more than Catholic propaganda designed to increase homophobia and divert attention from the continuing sexual-abuse scandal,” she told the Register.
“How the bishops can rationalize that gay marriages are a threat to heterosexual marriage escapes me,” she added. “Do they think that if gay marriage is legal there will be a mad rush of straight couples to get divorced so they can marry same-sex partners? The Catholic Church has a right to any rules it wants to impose for the sacraments within its own religion, but it should not try to impose those beliefs on the secular community. The Church also doesn't recognize divorce, but it is not calling its faithful to lobby to have divorce laws revoked.”
The AP also quoted one of the people who walked out: “I feel angry,” said Mark Murphy, 25, of Somerville. “I have to turn my back to the altar. I shouldn't have to do that. The Church has to clean up its own house before it sets foot in mine.”
Murphy walked out with his same-sex partner, Carl Sciortino, 24, according to the wire service.
But despite the protest and negative depiction in the press, many Catholics, both inside and outside Massachusetts, consider it progress.
One Catholic political strategist said of the letter: “The Church in Boston needed to find its public voice eventually — this issue is important, timely and in need of clarification by the Church. From a strictly pragmatic point of view, the Church's position is one with a great deal of support among the faithful, the audience with whom the hierarchy most needs to reestablish trust.”
Even officials from Voice of the Faithful, a group formed after the scandals broke in 2002 that has often been a harsh critic of the bishops and has been accused of fostering dissent in the Church, would not criticize the statement. A spokeswoman directed the Register to the group's mission statement, which says it agrees to “accept the teaching authority of our Church, including the traditional role of the bishops and the Pope.”
“My impression is that pro-gay marriage forces in Boston are doing their best to use the Church scandal to discredit the Church's ability to speak to this issue,” said Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a frequent writer on the issue of same-sex marriage. “In many ways, the press played up the scandal and played down the gay element in it just so they could discredit the Church on issues like this. This is the first test of how well they will succeed.”
“The people who will attack the Church for its position on gay marriage would do so regardless of the current scandal atmosphere,” he added. “They should not be given the power to silence the Church.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.