Bishops Refocus Defense of Marriage
Veteran Massachusetts lobbyist takes national role.
BY CHRISTINE M. WILLIAMS
| Posted 6/27/11 at 1:28 PM
WASHINGTON — Friday night’s vote in the New York state Senate to legalize same-sex “marriage” adds new impetus for church-led efforts to defend the institution of marriage.
New York is now the sixth and largest state to approve homosexual “marriage,” fueling optimism among activists seeking to secure “marriage equality” in every state.
Meanwhile, a new representative of the U.S. bishops will bring the truth about marriage and family to key legislators on Capitol Hill.
Calling himself “the bishops’ marriage guy” — a tongue-in-cheek comment that sums up his role — Daniel Avila describes traditional marriage as “critical to human development.”
A native of Indiana who served the Massachusetts Catholic Conference for the past 14 years, Avila did not mince words about the dangers of experimenting with a fundamental social institution: To eliminate sexual difference is to manipulate the essential DNA of the institution.
“It’s like a nuclear bomb exploding in every home, and that explosion will reshape society itself,” he said. “I don’t think we can even describe the frontiers of change that confront us.”
He added that the bishops are fully aware of the challenge that lies ahead. For that reason, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continues to dedicate more resources to the defense of marriage in the public square, including the addition of Avila’s position as policy advisor for marriage and family.
William May, chairman of Catholics for the Common Good in California, said that such a position “has been needed for a long time.”
He applauded Avila’s appointment, saying, “Dan is so well grounded in Catholic social teaching. He’s a very savvy student and practitioner of public policy and advocacy. He’s dedicated, hardworking and highly skilled, and is widely respected across the country.”
A New Generation for Marriage
Avila, who began his duties June 20, serves the Subcommittee for the Promotion & Defense of Marriage, which was created in 2008 with a three-year mandate. Late last year, the subcommittee, chaired by Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., became a permanent part of the USCCB.
Giving an update at the bishops’ meeting in Seattle on June 15, Bishop Cordileone said marriage benefits children and meets their need for both a mother and a father. A new generation must be encouraged to live the marriage vocation “as God intended,” he said.
Andy Lichtenwalner, program specialist for the subcommittee, said the bishops are called to teach the truth about marriage to all. “These are truths that are meant to be shared, that are meant to inform public policy and law,” he said.
Avila served on the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, when it joined an alliance of religious and political organizations that sought to block the legalization of same-sex marriage, following a 2003 state Supreme Judicial Court decision which found that Massachusetts could not deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, making the Bay State the first to redefine marriage.
Traditional-marriage supporters were blocked by the Massachusetts Legislature from securing a referendum that would allow voters in the state to weigh in on the controversial issue.
Opponents of same-sex marriage were devastated by their failure to prevent the groundbreaking law, but they grew closer as they became the targets of heated outbursts by their political foes.
The shared experience strengthened the bonds between the activists that worked closely together on strategy and communications.
“I loved being allied with so many people who are in a tough territory — mission territory — up there,” Avila said.
In the majority decision, the Massachusetts justices wrote that the state’s constitution could not “tolerate” the “persistent prejudices” of traditional-marriage supporters
Avila said he immediately saw negative implications for religious freedom. Since then, Catholic Charities in Boston has ceased adoption work because the law required the organization to place children with same-sex couples. In addition, parents have seen same-sex “marriage” normalized in their children’s public schools, and employees who speak up in favor of traditional marriage have been fired.
Those negative outcomes, though devastating for Massachusetts, have pushed other states to pass marriage amendments or defeat same-sex union legislation. In every state where the voters have had the chance to make their view known, they have backed traditional marriage.
Anticipating future battles on the issue, Avila emphasizes the importance of catechesis to strengthen Catholics’ understanding of the fundamental importance of traditional marriage.
He noted that when same-sex marriage was first secured in Massachusetts, the bishops in the state were worried by the relatively high level of Catholic support for same-sex unions. But after the bishops distributed one million fliers on marriage to the faithful, there was a 25% shift in favor of church teaching.
“[The opinion shift] forever cemented the conviction in my mind that people just need to be educated and motivated, and then we will have very strong support in the Catholic community for traditional marriage,” he said.
The Catholic Church must speak about the beauty of traditional marriage, he said, even in the face of vitriol.
“Anger is just simply a sign for a very deep need for love,” Avila suggested. “The courage and extraordinary witness of those who, in the face of such need for love, stand up [and] speak the truth in charity — it just always, always, every time I see it, always affirms for me the providence of God and the goodness of people.”
Register correspondent Christine M. Williams writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.
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