Marriage, No; Benefits, Maybe - Did the Bishop Back Down?

BOSTON — The bishop said he wanted to “join the discussion” on benefits for homosexual couples and boy, did he ever.

Worcester Bishop Daniel Reilly started a whopper of a discussion.

Speaking in front of a legislative committee in Boston on behalf of the state's four bishops, Bishop Reilly urged the politicians Oct. 23 to defeat any bill that would make same-sex marriages or a civil union equivalent to marriage lawful within the state.

Several such bills are up for consideration, in addition to a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. The Church supports the constitutional amendment.

During his prepared remarks, Bishop Reilly said marriage is possible only between a man and a woman.

“Marriage precedes the state and even precedes the Church,” he said. “We elevate the relationship between a man and a woman not because we judge any human being to be unequal to another but because we recognize the special public value of this particular relationship ... Only this relationship affords children the gift of both a father and a mother.”

He ended his testimony by saying that the Church would “join the discussion” about benefits for homosexual couples only if the “goal is to look at individual benefits and determine who should be eligible beyond spouses.”

Headlines the next day trumpeted that change was in the air. One in the Cape Cod Times read: “Church Open to Benefits for Gays.”

Responding to the media buzz and to the confusion by some Catholics about the bishop's comments, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference released an Oct. 28 statement that was approved by the state's bishops and published in diocesan newspapers.

“Contrary to the headlines, the Roman Catholic bishops upheld Church teaching on marriage at last week's state House hearing and did not announce a change in their opposition to domestic-partnership legislation,” the statement opened, adding later: “Many press reports interpreted this as a signal of new support for same-sex relationships and 'domestic-partnership benefits.’ That interpretation is wrong.”

The statement made three points:

• Bishop Reilly did not make any direct reference to bills dealing with same-sex domestic partnerships, which were not before the committee.

• The Church objects to any civil-union and domestic-partnership bills since they equate unmarried relationships to married spouses.

• Because the Church respects and recognizes that all human beings have civil rights and dignity as individuals, it “has participated in and will always participate in any public discussion about the civil rights of individuals.”

Richard McCord, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Laity, Women, Family and Youth, said, “Matters of granting benefits are distinct from, and can be made distinct from, the issue of making same-sex union the equivalent of marriage, and we've never said anything different.”

Father Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, said Church officials want to be involved “at the table” discussing benefits whenever that takes place.

“There must be a way of taking care of children and families that doesn't involve a redefinition [of marriage],” he said. “If, for example, children are being taken care of by a single parent and they're not receiving the kind of benefits that children would receive if they were in a complete family situation, is there any way that child could receive benefits?”

However, as the Massachusetts Catholic Conference's statement makes clear, those considered as individuals and those who see themselves as part of a relationship are separate matters.

“When individuals get together, however, and ask for benefits by virtue of a particular relationship,” the statement said, “the issue moves beyond individual rights.”

Some Catholics in Massachusetts were still concerned about Bishop Reilly's remarks a week after they were published.

Laurie Letourneau, president of the Life Action League of Massachusetts, a pro-life, pro-family organization in Worcester, commented, “How can you look at individual benefits on anything if someone is practicing a homosexual relationship? What benefits was he talking about? I think that's the problem a lot of people are having.”

Letourneau said she was “slightly annoyed” there wasn't some kind of statement made right away.

“I think waiting a week and then sort of saying the media misinterpreted when it's out there doesn't help. It's sort of backtracking,” she said. “What should have happened is a letter should have appeared in the Boston Globe the following morning letting people know.”

She said she has spoken to many people about the situation and they were “really upset.”

“Everyone had great concern that the Catholic Church was selling them down the river,” she said. “If the Massachusetts Catholic Conference says that's not what the bishop meant, then certainly I understand people misspeaking.”

She pointed out a Boston Globe headline that appeared two days after the bishop's comments that concerned her: “Chance to Expand Gay Benefits Seen — Bishops’ Decision Plays Critical Role, Lawmaker Says.”

Bishop Reilly could not be reached for comment.

In the year 2000 document, “Family, Marriage And 'De Facto’ Unions” the Pontifical Council for the Family seems to reject legal arrangements that treat non-married unions like families. Says the document:

“The most effective way to watch over the public interest does not consist in demagogic concessions to pressure groups that promote de facto unions, but rather the energetic and systematic promotion of organic family policies, which consider the family based on marriage as the center and motor of social policy, and which cover the extensive area of the rights of the family. The Holy See has dedicated its attention to this aspect in the Charter of the Rights of the Family, going beyond a merely welfare conception of the State.”


Daniel Avila, the associate director for policy and research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said Bishop Reilly's testimony was consistent with the Church's teachings, which were detailed this year by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions,” according to the document, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.”

Avila added that Bishop Reilly's reference to “individual” benefits was also consistent with an earlier Vatican mandate. In 1992, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document called “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Nondiscrimination of Homosexual Persons.”

He pointed out one particular paragraph, which states: “Homosexual persons, as human persons, have the same rights as all persons including the right of not being treated in a manner that offends their personal dignity. Among other rights, all persons have the right to work, to housing, etc. Nevertheless, these rights are not absolute.”

Individuals, then, have rights and can be eligible for a particular benefit, he said. But if someone deserves a particular benefit by virtue of his or her relationship with a same-sex partner, then the Church is against that recognition, Avila said.

However, the document from this year also states that the respect due to homosexuals does not include giving them the benefits of marriage:

“The principles of respect and nondiscrimination cannot be invoked to support legal recognition of homosexual unions. Differentiating between persons or refusing social recognition or benefits is unacceptable only when it is contrary to justice. The denial of the social and legal status of marriage to forms of cohabitation that are not and cannot be marital is not opposed to justice; on the contrary, justice requires it.”

Avila said the media's spin to Bishop Reilly's testimony was not surprising.

“We were saying earlier in the office that the Church's position on many issues is usually more nuanced than the public media has space for,” Avila said. “It's difficult to put into a sound bite sometimes, especially in debates as heated as these are. Everyone is looking for a way to get an angle on this thing, and what better way than to have a new story about the Church changing its position on something.”

Carlos Briceno is based in Seminole, Florida.