By Chris L. Jenkins and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 30, 2006
Virginia's Catholic leaders can take comfort from recent polls showing that a majority of state voters are in sync with them in supporting a constitutional amendment to ban civil unions. What worries them is their own flock.
A Washington Post poll conducted this month showed that a majority of Catholic voters oppose the proposed amendment, which would ban same-sex marriages. As a result, Virginia bishops are flexing their growing political muscle in an attempt to sway more Catholics on the issue and get them to voting booths.
"When Catholics are presented with our church's perspective on the nature of marriage, its relationship to the common good of society and the importance of the proposed amendment for children and families . . . they will be much more likely to support the amendment," said Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference.
The lobbying group spent about $25,000 this year on 100,000 glossy copies of a letter that Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo and Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde wrote to explain why Catholics should support the amendment.
The amendment campaign is one of DiLorenzo and Loverde's largest political efforts. They founded the conference just last year, although many states -- including Maryland -- have had Catholic lobbying groups for decades.
There has also been a renewed effort since 2005 to register voters at Catholic parishes in Virginia, said Terry Wear, state coordinator of the marriage amendment effort for the Knights of Columbus. Wear said the marriage amendment is "one of the principal issues" behind the new registration effort, as well as concern about abortion and other social issues.
Of Virginia's more than 7 million residents, 620,000 are Catholic, according to the conference.
A solid majority of the state's Catholic voters -- 60 percent -- said gays should "be allowed to form legally recognized civil unions," compared with 38 percent who said they shouldn't, according to a Washington Post poll conducted this month. Slightly more than half of Catholic poll respondents -- 51 percent -- said they oppose the proposed constitutional amendment, compared with 46 percent who said they support it.
In contrast, the result for all poll respondents was 53 percent in support of the amendment and 43 percent against.
The split among voters who identify themselves as Catholic and church leaders mirrors a national rift on civil unions, as well as some other social issues. Asked whether gay couples should be allowed to form legally recognized unions that would give them the rights of married heterosexual couples, 53 percent of Catholics nationally said yes in a June 2006 ABC poll, compared with 40 percent who said no.
Some Catholics in Virginia said they weren't surprised by the division.
Joseph Strada, president of the Brent Society, a lay Catholic group of the Arlington Diocese, noted that only about one-third of U.S. Catholics go to Mass at least once a week. If they don't go, they won't be properly informed about gay marriages, civil unions and other issues, he said.
"To me, it's not surprising, because they're not going to a church they disagree with," he said. "If they don't attend church, they don't know what the church teaches. So it's obvious they won't have reliable answers."
Michael Burnett, 62, a Catholic from Prince William County who answered the Post poll and opposes the amendment, said: "The church has so much fence-mending to do, with all the problems they've had in the last couple decades, I'm not sure Catholics quite honestly really march to the beat of the drum anymore."
The bishops wrote in their letter: "Those who would give non-marital unions the privileges and status enjoyed by husbands and wives contradict and devalue what is truly good for society. Put another way, marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman is not one 'model' among many options of equal public significance. Rather, it is the very building block of the family and of society." Copies of the letter were requested by 190 of the state's 226 parishes.
Response to the pastoral statement "was very, very overwhelming," Caruso said.
Asked why the dioceses were making the new push into policy and politics, Caruso responded only that it was "a good time." But observers of Virginia's Catholic climate say it has more to do with the replacement in 2003 of former Richmond bishop Walter Francis Sullivan, who was more liberal than Loverde and oversaw the diocese there from 1974 until 2003.
Sullivan "was on his own," Strada said.
Several Catholic lawmakers in Virginia said they had not been lobbied about the amendment, and Strada said he'd like to see the bishops do more.
"They could be much more upfront, taking policy positions on legislation and things going on in the state," he said. "It takes courage" to get involved in moral issues, "and we haven't had very courageous bishops. And we still don't."
The amendment includes language that would bar recognition of civil unions or other same-sex arrangements approximating marriage. Opponents say the language is so broad that it would infringe on individuals' ability to enter into wills, purchase property jointly and receive protection from domestic violence laws -- claims the amendment's supporters dispute.
Some Catholic respondents to the Post poll who had seen the bishops' letter said they were not swayed by it.
"What's important to me more than anything is fundamental fairness," said Scott Peters, a personal trainer in Sterling. He said he disagreed with the church's stance on abortion as well.
"If this amendment just banned gay marriage, I'd vote for it. But I do believe in civil unions, and I just don't think I can support something that obviously is trying to go after those arrangements. Honestly, I just believe the church is wrong on this one."