Group Protests Williams's Nomination to Catholic Society

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A group of traditional Catholics is protesting former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams's nomination to serve in a millennium-old, elite church charitable society, saying his support of abortion rights and legal protections for same-sex couples makes his proposed membership a "horrible scandal."

Williams was nominated to the Order of Malta and is undergoing an admissions process that includes a "formation" period in which candidates' commitment to the order's charitable works are scrutinized. Members, known as "knights" and "dames," include current and former senators and Cabinet members and are expected to commit money to the order, which runs charitable organizations around the world, including hospices in the District, girls' schools in Afghanistan and a hospital in Bethlehem.

Joseph Dempsey, executive director of the order's regional office, called the Federal Association, said this week that he couldn't comment in detail on Williams's case, saying only that "it's complicated and unfinished at this time. People are working hard and honestly to get it resolved properly." Williams did not respond to several requests for comment.

Opponents have been blogging and petitioning the group's Rome headquarters, where an official yesterday confirmed the former mayor's candidacy and said anyone "who has expressed views at variance with the teaching of the church" cannot be approved.

The dispute is the latest between Catholic public figures and some Catholic traditionalists, including bishops, who want to punish politicians who take positions contrary to church teaching, especially those supporting abortion rights. Those who have recently come under fire are Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.), the nominee for secretary of health and human services, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Last week, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino threatened to cancel a Mass on Saturday before a St. Patrick's Day parade there if the event honored Vice President Biden (D), who is from the Pennsylvania town and supports abortion rights.

Williams's membership in the Order of Malta "would suggest that the defense of the faith and the charge to live the moral laws of the faith are not taken seriously," said a petition by 24 members of the order's regional branch. "This man is notorious across the United States for his loud, constant and public opposition to Catholic teaching."

Austin Ruse, a knight who is also an editor for the Catholic Thing blog, wrote that "many" members of the order in the region have threatened to resign over Williams's candidacy. He said on the blog that Williams is being "asked to recant his positions on abortion and homosexual marriage."

The dispute could eventually involve Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, because his approval of Williams's nomination is necessary as the former mayor's bishop. Wuerl has opposed efforts by some bishops to withhold communion from politicians who support abortion rights. Spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said yesterday that Wuerl would not comment while Williams's vetting process was underway.

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