Church wedded to anti-gay marriage stand

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By Robert McCartney
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Question: Why would Washington's Roman Catholic archdiocese let a dispute over employment benefits, which would have little practical effect, cause it to give up doing valuable, publicly funded work helping the homeless and sick?

Answer: Because the church doesn't want to miss an opportunity, however small, to oppose homosexuals' right to wed.

That's the lesson I've drawn from the dispute between the archdiocese and the D.C. Council over the same-sex marriage bill. Unless there's a compromise before the council's decisive vote, scheduled for Tuesday, the church would reduce its social welfare activities in ways that signal it thinks they're less important than taking a stand against same-sex marriage.

I write this as someone who is not Catholic (I'm Protestant) but who has taken an interest in religious issues and the church since I helped cover the Vatican for the Associated Press in Rome in the early 1980s. I view the church as a tremendous force for good in the world in many ways, especially in its advocacy for the poor and against violence. The U.S. church supports more ambitious health-care reform than Barack Obama does, for instance.

But I part with the church -- as many of its members do -- on many of its positions on sexual issues. Regrettably, those are the ones that religious leaders often seem to care about most. The big news in conservative Christian circles recently was the issuing of a declaration by more than 125 leaders, including Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, devoted in large part to the need to uphold church teachings on life issues, especially abortion, and traditional marriage.

In the battle over the same-sex marriage bill, the church says it has no choice but to insist on its faith teaching that marriage must be the union of a man and a woman. But the church has discretion over what it chooses to emphasize. It has pretty much given up on trying to enforce its opposition to contraception, for instance.

The archdiocese is trying to cast itself as a victim of secular authorities' intolerance of religious teachings. But that's misleading because a deal to satisfy both parties seems within reach.

The council is open to a concession on one issue, adoptions. It's reportedly willing to amend the bill to allow Catholic Charities to handle privately funded adoptions even if the church refuses to place children with same-sex couples. The church would have to give up involvement in city-funded adoptions, but there is a relatively low number of those.

On the issue where the most is at stake, the archdiocese wants a religious exemption so it can enter into city contracts without having to certify that it grants spousal benefits to employees' same-sex spouses. Catholic Charities has city contracts worth $18 million to $20 million a year to operate nine homeless shelters and a health clinic, and provide other welfare services.

The benefits issue is about principle rather than practice. Few if any of Catholic Charities' employees are likely to be same-sex spouses. No such spouse has applied for benefits, the archdiocese said, and it doesn't ask the sexual orientation of its workforce. This year, the city legalized same-sex marriages conducted in other states.

"The underlying concern is the recognition of religious liberties so faith organizations may follow their teachings within their own organization," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

However, the council, led by members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and David A. Catania (I-At Large), has proposed what seems like a reasonable way out, using an approach adopted since 2006 at Georgetown University, the nation's oldest Catholic university. It allows an employee to designate any "legally domiciled adult" as a recipient of spousal benefits -- while conveniently avoiding the question of whether that person is a same-sex spouse.

So far, the archdiocese has said that's not enough, while the council refuses to explicitly dilute the law's intent that gays have equal marriage rights. Mendelson and others said they thought the message from the archdiocese was that the standard is too lax at Georgetown, which has a relatively liberal reputation within the church.

"I have to surmise that it's theological, that they don't agree with the [Georgetown] compromise, and so they don't want to accept it," he said.

George Weigel, a prominent conservative Catholic thinker at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sniffed that Georgetown was a Catholic university "at the very best . . . in a vestigial sense."

The archdiocese has made its point on same-sex marriage. It should cut a deal rather than walk away from the contracts and leave the city to find other groups to serve the less-privileged.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). E-mail me at

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