National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 7, 2003

Bishop brings reason to issue of gay benefits

The latest skirmish in the culture wars -- what rights, if any, government should recognize for committed gay partners -- shows no signs of abating. Worcester, Mass., Bishop Daniel P. Reilly joined the discussion last month and, amazingly enough, emerged unscathed. Stronger even.

Reilly told legislators that the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, made up of the dioceses of Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Fall River, was unequivocally opposed to legislation that would recognize gay “marriage” or “civil unions.” But the church is open, he said, to discussing what public benefits should accrue to those in non-traditional living arrangements.

Marriage is a legal arrangement that carries with it civil benefits. Among them: pension and medical benefits, hospital visitation, and deference in child-rearing. “If the goal is to look at individual benefits and determine who should be eligible beyond spouses, then we will join the discussion,” said Reilly.

Reilly, thankfully, did more than assert church teaching to the legislators. He engaged the issue on the church’s terms, saying such benefits are a matter of “distributive justice.” His remarks came at a particularly fortuitous moment, as the last few months have been a very trying time for gay Catholics, their families and loved ones.

First, in early June, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took up the question of “Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.”

Said the congregation: “Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.”

Then, in September, the 47-member administrative committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference declared their “general support for a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Let’s take them one by one.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cites “experience” as the basis for the claim that gay partners are inherently ill-equipped for parenting, that by virtue of their sexual orientation, such couples inherently commit “violence” against children.

To which we ask: Whose experience?

America is full of lousy parents. Twelve-step programs, our overcrowded prisons, and the psychotherapy industry thrive as a result. But if “experience” is our only guide, then the Vatican bureaucrats who wrote the statement need to get out more.

Heterosexual Americans possess considerable experience with gay couples and their children. They go to PTA meetings with them, serve on parish councils with them, and share carpooling duties for overscheduled youngsters

The bottom line? Like the offspring of their heterosexual counterparts, some of the children of gay couples will keep therapists thriving for decades, while others -- by all outward appearances respectful and inquiring kids -- will grow up to be contributing members of society and, perhaps, their church.

And what of the bishops and their support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman?

One would think that a call by the nation’s largest religious denomination for a constitutional amendment on a controversial topic would be the result of broad discussion .

A wide array of constitutional scholars and experts on marriage would be consulted, gay and straight Catholics surveyed, Catholics in the pews polled, and the topic placed on the agenda for discussion by the full body of bishops.

There are, after all, many issues to consider:

  • Some say the most prominent current version would not have the intended effect. Prohibition didn’t end drinking and the 15th Amendment didn’t guarantee voting rights for more than a century after passage.
  • The hurdles to amending the Constitution -- passage by a congressional super majority and adoption by 38 of the 50 states -- are formidable.
  • Other means (legislation comes to mind) might achieve the aim without resorting to tinkering with the constitutional structure.
  • And, most important, is it desirable?

But rather than engage the debate, the bishops’ Administrative Committee emerged from its closed-door deliberations and declared the U.S. church in favor of the most extreme alternative currently on the table. No hearings, no input, no discussion. No one knows what the process involved. And the result, whatever their intention, aligns the U.S. church with the most extreme gay bashers imaginable, those whose vitriol is directed at both sin and sinner.

And then there’s Bishop Daniel Reilly.

“Some argue that it is unfair to offer only married couples certain socioeconomic benefits,” Reilly told the committee. “That is a different question from the meaning of marriage itself.”

“The civil union bill before this committee confuses the two issues, changing the meaning of spouse in order to give global access to all marital benefits to same-sex partners in a civil union. This alters the institution of marriage by expanding whom the law considers to be spouses. Let’s not mix the two issues.”

Reilly’s comments won’t please those who want no legal distinctions made between gay unions and heterosexual marriage. And he’s sure to draw fire from some Catholics and from the Christian right for acknowledging that gay couples and their children face unjust discrimination.

But his remarks were offered with a spirit of humility and Christian charity -- exactly what’s been lacking of late.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 2003

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