National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 14, 2003

Our compliment to Bishop Reilly still stands

Last week on this page (NCR, Nov. 7), we complimented Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worchester, Mass., for bringing “reason to the issue of gay benefits.”

In his Oct. 23 testimony on “same sex marriage and civil union bills” before the legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Reilly said: “Some argue that it is unfair to offer only married couples certain socioeconomic benefits. That is a different question from the meaning of marriage itself.”

Continued Reilly: “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. We should consider the question of distributive justice on its own terms. If a bill alters marriage’s definition or changes the meaning of spouse, we cannot support it. If the goal is to look at individual benefits and determine who should be eligible beyond spouses, then we will join the discussion.”

Reilly was making a not-so-fine distinction. A conversation about how to extend the economic benefits inherent in traditional marriage (health care coverage for example) to others (including, given the context of the testimony, gay couples) would be something the church would welcome.

A positive step forward, we thought. Sure, the church continues to oppose civil marriage for gay couples or any other legally sanctioned arrangement (such as, “civil unions”) that resemble traditional marriage, but it would join a debate on how to promote economic and social justice.

But then came the reaction to Reilly’s comments.

In an Oct. 28 news release (“Don’t Believe the Headlines”), the Massachusetts Catholic Conference said that “bills dealing with same-sex domestic partnerships were not before the committee and Bishop Reilly made no direct reference to them in his testimony or remarks to the press afterwards.”

That distinction is as true as it is irrelevant. The Massachusetts legislature is considering legislation dealing with gay couples on a number of fronts, “civil unions,” “same-sex marriage,” and “same-sex domestic partnerships” among them. There are differences to each of these approaches, and it was clear from the bishop’s comments that Massachusetts church leaders oppose all three. That said, Reilly in his prepared testimony (it wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark), indicated the church’s willingness to discuss an acceptable means, short of marriage or its rough civil equivalents, designed to achieve an end (economic justice) shared by many on each side of the gay marriage question.

A subsequent article in the Boston archdiocesan paper, The Pilot, said that Reilly’s remarks were “misinterpreted by [the] media.” In an Oct. 30 letter to editors of major Massachusetts newspapers, Reilly emphasized the distinction between “individual rights and whatever socioeconomic benefits flow from those individual rights” and the “claims of same-sex couples seeking entitlements by virtue of their homosexual relationship.”

Perhaps the nuance of Reilly’s initial testimony, combined with the emotion surrounding the issue, lent itself to some overstated headlines.

However, the backtracking by the Massachusetts church was less than artful and unnecessarily defensive.

We still think that given the context of the printed testimony, the title Reilly gave to his testimony, “Woman’s Right to Know, Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Union Bills,” and the distinctions he drew, it is reasonable to deduce he was trying to find a way to discuss the matter of benefits without getting into the issue of changing the meaning of marriage.

And we still think that he brought rational discourse to a disputed area of public policy that will not go away and that would greatly benefit from both reasoned and reasonable discussion.

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 2003

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