Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen visited our parish when I was 6 or 7 years old. After the service — he had come to bless a new crucifix — I broke away from my mom in the parking lot and ran to him. God knows what compelled me. If anyone knew better, the last thing you’d let a little boy do in the mid-1980s is waist-hug a Catholic bishop.
But our parish was unusual. Thanks in part to a congregation that was mostly African-American, the sermons in the chapel and the lessons in the parochial school I attended downstairs were steeped in civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr. was like our Jesus. And, at the time, the entire archdiocese Hunthausen led was a haven of progressive teaching.
Too progressive, in fact, for the pope.
Shortly before that visit to our parish, Hunthausen had allowed over 1,000 members of DignityUSA, an organization of lesbian and gay Catholics, to hold a liturgy in his cathedral. That act of inclusion — or insubordination, as Pope John Paul II saw it — triggered the Vatican’s vengeance. Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal, was assigned to appoint an auxiliary archbishop that would overtake Hunthausen’s authority, thereby vanquishing what Ratzinger called the “intrinsic evil of homosexual activity.” But Seattle’s parishioners pushed back, hard, resisting the auxiliary bishop and allowing Hunthausen to serve until his retirement in 1991.
Twenty-one years later, Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI. I’ve come out of the closet and I’ve parted ways with the church. As a gay man, frankly, I’d rather not be in the flock if the shepherd thinks I’m “evil.” But to my delight, Catholic laity around the country is still clashing with its bishops over gay rights. And they may get the upper hand.
Today in Washington state, Maine and Maryland, voters will decide to approve or reject ballot measures that would legalize same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, voters are considering a constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to a man and woman.
The Catholic laity’s 77 million members — who represent the largest religious denomination in the U.S. — largely support civil marriage for gay partners. A Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted last year found that 71 percent of American Catholics support marriage rights for same-sex couples when they are assured that it’s marriage "like you get at City Hall.” Nonetheless, in all four states, where polls show voters supporting gay marriage by narrow margins, the Catholic hierarchy is helping lead the opposition to marriage equality.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has grown radically conservative since John Paul II began to remake the church in the 1980s, hijacking the large membership numbers to advance their social agenda. Just this year, they clashed with President Obama’s proposal for employers to provide contraception coverage. The president reached a compromise with the bishops to exempt religious groups, but some archdioceses sued the federal government anyway. And, as the New York Times reported in April, Seattle’s current Archbishop, J. Peter Sartain, was appointed to rewrite the doctrines of the American sisters and nuns, who were accused of focusing too much on charity work while staying "silent" on limiting access to contraception and fighting gay rights.
In Minnesota, Archbishop John C. Neinstedt pledged $650,000 to the anti-gay-marriage campaign in that state. Neinstedt even silenced any clerical dissent after instructing priests to deliver a marriage prayer in their sermon. Frank Schubert, the architect of campaigns to repeal gay marriage in California and Maine, praised that leadership when speaking to the Star Tribune this month, saying, "We wouldn't have gotten very far without him.”
But here in Seattle, the archbishop is facing a confrontation.
When conservative activists in Washington sought to suspend and overturn a marriage equality law for same-sex couples in January, Archbishop Sartain started strong. He invited activists to circulate anti-gay-marriage petitions inside his parishes, he ordered each parish to print an anti-gay-marriage statement in its Sunday bulletin, and the archdiocese’s website was splattered with red-type requests for people to lobby the governor to take action. Declaring that the “continuation of the human race” hung in the balance and that “bringing to life the next generation" required denying same-sex marriage (apparently heterosexuals will stop having children if gay people can marry), Sartain was clearly spoiling for a fight.
And he got one, but not the one he expected. It’s not clear that Sartain knew what he was in for. After all, Sartain has only been appointed about 14 months before — by a pope who, it must be acknowledged, may have a vendetta against Seattle’s gay-friendly congregations that rebuffed him 30 years prior — and what Sartain got was an outright revolt from the pews.
Most notably, congregants formed a PAC called Catholics for Marriage Equality Washington State, which has raised $38,000. The group’s members attend masses, well, religiously, and Barbara Guzzo, who runs the PAC and is straight, ran full-page newspaper advertisements this week that listed nearly 1,000 Catholics who support marriage equality. The group marched in the gay pride parade, sharply criticized their archbishop, and even upbraided an Eastern Washington diocese that planned to collect money in the pews in a manner that would have violated state election laws (the state prohibits intermediary agents like churches from bundling donations for other campaigns).
“You can be a Catholic in good standing and disagree with the bishops on this,” Guzzo told me recently. While Guzzo may not change the bishops’ minds, she says, she can show her fellow Catholics that “we have a moral imperative to follow our conscience, even when that means disagreeing with our church leaders."
They’re hardly outliers. St. Mary, St. Patrick and several other parishes refused to allow petitioners in their doors. Father Michael Ryan at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral said allowing petitioners inside would “prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community.” In a nod to that division, Ryan also acknowledged in an “urgent” fundraising request this year — after donations were down for the annual Catholic appeal, which is largely for the bishops — that parishioners could give to their cathedral directly if “philosophical reasons” were holding them back from donating to the bishops.
Sixty-three former priests in Washington state have spoken out in favor of approving the marriage equality law. Still, the most stark rebuke came from St. Joseph’s Father John Whitney, who said circulating the petitions in his parish “seems to me inappropriately coercive.” He added in a statement to his congregation: “Although the Archbishop has the right and responsibility to speak and educate the community about legislation, I believe that this level of involvement around the issue of civil marriage is ill-considered, and risks placing the Church on the side of injustice and the denial of civil rights.” He continued to counter Sartain’s efforts just last month by telling parishioners in an email that “authority never supplants conscience."
In the past month, the bishops have been relatively silent. Sartain issued a video statement on YouTube and issued a statement, which are a peep compared to the church’s roar when their campaign began. “I don’t know why he's been a little more quiet,” Guzzo tells me.
But I’ll speculate: the flock is taming the shepherds.
It seems that Sartain and his counterparts have a real crisis on their hands in that their interpretation of the Bible is fundamentally different from that of many — if not most — of their congregants. Their reading of the scripture says that a marginalized gay population must be denied equal rights, but urban Catholics are reading the very same text and disagree. The problem for bishops shapes up like this: Priests and laity alike are declaring their intent to ignore the bishops' moral authority on the so-called conscience issues of marriage and contraception, which represent the bishops’ primary political agendas. The risk for bishops isn't that these Catholics will leave the church like I did (in fact, many of these bishops would probably like the burrs in their side to scatter). The risk is that they will stay in the church and empower other parishioners to stand up to the bishops on these and other issues, from married priests to the ordination of women.
Catholics are setting an example for elections to come. They're refusing to let the hierarchy speak for them, and even reining them in, just as they did back when I was a kid. Given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has proven it can shift national policy, God bless the laity for keeping them in check. They’re the only people who can.