Pope Benedict XVI in an early February talk complained that “equality” laws sometimes operate by forcing churches and church people either to violate their consciences or suffer penalties if they don’t.
Recent events in the United States focusing on same-sex marriage laws and Catholic adoption agencies illustrate the problem.
Since the pope was speaking to the bishops of England and Wales, observers reasonably supposed he had in mind a gay-rights bill then pending in the British parliament and subsequently defeated in the House of Lords. Under a similar 2007 law, some British Catholic adoption agencies have gone out of business rather than accept same-sex couples as adoptive parents, while others have severed ties with the Church.
Forcing Church’s hand
But the pope’s words apply equally well to other countries, including the United States, where same-sex marriage laws and other gay-rights measures have placed Catholic dioceses and institutions under increasing pressure. Six states and Washington, D.C., currently allow same-sex couples to marry.
The most recent addition is Washington, where the city council and mayor approved same-sex marriage late last year. The first same-sex marriages in the District took place March 9. Now, as it said it would do, the local archdiocese’s Catholic Charities has closed its 80-year-old foster-care and public adoption program in the city rather than accept same-sex couples as adoptive or foster parents.
Catholic Charities also announced that it was dropping spousal benefits from its employee health benefit plan in the case of new employees or employees seeking to add spouses to their coverage.
According to The Washington Post, same-sex marriage advocates were confident for years that they could win approval from the D.C. government but delayed pushing for it until “a president and legislature sympathetic” to their cause were in office. Although the District of Columbia is a federal enclave, Congress and the White House made no effort to block the new law.
Moreover, the city’s board of elections and ethics, backed by courts, refused to permit a voter referendum on the issue. Two groups opposed to same-sex marriage are now appealing that decision.
History of conflicts
While the nation’s capital is the latest example of conflict between local government and the Church generated by a same-sex marriage or domestic-partner law, it is hardly the first.
After the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in that state in 2003, the Archdiocese of Boston sought an exemption for its Catholic Charities adoption program so that it would not be required to place children with same-sex couples. Local and state political leaders turned a cold shoulder to the Church, and the archdiocese, in March 2006, announced it was getting out of the adoption business rather than violate the Church’s conscientious convictions on this matter.
Even earlier, in 1996, the city council of San Francisco adopted a law requiring that any business or agency doing business with the city extend the same benefits given to spouses — for example, health benefits and bereavement leave — to same-sex “domestic partners.”
The San Francisco archdiocese then sought and received from the city a compromise arrangement under whose terms agencies and businesses would be in compliance if their benefits packages simply allowed unmarried persons to designate some other household resident, not necessarily a same-sex domestic partner, to receive benefits equivalent to those provided for spouses.
Although some Catholics questioned this compromise, Cardinal William Levada — archbishop of San Francisco at the time and now prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — defended it as a “breakthrough” that made it possible for Church agencies to obey the law “without being forced to recognize a category based on unacceptable sexual criteria.”
However that may be, students of social and legal trends have predicted for years that secularist ideology would sooner or later lead even formally democratic governments to adopt coercive measures on behalf of causes centering on gays and other sexual minorities popularly viewed as issues of human rights. In Western Europe, Canada and the United States, this now appears more and more to be the case.
One result is what Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver calls a “growing harassment of religious charities” arising from “a crisis in America’s governing philosophy.”
Faced with conflicts between gay-rights laws and Church teaching, and focusing on Church-sponsored social service programs that receive public funds, U.S. dioceses up to now have either adopted a compromise — as in San Francisco — or simply quit the field, as in Boston and Washington.
Here and there, though, Church leaders may be starting to fight back. In Maine last year, for instance, the Catholic diocese got financial help from nearly 60 bishops and dioceses — including $50,000 each from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Phoenix — to help pay for a successful campaign to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.
Most observers see a long struggle ahead in courts over issues like these. Regardless of its outcome, the conflict already illustrates Pope Benedict’s assertion — in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) — that where religion is excluded from the public square, “politics takes on a domineering and aggressive character.”
In the United States and elsewhere today, the question no longer is whether that will happen, but whether the politics of domination and aggression will win.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Faith and the Public Square (sidebar)
Earlier this month, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver recalled President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech in Houston about his Catholicism. The archbishop explained how that speech still has consequences for today’s believers:
“[Kennedy’s] speech left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate — and wrong. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life. And he wasn’t merely ‘wrong.’ His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”