The Bishops Lose a Big One

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It was tempting to say “Welcome to the Big Apple” last Friday night
after New York Archbishop Tim Dolan got his rear end handed to him by
parishioner Andrew Cuomo in re: same-sex marriage. But not since the
days of Nelson Rockefeller has the Empire State witnessed such astute
management of the legislative process as Cuomo displayed, and so His
Excellency can be forgiven for misunderestimating what he was up
against. Not that he’s likely to feel pleased with the performance of
the apparatchiks in the state Catholic Conference or, for that matter, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and his monsigliere Kieran Harrington, to say nothing of those Evangelical and Orthodox Jewish auxiliaries. They were all outgunned and outmaneuvered, as Michael Barbaro makes clear in his fine behind-the-scenes account in the Times.

For a pure expression of impotent rage, it’s hard to beat the tantrum that went out under DiMarzio’s name after the SSM bill passed:

Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have
deconstructed the single most important institution in human history. Republicans and Democrats alike succumbed to powerful
political elites and have passed legislation that will undermine our families
and as a consequence, our society.

Wherefore anathemas were pronounced not only upon those who supported the bill but also upon those who opposed it: “I have asked all pastors and principals to not invite
any state legislator to speak or be present at any parish or school
celebration.” A pox on both your Houses! Malocchio!

One hopes, however, that in the days to come New York’s bishops
will calm down and think more carefully about what happened and what
lies ahead. Powerful elites may have done their part, but at bottom what
carried the day were two of the most powerful principles in U.S.
society: equality under the law and religious freedom. Americans,
including New York legislators, find it difficult to resist a claim to
the same rights as other citizens. At the same time, we are far more
ready than, say, Europeans, to carve out exemptions on religious
grounds, and once these were hammered into acceptable form in Albany, the necessary votes were there.

as susceptible as we are to religious exemptions, we take a dim view of
religious impositions. And here, Catholic hierarchs need to grasp that
their “secular”–i.e. natural law–arguments against SSM aren’t merely
unpersuasive, they’re not considered secular. Bishops can argue till
they’re blue in the face that one-man-one-woman marriage is the Way of
Nature. The public considers the source and concludes that this is
simply religious special pleading.

I am not unmindful of the
challenge faced by religious leaders opposed to the incoming tide of SSM
in American society. Same-sex couples are going to be showing up all
over the place, wanting to belong to your churches and synagogues and
mosques, expecting to send their children to your schools, and having no
patience with your telling them that their relationships are immoral.
But if you’ve got to make the case, make it on your own doctrinal terms.
And spare the hyperbole and incivility.

That’s been the approach
of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who since 2004 has had to operate
his archdiocese with SSM as the law of the land. Even as he has defended the church’s position on marriage, he has made it clear that he wants “all baptized Catholics to come to Mass and be part of our community,” and has established a policy
that his parochial schools must not  “discriminate or exclude any
categories of students.” He also does not refer to same-sex marriage as
same-sex “marriage.” The Catholic Church declines to recognize civil
divorce. Should it therefore refer to your previously married spouse as
your “wife” or “husband”?