Signs of the Times

Boston Archbishop Calls Same-Sex Decision Alarming’

Reacting to a decision by Massachusetts’ highest court to overturn a ban on same-sex marriages, Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley of Boston called it alarming and said he hopes the state’s legislators will have the courage and common sense to redress this situation for the good of society. The Boston archbishop’s statement followed a ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court on Nov. 18 in the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

In a separate statement, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference said the decision defies reason and was a rejection of an understanding of marriage tested over thousands of years and accepted nearly everywhere as the key to a stable society. The agency representing Massachusetts’ Catholic bishops said the decision must be reversed.


We urge the state Legislature to send the Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment Act to the 2006 ballot, the Catholic conference statement said. Thus the people of Massachusetts can reaffirm marriage as the union between one man and one woman, overriding the court’s misguided decision in furtherance of sound public policy. The earliest possible date for a vote on the measure by Massachusetts citizens would be 2006.

In its 4-to-3 decision, the court said that barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution. The court stayed the opinion for 180 days to permit the Legislature to take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion.

Calling marriage a vital social institution that both provides an abundance of legal, financial and social benefits and imposes weighty legal, financial and social obligations, the majority opinion, by Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, said the Massachusetts Constitution forbids the creation of second-class citizens. The commonwealth, the court said, has failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.

Each of the three dissentersJustices Francis X. Spina, Martha B. Sosman and Robert J. Cordyissued an opinion of his or her own and concurred in the dissents of the other two justices. What is at stake in this case is not the unequal treatment of individuals or whether individual rights have been impermissibly burdened, but the power of the Legislature to effectuate social change without interference from the courts, Spina wrote. Today, the court has transformed its role as protector of individual rights into the role of creator of rights.

At their just-completed fall general meeting in Washington, D.C., the U.S. bishops approved a 2,000-word teaching document on why same-sex unions should not be given the social or legal status of marriage. In September the U.S. bishops’ Administrative Committee issued a public policy statement calling for a constitutional amendment to protect the unique social and legal status of marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Protectionism, Lack of Lay Role Blamed for Church Problems

Two new polls of U.S. Catholics and lay Catholic opinion leaders direct much of the blame for the church’s sexual abuse problems at the hierarchy’s desire to protect the church’s reputation and a lack of consultation with lay people in decision-making. The polls by Zogby International released on Nov. 13 showed that despite people’s strong criticism of how the church has handled sexual abuse by priests, 49 percent of the general Catholic public rated the U.S. bishops’ overall job performance as good or excellent. Forty-eight percent rated their overall performance as fair or poor. Catholic opinion leaders were more critical of the bishops: 32 percent rated the bishops’ job performance as good or excellent; 67 percent described it as fair or poor.

In both polls, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said the U.S. bishops do best at representing the position of the Vatican on matters of church doctrine. Fewer than half in both polls said they do a good job of listening to the needs and concerns of American Catholics and parish priests or of representing those needs and concerns to the Vatican.

The polls were commissioned by Geoffrey T. Boisi, former chairman of the board of trustees of Boston College and a member of the Papal Foundation. He chaired a meeting in Washington, D.C., in July at which several bishops and a panel of 32 prominent Catholics discussed the state of the church and how they can help it move forward.

Among the polls’ findings were:

Asked to rate the importance of several factors related to the church’s sexual abuse scandal, 82 percent of the lay leaders and 69 percent of the general Catholic population said a desire to protect the church’s reputation or shield the laity from scandal was among the most important factors. The second most frequently cited factor was that decisions about abuse allegations, treatment and reassignment were made by clergy alone, without lay involvement. This was cited by 76 percent of the leaders and 69 percent of the public.

On questions about ways of improving the church, 84 percent of the leaders said that requiring every diocese to make full disclosure of detailed financial information was among the most important. Sixty-six percent of the lay people thought that was among the most important improvement options.

Seventy-six percent of lay people ranked greater participation by the laity on boards to assist in resolving diocesan and parish problems as among the most important steps. Among the leadership group, 83 percent agreed that was among the most important steps to take.

The studies were intended to serve as a factual base for a privately funded forum of prominent Catholics from around the country to be held late in the winter of 2004, according to participants in a panel discussion at the Ethics and Public Policy Center on Nov. 13, at which the polls were released.

Two of the panelists, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, outgoing president of Catholic Charities USA, and Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said they were surprised that the number of people who said the bishops are doing a good job was as high as it was.

Professor Wolfe said he thinks the generally negative responses to questions about how the bishops handle various aspects of their job are a sign of loyalty [to the church], not apathy. There is clearly a very deep problem in the church, he said. There’s no denying that. But American Catholics are looking for a way not to leave their church, but to strengthen communication.

Indian Church Leaders Support More Local Power in Church

An Indian cardinal’s call for greater power for bishops’ conferences and a decentralization of papal authority drew support from Indian church leaders. Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly told an Indian archdiocesan biweekly on Nov. 10 that the Indian church has been forced to depend on the Roman Curia for too many matters.

In the interview, Cardinal Vithayathil said the greatest weakness of the Catholic Church is the way papal authority is exercised without the participation of those concerned, which he said was in contrast to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Greater collegiality and consultations among bishops and priests regarding church matters are needed, he said.

Archbishop Cyril Malancharuvil of Trivandrum, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said he agreed that bishops’ conferences should be given more power to strengthen the local church. He said decentralization does not mean division, but a more united, participatory church.

News Briefs

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel, gave its Righteous Among the Nations award to Cardinal Joseph Höffner of Cologne, who was president of the German bishops’ conference from 1976 until his death in 1987. The medal was conferred posthumously on Cardinal Höffner and his sister, Helene Hesseler-Höffner, for secretly sheltering Esther Sara Meyerowitz, a 7-year-old Jewish girl, under a false name at their parish in Kiel.

The German bishops’ conference reported a decrease of 200,000 in the number of Germans who officially declared themselves to be Catholics between 2001 and 2002. It also said that 15 percent of German Catholics attend church.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s nuncio to the United Nations, said rights were intrinsic to human nature and religious freedom lay at the foundation of the edifice of human rights because it affects the primordial relationship of the human being with the Creator. Speaking at U.N. headquarters in New York, he said freedom to profess religious faith was necessary to a right social order.

The House-Senate conference committee negotiating the foreign operations appropriations bill should fund programs to help the world’s poor at the maximum possible levels, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy and the executive director of Catholic Relief Services told members of Congress. In a letter dated Nov. 10, Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., who is chairman of the international policy committee, and Ken Hackett of C.R.S., urged the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to fight for higher funding for programs to combat infectious diseases including H.I.V./AIDS and for the Millennium Challenge Account.

The Archdiocese of Washington on Nov. 7 issued statistics on clergy sexual abuse, reporting that over the past 56 years, 27 out of 1,056 priests serving in the archdiocese have been accused of sexual misconduct, one of whom was exonerated. That figure represents about 2.5 percent of the total number of Washington priests in the past half-century.

Pope John Paul II criticized Israel’s building of a wall to keep out Palestinians, and he called for a global movement against terrorism following deadly attacks in Iraq and Turkey.

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