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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

New bishop, old viewpoint


Social change cannot be shifted into reverse by fiat, even by papal fiat.

The march toward equal rights for gay and lesbian couples will not stop for religious leaders of any denomination who exercise narrow selectivity in their embrace of social justice.

In New Hampshire, a gay priest has been elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a reflection of greater societal acceptance of homosexuality even as the church debates his confirmation. In Boston, an intolerant friar today will be elevated to archbishop, a commentary on the homophobia that still pervades the Roman Catholic Church.

It was three years ago that then-Fall River Bishop Sean O'Malley, now archbishop-designate of Boston, rescinded an invitation to the chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court because she had the temerity to applaud a Vermont law recognizing same-sex civil unions.

Chief Justice Suzanne V. DelVecchio had been asked in October 2000 to deliver the dinner speech following the annual Red Mass offered for the legal profession by O'Malley. The invitation was rescinded when the bishop heard of her remarks to the Massachusetts Lesbian & Gay Bar Association. The bishop, she was told, would not feel comfortable sitting at the same table with her. He did not, however, respect the chief justice's request to tell diners why she was not in attendance. Instead, organizers announced that ''circumstances beyond her control'' kept DelVecchio from the event.

A conservative prelate who shares the doctrinaire views of the ailing pontiff, O'Malley can be expected to hew to the Vatican directive to be issued tomorrow, instructing bishops and Catholic politicians to fight worldwide efforts to recognize same-sex marriages.

Judges will determine the outcome of that struggle on constitutional grounds. Religious leaders are, and should be, part of the debate but to suggest, as Pope John Paul II has, that Catholic policymakers be bound by the Vatican's view is to misconstrue the relationship between religion and politics in a secular society. It is certainly reasonable for the pope to instruct Catholics that he finds no theological defense for gay marriage. It is quite another for him to order Catholic policymakers to work to defeat what more and more people accept as a fundamental civil right.

There is a hint of desperation in release of the 12-page document, titled ''Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.'' This debate already has outpaced the church. In addition to Vermont's recognition, two Canadian provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, have legalized gay marriage.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule soon in Goodridge et al v. Department of Public Health, a lawsuit filed on behalf of seven same-sex couples who have argued that denying them the right to marry violates the state constitution's protection of liberty and due process. If the SJC agrees with the plaintiffs, are Catholic politicians supposed to blockade the town clerk's office when a gay couple seeks to marry, as some zealots now block the doors of reproductive health clinics to prevent women from accessing their constitutional right to abortion?

Social change is seldom smooth. Public opinion does not shift suddenly; it evolves. A Boston Globe and WBZ-TV poll in April found 50 percent of Massachusetts residents in favor of gay marriage and 44 percent opposed.

Ultimately, the law, not bigoted theology or narrow public opinion, will determine whether the courts recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry. A majority of voters had doubts about interracial marriage on June 12, 1967, when the US Supreme Court declared the miscegenation laws in Virginia and 15 other states unconstitutional.

The Republic, and the American family, survived.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara @

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/30/2003.
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