WAYLAND -- Wading into the public debate over same-sex marriage, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday told a group of religious leaders that "any redefinition of marriage must be seen as an attack on the common good" and a threat to the American family already under siege because of divorce.
The archbishop, in his first extensive remarks on the issue since he was installed as head of the Boston Archdiocese in July, urged "all the members of our community, regardless of their religious persuasion or their sexual orientation, to realize what is at stake and to oppose any attempt to alter the definition of marriage."
"Any redefinition of marriage must be seen as an attack on the common good," he said. "The weakening of the institution of marriage has already had too high a social cost. Radically redefining marriage will simply serve to intensify the assault on marriage and the American family."
O'Malley was given a standing ovation by his audience, a group of 100 religious leaders at a conference called "The Summit of October to Save Marriage," organized by the Massachusetts Family Institute. The Newton-based group, formed in 1991 to promote the traditional family and Judeo-Christian values, has fought for a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman and thereby exclude same-sex relationships.
The summit was called by the institute's president, the Rev. Ronald A. Crews, in response to much recent activity on both sides of the gay marriage debate.
In June, the US Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in Texas, and a court in the Canadian province of Ontario recognized the right of gays and lesbians to marry. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is currently considering whether to grant marriage licenses to gay couples.
This fall, opponents of same-sex marriage will redouble their efforts to win the state constitutional amendment, which would invalidate any court decision approving marriage for gays.
O'Malley, whose first months as archbishop have been consumed with settling the claims of hundreds who say they were sexually abused by priests, was vehement in yesterday's speech that neither the church nor the government should tamper with the institution of marriage.
"Marriage is not a creation of the state or of the church, and neither has the legitimate authority to change its nature," he said. "As for Catholics, the same catechism that demands that people of homosexual orientation should be treated with every respect and with compassion and [that] their rights should be defended, also defends the unchangeable nature of marriage."
O'Malley said that the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" teaches that gays and lesbians should be treated with acceptance and respect, but he argued that extending that acceptance to allow for their marriage would worsen the breakdown of the American family and exacerbate the problems of poverty, child abuse, and human suffering already wrought by "widespread cohabitation and galloping divorce rates."
While the preferences of homosexuals should be respected, those preferences should not automatically be considered rights, he said.
"The concerted campaign of Hollywood and TV to reshape public opinion into accepting same-sex marriages has been a great disservice to the American people," he said. "One of the reasons for the social fabric coming unraveled is that we have placed an exaggerated emphasis on the preferences and conveniences of individuals, elevating these personal preferences to the level of rights and entitlements, to the detriment of society."
He said that opponents of same-sex marriage have been unfairly dismissed as intolerant, and he encouraged opponents of same-sex marriage to stand firm in the face of that criticism.
"We are part of a pluralistic society and in no way pretend to force our religious preferences on other people," O'Malley said. "But neither can we be intimidated by those who see our defense of the common good as simply mean-spirited, narrow-minded, or intolerant of other people's rights. The rights of children and indeed of the community demand that we support family life by protecting the definition of marriage."
His audience applauded him loudly for that comment.
On a patch of grass outside the meeting at Celebration International Church in Wayland, a Pentecostal congregation that is a member of the Assemblies of God, a group of two-dozen religious leaders stood in silent protest, holding signs that read, "Separate your church from the state," "My daughter's family deserves equal protection," and "Love is love."
"This conference doesn't speak for all people of faith and certainly not for all people of this community," said the Rev. Erin Splaine, a Unitarian Universalist minister at the First Parish church, in Wayland. "We're saddened to be here today. It's really important to put a religious face on all sides of this, and not let one side claim this as their moral prerogative. Whether you wrap bigotry in the veneer of faith, it's still bigotry."
In a telephone interview, Marianne Duddy -- a member of DignityUSA, a national organization of gay and lesbian Catholics -- bristled at O'Malley's assertion that same-sex marriage threatens the American family.
"If the church wants to support marriages, there are lots of positive ways it could do that: by providing support for couples, for their children, helping couples in crisis, helping better with marriage preparation," Duddy said. "There's no evidence to suggest that support for same-sex marriage weakens existing marriages in any way, shape, or form. It's nothing but empty rhetoric."
Duddy argued that O'Malley's position threatens families, asserting that withholding marriage rights from gays and lesbians subjects their families to "additional legal, financial, and emotional burdens . . . that other families don't have to contend with."
O'Malley left immediately after his speech. A few of the protesters outside the church waved at him, and, after hesitating, he gave a wave and said hello before leaving.