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Bishops SJC decision 'tragedy'

The state's Catholic bishops are calling for church members to mobilize against the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling allowing gay marriage and demanding a strict definition of marriage in a letter being read at Catholic services across Massachusetts this weekend.

"We hope that all citizens will come to recognize what is at stake and work to ensure that marriage as the fundamental institution of society will be safeguarded," said the letter, which was signed by Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley and the bishops of the three other Massachusetts dioceses, in Worcester, Fall River, and Springfield.

Their joint statement calls the court's decision earlier this month to allow gay marriage "a national tragedy," and declares the 180-day time frame for its implementation "a sure formula for chaos" that denies citizens a fair chance to respond. It asks Catholics to contact Governor Mitt Romney and legislators to ask for more time to deal with the issue.

"Every effort must be made to extend the stay beyond the 180 days mandated by the court," the bishops wrote. "Ultimately, we advocate a constitutional amendment that reaffirms marriage as the union between one man and one woman."

At Gate of Heaven parish in South Boston yesterday, about 60 parishioners listened as the Rev. Daniel Hennessey read the statement at the start of afternoon Mass. After the service, several said they would abide by the bishops' request that they contact Romney and legislators to ask for an extension.

"Why change what's been going on for centuries?" said one older man, who declined to give his name.

The court delayed implementation of its decision for six months to give legislators time to take "appropriate" action. Debate ensued about what legislation the court intended; the stay is long enough for a law allowing civil unions to be passed, but not long enough to adopt a constitutional amendment. An amendment reserving marriage for heterosexual couples couldn't be finalized until 2006, because it would have to be approved by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then sent to the voters for ratification.

Representative Philip Travis (D-Rehobeth), a supporter of the proposed amendment, told the Associated Press that the Legislature might be constrained in the short term, saying, "Unless the court reenters the case, we can't change the time frame. That's the court's prerogative."

Other gay marriage opponents are also campaigning for a longer postponement while they pursue an amendment. Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said his staff is collaborating on strategy "almost daily" with the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, while consulting attorneys on legislative options to delay gay marriage further. He expects the bishops' call for action to bolster their cause.

It will be unfortunate if "people get a [marriage license] now, and then in two years it's not valid," Crews said. "I don't think the court wants to create a lot of confusion. We're hoping wise heads will come together."

Proponents of gay marriage expressed little surprise at the church's action, and predicted a muted response by Massachusetts Catholics.

"Once again, this issue is not about forcing any one religious tradition to perform same-sex weddings, but about respecting religious freedom, and the separation of church and state," said Valerie Fein-Zachary, chairwoman of the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts. "The archdiocese is out of touch with its own membership. We have seen in recent polling that our friends and neighbors who are Catholic support equal civil rights for their gay and lesbian neighbors, and I believe the average Catholic also values the separation of church and state."

The bishops' statement was published Friday in The Pilot, the newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, and follows a Nov. 21 editorial that also advocated a delay of the May implementation and a constitutional amendment. In their letter, the bishops argue that marriage "is not just one life-style choice among many," and that changing "the definition of marriage in the long run will seriously harm family life." But, they write, their aim is not discrimination.

"It is not the intention of the Catholic community to infringe upon the civil rights of homosexuals or anyone else," says the statement. "Our opposition . . . is to safeguard the institution of marriage for future generations."

But a spokeswoman for Dignity/Boston, a group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Catholics that holds its own worship services, said church leaders are trying to have it both ways. "Plain and simple, Catholic officials are urging continued infringement on our civil rights," said Marianne Duddy-Burke. "It's a decades-old dilemma for them -- the inherent conflict between the pastoral aspect of our church, and the doctrine."

James Post, the president and co-founder of the Catholic lay organization Voice of the Faithful, said it's difficult to predict how Catholics will respond to the call to action, and whether they will mount a grass-roots campaign against gay marriage. Focused on changing the church in the wake of the priest abuse scandal, the lay group has taken no position on gay marriage.

"My sense is that Catholics, like most people in the Commonwealth, are divided on the issue," Post said.

Globe Correspondent Jared Stearns contributed to this report.

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