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EILEEN MCNAMARA

Time to hear whole flock

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has asked Catholics to face the reality that declining attendance will force him to shutter scores of the 357 churches in the Boston Archdiocese, but he has not asked himself to confront the reason so many of those pews are empty.

It is easier to blame "changing demographics" than clueless leadership for the exodus, but willful blindness will not stop the hemorrhaging. It will accelerate it.

The chancery only recently acknowledged what parishioners have long known, that the sexual abuse scandal precipitated a dramatic drop in church attendance among the 2 million Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese. Five of every six area Catholics stay home from Mass in any given week. The hierarchy has not begun, however, to calculate the fresh round of losses being triggered by its precipitous church closing process and its aggressive campaign against same-sex couples.

Those men and women who walked out in the middle of Mass in churches all over Greater Boston a few weeks ago were not just same-sex couples, offended by pronouncements from the pulpit that gay unions represent an urgent threat to civilization. They were the mothers of gay sons, the fathers of lesbian daughters, the friends and neighbors of men and women who enrich, rather than threaten, their lives. They aren't coming back anytime soon.

Even Catholics who share the bishops' opposition to gay marriage could not help but cringe at the vehemence of the characterization of same-sex unions as a danger to children, the subject of child protection being something less than an area of clerical expertise.

Most exasperating of all for gay Catholics has been the failure of O'Malley or any of his minions to reach out to discuss the issue with them. O'Malley has, in fact, ignored a request from gay Catholic activists to sit down and talk. The invitation was contained in a letter hand-delivered to O'Malley on the January day he and the state's other bishops (one of whom is under criminal investigation of child rape) announced their intention to spare no effort to defeat gay marriage. The archbishop has not even acknowledged the letter that Chuck Colbert gave him on behalf of himself and Larry Kessler, Charles Connors, Charles Martel, M.J. Knoll, Chris Finn, and Don Twomey.

"What concerns, if not alarms, us most is the increasingly harsh tone and tenor -- the language -- used to talk about us and our lives vis-a-vis the question of marriage and the family," Colbert wrote. "On a more personal level we wish to share with you our perspectives on how the harsh public discourse and the local Church's leadership role in it has affected our lives and faith. We believe it is important for you in pastoral ministry and shepherding to hear from us in person."

O'Malley is reluctant to meet with the group because Colbert writes for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent publication that has endorsed civil marriage for same-sex couples, said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese. Beyond concern that Colbert might disclose the content of their discussions, Coyne said, he wasn't sure there was any point in meeting with gay people "who are not really active Catholics."

"I mean, to meet with them to what end, really?" he said.

Asked whether O'Malley had sought out an alternative group of gay Catholics with whom to discuss same-sex marriage -- he lives in the South End, the largest gay enclave in Eastern Massachusetts -- Coyne said he was unaware of any such outreach.

Colbert, a graduate of Notre Dame and Georgetown University, is scheduled to deliver the first reading at the 12:15 p.m. Mass today at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, from which he earned a master of divinity degree in 2002. Just how Catholic does a gay Catholic have to be to get a hearing on Lake Street?

Eileen McNamara is a Globe

columnist. She can be reached

at mcnamara@globe.com.

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