WASHINGTON -- Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, accepting blame for confusion over the Catholic Church's position against benefits for same-sex couples, said yesterday that the church has failed to explain clearly how it balances what he says is a love for gay people with an opposition to same-sex unions.
In an interview at a meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which today is scheduled to vote on a new statement attempting to clarify the church's teachings on marriage, O'Malley, archbishop of Boston since July 30, acknowledged that the church's position has been poorly explained in Massachusetts, where the Supreme Judicial Court is preparing to rule on a request to legalize same-sex marriage.
"We have failed to perhaps articulate our doctrine clear enough," he said. "We want homosexuals to be part of the community, but we can't change the Ten Commandments for them."
The issue of same-sex marriage has over the last year become a hot topic of debate in the worlds of American civic and religious life. In Massachusetts, the Legislature is discussing whether to legalize domestic partnerships or civil unions; some Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, and Reform Jewish congregations are blessing same-sex relationships, and several religious denominations are debating following suit.
But the Massachusetts Catholic bishops have struggled to explain their position, particularly on the question of marriage-like benefits for same-sex couples and their children. Most recently, Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reillytold the state Legislature that the bishops were open to discussing "who should be eligible beyond spouses." When the news media suggested Reilly's comments might reflect a new openness to gays and lesbians, the bishops said they were misinterpreted.
"We have to try and articulate better what it is that the church teaches," O'Malley said yesterday. "Some people think that our teachings are just a veiled bigotry against women or against homosexuals, but that's not what it is. If we were better at getting the message across, we're not going to convince everybody but I hope that they'll see that it's not stupidity. This is a part of our faith, this is part of something that we believe. It's the way that we follow God's law."
The church teaches that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." And the church has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to same-sex marriage as Canada and several European nations have moved toward sanctioning such relationships. In June the Vatican issued a document, approved by Pope John Paul II, that declared: "Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity."
In the draft statement to be debated by the bishops today, the bishops' conference says that married couples are entitled to benefits not given to other couples because marriage promotes family and contributes to the well-being of society. But, the bishops said, "some benefits currently sought by persons in homosexual unions can already be obtained without regard to marital status. For example, individuals can agree to own property jointly with one another, and can generally designate anyone they choose to be a beneficiary of their will or to make health care decisions in case they become incompetent."
The bishops are hoping their statement will be printed in a small brochure for distribution to Catholics around the nation.
"We have done so, first and foremost, to help our Catholic people participate in the current social debate about marriage," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga., who led the writing of the statement.
O'Malley said gays and lesbians should be entitled to the same kinds of benefits that might accompany the relationship between an adult child and his or her mother or siblings.
"As long as those rights are not extended because of the sexual relationship -- if these are individual rights that are being granted, that would be a different issue, but I think that's what caused the confusion in Massachusetts," he said. "We don't feel as though there should be rights revolving around that relationship, but some of the things people are asking for can be achieved in other ways."
O'Malley said "the church is there to try and help people and love people who make mistakes," but that the Sixth Commandment, which bars adultery, applies to homosexual sex.
"Many people in disagreement with the church may be following a certain conscience -- an erroneous conscience -- but they are doing violence to their own nature, because we believe that the lawgiver and the giver of our human nature are the same," O'Malley said. "Not to follow God's law introduces chaos into our own personal lives and into the lives of those around us."
Also during the interview, O'Malley said that he has agreed to meet with leaders of Voice of the Faithful next week, but that he has not decided whether to remove a ban that prohibits chapters of the organization formed after last October from meeting on church property. He said that Catholic Charities has been accepting money from Voice of the Faithful, and that he has not objected to such contributions, but that he has not decided how he would respond if the money were offered directly to the archdiocese.
O'Malley also said he is trying to revitalize existing church bodies that are supposed to provide a voice for lay people and priests, the archdiocesan pastoral council, and the presbyteral council. He said he will ask priests to elect representatives, on a geographic basis, to the presbyteral council; he said he is still reviewing suggestions about how best to organize the pastoral council, which represents lay people.
During the bishops' meeting yesterday, O'Malley was narrowly defeated in an election to become chairman of the bishops' committee on migration, a post from which he hoped to improve the climate for immigrants in the United States.
Also yesterday, officials of the National Review Board said they plan on Feb. 27 to release their much-anticipated study of the scope of sexual abuse by priests. In the study, which is being conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the church plans to disclose the number of incidents, offenders, and victims of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in the United States between 1950 and 2002.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.