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Spotlight Report

Lawmakers see shades of gray

Some see duty to abide voters, not the church

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 8/1/2003

State Senator Mark C. Montigny, a Catholic Democrat from heavily Catholic New Bedford, hasn't made up his mind yet about whether he supports same-sex marriage. But of this he is sure: The Vatican's edict declaring a vote in favor of same-sex unions ''gravely immoral'' is an outrage.

''To suggest someone voting in favor of [same-sex marriage] is gravely immoral, I'm shocked,'' said Montigny. ''I do know one thing: Abusing children is gravely immoral. We need to be a bit more tolerant. I do believe strongly in a bright line of separation between church and state, and my fellow Catholics are only part of my constituency.''

On its face, yesterday's Vatican advisory on homosexual unions left little wiggle room for Catholic politicians grappling with the issue.

''When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it,'' the directive read. ''To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.''

Catholic opponents of those unions rejoiced in the edict's sweeping certitude yesterday.

''I think it's probably the most comprehensive and emphatic and definitive statement the Vatican has yet issued,'' said C. J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts. ''The church is not only opposed to same-sex marriage, but also to civil unions, domestic partnerships, and homosexual adoptions.''

But where Doyle saw an unequivocal directive yesterday, some of the state's Catholic legislators saw shades of gray.

The Vatican is leaping over the line separating church and state, said some. The church hasn't the moral authority to make pronouncements on homosexuality given its handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, said others, Montigny among them. And even Catholic legislators opposed to same-sex marriage said they saw the edict as but one factor to consider, rather than an order that must be obeyed. Their allegiance is to their constituents, lawmakers said, and not all of those are Catholic.

The edict comes at a crucial time for the issue of same-sex unions in Massachusetts, home to 3 million Catholics.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is currently considering whether same-sex couples should be eligible for marriage licenses. In November, a special combined session of the Massachusetts House and Senate will meet to consider a constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to the union only of one man and one woman. The issue has been the subject of heated committee hearings and State House hallway debates over the past few years, and plenty of lawmakers on Beacon Hill are struggling with their positions on it.

Some Catholic legislators who oppose same-sex marriage said Catholic teachings are important to them, but not necessarily decisive as they form their political views.

''As a Catholic, I do listen to some of the things the pope says. On this particular issue we're on the same wavelength,'' said Representative Paul J. Donato, a Medford Democrat. Donato, who supports domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples, said he and the pope ''might disagree on that issue.''

Catholic legislators are accountable to their constituents, as well as to the church, they said.

''I try to live the best that I can according to some of the principles of my faith,'' said Representative Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who is Catholic and opposed to same-sex marriage. ''However, there are times when I have to make a decision that affects a broad spectrum of people that do not share my background and beliefs.''

Catholic members of the state's congressional delegation have also often veered from church positions on issues like abortion, a fact underscored by their low ratings as a group from the National Right to Life Committee. For some, same-sex marriage is another occasion when they find themselves at necessary variance with the church.

''I consider myself a Catholic -- I try to be a good one -- but also think the relationship between me and my God is between me and my God,'' said US Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, who supports same-sex unions and considers them tantamount to marriage. ''I don't follow anybody blindly, including my church.''

That church is speaking clearly now.

''I've been around a long time, and this is the strongest I've seen on this issue coming from Rome,'' said Gerry D'Avolio, lobbyist for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the church in Massachusetts. ''This is directed at Roman Catholics who are elected officials and in the public policy arena. It's one of the strongest statements, and it's excellent in terms of its clarity. There doesn't seem to be room to hold an opposite position.''

''If I were a state official right now, say a state representative and a Catholic, I don't think this is telling me to be a puppet,'' said Ron Crews, president of The Massachusetts Family Institute, which drafted the constitutional amendment to be considered by the Legislature. ''But it is telling me to take my faith very seriously.''

But the adamancy of the Vatican position could backfire, said Marianne Duddy, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics.

''I don't think it's going to have a tremendous impact, frankly, in this country,'' she said. ''I think politicians are going to resent the Vatican's sense that it has the right to tell them how to vote. ''

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2003.
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