The Bishop vs. The Grassroots

by: Adam Bink

Thu Oct 22, 2009 at 10:15

This is part of a series of on-the-ground coverage with the No On 1 campaign in Maine, generously funded in part by you and with the support of the New Organizing Institute's National LGBT Blogger and Citizen Journalist Initiative. For other posts in this series, click here.

Since I've arrived in Maine, I've spent a good deal of time exploring people of faith, their reaction to same-sex marriage, and involvement in the No on 1 campaign. I wrote previously about Bishop Gene Robinson and his framing of religion and same-sex marriage here, and about supportive religious communities here.

Today I want to talk about the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese here, his involvement in the issue- which has become something of a flashpoint here in Maine- and the backlash and response to it in the grassroots.

Full story on the flip.

Adam Bink :: The Bishop vs. The Grassroots
First, let me give a little overview of the demographics. Maine is a state of about 1.3 million people, approximately 198,000 of which are Catholics, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Everyone up here tells me there are "two Maines", but it's not just split in terms of political ideology, but also in terms of Catholicism. French Catholics are concentrated in St. John River Valley, Lewiston-Auburn, Livermore Falls- where Franco-Americans came into Maine and worked in mill towns. Those are all in the less populated areas of the state. In Portland, the state's largest population center, it's a mix of Irish/Italian/Polish Catholics, who are all more culturally Catholic (or what some would call cafeteria Catholics, twice-a-year Catholics), compared to northern Maine, where religious piety is stronger. A number of people active in the Catholic community to whom I spoke up here acknowledged the Gallup statistic that Maine is the third-least religious state in the country as consistent with their experience, but added that even for those who do respond that religion is an important part of their lives, many of them are culturally, liberally Catholic. They are not monolithically pious people who take the Bishop's word as Gospel.

That cultural difference helped serve as a flashpoint for what has happened with the Church. In May and June, Bishop Richard Malone ordered the parishes in Maine to print handouts and distribute them in the church bulletins for six straight Sundays- each discussing a different aspect of how marriage equality would destroy Maine. The Bishop also ordered parish priests to give a homily about the topic, and ordered that a second collection be taken up to pay for television ads. For those who are unfamiliar, a collection is taken up weekly to pay for the activities of the Church, and a small percentage goes to the Diocese. A second collection is sometimes taken up for special occasions, such as to help the needy, support troops overseas, Katrina victims, etc. For a second collection to be taken up for a political occasion, was, according to many longtime active Maine Catholics to whom I spoke, unheard of. Then the Bishop produced a DVD and ordered priests to screen it during Sunday services. This absolutely sent people off the rails.

The DVD move, according to many, was crossing the line, both in terms of the reaction from rank-and-file Catholics as well as from priests. I've heard stories of priests standing up, flatly announcing the Bishop ordered the following DVD be screened, and then sitting down. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. In terms of the rank-and-file, many saw it as taking the Church into the political realm far more than it should be. As Ann Underwood with Catholics for Marriage Equality told me, "when the Bishop is stating that Catholics should oppose marriage equality, he is stating his political opinion. It is not an opinion of the Church. He is using his position to propagate a political opinion, and that really got to people." That's accentuated by the fact that the church bulletin leaflets the Bishop ordered placed were entirely devoid of religious teachings, and sounded straight out of Stand for Marriage Maine's talking points (unsurprising, considering the leader of SFMM is Marc Mutty, who is on leave as public affairs director at the Diocese). Two examples are here and here.

Much of the pushback is in the form of Catholics for Marriage Equality, a group which has sprung up in response to the Bishop's moves, and which Jesse Connolly, the No On 1 campaign manager, mentioned on Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night as leading the pushback.

I talked with Ann yesterday, a co-founder of the group, about their tactics.

Q: Tell me about Catholics for Marriage Equality and what they're doing here in Maine.

A: Catholics for Marriage Equality started on Labor Day. We had two reasons for starting: one was to give hope to people who are angry and hurt because of the Bishop's determination to overturn same-sex marriage for couples in Maine, as well as people who are Catholics, but also GLBT or parents/grandparents/siblings of GLBT people, who say "how can a  Church who stands for justice do something terribly hurtful?" The second reason we formed is to disseminate information which is both truthful and respectful stating why Catholics can oppose the Bishop's opinion on same-sex marriage, why they do not have a duty to do what the Church hierarchy says they want to have done on this issue. There is so much in Catholic social teachings that says one must form one's own conscience on an issue, and with prayerful discernment, and so we wanted people to have information on which they could educate themselves and make prayerful discernment. The Church has a right under canon law and civil law to restrict information that is given out on its premises, and regrettably they've chosen to do that. Opinions counter to the Bishop's are not being permitted. So practicing Catholics and members of the community have no way of understanding what blogs, websites, articles, people they could go to seek information that would give them the ability to form an educated opinion as to how they should vote on same-sex marriage in Maine.

Q: To that end, what have you done in terms of outreach?

A: What we've done in terms of outreach has been primarily by word of mouth and online because we can't get into church publications or on church property. Last May/June, in every church bulletin in every parish for six Sundays, the Diocese printed very glossy, attractive sheets of paper that each week would address one topic on same-sex marriage the Bishop wanted to call attention to. One week was how parental rights would be harmed, another week was how religious liberty would be harmed. So people had to read those, and may were immediately saying, 'how do we respond to this?' So in August I sat down and wrote brief responses to each of those statements or arguments by the Bishop and we printed those up. We have them in hardcopy and obviously most successfully online at C4ME was part of the two rallies that the interfaith community held in Portland and Bangor on Sunday. We were part of the sponsorship of Bishop Gene Robinson this past Thursday. We have people from Kittery all the way up to Houlton that have signed an online petition that is a statement of conscience, online, saying that as faithful Catholics, we do not support the kind of hatred that we feel is being displayed in the way they are framing their opposition to same-sex marriage. We point out that Catholics in America are people who have traditionally been on the outside, who have been marginalized, who know what it's like to have the body politic of a dominant group casting aspersions, and how can we now be doing the same thing that's unconscionable? In this Sunday's Portland Press Herald, we took out advertising space to print a declaration of conscience (Adam: you can view it here) that 128 relatively prominent Maine Catholics signed saying that we regret the Diocese has chosen to take energy and financial resources and put them into a campaign at a time that there is so much need for the Diocese to be addressing homelessness, food banks, etc.

Q: Has the Church responded to your efforts? Have they made any statements?

A: The Church has had no direct response to our efforts, no. I think periodically Marc Mutty seeks to reassure people that it's a very small group of Catholics that feel this way. The Bishop spoke at the Yes rally in August at the end of September said there was a small group of dissidents called C4ME, but then tried to make sure people understood we were small.

Q: What kind of response have you had from both Catholics who may be favorable to your message as well as rank-and-file Catholics who may be less favorable?

To be honest, I haven't heard anything from anybody that hasn't been favorable. I get so much enthusiasm, especially from younger Catholics, who are the face of the Church we'd all like to see, the face of the Church of a God of expansive and not exclusionary love. One of the things that's struck me in this campaign is when the Bishop did his six statements, he never cited Scripture. He never talked about Jesus. He never talked about God. He never talked about love, justice, fairness and compassion. He had a strict political message. And what we've been trying to do with our buttons is say God is love. We're speaking out of our tradition and out of the Gospels and speaking about love, not a political action. My experience with the people I've been talking with and the stories I was hearing, I thought I would be doing something political. I really feel I'm doing something more pastoral, and listening to people's stories, hurt, and hope.

In addition to the rallies and advertising Ann mentioned, C4ME also asked people to put notes instead of money in the plate for the second collection and walk out on "DVD Sunday", in addition to the usual bumper stickers and buttons. They also have responded to the Church in the traditional press (examples here and here), placed this op-ed in the Lewiston paper, and the same ad in the Portland Press Herald is being run this Sunday in the Bangor Daily News.

The No On 1 campaign itself has also pushed back on TV, with this ad. The mother self-identifies as "a Catholic all my life", and has got an accent that everyone can recognize as being from Lewiston, a very Catholic town in Maine.

The emergence of a Catholic backlash to the Bishop over the issue is great, and as I wrote the other day, also helps in another way. Many GLBT individuals have an automatic association with Catholicism as being negative for GLBT equality. Institutionally, it's true. The emergence of a grassroots rebuttal to that is encouraging. My hope is that in other states, a similar pushback begins even prior to direct actions the Diocese might undertake.

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it sure would be nice if the IRS got involved (4.00 / 2)
i am sick and tired of churches getting involved in politics and paying no penalty for it. i don't know exactly how the laws work, but it seems to me in this case the Bishop has gone too far, and the tax exempt status of his churches should be reexamined. i hate the fact that the republicans are perfectly willing to do this with peacenik churches that oppose the wars, but when democrats are in charge, they sit meekly back and do nothing about blatant politicking by right leaning churches. it's pathetic and stupid strategy.

i'm an atheist, and i'm sorry to say it, but the pro-equality catholics remind me why. it must be really hard, sometimes, to continue to defend a church that so obviously doesn't give a rat's ass about your (correct from the view of Christ) views and opinions. blah blah, "the church does so much good," but in the end, it's the hypocrisy that stands out, when i think about the catholic church. i feel the same way about most protestant orgs. really, why anyone would take the opinions of catholic church leaders seriously is beyond me. esp on matters of sex.  

Re (0.00 / 0)
I don't think pro-equality catholics are "defending" the church; they're trying to eradicate bigotry and hate from within.  Any criticism of pro-equality catholics is misguided and counterproductive.


[ Parent ]
"any" criticism? (0.00 / 0)
sorry, Perry. that's not a formulation i can accept. you may not like what atheists like me have to say about liberal believers and their relationships with their religious organizations, but that won't stop me from saying them.

at some point, "guilt by association" does matter. esp when that association includes giving weekly donations to the organization fighting for the oppression you claim to oppose. i'm sorry if that's too blunt for you to hear. but there's a reason why i don't give money to NPR or the DSCC anymore, doing the same shouldn't be too hard for Catholic believers who claim to want more liberal values and practices in their church.

personally, any organization that won't allow women to the highest levels of authority within it just because they have vaginas is indefensible to me, by definition. i know how important faith can be to some people, but it's often the case that such attachments are illogical and counterproductive, on a personal level, even.  and anyway, if i had been part of an organization that covered up a decades long endemic of pederasty and rape on the part of its members, my atheist moral value system would've required me to leave that organization, immediately upon finding out about that. but that's just me.  

[ Parent ]
Re (0.00 / 0)
Your aggrandized "atheist moral value system" has made you as blind as the Pope.

My point was that pro-equality catholics are not defending the church, nor not passively associating with the it.  They're trying to make change from within, something any activist can empathize with.  Get over your own personal hang-ups and cut them some slack.  Hate and bitterness shouldn't be an atheist moral value.

[ Parent ]
I don't know if you're familiar with the Berrigan brothers, (0.00 / 0)
you can read about them here:

When asked why he stayed with the Church, Daniel allegedly said, "the Church is a whore, but she is my mother." Like you say, it's illogical, but to some people the relationship is like that. You can see everything wrong with something and love it still.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Weird boomerang (0.00 / 0)
Priest sex scandals have cost the Catholic Church $1 billion and Malone seems to have taken a pretty hard line, or been forced to.  He sermonized this year about a priest in Maine who died in 1962 and transgressed between 1936 and 1949 removing the Maine's name from various church records and plaques, etc.

Boston was the epicenter of the US part of this international problem.  

Malone is so out of line with usual behavior that something set him off.   I suspect he misguidedly confuses or conflated gay marriage with the scandals.  Whether this is about guilt, about doing the right thing or about all the money paid out to victims, who knows.  My first thought (I'm ashamed to say), is that it is about the money.  That Malone sees the costs "destroying" the Church and is lashing back.

Anybody else have the same thought?  I was reluctant to be the first to post it.

I think he's just another closet case (4.00 / 2)
projecting his self-hatred out onto other people. He ruined his own life, why shouldn't he ruin theirs?

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]

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