I apologize for this past period of silence; however, I have been very busy lately. I have been occupied with an exciting new project, but more on that later. Last evening I had the privilege of speaking at Loyola Marymount here in Los Angeles. I was invited to speak on the First Amendment and how it applied in my situation with the Catholic hierarchy and Prop 8.
I began by speaking of my “back-story” with the First Amendment. My maternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew. He stowed away on a ship from Spain to Cuba at the beginning of the last century. Half way across the Atlantic Ocean he was discovered by the crew of the ship. They were going to take him back to Spain to face imprisonment for stowing away. Fortunately, there was a passenger on the ship who knew my grandfather’s family and they paid for his passage. When the ship docked in Havana my grandfather found a job working at a dry cleaning establishment. Eventually, he ended up owning the dry cleaning shop.
Several decades later the Communists came to power in Cuba and declared a policy of state atheism. Up until this point my grandfather had never been an observant Jew, but now he began attending synagogue services. He got into a heated discussion with the state authorities over this matter. He said to them: “This is why we left Europe!” For such a response, he was taken to the police station and beaten up. He was sixty-five years old and suffered a fatal heart attack as a result of his beating. My own parents were political liberal in Cuba and opposed to the dictatorship of Batista. They wanted a democratically elected government in which there was legal due process.
I recall coming home one day from school and walking into the kitchen. My mother was busy preparing dinner. I asked her “Mom, why am I the only kid in the forth grade who doesn’t have grandparents?” I remember vividly mom setting down the knife and carrots and sitting me down at the kitchen table. Honey, she said, you do have grandparents, but your father and I left everyone and everything behind in Cuba so that you and your brother could be free.
Decades later my bishop compared the No on Prop 8 people to Nazis, Stalinist Russians and Maoist who would brainwash children. The bishop also asked pastors to promote parishioners to vote “yes” on Prop 8. I simply could not “go along to get along.” Like most priests I simply decided to be silent on the matter; however, that changed for me when I was asked at a staff meeting by parishioners to make a statement of clarification. The university community, which I served, was very progressive and many of them were both offended and confused by the bishop’s statement. Additionally, as someone engaged in pastoral service I knew first hand the painful stories and the real human cost of bigotry. In conscience, I could not become an instrument and an accomplice to such bigotry.
A priest who served on last evening’s panel pointed out that I had made a promise of obedience to the bishop and his successors. He suggested that I should not have spoken out against the bishop on this matter and that I should have simply waited for history to correct things. Here, I must respectfully and forcefully disagree with my brother priest. Thomas Aquinas pointedly stated that we must follow our conscience “even if it means excommunication,” because it is our conscience which will defend or accuse us at the end of life. For me not to have given guidance to those entrusted to my care, especially when they specifically requested such guidance would have been for me to fail them. For me to say something to them that I believed to be wrong and hurtful would have been for me to fail God and my community. To wait for history to correct things is essentially to wait for someone else to correct injustice and worse, it is to become an accomplice to that injustice. I think God expects more of us than that, I think the victims of injustice certainly do.
Are the Catholic bishops protected by the First Amendment to say whatever they wish? Yes. Religious leaders should be able to teach moral principles, form values and hopefully empower their congregants to be able to make autonomous personal moral decisions. It is quite another thing; however, to dictate to congregants “vote yes on Prop 8.” What happened in Maine was even more egregious, there the bishop required priests to give a series of sermons directing parishioners specifically how to vote on Question 1.
This goes far beyond First Amendment protections of free speech. This is a “Church” which is operating as a PAC (political action committee) while enjoying non-profit tax exemption. I was a toddler when John F. Kennedy had to explain on national television that if he were elected President that the Pope would not run the United States. Today another Kennedy is being threatened by his bishop with excommunication if he doesn’t vote in certain ways in the US Congress. The implications of the Catholic hierarchy’s misbehavior in these matters are far reaching. They would do well to take a lesson from the Cardinal Patriarch of the Church in Portugal. The government there was considering legislation that would make legal same sex marriage. The Vatican put pressure on the Cardinal to use his influence to affect civil legislation. The Cardinal did not, citing that it was a matter of civil law.
The reality is that the United States of America is a secular nation and that its population is diverse. We are a pluralistic society. Our civil society works because we respect other people’s right to think, act and believe differently than ourselves. If the hierarchy of the Catholic Church wishes to offer a contrarian view, I defend their freedom of speech. They do not however speak for all Catholics, or even for a majority of Catholics on a host of issues. In theology this is called the “sensus fidei” it means “the instinctive sensitivity and power of discernment that the members of the church collectively possess in matters of faith and morals.”
This is what I have been busy with and the reason for my silence these past several weeks. I was in Washington DC attending meetings with representatives of various Catholic organizations and theologians who are organizing into a voice for the laity, clergy and religious of our Church. Catholics for Equality will be an organization that will give a public voice to the vast members of our Church who do not share all of the bishop’s political or theological positions.