Sunday, October 19, 2008

S.F. Catholic church walks fine line on Prop. 8

It seemed San Francisco's Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church had found the perfect balance between the teachings of the church and gay and lesbian parishioners - at least until Proposition 8, the state initiative to ban same-sex marriage, made the ballot.

Holy Redeemer bills itself as "your Catholic Church in the Castro," and says it embraces all comers "regardless of their background, gender, gender identity, race, social status, or sexual orientation."

The Rev. Donal Godfrey, who wrote a book on the church called "Gays and Grays," said roughly two-thirds of the Holy Redeemer parishioners are gay or lesbian. And not only are many of the same-sex couples married, some of their children have been baptized in the church.

So it was a shock to get an e-mail flyer from the office of San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer urging a yes vote on Prop. 8 because public schools would have to promote gay marriage.

"It is really out of right field," said Matt Dorsey, a member of the Holy Redeemer Parish Council. "I would expect this from Karl Rove, but not from the spiritual leader of (several hundred thousand) Catholics."

Why, with all the worldwide concerns - from war to starvation to genocide - the Catholic Church decided to insert itself into this debate is a mystery. But now that it has, as is so often the case, San Francisco is on the cutting edge of a cultural divide. If you'd like to visit ground zero, it can be found on Diamond Street, within the clean white walls of Most Holy Redeemer.

"I was born Patrick Mulcahey on St. Patrick's Day," said a church member who joined Holy Redeemer in 1994. "My Catholicism is as much a part of me as my fingers and my toes. We're not there to be gay. We're there to be Catholic."

Nor are they unsympathetic to Niederauer, who has generally been seen as sympathetic to gay and lesbian issues.

"I have talked to him personally many times," said Roz Gallo, who in July married her longtime partner, Catherine Cunningham, and has been a Holy Redeemer member for 21 years. "I find him to be an intellectual and reasoned man. He's in a very difficult position."

It is a tough spot, argued Dorsey, "but it is a spot of his own making."

In a perfect world, Niederauer would stand up to the church to say that he knows many gay and lesbian married couples and that their unions do not threaten anyone. But the reality is that church leaders get their marching orders from what Mulcahey calls "a fax machine in the Vatican," and taking a stand against the hierarchy is a no-win situation.

And, sure enough, a call to the archbishop's office produced no answers. A spokeswoman, who insisted that she not be quoted, said that the man who was authorized to speak to the media would be out of the office until Oct. 29, and that no one else could comment. A message left on the archbishop's voice mail was not returned.

You can hardly blame them for their caution, said Godfrey, who is the executive director of university ministry at the University of San Francisco.

"The bishops must feel pressure to go along," he said. "There aren't that many going around campaigning for (Prop. 8). I think they signed off on (the e-mail) and hoped it ends soon."

That may be true. The Catholic Bishops of California put together an extremely carefully crafted statement ( in favor of Prop. 8. Although it says "same-sex unions are not the same as opposite-sex unions," it also adds that "protecting the traditional understanding of marriage should not in any way disparage our brothers and sisters - even if they disagree with us."

Frankly, most of the parishioners at Holy Redeemer wouldn't have a problem with most of what the bishops said. Mulcahey doesn't even have an issue with Catholic officials refusing to marry same-sex couples in the church. Civil ceremonies are a perfectly good alternative, he said.

"So when I saw the archbishop had a flyer on Proposition 8, I wasn't outraged or even surprised," Mulcahey wrote in an e-mail. "Until I read that bit about how Prop. 8 secures parental rights to teach children about marriage. That was disappointing. No, saddening. No, a shock."

The exact wording of the archbishop's flyer is, "If the Supreme Court ruling stands public schools may have to teach children that there is no difference between traditional marriage and 'gay' marriage."

"What does that even mean?" Mulcahey said. "Your son could marry a boy because he doesn't know any better? It will be against the law to tell him so?"

Others wonder how the church happened to pick this issue. After all, among the proposals on the ballot is one about parental notification before an abortion. Why not take a stand on that?

"There is only one difference between us (fighting Prop. 8) and the pro-choice argument," Dorsey said. "We're vulnerable. This is going to be close. It's political calculus."

That may be, but here's a tip for the California Catholic Conference: If you open a dialogue about the merits of same-sex marriage, you may get more than you bargained for.

Church officials may oppose the theory, but at churches like Most Holy Redeemer, it isn't a concept. They live it.

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Sotto Voce

(Source: SFC)