Catholic bishops struggle with message on gay marriage

Meeting for the first time since voters in Maryland and two other states legalized same-sex marriage, members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Tuesday that they have no plans to soften their position that genuine marriage can occur only between one man and one woman.

"Are [the results] concerning? Sure they are," William E. Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, said between sessions at the organization's fall general assembly in Baltimore, which has drawn about 300 bishops and archbishops to the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Harbor East this week.

"We do face a challenge in communicating the true nature of marriage and its importance to society. But there's always prayer, teaching and catechizing to be done, and we plan to continue doing just that."

Over the past year, a variety of hot-button issues have put the church and its teachings in the public spotlight. While some activists this week urged the church to focus on its mission of aiding the poor instead of politics, church leaders started looking for better ways to articulate their positions and win converts to their stances on issues that have played out in the political arena.

Lori said he hopes the bishops can take better advantage of "the most persuasive argument of all" — the living example of "strong families with loving fathers, mothers and children" — and some of his colleagues suggested finding more positive terminology for their position, as they had in debates over abortion.

The bishops said they plan to refocus their opposition to a provision of President Barack Obama's health care law that requires most employers, including religious institutions, to provide health insurance covering contraception.

Each fall, active and retired bishops and archbishops from across the country assemble in Baltimore, the premier episcopal see of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The leaders will hammer out the church's positions on matters of national and global importance and decide on organizational courses of action for the coming months, then reconvene in another city in July.

The conference has a broad agenda. Representatives from 50 states have heard talks on how social media can be used to spread the Gospel, vetted a proposed 2013 budget and tried to develop a pastoral statement on how the church can translate Gospel wisdom into help for those suffering during a down economy.

Whether on the official docket or not, controversial social issues — not the least of them same-sex marriage — have been at the forefront of conversation this week.

On Nov. 6, Maryland, Maine and Washington became the first states to legalize same-sex marriage at the ballot box, and voters in Minnesota rejected a proposal that would have placed a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution.

The results ended a string of 30 straight electoral victories for supporters of traditional marriage, a fact the bishops took seriously.

"There's no denying we lost in these states on an issue we feel very passionately about," said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the conference's president. "We can't deny that there's a new push coming from the other side."

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the bishops' subcommittee on the promotion of defense and marriage, gave an update on the organization's work in this area, and his assessment was at times grim.

"Last Tuesday was a disappointing day for marriage," he said in a statement. "Many people simply do not understand [that] marriage is ... the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union."

He called it a "child-centered" institution whose meaning is "written in our nature."

In spite of the historic defeats at the ballot box, though, the bishops said they see important silver linings.

During Masses before the election in Maryland, Lori had priests read a letter that opposed his home state's initiative. "Each one of us — as Catholics and faithful citizens — must show up on Election Day and do our part by voting against Question 6," the letter read.

But the fact Marylanders voted otherwise didn't seem to daunt the archbishop, who assumed the post last summer.

"The vote was close. We're in a state that tends to be politically liberal, we were vastly overspent, and I came late to the game," he said.

On the national level, Dolan saw a similar trend. At a news conference Tuesday, he cited a study in Washington state that showed those backing same-sex marriage there had outspent defenders of traditional marriage by a 12-to-1 margin.

Dolan said the principle of traditional marriage is central to the church's view of a healthy society and thus inviolable.

As they look to the future, he said, the bishops must look for ways to make their case more convincingly, and in the process he hoped they would learn from the way they dealt with the abortion issue years ago.

"Our opponents had succeeded in defining the issue as a matter of 'choice,' making us look like a side that favored restricting choice rather than the one that supported life," he said. "We need to find a way to position ourselves as pro-marriage."

Dolan addressed another issue of controversy when he spoke of Obama's mandate that most employers provide health insurance that covers contraception.

He has repeatedly called the mandate a violation of religious liberty and said that while the bishops hadn't decided exactly how to react when the health care plan goes into effect, they would resist it.

"Every door is open but capitulation," he said.

As the bishops voted on measures Tuesday afternoon, opponents of their position on gay marriage gathered outside the hotel to protest.

Jon O'Brien, director of Catholics for Choice, a nonprofit organization, said this week's assembly was "an opportunity for the bishops to realize the error of their ways."

Catholics United and Faithful America, also nonprofits, delivered a petition bearing 20,000 signatures that called for the bishops to "refocus their attention on caring for the poor and vulnerable" and to end what it described as the conference's association with the Republican Party.

Dolan never met with the protesters, but he said he wished he could have.

"Most of the emails I get tell me we're too far on the social justice side of things," he said. "But even if we were alienating people with our positions, we wouldn't change them. We didn't invent these issues. But we will speak about them with vigor."