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Catholic Bishops struggle with message on gay marriage

By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun –

BALTIMORE—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 only occur 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 strategizing 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 hope 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 added that 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.

Every 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 U.S. The church 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 message, 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.

Last Tuesday, Maryland, Maine and Washington became the first states to approve 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 backers 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 saw 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 that Marylanders voted otherwise didn’t seem to daunt the Archbishop, who assumed his current position 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. In a news conference Tuesday, he cited a study done in Washington state that showed those backing same-sex marriage had outspent defenders of traditional marriage by a factor of 12 to one.

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 will have to 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 Obama health care plan goes into effect, they would resist it.

“Every door is open but capitulation,” he said.

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

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