Civil unions and the church

  • Some suburban Catholics have expressed frustration at the seeming disconnect between church leadership's position opposing civil unions and their own support for them.

    Some suburban Catholics have expressed frustration at the seeming disconnect between church leadership's position opposing civil unions and their own support for them. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 12/11/2010 5:22 PM

Running for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy fended off concerns that as a Catholic he'd be controlled by the pope.

"I am the Democratic candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic," he said. "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."


Years later, it's a line in the sand that's still clearly drawn, as seen in the recent vote to legalize civil unions in Illinois extending many of the legal rights and benefits of marriage to unmarried partners, both gay and straight.

And yet the civil unions debate, some experts say, is only deepening confusion and frustration among some Catholics, as society has become increasingly accepting of homosexuality and therefore civil unions.

Priests may be preaching tolerance, acceptance and equity from their pulpits each weekend.

At the same time, church leadership has placed its fiscal and authoritative muscle behind strong opposition to the legislation, which it says cuts at the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.

Alongside the Catholic Conference of Illinois' lobbying efforts to block the passage of civil unions, Cardinal Francis George, head of the Chicago Archdiocese and former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made a series of phone calls to lawmakers urging them to reject the legislation.

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Yet all the same, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Catholics, worked their respective chamber floors, securing the votes needed for its passage. The House vote was stalled until state Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican and parishioner at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Des Plaines, had arrived in Springfield late on the night before the last day of session two weeks ago.

Catholic Gov. Pat Quinn, who pushed for legalizing civil unions, said he plans to sign the legislation in the new year.

"I follow my conscience," he said matter of factly. "What would Jesus do?"

Outside the political arena, some Catholics are confronting the divide between the church's public condemnation of civil unions and a growing public sense of a need for social justice and equality for homosexuals.

A Pew Research Center study, published last fall, found 62 percent of Catholics surveyed said they support civil unions; another 45 percent support gay marriage.


"I do think it puts young people who are already struggling, this is another block in the way of acceptance of the church's teachings," said Rita Boeke, retired chair of the religion department at St. Viator High School, in Arlington Heights.

"Almost everyone today knows someone who is gay or a lesbian. And I think it presents a real issue for them trying to decide can I accept the church which excludes many things," said Boeke, of Algonquin.

Michael Herman stepped down from his position as a diocesan priest after the Vatican's 2005 edict banning gay seminarians.

Herman, who is now openly gay, lives in Chicago with his partner and their 3-1/2-year-old son. The pair plan to apply for a civil union shortly after the law takes effect in June.

Still, though he's left the priesthood, Herman's life is centered around his faith. The family regularly attends Mass at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, where their son also attends school.

Herman said he finds "great freedom" in being a lay Catholic because there's no longer "a challenge of having to represent what the institution believes and what I believe. Being a Catholic is very dear to me. The positions of the hierarchy aren't."

By attending Sunday Mass with his partner and son, Herman says, "I just feel I'm able to make more change by standing in the congregation with my partner, with my son, clearly as a gay couple, clearly as a gay family, in the midst of that congregation, week after week after week. You can't stay in (the priesthood) and have that spirit of an activist fighting for change."

Church doctrine teaches that "homosexual desires" are not in themselves sinful, only acting upon them.

In opposing civil unions which will provide unmarried couples adoption, estate planning and medical decision-making rights currently extended only to married couples the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the lobbying arm for the six diocese in the state, noted, "Marriage has been established by our creator in harmony with the nature of man and woman with its own essential properties and purpose. The Church did not invent marriage and neither has any state."

Executive Director Bob Gilligan said the conference wouldn't necessarily be opposed to granting gay couples a few additional legal rights and benefits hospital visitation rights, for instance. But in the current legislation, "they lump 500 references in Illinois law in one fell swoop. That has ramifications and consequences," he said.

Though the legislation specifically states it will not interfere with any religious freedoms, the conference believes "such language may offer little protection in the context of litigation religious institutions may soon encounter in relation to charitable services, adoption and foster care."

But in helping parishioners gay and straight come to terms with the church's position leaders are being largely silent.

In turn, Herman says, that divide is causing some local church leaders, many of whom Herman describes as "tremendously supportive," to be afraid of speaking up.

Three suburban priests, one nun, and one Catholic university Benedictine in Lisle all declined to comment for this article. Two other priests did not return phone calls.

Several others expressed support for civil unions, as well as Catholics who might support them, but noted if they went on the record they could get their respective schools and parishes in trouble.

"I think it's worse than afraid of getting in trouble. The church, at least here in Chicago, has silenced people. They will take away your pastorate. They will take away this, they will take away that," Herman said.

The Archdiocese of Chicago and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also declined to comment.

Rick Garcia, director of advocacy group Equality Illinois, believes many Catholics support civil unions "because they understand the difference between matrimony and marriage. We're not talking about the sacrament of matrimony. We're talking about marriage."

Despite the church's outspoken position against civil unions, Garcia said several lawmakers have told him them that their parish priests quietly urged them to support the measure, though he declined to reveal which lawmakers or which priests.

Donna Quinn, a member of the National Coalition of American Nuns, was among the religious leaders of various faiths who traveled to Springfield in support of civil unions.

Quinn who has led and been rebuked for her for efforts to allow women to be ordained in the Catholic Church said she hasn't been sanctioned by the Catholic leadership for speaking out on civil unions. If it does happen, she's not afraid.

"We've been in trouble before. I think it's OK," said Quinn, who is no relation to the governor. "We're willing to take on authority. ... There are so many good priests in the church, even in the hierarchical circles, who do want change, who do want justice for all. But by their silence they condone (discrimination) and so it continues to take place."

The church is caught in a bind, DePaul University Professor Patrick Callahan said.

"On one hand are issues of equity and caring for same-sex couples," said Callahan, of Aurora. "And on the other, it's teaching has always been that homosexual acts are intrinsically sinful. If it seemed to be passive with regard to creating institutions that sanctioned homosexual relationships, then it would be subject to charges of hypocrisy or wussiness."

Political observers predict the mid-November election of new church leadership in Baltimore suggests the church is moving in a conservative direction. Gay rights group Catholics for Equality noted that by advancing two bishops who prioritize banning same-sex marriage over other social issues, the U.S. Catholic Church is bowing to Vatican pressure to be more conservative.

Herman believes the vote approving civil unions signals the church hierarchy may have lost some of its moral teaching authority among the masses.

"If the body of the church was dead set against it, it wouldn't have passed. The hierarchy and the body of the church is now disconnected."