Diocese unmoved by letter on gays
By Steven G. Vegh
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
If the law endorses sexual activity, ''the church is very much opposed,'' Mutty said.
The Diocese of Portland will not endorse Maine's gay-rights law, despite the declaration by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops that the Church accepts gays and lesbians regardless of their homosexuality.
Marc Mutty, a spokesman for the diocese, said Wednesday that the bishops' open letter had no bearing on the top question the diocese has posed concerning the Maine law: Does the gay-rights law address only homosexuals' sexual orientation, or does it also affirm same-gender sexual activity?
Maine's gay-rights law was approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor last spring. But conservative Christian groups want to overturn the law and are seeking a statewide referendum. The secretary of state's office is checking petition signatures gathered by those groups; if there are enough signatures, a referendum will be held this winter.
The diocese is officially neutral on whether the referendum should be supported or opposed. But some Catholics, such as Anne Underwood of Topsham, say the bishops' letter justifies a diocesan shift in favor of gay rights.
''It's important to consider this an issue of social justice, not sexuality,'' said Underwood, who is not gay. She serves on the Diocesan Public Policy Committee, which advises the diocese on public policy. Underwood stressed she was not commenting on behalf of the committee.
Mutty said the bishops' letter also will not alter diocesan attitudes toward gays and lesbians because the Church in Maine has for years told parishioners that being homosexual is not incompatible with being a good Catholic. ''This is not an earth-shattering, historic document,'' he said of the bishops' letter.
The letter by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family tells Catholics, and particularly those with gay children, that homosexuals ''must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.''
The committee said ''multiple factors'' seem to account for a homosexual orientation.
''Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose,'' the committee stated.
The letter urged parents to accept, support and maintain a relationship with sons and daughters who are gays and lesbians.
Portland's Karen Geraghty predicted that the bishops' theme would be a comfort to many Catholic parents, including her own.
Now a Portland city councilor, Geraghty was raised in a Catholic family and attended parochial school through high school. She left the church 10 years ago because she saw it as unwelcoming to women and homosexuals; she is a lesbian.
Nonetheless, ''my folks still go to church, and struggle with how to be a good parent and good church member'' as parents of a lesbian daughter, Geraghty said. ''I was pleased by the letter, and it will help my folks.''
Bath's Vincent and Elizabeth Messler said they've always accepted their daughter's homosexuality. But the bishops' letter was a relief anyway.
''Finally, we have some kind of recognition,'' Elizabeth said.
Told that Maine's diocese already formally affirms gay church members, Vincent Messler said dubiously, ''The diocese having felt this way is the best-kept secret I've ever heard.'' He said homosexuals have not typically been made to feel welcome in Catholic churches.
Rosemary Ananis said her family long ago accepted her homosexuality, and has approved of her marriage-like relationship with another woman.
Ananis is both a member of St. Mary's Church in Wells, and president of Dignity Maine. The group is the local affiliate of Dignity USA, which advocates for Catholic lesbians and gays.
Ananis said the bishops should have gone further and endorsed monogamous gay relationships as a proper setting for gays' sexual activity.
''My sense is, the church thinks gays and lesbians just want to run around having sex everywhere,'' Ananis said. ''Dignity says sexual activity is a normal part of who we are, and is OK when it takes place in a loving, committed monogamous union, and is certainly within Christ's teaching.''
Mutty said the church's opposition to gay and lesbian sexual activity is centered not on homosexuality, but on its definition of where such activity is appropriate.
The appropriate setting, he said, is marriage between a man and woman, with that union open to the possibility of child. Sexual activity outside of marriage, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is not acceptable.
Mutty acknowledged that the church's distinction between accepting a homosexual orientation and disapproving of homosexual sex is hard for the public to grasp.
''The distinction is critically important to the church, but nobody else,'' he said. ''To expect a person who is homosexual not to act on that sexuality is absurd to some people.''
Mutty said Maine's gay-rights law, and its legislative sponsors, are ambiguous about whether the law affirms sexual orientation, or gay sexual activity that is unacceptable to the church.
But Underwood said the statement by the bishops that homosexuals' fundamental human rights must be respected should point Maine's diocese toward opposing the anti-gay-rights referendum. ''Given that one line, how can we maintain neutrality?'' she said.
Mutty said the letter gives no such prompting. ''I don't see this as justification for changing our stand in any way,'' he said.
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