Church must get off fence on gay rights
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
They've stepped out onto the tightrope, the weight of a quarter million Catholics balanced on their shoulders, fearful of the misstep that could send them hurtling into the moral crossfire below.
But from Bishop Joseph Gerry on down, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland last week ignored one inescapable fact about the effort to repeal Maine's gay rights law: In this looming battle, there is no room for neutrality.
''We are very concerned about the discrimination issue,'' said Marc Mutty, director of public affairs for the diocese, after huddling with the higher-ups to discuss ''our dilemma'' Friday morning. Still, he added, ''we have to be very careful that we totally conform with Catholic teaching.''
Thus, at a time when a quarter of the state's population is looking to it for moral guidance, the Catholic church is officially stuck in neutral - unwilling to take on ''St. Michael the Dark-Angel'' Heath and his Christian Civic League crusaders because, while it's the right thing to do, it might make some of the faithful squirm.
On the surface, the diocese's dilemma goes like this. Defending the new law, and therefore opposing the ''people's veto'' that apparently achieved ballot status last week, might give the appearance that the church is endorsing homosexuality - sinful behavior in the eyes of Rome.
Supporting the ''people's veto,'' on the other hand, goes beyond the tenet that homosexuality is a sin. The veto implies that condemning homosexuals as sinners isn't enough - society also must be allowed to discriminate against them, punish them for their sexual orientation.
And so, while St. Michael declares his 58,541 petition signatures a ''miracle of God'' and those who worked so hard to get the gay rights bill passed now prepare for yet another biblical bombardment, the Catholic church teeters above it all, speaking volumes with its silence, its eyes closed to the truth.
The truth is there is no dilemma. Try as they might to portray the gay rights law as a one-way ticket to Sodom and Gomorrah, St. Michael and his minions cannot produce a single word in the statute that either endorses or promotes homosexuality in Maine or showers gays and lesbians with ''special rights.''
Rather, the law simply extends to homosexuals the same rights the rest of us enjoy - the right to live where we want, the right to a nondiscriminatory workplace, the right to public accommodation, the right to fair credit. In short, the right to peacefully exist in a society that draws a firm line between prosecuting those charged as criminals and persecuting those branded as ''sinners.''
Viewed in that light, the declaration of neutrality by the bishop and his advisers looks less like a collision between two equal and opposing moral arguments - and more like political hide-and-seek. Paralyzed with worry over what some Catholics might think, they've ducked a rare opportunity to boldly tell the flock what it should think.
In a recent issue of Church World, Mutty foreshadowed last week's tightrope act.
''In considering this matter,'' he wrote, ''Catholics, and others of good will, need to consider the complexity of the new law, the fundamental Christian principles involved, and apply their most prudent judgment in deciding the proper course of action to be taken.''
He could have saved space - and found firmer footing - with two short quotations from the Bible.
The first: ''He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.''
And the second: ''Love thy neighbor as thyself.''
Bill Nemitz is a columnist for The Portland Newspapers.
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