Catholic churches aren't supposed to push back against the pope. So when Pope Benedict XVI decreed in January that gay marriage is a threat to "the future of humanity itself," his anti-gay advocacy was expected to be echoed and supported by US Catholic leaders—including those in Seattle—who collectively represent the largest Christian denomination in the country.
What happens if a bunch of local Catholic priests refuse to get with the homophobic program? We're about to find out.
In an e-mail to his flock on April 11, St. James Cathedral pastor Michael Ryan kicked off a heartening trend when he said he will not be circulating petitions at mass for Referendum 74, the campaign to repeal the state's marriage-equality law. "Doing so would, I believe, prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community," Father Ryan wrote.
He was responding specifically to Seattle archbishop J. Peter Sartain's call the previous week for all 250 parishes in Washington State to gather signatures for R-74—which, if it gets enough signers, will put the marriage law up for a popular vote on the November ballot.
Father Ryan isn't alone. Two more Catholic parishes in Seattle also refused last week (St. Mary's in the Central District and St. Joseph on Capitol Hill), and five more parishes are rumored to be taking the same adversarial stance (St. Catherine, St. Patrick, St. Therese, and Christ Our Hope in Seattle, plus St. Leo in Tacoma).
In another charged letter of dissent, the pastoral life coordinator at St. Mary's, Tricia Wittmann-Todd, wrote: "I am particularly concerned about our youth who may be questioning their own sexual identity and need our support at this time in their lives." Similarly, Father John Whitney at St. Joseph declared that "no petitioning will be permitted anywhere on the campus."
This righteous resistance clearly has support among some liberals in the pews. Parishioners at St. Mary's recently created a group called Catholics for Marriage Equality in Washington State, designed to specifically resist the bishops and uphold marriage equality on the fall ballot. But as nice as it is to see the laity pushing back, the sight of some of their priests leading the revolt (and stating their objections to anti-gay signature gathering on moral grounds) is even more eye-catching.
The question: How far can they all go with this?
We'll see, but it's useful to recall that Pope Benedict has a vendetta against gay-friendly Seattle Catholics: In the mid-1980s, then-archbishop Raymond Hunthausen allowed a gay Catholic group called Dignity USA to hold its mass at St. James. The current pope, who was then a cardinal, led an investigation and told Seattle churches to withdraw support for "the intrinsic evil of homosexual activity."
He even tried to oust Hunthausen, but Seattle Catholics pushed back. (There's a book about it called Holy Siege: The Year That Shook Catholic America.) Hunthausen ultimately prevailed, with support from the congregations, and he carried out the rest of his term. His right-hand man at the time? You guessed it: Father Ryan.
This time, Father Ryan and other priests who are resisting appear to have the letter of current church "law" on their side. When the archbishop invited petitions into churches, he sent a private note, obtained by The Stranger, that allowed petitioning only with the "permission of the pastor." That suggests that the resisting pastors aren't guilty of direct insubordination; they're merely refusing "permission."
It's another thing, though, to call the Vatican's agenda "divisive." Stay tuned. It's going to be a long show between now and November.