Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who oversees Washington State's Catholic hierarchy and nearly 250 churches, has angered local Catholics by ordering a petition drive in all parishes to repeal the state's gay marriage law. In a letter to parishioners, Sartain explains he has "approved the gathering of signatures in our parishes over the next few months" and given priests "information regarding the signature drive" that begins today.
"Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered," says Sartain, adding, "All Christians are called to chastity, and sexual intercourse is so intimate and significant that it is intended only for a man and woman in marriage."
Although Sartain was welcomed to the city two years ago as a tolerant listener, his latest decree helps redefine that reputation by turning parishes into venues for right-wing organizing. The announcement also brings the Seattle Archdiocese—long considered a font of progressive thinking and social conscience—into cozy relations with the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a virulently anti-gay national group trying to repeal marriage equality in Washington State. The campaign to put Referendum 74 on the November ballot is officially run by Preserve Marriage Washington. However, Sartain borrows repeatedly NOM's leading talking point, complaining that lawmakers have "redefined marriage."
Even in liberal Seattle, dissent from pastors appears unlikely.
"If priests spoke out, I think they would be silenced. They would lose their pulpits. That's a safe bet," says Barbara Guzzo, a Catholic who attends St. Mary's in the Central District. Along with an organizing committee, Guzzo has formed Catholics for Marriage Equality in Washington specifically to resist Sartain's campaign.
Sartain's letter, accompanied by an exhaustive four-page FAQ, tries to deflect criticisms about the church's politics of discrimination. "That is not the case," Sartain asserts. "Treating different things differently is not discrimination." Sartain claims that unlike gay marriage, heterosexual marriage is inherently linked to procreation, and that children have recently become the "unintended victims of family disintegration." While simultaneously defending single parenthood, he warns of "alternative families that deprive a child of a father or a mother (such as arrangements headed by two men or two women)." As such, the church's beliefs must be codified in state law.
"We disagree with positions that bishops are taking," Guzzo says. "Jesus was all about inclusively and love. The stand our bishop is taking is the opposite."
Guzzo continues, "The church has a right to set the rules for marriage that it wants in the church, but, likewise, the legislature has a right to grant equality to all committed couples living in our state."
Sartain's office is closed today and his spokesman has not replied to request for comment.
Update on 4/11: St. James Cathedral reverend Michael Ryan has announced that he won't allow the petitions in his parish, saying circulating them would be "hurtful and seriously divisive." He adds that other priests can also refuse.