Worcester bishop’s comments misinterpreted by media

Remarks by Bishop Daniel Reilly of Worcester sparked controversy this week when it was erroneously reported by several local media outlets that the Catholic Church has reversed its long-standing opposition to the state granting recognition to gay marriages or civil unions. Bishop Reilly’s comments were part of testimony given before the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee Oct. 23, in which he defended traditional marriage on behalf of the four Massachusetts bishops.

Reports that Bishop Reilly said he favored extending rights, such as hospital visitation and inheritance, to homosexual couples were widely publicized. Several media outlets quoted Bishop Reilly as saying after his formal testimony, “There should be a way for the state to provide the benefits they have a right to, like other citizens. But just to put the title of marriage on it, I think that’s the wrong way to go.”

Dan Avila, associate director for policy and research for Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), told The Pilot that the bishop’s comments were misrepresented and do not represent a change in Church’s stance on civil unions or same sex marriage.

“There’s been some confusion in terms of the claim that somehow the four bishops’ statement represents a change in Church position or even a contradiction of Church teaching — that is certainly not true,” said Avila. “The bishops were very clear, speaking through Bishop Reilly, that any attempt to equate marriage with other relationships, homosexual relationships, cannot be supported.”

Avila feels that Bishop Reilly never intended to endorse homosexual couples receiving benefits, but that he specifically stated that the issue of rights to “individual” homosexuals should be discussed.

"Bishop Reilly never mentioned domestic partners, but that all of a sudden was brought into the equation by others," said Avila. "The statement itself refers to individual benefits beyond those given to spouses. The keyword, “individual,” does not refer to benefits that go to couples — that’s a whole different area.”

A statement from the MCC Oct. 28 sought to clarify Bishop Reilly’s comments. The release states that the bishop “urged the defeat of bills to create same-sex marriage or same-sex “civil unions equivalent to marriage.” [See “Notes from the Hill,” p. 2]

"Bishop Reilly finished his testimony by telling the committee that the Church could 'join the discussion' if the 'goal is to look at individual benefits and determine who should be eligible beyond spouses,'" the statement continues. "Many press reports interpreted this as a signal of new support for same-sex relationships and 'domestic partnership benefits.' That interpretation is wrong."

MCC emphasized that Bishop Reilly made “no direct reference” to domestic partnerships in his testimony or in his remarks to the media, and does not support them.

Domestic partnership bills, while more limited in scope than civil union bills, “equate same-sex couples to spouses for eligibility purposes,” the statement read. “So, even though Bishop Reilly did not refer to the domestic partnership bills, the objections he raised against civil unions apply to domestic partnerships as well.”

The controversy surrounding Bishop Reilly’s remarks followed his testimony on a number of issues before state legislators, one being the same sex marriage bill.

With the possibility looming that Massachusetts could become the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage, those on both sides of the debate saw the importance of voicing their opinions to lawmakers. Hundreds packed Gardner Auditorium in the State House, Oct. 23, to hear and give testimony.

A number of bills are currently before legislators concerning the status of marriage in Massachusetts. An amendment defending traditional marriage will be voted on at a constitutional convention Nov. 12. The Supreme Judicial Court could announce its decision any day in the Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health lawsuit by seven same sex couples who want to be married.

Bishop Reilly, delivering a statement in defense of marriage on behalf of the four Massachusetts bishops, testified that the “privacy issues” before the legislature do not only concern individuals, but “touch on social concerns that transcend individual interests…impinge upon the common good.”

"There are fundamental values that must be preserved or the common good would be harmed," he continued. "I ask the committee not to pass the various bills proposing to change the public institution of marriage.

"To redefine marriage itself or to change the meaning of spouse, as the civil union bill would do, is to deny the unique public value of the spousal bond between a man and a woman," he continued.

While the Church cannot support any initiative to redefine marriage, Bishop Reilly stated that the Church would be open to discuss giving “individual benefits” to homosexuals. This statement, coupled by his remarks after the hearing, caused the media stir.

Proponents of same-sex unions focused the day’s discussion on same-sex marriage over civil unions because they feel, “civil marriage is the only way to get total equality under the law,” said Arline Isaacson, co-chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

Supporters framed same-sex marriage as a civil rights and discrimination issue, similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s and past laws against interracial marriage.

"This is very much our Birmingham, our Selma...we have a chance here in Massachusetts to write history in the correct way," said Senator Cheryl Jacques, (D-Needham), who has two children with a same-sex partner. "We have done this wrong over and over again. Here we have a shot not to discriminate against people for who they love."

Others stressed the civil nature of marriage, stating, “Marriage is a civil and religious institution, but in use by the state it is strictly a civil institution,” said Rep. Byron Rushing, (D-Boston).

"We in the legislature have worked not to ban any civil institution from any citizen," he continued. "Any citizen should have access to all institutions that any other citizen has access to."

The four Massachusetts bishops have been active in their support of traditional marriage, issuing a statement in June urging Catholics to contact state legislators to encourage them to support the marriage amendment. Archbishop O’Malley, attending a summit on marriage Oct. 2 by the Massachusetts Family Institute, said, “Any redefinition of marriage must be seen as an attack on the common good.”