In God's Eyes

The ongoing controversy over same-sex marriages, sparked by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, a Catholic, has forced many members of America's single largest denomination to wrestle with their beliefs. The Church, which has lost the battle on contraception, now is trying to hold firm on gay marriage.

For the country's 65 million Catholics, President Bush's call for a constitutional ban against gay marriage throws a troubling new public spotlight on personal beliefs. But here in San Francisco, the fire seems hotter.

This is the epicenter of the new national controversy, where open gay marriages with civic approval began in February, and where the Church is facing all the elements of a battle that is magnified as the issue spreads nationwide: bishops -- debilitated by the sex-abuse scandal -- condemning gay marriage; a laity split between opposition and acceptance; pro-gay marriage political leaders who may also be Catholic.

After only 36 days in office, Newsom stoked national debate to the conflagration point by ordering City Hall clerks to issue licenses to same-sex couples. The first marriage in the stately municipal rotunda joined two lesbian women who had lived together since l953; thousands followed. Civic authorities in New Paltz, NY and Portland, OR are already following Newsom's lead.

Mayor Newsom went to a Catholic university in Santa Clara, about an hour from San Francisco, and he and his wife Kimberly were married in an elegant ceremony in a Catholic church overlooking the city. Locals point to the possibility of some degree of conflict between what the mayor may have imbibed from Catholicism, and his defiance of both church and state laws. Certainly, the Church sees it that way.

San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada reiterated that the Church demands "compassion and sensitivity toward homosexuals," and supports the kind of rights, benefits and protection of children that come with some legal civil unions. But he also reiterated that "marriage" must be between a man and a woman for procreation. Some fellow local Catholics, including some who had supported Newsom in elections, spoke of bewilderment and hurt.

"I never thought you would be so hostile to marriage as to promote a concept that has been repudiated for thousands of years, not just by the Catholic faith in which you were baptized, but historically by all other groups and civilizations," wrote one neighborhood pastor in an unanswered letter to the Newsom.

Yet, thousands of Catholics count themselves among the two-thirds of San Franciscans who polls show favor the marriages. Roman Catholicism remains the single largest U.S. religious denomination. Voting is encouraged from the pulpit. And despite the shame and vulnerability brought on bishops by the clerical sex abuse scandals, congregations do give weight to the bishops' word on matters of faith. Last summer Rome said Catholic legislators must not only vote against gay unions, but also "clearly and publicly" express opposition. Pope John Paul II underscored the obligation in a statement as same-sex couples received licenses here.

It is a dictum that may be causing some lawmakers to squirm in Massachusetts, home state of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. In November, the state's Supreme Court ordered the legislature to draft a bill to legalize gay marriage by May. A majority of the body's 200 members is Catholic; bishops have written letters to more than one million rank and file Catholics to pressure them.

Worry that Catholic politicians answer to the Vatican alone, or even to their own religion, of course, was put to rest in the John F. Kennedy years. As a city supervisor in pre-election months, the Catholic Newsom drew women's votes when he pushed pro-abortion stands, which the Church condemns. Another Catholic supervisor, also under consideration as a mayoral candidate, declared he was Catholic and had a big family "by choice," opposed abortion and effectively scotched his own chances for a run against Newsom.

Some Catholics say they wish the Church would be as forceful in condemning capital punishment as gay marriage. Others point out that decades ago the Church also condemned artificial contraception because it ran contrary to the Church's understanding of the aim of sexual union, procreation; yet today contraception is practiced by huge numbers of Catholics, without causing a crisis in their faith lives or much hierarchical notice.

Other Catholics simply regard the controversy over purely civil "marriages" as irrelevant, because the Church does not recognize two persons as being truly joined unless they are married in religious ceremony. The Church is not about to do that even if the state recognizes its legality.

For some gay Catholics, however, this is precisely the most hurtful understanding.

Peter Novak is one of at least three faculty members at the Jesuit University of San Francisco who have gone with their partners, sometimes waiting all night in pouring rain, to get marriage licenses. Novak, who has a doctorate from Yale but grew up in Flint, Michigan, says his traditional large Catholic family has been largely welcoming about his untraditional relationship with his partner of nine years; Novak's father, an ordained deacon, on hearing about the "wedding" asked where the couple might have a gift registry. But the drama professor does not believe his relationship will ever be recognized in the eyes of the Church he loves, which is "painful" and makes him feel "inferior."

"I view the Church as compassionate and struggling with the issue," says Novak. "I get support from individual church members -- what we call the Body of Christ -- and I can still separate that from the institution of the Church.

"It doesn't take away the pain, but I can still call myself Catholic."

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