When Bishops are Wrong—
California Proposition 22
Rev. William Messenger

When the California Catholic Bishops voted to endorse Proposition 22, my first reaction was that it didn’t matter. Most people no longer listen to the Bishops when it comes to issues of personal or social morality--witness propositions 187 and 209. But then I had second thoughts. What if the wrong people do listen?

Let’s be clear about the issues, and fair to the bishops. For religious reasons, the Catholic bishops do not believe that same sex marriages are an option. So far, so good. I am not arguing with that position. However, this initiative is not about same sex marriages, and even less about religion. As others have pointed out, the state of California already prohibits same sex marriages. So why the redundancy? What is the initiative really about? Once we strip away the rhetorical veneer, this initiative is simply another form of bigotry, rooted in fear and ignorance. What makes it worse, is that this initiative is a family feud, written by a man who cannot deal with his son’s homosexuality--a man who cannot even speak to his own son. Would State Senator Peter Knight have written this initiative, if he were able to embrace his gay son?

Proposition 22 has also been euphemistically referred to as the “Defense of Marriage” initiative. What it really is, however, is a first strike initiative. After all, how can you defend something that isn’t being attacked in the first place? I’ve studied the initiative and I’ve studied our society. Marriage is not under attack, and if it were, I think we could come up with a better defense other than legislating fear and ignorance. As a first strike, it is an attempt to pre-empt any legislation validating same sex unions. No such legislation is pending. So why did the Bishops endorse Proposition 22?

In his carefully crafted explanation, Cardinal Mahony stated what we already know, namely, that the Catholic Church does not recognize marriage as a viable option for homosexual couples. As noted, that is not an issue before the voters of California. Therefore, if the Bishops did not feel they could openly oppose Proposition 22 it seems that they would have done better to remain silent.

Underlying this initiative is a problem with language. The Cardinal suggests in his public statement that we need to secure basic human rights for all people regardless of their domestic status, and goes on to say that those rights should be secured by means other extending the definition of marriage. As any linguist will acknowledge, language is at best a convention for communication. While we need accepted definitions of words to communicate with each other, those definitions are always subject to revision. From a linguistic point of view, does it really matter whether we refer to a relationship as a marriage or as a domestic partnership?

What is most disconcerting, however, is the idea that the Bishops’ support of Proposition 22 should not be construed as a license for open bigotry against homosexuals. That is an uncanny stroke of naiveté. Whenever we support a policy rooted in bigotry, we are giving license to bigots. Bigotry is one of those diseases of the human spirit that must be met head on, not negotiated. There is no compromising with bigotry.

Surely there is no one who thinks it possible to support bigoted legislation and at the same time corral the forces of hatred. Our past experiences with Propositions 187 and 209 should have alerted all of us to the cyclical nature of prejudice and bigotry in California politics. Is it too much to suggest that warning bells should be ringing? After all, we have school boards in Orange County refusing to allow extra-curricular clubs because they include openly gay students. One such club is actually a gay/straight alliance--an opportunity for students to overcome the evil of bigotry by learning about and from each other. It would appear that the children are in a position to teach their parents--and, perhaps, all of us.

The California Bishops are wrong about Proposition 22. Their position is most critically wrong because it unleashes the passions of bigotry and hatred. Personal family problems are a poor foundation for public policy. Disguised bigotry is even worse. This election is a chance for all of us to say ‘no’ to bigotry, ‘no’ to hatred, ‘no’ to prejudice, ‘no’ to isolation, ‘no’ to outcasts.

(Rev. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)