PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Frank Ferri made peace with God years ago. He defeated the Roman Catholic Church just last month.
The openly gay state representative led the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in what may be the most Catholic state in the nation’s most Catholic region. And, in early May, Rhode Island became the sixth and final New England state to allow gay couples to marry when its Democratic-dominated Legislature, led by an openly gay House speaker, reversed course after years of the Catholic Church successfully lobbying lawmakers to resist legalization.
“They put the fear of God into people,” Ferri said, claiming that “the influence of the church” had been the primary stumbling block as every other neighboring state — and many people across the country — started embracing gay marriage.
Ferri’s victory marked the Catholic Church’s most significant political defeat in an area where more than 40 percent of the population is Catholic. Perhaps more problematic for the church: Its state-by-state setbacks on gay marriage illustrate a widening divide between the church hierarchy and its members, which may be undermining Catholic influence in American politics.
The disconnect plays out in polling.
In March, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of Catholics, 60 percent, felt the church was out of touch with the views of Catholics in America today. And a CBS News/New York Times poll in February found that 78 percent of Catholics said they were more likely to follow their own conscience than the church’s teachings on difficult moral questions. That poll highlighted several areas where most Catholics break with church teachings: 62 percent of American Catholics think same-sex marriages should be legal, 74 percent think abortion ought to be available in at least some instances and 61 percent favor the death penalty.
All this comes amid a leadership shift in the Vatican, where the newly selected Pope Francis has traditionally taken a more pragmatic approach than his predecessor on divisive social issues. While a bishop in Argentina, Francis angered other church leaders by supporting civil unions for gay couples ahead of that country’s vote to legalize gay marriage.
He has taken no such position as pope.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a member of one of the most storied Catholic families in American politics, says she’s encouraged by Francis’ early leadership but warns that the church’s political influence will continue to wane unless it adapts.
“Gay marriage is part of a larger refusal on the part of the church to listen to, and to understand, the people in the pews,” said Townsend, who still regularly attends church and wrote the book, “Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way.”
Church officials in Washington, Boston and Providence declined to be interviewed for this report.
The church for decades has employed aggressive lobbying efforts across the country on a host of political issues, with Catholic leaders having used the power of the pulpit and substantial financial resources to maintain clout. At times they’ve gone so far as to tell leading Catholic lawmakers they were not welcome to receive communion if they opposed church teachings on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
These days, the church remains active in political battles over abortion, President Barack Obama’s health care law, poverty and immigration even though they’ve had little success influencing the gay marriage debate here and elsewhere.
In many statehouses, the church relies on lobbying consortiums made up of lay people, known as Catholic conferences, to influence state policy, fueled by donations from dioceses across the country. In Washington, the church’s primary voice is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had an annual budget last year of $26.6 million, according to the Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life.
“They’ve certainly been players at the national level,” said Mark Silk, the director of Trinity College’s Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.
He noted that the church has been most successful in recent years by building alliances with other religious lobbies, including evangelicals, to help shape public policy such as the contraception provision in the president’s health care law. Religious leaders also have successfully pushed to tighten abortion laws in some states.
Thirty states have adopted constitutional provisions limiting marriage to a man and a woman, although most are in Southern and Western states where there are fewer Catholics.
Silk suggested that some Catholic leaders in the United States may be eroding their influence by “jumping up and down” to fight gay marriage despite strong public support.
As American attitudes rapidly shifted in favor of legalized same-sex marriage in recent months, the archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, likened gay marriage to male breastfeeding and denounced Rhode Island’s vote as violating “the very design of nature.”
In Minnesota, Catholic leaders spent nearly $1 million last year to support a ballot measure banning gay marriage. The year before, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis produced and distributed 400,000 copies of a DVD in which Archbishop John C. Nienstedt called same-sex marriage, at best, “an untested social experiment.”
Thousands of Minnesota Catholics returned the DVDs in protest. Last month, the state Legislature voted to legalize gay marriage, making Minnesota the 12th state to do so.
In Providence, the Rev. Bernard Healey led the statehouse lobbying effort to counter legalization attempts. The Catholic priest is well-known in the Rhode Island Capitol’s marble hallways, long patrolling them in his black shirt and clerical collar.
In late April, before the final gay marriage vote, Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin weighed in by warning Rhode Island lawmakers: “It is only with grave risk to our spiritual well-being and the common good of our society that we dare to redefine what God himself has created.”
The Rhode Island Legislature overwhelmingly voted days later to support same-sex marriage.
That prompted Tobin to condemn “immoral or destructive behavior” and say that Catholics should “examine their consciences very carefully” before deciding whether to attend gay marriage ceremonies, “realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others.”
As for Ferri, he said he’s at peace with God, regardless of the warnings of the church. A faithful member of his Catholic church choir for decades, he recalled sitting alone at the church altar while struggling with his homosexuality years ago.
“I got a message from God: ‘You’re going to be OK. Be who you are,'” he said during a recent interview in his small statehouse office.
Noting that a church lobbyist would be pushing abortion-related legislation later that day, Ferri said the Catholic Church will always have some political influence in Rhode Island.
“They just picked the wrong battle this time. And I think it hurt them,” he said.
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