Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Peter Mitchell FAITH Magazine May – June 2011


The election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as President of the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference last November was unexpected. It generated a great amount of hope and excitement that his tenure would mark a new boldness and confidence in the leadership of the Catholic Church on this side of the Atlantic. The bishops of the United States selected a pastor whose remarkable ability to present clearly and confidently the "Catholic vision" is matched by his evident warmth and affection for his priests, his flock, and for all people of whatever creed or background. It has not taken long for Dolan's role as spokesman for the Catholic Church on the national stage to draw him into a prominent debate that was occasioned by a controversial action of President Obama regardingthe definition of marriage.

In late February the Obama administration announced that it will no longer uphold the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). On 23 February, the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, Jr., sent a letter to members of Congress in which he informed them that President Obama had determined that DOMA is in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and, as such, will no longer be defended by his administration. DOMA was passed in 1996 under President Clinton with the support of large bi-partisan majorities in both houses of Congress.

The controversy centres on the definition given by DOMA of what exactly constitutes a "marriage" and a "spouse." The act declares that "the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." The Attorney General stated that the Obama Administration wishes to oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians and declared that DOMA reflects "stereotype-based thinking" in its definition of "marriage" and "spouse." According to the Attorney General, "a growing scientific consensus accepts that sexual orientation is a characteristic that is immutable," and furthermore "there is a growing acknowledgment that sexual orientation bears no relation to ability toperform or contribute to society." For these reasons he and President Obama have determined that DOMA may not be constitutionally applied to same-sex couples whose marriages are legally recognised under state law in those states that recognise same-sex unions.

It should be noted here that Obama has not waited for the "inconsistency" of this law to be acknowledged by the legislature. The President, who by his oath of office is sworn to uphold the law of the land, has determined that he will no longer execute a federal law.

Enter Archbishop Dolan. On 3 March, Dolan wrote to President Obama to express his concern at the Administration's action, and in a public statement offered to any who will listen a clear and confident presentation of the Catholic Church's position on the question of the treatment of persons with a homosexual orientation in the civic sphere. Dolan's statement framed the issue in terms of social justice and respect: "Every person deserves to be treated with justice, compassion, and respect, a proposition of natural law and American law that we as Catholics vigorously promote." Yet Dolan did not pull any punches in voicing his objection to the Obama Administration declaring that DOMA is unjust because it defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. "The suggestion that thisdefinition amounts to 'discrimination' is grossly false and represents an affront to millions of citizens in this country," he said. Dolan made his case simply and eloquently. It can hardly be called discrimination, he reasoned, to say that a husband and wife have a "unique and singular" relationship or to say that children - and thus the state - benefit from being brought up in a stable home with a father and a mother. It is in fact a matter of justice, said Dolan, to defend the definition of marriage and to resist any attempt to caricature such a defense as "discrimination". The very dignity of the human person hangs in the balance. Archbishop Dolan concluded his statement with a matter-of-fact declaration of what is at stake in the debate over DOMA: "The Administration's currentposition is not only a grave threat to marriage, but to religious liberty and the integrity of our democracy as well."

The Archbishop's clear and reasoned words reiterated the main points made by the 2009 ecumenical Manhattan Declaration, signed by Dolan and more than 150 other Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant leaders. The signatories declared themselves to be in solidarity in their unequivocal support of the dignity and right to life of every human person, marriage between a man and a woman as divinely ordained and the foundation of civil society, and religious liberty as an essential component of human freedom.

The Declaration further invoked the Christian tradition of civil disobedience, affirming the right and at times the obligation to oppose injustice by refusing to comply with civil authority if it attempts to undermine these basic human rights: "We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's." The Declaration has been signed by over 480,000 individuals on its website since its inception in November 2009.

It drew renewed attention in November 2010 when Apple removed the
Manhattan Declaration app from its iPhones, iPads, and iTunes, saying the app was "offensive to large groups of people" because it promoted bigotry and homophobia. The organisers of the Manhattan Declaration, because of their strong desire "to maintain a civil and respectful tone", then asked Apple to consider accepting a modified version of the app. In January Apple refused again arguing "it contains content that is likely to expose a group to harm", that is by unambiguously upholding traditional marriage.

It remains to be seen where this legal, cultural, and moral debate may take the Catholic Church in these United States in the coming months and years. But for now it is apparent that, in electing Archbishop Timothy Dolan as their President, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has put a shepherd who is capable, confident and courageous at the helm.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2011