They are not yet as eagerly anticipated as the swallows returning annually to Capistrano or the vultures’ flight back to Hinckley, Ohio, each spring. But the yearly arrival at the Roundhouse of the three prelates who make up the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken on the same predictability as those other seasonal gatherings.
Their presence is, for me, something to both welcome and dread. There can be no denying that New Mexico’s bishops have become vocal spokespeople for social justice issues. They've urged legislators to abolish the death penalty, establish equitable tax and wage policies, and protect the neediest of our citizens.
They have not backed down, even when many of their critics suggested perhaps they should not be meddling in such matters and go back to their chancery offices, leaving the business lobbyists free to influence lawmakers without worries about ethics or morals.
But in 2009 and 2010, the bishops stepped into yet another controversial arena, one which they had previously hesitated to enter: the debate over domestic partnerships. And after many years of remaining officially neutral on the issue, they have been persuaded to jump into this fray on the side of those who would deny civil protections to unmarried persons living together.
This is apparently because they have been convinced that domestic partnership rights might be the ledge above a long, slippery slope into legally recognizing gay marriage. Up until last year, the Catholic hierarchy adopted a position that could be called the “if it isn’t about marriage, we won’t be involved” stance. That approach left each Roman Catholic legislator completely free to make up his or her own mind on the issue.
In that environment, it seemed clear that domestic partnership recognition would pass handily in 2009. After all, it had failed by only a single vote in the Senate after passing the House in early 2008, and several of its most vocal opponents had lost re-election bids in the fall to legislators who expressed support for the idea.
The change in the Bishops Conference’s attitude caught advocates for domestic partnership legislation by surprise.
Then, a year later, the bishops flipped their position.
Instead of official neutrality, they adopted a stance of active opposition. Many Catholic legislators who had voted for the bill in previous years were suddenly inundated with phone calls, letters and e-mails warning that this measure was a Trojan Horse ploy to permit gays to marry—regardless of what the bill actually said.
The change in the Bishops Conference’s attitude caught advocates for domestic partnership legislation by surprise. Belatedly, they attempted to find language that might relieve some of the concerns. But at the last minute, the compromise efforts collapsed and domestic partnership rights went down in the Senate by a larger margin (25-17) than in the past.
That means if the measure is to survive this year, at least four of last year’s opponents will have to be persuaded to change their votes. Four switches would create a 21-21 deadlock, and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish will cast the deciding vote.
This year the attempt to appease the “slippery slope” fears produced a bill that is 900 pages long. Instead of adding “or domestic partners” to portions of the state’s statute on marriage, those who drafted the measure outlined each and every right afforded.
If you don’t want to confuse marriage with domestic partnership, you have to go through all the relevant statutes (survivorship; adoptions; insurance and retirement benefits; on and on and on) and insert parallel language in each instance. Hence: 900 pages of soporific reading. And still it didn’t work. The bishops are just as opposed to the bigger version as they were to the smaller one.
In all honesty, it is their opposition that has blocked this measure. They don’t influence very many Catholic legislators, but they influence just enough to sway the results.
As a Catholic, I want to make one last comment about the hypocrisy of some of my church’s leaders. In 1950, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling about a practice that had gone on for some time in some Northern New Mexico school districts. It’s known as the Dixon Case, and it clearly declared unconstitutional the use of Catholic nuns and brothers as teachers in public schools—even when every single student and school board member in that school district was Catholic. The ruling clearly emphasized that “public” in this country means “pluralistic,” and pluralism (all belief systems are equal under the law) is too important a principle to simply allow it to be “put to a vote.”
In 1960, democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in a historic meeting with the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, emphasized that in the United States, Catholics had come to revere pluralism just as much as any other faith had. Kennedy, the first Catholic to be elected to the presidency, met with the ministers because they had expressed fear that if a Catholic were to hold high office, he might be required to do the bidding of the bishops and the pope.
Fifty years later, New Mexico’s bishops appear to have forgotten that important statement.