In March, we ran a column by contributing editor, Michael M. Uhlmann, entitled “The Bishop Blinks” about the San Francisco ordinance extending marriage benefits to gay couples. The city also had demanded that any business or institution receiving city funds do likewise. Catholic Charities, a longtime recipient of tax dollars in San Francisco and elsewhere, clearly fell under the ordinance, prompting the archbishop’s objection. The compromise measure extends marriage benefits to any legally domiciled person in an employee’s household. Following is Archbishop Levada’s letter objecting to our original column and Uhlmann’s reply.
The Bishop Replies
William J. Levada (Archbishop of San Francisco)
Michael Uhlmann’s “The Bishop Blinks” (March, 1997) deserves a thorough reply both for its misinformation about the issues and for its tendentious judgment about my exercise of my responsibilities as bishop. A senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center like Uhlmann should check his facts before rushing into print. I received not even the courtesy of an inquiry.
What are the facts in the case at hand? Did I “blink” or “cave in” to political pressure, as Uhlmann suggests? I believe quite the contrary is true. But the case is complex and does involve local intricacies. For this reason, a commentator should have the patience and the prudence to investigate before leaping to conclusions.
Here is the situation that faced me in my first year as archbishop of San Francisco: During the busy weeks before the 1996 general election, the Board of Supervisors/City Council quietly adopted a new law (unanimously) requiring any business or agency contracting with the city of San Francisco to extend the same benefits they give to spouses (e.g. health, bereavement leave, etc.) to “domestic partners,” a new category adopted by city referendum in 1990 to recognize the commitment of unmarried persons (heterosexual or homosexual) as equivalent to marriage.
Until the 1996 legislation, the fact of being a “domestic partner” affected only those who registered as such. With this new law, the city officials sought to provide groundbreaking “model” legislation, in their words, to end “discrimination” against gays and lesbians who are denied benefits equal to those enjoyed by married couples.
My request for delay in adoption of the new ordinance was refused. Indeed, I was told by the only one of the eleven supervisors to respond to my letter that he already knew what my objections would be (this clairvoyance based on sixteen years of Catholic education!), and refused to let me “discriminate.”
I subsequently wrote to Mayor Brown, asking his assistance in securing an exemption from an ordinance that would require our Church agencies to violate our conscientious position regarding the sanctity of marriage by forcing us to create a new category in our internal benefits polices for “domestic partners,” a category based on a sexual partnership defined as equivalent to marriage. I was resolutely unwilling to comply with this law when it took effect in June, and I made my views known publicly.
Uhlmann’s grasp of the facts in the case seems to fade from this point on. Uhlmann’s error seems based on his idea that Mayor Brown sensed “weakness and offered the diocese a fig leaf.” The facts lead to a contrary conclusion. I was condemned repeatedly for not playing by the city’s rules if I wanted the city’s money for Catholic Charities, and for trying to breach the wall of separation between Church and state. My public response received considerable attention in both local and national media. I challenged the right of a city government to place burdens that would violate religious principles on the appropriate use of public funds. After all, these funds are used by Catholic Charities entirely for the public benefit to aid the poor; and these funds are the people’s money—including Catholics.
I further objected to the argument that the exclusion of domestic partners from spousal equivalent benefits was any more discriminatory against them than it was against any two persons—relatives or friends, for example—who share a domicile. In other words, if city government was interested in broadening benefits to help more people gain health insurance, etc., they could count on my support. If, on the other hand, they insisted on forcing the Church agencies to comply with an ordinance aimed at furthering a homosexual agenda to make us recognize domestic partnership as equivalent to marriage, I would take them to court.
No doubt many hoped we would take the city to court. Uhlmann seems peeved that I ignored “multiple offers of free legal assistance.” In fact, I received two, only one of which hinted at being free. But I saw such a lengthy, expensive, and contentious process—with such an uncertain outcome—as a last resort. When Mayor Brown proposed to act as an intermediary with the supervisors who sponsored the legislation to find an acceptable alternative means of compliance with this new city law, I welcomed the opportunity.
What did we agree to? We agreed that agencies and businesses would be in compliance if their benefits packages allowed unmarried persons to designate another legally domiciled person in their household (including blood relatives) to receive benefits equivalent to those already provided for spouses (without reference to a partnership based on sexual identity or activity). In other words, we took a stand in favor of expanded benefits, which the city could hardly refuse, since its “model” legislation is named “Nondiscrimination in benefits.” But the effect of this agreement is to move the discussion from “discrimination” against homosexuals to one in which the provision of greater benefits is the issue.
Since Catholic agencies now can comply with city law without being forced to recognize a category based on unacceptable sexual criteria, I think we have achieved a breakthrough that is in accord with Catholic moral principles on both marriage and family and social justice.
The value of such a position should not be underestimated. While Uhlmann suggests that my actions undercut the efforts of the Church and others in Hawaii seeking to stop the legalization of gay marriage by the courts, the opposite has proved to be the case. Hawaii is moving toward legislation that recognizes only marriage between a man and a woman, while at the same time seeking to address the fairness issues by providing expanded benefits for another household member, exactly as we have done here. While many businesses like Levi-Strauss and Disney have adopted “domestic partner” benefits provisions, our solution offers an alternative that, if adopted widely enough (Bank of America has chosen this course), will provide a broad group for insurers to offer these expanded benefits at a more reasonable cost.
Uhlmann appears to think that no benefits should be offered to live-in lovers. But surely he needs to rethink such a position. Is it really a matter for an employer to exclude a person from benefits on the basis of activities that are sinful? Even prostitutes, alcoholics, embezzlers—I won’t rehearse the whole catalogue—need health insurance. The problem arises when we are asked to single out and recognize a category based on such activity as part of our employee benefits. This is what our agreement with the city of San Francisco has changed, and in a way that broadens the scope of health benefits for uninsured children, elderly persons, and so many others whose lack of health insurance is genuinely a national scandal.
Who has complained the loudest about the archdiocese’s “win-win” solution with the city? Some homosexual groups (and individuals) who are unhappy about shifting the focus off the gay agenda. Some conservative media that are always ready to “bash the bishop” on the basis of any sketchy or biased report. Some supporters of “unfettered market” capitalism, because it would be cheaper to give benefits only to domestic partners.
The new law is bad legislation on many counts, and no doubt the many problems it has already caused for businesses large and small, not to mention religious agencies, will be compounded in the future. But we think we have done the best we could in these circumstances to ensure a morally acceptable solution, which may even prove valuable in “moving the goal post” on this issue when it arises elsewhere, as it surely will.
But the unkindest cut of all was Uhlmann’s headlined banner that I “missed a golden opportunity to instruct my flock on why the Church believes what it does about homosexuality.” The Catholics of San Francisco, who received my careful, thorough statement on this issue the following Sunday at Mass, would not support that judgment, I can confidently say. Neither should the readers of CRISIS believe it.
Michael M. Uhlmann
Archbishop Levada’s willingness to discuss an important and controversial decision confirms the opinion, rendered in the first paragraph of my March column, that he is a faithful shepherd and a man of good will. My esteem for his character and abilities, however, did not (and does not) preclude my judgment that the modus vivendi he reached in San Francisco was a serious mistake. Bishop Levada’s reply has not only not dissuaded me, it has prompted a new worry: I now fear that, precisely because he is a good man who wishes to be recognized for his loyalty to the Magisterium, he will defend his decision, not merely as a prudential necessity, but as a positive achievement worthy of emulation.
A wise man once remarked that it takes more time to refute a refutation than it does to restate an argument. Lacking both time and space, I will limit my comments to what I think is the central flaw in the Archbishop’s position, but before doing so I would like to clear up a preliminary matter. Bishop Levada takes umbrage because, he says, I “rush[ed] into print” without the courtesy of an inquiry in his direction. But I hardly “rushed” into print. By the time I wrote, the matter had been widely ventilated for some weeks in the news media and in episcopal circles as well where, I hasten to add, the San Francisco resolution has not been uniformly applauded. As my column was an opinion-piece, not a news story, and as the essential facts were not in dispute, there would have been little point to a conversation. The difference between us has to do not with the facts but with their interpretation.
Bishop Levada defends his action on two grounds. First, the Church will not now have to acknowledge the moral equivalency of marriage and homosexual “domestic partnerships” as a condition of receiving City funds. That is certainly an improvement, and had Bishop Levada defended this outcome as the least bad resolution under difficult circumstances, he could have chalked it up as a tactical victory and girded himself for the next assault against Church teaching on marriage and sexuality. But the Bishop also argues that by expanding the definition of domestic partner to include any legally domiciled member of the employee’s household, he achieved a “breakthrough” that “broadens the scope of health benefits for uninsured children, elderly persons and so many others whose lack of health insurance is genuinely a national scandal.” Furthermore, he says he moved the discussion from one of “‘discrimination’ against homosexuals to one in which the provision of greater benefits is the issue.”
This argument is persuasive only if one assumes that the dispute between the Church and the City had to do with the distribution of insurance benefits to the needy. But the fight began, let us remember, when the City sought to coerce the Church into subsidizing homosexual and other morally illicit relationships. This legislative impertinence was politically and legally unprecedented, and more than arguably unconstitutional on at least three grounds. But let that pass. The larger point, from which Bishop Levada prescinds, is that the regulation was only incidentally concerned with benefits; its central purpose was to advance the cause so long sought by gay activists—the legitimation of homosexual relationships as the moral equivalent of marriage. It is all well and good to discuss expanded economic benefits for the needy, but I fear that by doing so, Bishop Levada has allowed himself to be drawn onto the ground of his—and the Church’s—enemies. Men of good will are, I think, particularly inclined to lower their guard when otherwise dubious policies are advanced in the name of aiding the needy. Here, the interests of the poor and elderly, and of vulnerable children, are being exploited on behalf of an agenda that has a wholly extraneous and baleful purpose. No less exploited are the good intentions of those with charitable dispositions.
But to stress the quantity and distribution of benefits, as Bishop Levada does, confuses the idea of the common good as it has been authoritatively articulated in Church social teaching with the idea of social welfare as it is bandied about by politicians and bureaucrats. There are points of coincidence between the two, to be sure, but they are not the same thing. This is a larger subject than can be dealt with now, but suffice it to say here that the Church has never equated the good of society, rightly understood, with the distribution of material things, even certifiably good things like expanded insurance coverage.
Moreover, utilitarian debate about who ought to get what kind of benefits diverts our attention from the disintegration of the family, which is directly or indirectly the cause of virtually all the social and economic ills that rightly worry Bishop Levada. The causes of its disintegration are complex and beyond my present purpose, but easy divorce and the contraceptive revolution probably did more than all the economic factors one could name.
We shall be a long time putting those particular genies back in the bottle, but the traditional family is not going to survive very long if the special benefits and protections bestowed upon marriage are whittled away in the name of advancing an extraneous social agenda. These benefits and protections are woven by the dozens throughout our legal system, in everything from income tax treatment and the distribution of property to the custody of children and the relationship of spouses to relatives and third parties.
They were put into the law precisely to mark marriage as a decisively important—indeed, the decisively important— social institution. Gay rights activists and others who for diverse reasons oppose the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the family resent the law’s protection of marriage as an affront to their autonomy, and they will not rest until the last vestige of that special protection is eliminated. It is precisely for that reason that those who would defend marriage must also defend the traditional dispensations of the law that protect it, and they must do so forcefully and without apology.
When the very idea of marriage itself is under assault across a wide moral and legal front, it is unwise and dangerous, though no doubt more comforting, to talk divertingly about whether and to what extent people other than married persons could benefit from another’s insurance coverage. Whatever the merit of this observation, in the present context, it trivializes the larger issue. The extension of marital benefits to an apparently unlimited class of other relationships—which is precisely what would be permitted under the revised San Francisco regulation—cannot but further undermine the institution of marriage. It is not clear whether the chief “beneficiaries” of Levada’s compromise will be homosexuals or heterosexual couples living together without benefit of clergy, but he’s going to find it hard to sell the virtues of marriage to people who can obtain most of its social and economic (not to mention its sexual) benefits without pledging their troth.
Finally, Bishop Levada is going to have a hard time preventing his argument from becoming just one more battering ram against the full range of benefits now reserved more or less exclusively for married couples. If, for example, an assault mounts against joint-filing status in tax law (a privilege now restricted to married persons), will Bishop Levada consider it another triumph for social justice when that privilege is extended to everyone else? And, closer to home, if the California legislature again passes a state domestic partnership law (as it did in 1994), only this time copying its language from San Francisco’s revised regulation, will he then urge the Governor to sign it because Catholic social teaching favors the extension of economic goods to an ever-expanding class of beneficiaries? And if not, what will his argument be?