‘Waning influence’ of Maryland Catholics?

I like the concept of a Washington Post story on the Maryland Senate’s passage of a same-sex marriage bill.

I’m not in love with the execution of the piece, which focuses on Catholic lawmakers.

Read the story’s opening, and it seems that the state’s three top leaders are all devout Catholics, and all are bucking the church on the issue:

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley regularly attends a weekday Mass and has sent his four children to Catholic schools.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) used to teach and coach at his old Catholic high school in Annapolis.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) grew up serving as an altar boy in the idyllic wood-frame Catholic church his family helped build in Clinton.

But the presence of three Catholics at the helm in Annapolis hasn’t stopped a same-sex marriage bill from wending its way through the legislature, triggering deep disappointment among church leaders as it suggests a waning of Catholic influence in this heavily Catholic state.

Not so fast, though. Keep reading, and the story gets a little more complicated. So much so that one wonders if the headline — Md’s top leaders cross Catholic hierarchy on gay marriage — isn’t a tad misleading. Or maybe a whole lot misleading.

To wit:

– O’Malley has said he’ll sign the bill if it reaches his desk. But far from advocating same-sex marriage, he seems to be willing to accept that terminology because he believes that “civil unions” should provide gays with the same legal protections as heterosexual couples:

“I’d be willing to sign any law that reaches me as long as it protects rights equally. I’m not going to get hung up on the words used to describe equal protection under the law.”

– Busch comes across as a nominal Catholic. He won’t say how often he attends Mass and readily acknowledges that “I’m not a guy who makes every Sunday.”

– And Miller characterizes himself as “not a very good Catholic.” Despite that, he actually voted against this particular bill. In fact, this is how a Baltimore Sun story describes him:

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, another opponent, also believes Marylanders would reject same-sex marriage at referendum, in part because the question would share the 2012 ballot with President Barack Obama’s re-election.

Miller predicted that Obama’s name will motivate two constituencies likely to oppose same-sex marriage: Conservatives voting against the president and blacks who supported Obama in record numbers two years ago.

How exactly is Miller — as an opponent of the same-sex marriage bill — bucking the Catholic hierarchy? This is how the Post explains it:

And although Miller voted against the bill in the Senate on Thursday, he had moved to head off a filibuster attempt by opponents so that it could move forward.

What was Miller’s reasoning for heading off a filibuster? The story doesn’t say.

Confused yet?

I did appreciate that the story gives all of the three top lawmakers an opportunity to discuss their Catholic backgrounds and how their religious beliefs inform — and don’t inform — their politics. For instance, Miller points to his parents to explain one of his first high-profile breaks with the church in his 25-year tenure as Senate president:

In the early 1990s, Miller, a gregarious lawyer, presided over two grueling years of debate over abortion, siding with those who wanted to put protections for women into Maryland law in the event Roe v. Wade was repealed.

Miller said his mother told him that “it was a women’s issue and that I needed to support the women.”

Miller has since been a strong advocate on some issues affecting the Catholic Church, including a proposed tax credit to help bolster its schools. But he said he’s “not a very good Catholic” despite regular attendance at churches in his district.

“I think we should have women for priests,” he said. “I think there should be contraception to stop the spread of AIDs in Africa. I support capital punishment, and I’m pro-choice in the early stages of pregnancy.”

Still, as I read the Post story, I kept looking for concrete details to back up the claim up high that the same-sex marriage bill’s passing “suggests a waning of Catholic influence in this heavily Catholic state.” But outside of this one vote in the state Senate, the story provides no context to back up that statement. No background is given to assess Catholic influence — or not — in the past. No facts are offered to indicate how exactly the reported influence has waned.

At the end of this 1,600-word piece, two things are clear: 1. Three top Maryland lawmakers have Catholic backgrounds. 2. The state Senate narrowly passed a same-sex marriage bill. But where the Catholic church fits in the bill’s passage — and in the state’s political trends — remains extremely murky. At least to me.

Agree? Disagree?

Read the whole story and weigh in with your comments. Remember, GetReligion is concerned about journalism and media coverage, not the same-sex marriage issue itself.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Bern

    Agree–lousy headline. The story provides no information on the past influence on Maryland legislation of the Catholic hierarachy (not the Catholic church; despite some wishing to the contrary they are not the same thing). That really might have been interesting . . . but there was a lot of assuming going on in this story, that the reader was as well versed in the official Catholic teaching on the death penalty as on abortion. I’m guessing the writer was Catholic.

  • Jerry

    I don’t see the headline as misleading. The story was, after all, about Catholics not following the church’s guidance and that is what the headline says. How observant those Catholics are is a legitimate question, but this story fits in a larger story about how many Catholics ignore the teachings of the church.

    But one issue comes up repeatedly that needs to be addressed: [marriage] should be reserved for people with the potential for procreation. That eliminates the ability for women past menopause or a woman who has had a hysterectomy from getting married because there is no potential for procreation. But in story after story that particular point is ignored. I wonder why.

  • Passing By

    they are not the same thing

    Nor are they something different. The Church is the whole Body gathered around their bishop . Together – lay and clergy – they are the presence of Christ in the world today (so Catholics believe).

    Catholics not following the church’s guidance

    These two quotes together illustrate as well as anything the problems people have talking about, much less reporting about, the Catholic Church, and, really, any community. In a fundamentally individualist culture, we simply don’t know how to talk about communities. Either we create distance between leadership and membership (sort of like we learned to speak of “management” vs. “labor”, with bad outcomes) or we talk like there is some kind of group consciousness.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    From a journalistic perspective, we are back into the territory covered in previous debates about abortion.

    How do BISHOPS handle the sacramental status of those who openly and concretely oppose the teachings of the church.

    Note that this is not essentially a political question. The politicians are totally free do to what they want to do.

    But what about the division WITHIN THE CHURCH, within a parish? Clearly the American Catholics are not doctrinally united. What do bishops do about unity AT THEIR ALTARS?

    In other words, where is the religion coverage of this essentially religious issue?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Why is it only Catholics who have to explain their relationship with their church to the media??? Here in Ma. Mike Dukakis–a Greek Orthodox–was governor. Yet the Orthodox Churches have the same moral stance on social issues like abortion as the Catholic Church does. However, in all the years he was governor here and when he ran for president there was virtually nothing in the media about how his church was dealing with or their bishop’s attitude toward his trashing some of the bedrock moral issues at the heart of Christian orthodoxy West and East.
    Another point, Maryland was founded as a refuge for English Catholics–But does it still have a high population of Catholics the way the news article portrayed it as a “heavily Catholic state.”
    A great irony here. According to news accounts bills to provide Catholics and Catholic institutions conscience protection in the face of Gay demands if pro-Gay laws were passed were apparently killed in the legislature.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector

    Re: Yet the Orthodox Churches have the same moral stance on social issues like abortion as the Catholic Church does

    I’m actually curious about this….what is the stance of the Orthodox Church on the issue of abortions where the mother’s life is at risk? I’ve seen some conflicting things said about this. I know the RC Church holds that abortion is always forbidden including in ‘life of the mother’ cases, and I know that the Church of England believes abortion can be morally licit in such cases, but I’m curious to know what the Orthodox think.

  • Harold

    “How do BISHOPS handle the sacramental status of those who openly and concretely oppose the teachings of the church.”

    But is an issue the mainstream media should be concerned about? I can understand why the Catholic press cares, but what is the public interest–justifying mainstream media coverage–in the private conversations/discipline by church officials and a politician?

    While this is an issue that titillates in certain circles of religious conservatives, is there any evidence that this is an use that the general public (a) needs to know about or (b) wants to know about?

    I’m not sure mainstream journalists should be staking-out the archdiocese offices and local Catholic churches to find out about private conversations with politicians.

  • Harold

    “Why is it only Catholics who have to explain their relationship with their church to the media???”

    Because the Orthodox church plays no real role in the public and civic life of America. The Catholic church, in contrast, has inserted itself into the civic life of America and Catholics have real, substantial power.

  • Mike

    If Miller believes citizens in “this heavily Catholic state” would reject same-sex marriage if put to a vote, then the Catholic influence is apparently not waning. It’s as strong as ever and undermines the entire thesis of the article. You simply cannot use three individuals and draw conclusions about an entire state. The only conclusions you can draw is what role the Catholic faith plays in the decisions of these particular public officials. The interesting question would be: If this were put to a vote and same-sex marriage was defeated, would the reporter write a story about how influential the Catholic Church is in Maryland??

  • Kyle

    But one issue comes up repeatedly that needs to be addressed: [marriage] should be reserved for people with the potential for procreation. That eliminates the ability for women past menopause or a woman who has had a hysterectomy from getting married because there is no potential for procreation. But in story after story that particular point is ignored. I wonder why.

    I think the problem is exactly the opposite of what you identify. I consistently see that objection trotted out. What I never, ever, ever see in news coverage is the response to that objection: specifically that it is not about the “potential” for procreation but that it’s about acts ordered toward procreation, a very different thing which a world that has lost the ability to speak in terms of teleology has difficulty grasping. If you put a Pop Warner football team up against the Pittsburgh Steelers they would have no potential for scoring a touchdown, but they would still be playing football. If you put the Pittsburgh Penguins out on the football field with sticks and skates to smack around a puck, they also would lack the ability to score a touchdown, but for a different reason: they are doing something other than playing football.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector

    Re: Because the Orthodox church plays no real role in the public and civic life of America.

    Neither do the Christian Scientists, but you can bet that if a Christian Scientist ran for office, everyone would want to know (and with very good reason) whether he shared the belief of his church about medicine and illness.

  • Julia

    Same-sex marriage legislation is not in the same league as abortion legislation. There are some things much more serious than others.

    The Church might not think that same-sex civil marriage is a good idea for the culture, but a civil recognition of a relationship does not involve death or harm to innocent people; or break any commandment to my knowledge.

    The reporter is making much too big a deal of this vis a vis official Catholic approbation.


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