In early 2003, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts engaged in a vigorous public debate over the definition of marriage. A proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as the stable union of a man and a woman, H.3190, was introduced in the Massachusetts legislature. On April 28, 2003, three Catholic priests, including Fr. James Keenan, SJ (then of the Weston School of Theology, now of Boston College) testified against H.3190.
Fr. Keenan began his testimony as follows: “I am here today to testify against H.3190 because it is contrary to Catholic teaching on social justice.” Fr. Keenan concluded his testimony on the same note: “…as a priest and as a moral theologian, I cannot see how anyone could use the Roman Catholic tradition to support H. 3190.”
- On June 2, 2003, staff members of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference [MCC] issued a “Memorandum by MCC Staff on the Erroneous Testimony on Catholic Teaching” that had been given at the April 28 hearing. The memorandum made the following points:
- In the course of his argument against the Massachusetts marriage amendment, which he claimed would “deny ‘gays and lesbians’ the ‘full range of human and civil rights,’ Fr. Keenan erroneously stated that ‘[t]his same position has been endorsed by the United States Catholic Bishops.’”
- Fr. Keenan and his fellow-witnesses did not inform the MCC, “the official representative of the Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts before the state legislature,” of their proposed testimony beforehand, nor did they inform the committee that they were speaking without the knowledge or approval of the MCC.
- All three priests who testified, including Fr. Keenan, “mischaracterized the teaching of the Catholic Church generally, while two [including Fr. Keenan] mischaracterized the position of the Catholic Bishops specifically,” by attempting to buttress their position with the U.S. bishops’ statement, “Always Our Children.”
- As a result of Fr. Keenan’s testimony and that of his fellow-witnesses, “members of the committee expressed their confusion about the Catholic Church’s position on the [marriage] amendment, on same-sex marriage, and on their moral responsibility as legislators.” The MCC staffers went on to note that, based on their conversation with committee members, “the testimony left the false impression that the priests were speaking from authority, and that their private opinions represented the official position of the Catholic Church…”
Fr. Keenan’s Boston College colleague, Fr. David Hollenbach, SJ, has declared his intention to denounce as “malicious slander” a recent column in which I wrote that Fr. Keenan’s testimony had argued that “the principles of Catholic social doctrine did not merely tolerate ‘gay marriage,’ they demanded it.” That was, perhaps, too telegraphic an interpretation of Father Keenan’s considerable rhetorical dexterity, both in his testimony and in a subsequent “Clarification” issued after public criticism of his position. So let me propose an emendation, based entirely on the public record:
In his 2003 testimony before the Massachusetts state legislature, Fr. Keenan argued that a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the stable union of a man and a woman offended Catholic social justice principles and ought to be rejected. In the course of his testimony, Fr. Keenan also misrepresented the teaching of the American bishops, appealed to a theologically dubious magisterium of theologians, failed to tell the legislators the Massachusetts bishops’ position on H.3190, and neglected to inform the legislators of recent, authoritative Vatican statements on the subject — all of which created the impression among legislators that justice required the rejection of any legal definition of “marriage” as the stable union of a man and a woman.
The Web site of MassEquality, a pro-”gay marriage” group (http://www.massequality.org/), lists Fr. Keenan’s name under the tag line, “Support for marriage equality can be found everywhere,” and provides a link to Fr. Keenan’s April 28, 2003 testimony. This raises two questions:
Will Fr. Hollenbach now publicly damn MassEquality for “malicious slander?”
Will Fr. Keenan ask MassEquality to remove from its Web site what Fr. Hollenbach evidently regards as a malicious and slanderous misinterpretation of his testimony?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.