The Catholic governor of Maryland joins the gay-marriage juggernaut.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore and Maryland Gov. Martin J. O'Malley are seen in Annapolis

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore and Maryland Gov. Martin J. O'Malley are seen in Annapolis, Md., in a 2009 photo. (CNS)Illustrating the Latin proverb that the corruption of the best is the worst, many Catholic politicians continue to lead the charge against the natural moral law. Having already defined themselves as champions of “abortion rights,” they now turn aggressively to the culmination of gay ones.

The Catholic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has been enjoying a victory lap after pushing gay marriage through his state’s legislature. Political pundits, citing Cuomo’s success on this issue, now frequently talk about him as a future presidential candidate. Envious of his glory, other Catholic politicians seek to follow in his footsteps. The Catholic governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, wants to be “the next Andrew Cuomo,” says the press. O’Malley has announced that passage of gay marriage will henceforth be one of his chief legislative priorities.

“There are times in Annapolis when a governor’s support can move an issue over the goal line,” he has said. “I think we can learn from what they did [in New York].”

Far from afraid of the Church’s reaction to his enthusiasm for gay marriage, O’Malley has publicized it. In August, he released to the press letters that he had exchanged with Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien about gay marriage.

“Maryland is not New York,” Archbishop O’Brien wrote to him. “We urge you not to allow your role as the leader of our state to be used in allowing the debate surrounding the definition of marriage to be determined by mere political expediency. The people of Maryland deserve no less.”

“I do not presume, nor would I ever presume as governor, to question or infringe upon your freedom to define, to preach about, and to administer the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church,” O’Malley replied. “But on the public issue of granting equal civil marital rights to same-sex couples, you and I disagree…. I look forward to working with you on other issues of mutual agreement. And I respect your freedom to disagree with me as a citizen and as a religious leader without questioning your motives.”

This patronizing pat on the head and easy dismissal illustrates the audacity of heterodox Catholic pols in contrast to the circumspection and reserve of the hierarchy. In victory, Andrew Cuomo offered a similar pat on the head to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, saying that his participation in the gay marriage debate was “reasonable,” by which Cuomo meant ineffectual.

It is depressing that even at this late date most Catholic bishops still refuse to deny Communion to such openly defiant Catholic politicians. This neglect of the authority available to them reduces them to the level of letter-writers.

Writing in the Huffington Post, author Julian Guthrie wonders “how progressive Democrats remain Catholics.” The answer is, she concludes, that they can define Catholicism on their own terms:

…when I look at prominent Catholic politicians with liberal social agendas and wonder how they attend Mass on Sunday and legislate something very different on Monday, I have my answer. Catholicism, a club with magisterial rituals, good deeds, arcane teachings, and more than one billion adherents, is far from monolithic. The house rules that apply are those set by believers themselves. These are the everyday Catholics who may honor their pope but disagree with papal positions, and who hold their faith close but have disdain for much of the dogma. The Catholics who fill the nation’s pews share something with the politicians at the podium: they believe that resistance and reverence can go together like bread and wine.

One would think this state of affairs might shock bishops into a reassertion of their authority under canon law. But for the most part it doesn’t. Cardinal Raymond Burke’s position remains a lonely one. The head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court has said repeatedly that bishops have not only the right but the duty to withhold Communion from defiant Catholic public figures for the good of souls, the prevention of scandal, and the protection of the sacraments. To the familiar argument from bishops that withholding Communion is contrary to proper pastoral practice, Cardinal Burke says, “What would be profoundly more sorrowful would be the failure of a bishop to call a soul to conversion, the failure to protect the flock from scandal, and the failure to safeguard the worthy reception of Communion.” 

Whether or not Communion should be given to an Andrew Cuomo or Martin O’Malley isn’t even a close call. They could not be clearer about their declaration of independence from the Church and lack of communion with her teachings. But as long as the Church doesn’t apply canon law to them, they figure that the political costs of claiming to be Catholic while serving openly in the anti-Catholic vanguard are manageable.

Had Archbishop O’Brien written to inform O’Malley that he should no longer present himself for Communion, O’Malley might not have publicized the exchange so proudly. The irony is that O’Malley couldn’t have objected to that exercise of authority. After all, as he wrote in his letter, the archbishop has the “freedom to define, to preach about, and to administer the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.”

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