Last Sunday in Baltimore's St. Vincent de Paul Church, its longtime pastor, the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, delivered a thoughtful and nuanced argument for support of the Question 6 ballot referendum.
This, of course, was news in Roman Catholic circles — an opinion from the pulpit fully at odds with the hierarchy of a church that has devoted much time and money to voter rejection of a Maryland law that allows couples of the same sex to wed.
Lawrence is the most eloquent homilist I've ever heard. I didn't attend the Mass where he delivered his pro-Q6 homily. But I saw and listened to the video posted to the parish's web site. I found it courageous, illuminating and inspiring. That was Monday.
Two days later, the video was gone. It had been deleted from its Vimeo platform at 3:27 am Wednesday.
I inquired about what had happened, but the pastor declined to comment and I haven't heard back from St. Vincent's. I assume Lawrence's superiors might have had something to do with the removal of the video. The same day it disappeared, a message about "the teaching role of priests" appeared on the archdiocesan web site.
More on that in a moment.
First, you should read at least part of what Lawrence had to say. Some of his words appear here thanks to the National Catholic Reporter, which quoted the homily in its online edition.
Father Lawrence first read a letter from Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori that implored parishioners to vote against Question 6. The pastor read the letter in full, then added: "The archbishop's thoughts on this question are powerful, and will be persuasive in conscience to many."
He then gave his own views of the question, starting at the dividing line between church and state, saying civil law should be allowed to progress where church law cannot yet go.
He pointed out some awkward conflicts between church teaching and practice. Example: "While the federal courts respect the rights of churches not to hire anyone for a ministerial position whose marriage does not comply with the laws of that church, we do hire and pay spousal benefits, such as medical insurance, for employees whose marriages are not valid in the eyes of church law."
He noted that the church has always "been willing to marry couples in the church even though their ages suggest strongly that the procreation and education of children is no longer a possibility."
"Could we not then say that [a gay couple's] devotion to and support of each other ... could be recognized by the church as a valid sacrament of God's unrelenting faithfulness to us just as much as the union of an elderly straight couple? Neither will procreate children, but both can be sacraments of God's faithfulness in the living out of their commitment to each other. ...
"It seems to me," he said, "that even if we do not believe that gay marriage ever could or should be allowed in the church, we could live with a provision that allows civil marriage of gay and lesbian couples."
Father Lawrence expressed the belief that one day the church "could come to recognize the total, exclusive and permanent union of gay and lesbian couples as part of the sacrament of matrimony"
Despite his support for Question 6, Father Lawrence made clear that he would not celebrate the marriages of same-sex couples. "I have attended, and will continue to attend, the weddings of gay and lesbian persons whom I love and support," he said. "But I cannot perform the ceremony."
Toward the end of the homily, Lawrence said: "So there you have it: the official teaching of the church and my personal reflections." The congregation gave him a standing ovation.
The same day the video of Father Lawrence's homily disappeared from St. Vincent's web site, Archbishop Lori issued his statement on "the teaching role of priests."
"Preaching the word of God," he said, "requires subordination of personal views to the word of God as taught by the Catholic Church. This was my promise when I became a priest, as it is the promise of every priest at his ordination. … No bishop, priest or deacon has the right to use the pulpit to advance his personal opinions. … May all priests, including myself, be mindful of their obligation to preach the Gospel even when it is unpopular with prevailing culture."
None of this surprised me — not Father Lawrence's courage in speaking from conscience, not the church's predictable position against such a challenging expression from the pulpit. The church feels empowered to press its views about a civil matter, to lobby and to influence representatives, to campaign, to be a player in the democratic process that culminates in Tuesday's election. And yet the church is itself no democracy; it refuses to hear dissent, even from one of its most eloquent and faithful servants speaking about a matter of civil justice.