Higher Goals

Is Bishop Kicanas playing to his base for political gain?

Two years ago, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson joined his Phoenix counterpart, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, to write up a few thoughts on marriage.

In particular, the two opined on gay matrimony, a timely topic considering there was then afoot a ballot measure to make such unions illegal--actually, doubly illegal, considering that same-sex unions are already illicit under Arizona law.

"Far from being a 'merely' religious matter," they wrote, "these truths about marriage are found in the order of nature and can be perceived by human reason. The culture a person lives in can powerfully affect perception. Unfortunately, our own culture is more and more confused on matters of sexuality, and the truth of marriage suffers from the same blurry thinking."

Despite the bishops' support, however, the 2006 "Protect Marriage Arizona" initiative went down to defeat, largely because it also targeted government recognition of domestic partnerships among both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

This year, a trimmed-down version of that effort--focusing solely on gay marriage--snarled to victory at the polls. As before, the bishops were center-stage in what became a predictably ugly campaign.

No one would assume those religious leaders are reveling in their victory. Yet Bishop Kicanas, such a vigorous presence during that divisive campaign, has fallen strangely silent in its aftermath. He didn't return several calls from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

Still, this entire Catholic juggernaut raises a slew of unanswered questions. For instance, while the Phoenix bishop is notoriously right-wing, Kicanas has tended toward progressive stances on social-justice issues such as immigration. So why did he feverishly embrace a ballot proposition that has so polarized the community--including many in his own flock--and discriminates against an entire group of people?

Some suggest that Kicanas could simply be furthering his own ambitions. Among them is Dr. Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Connecticut's Fairfield University. "Many bishops in small dioceses have their eyes on a larger diocese," he says. "So they start watching their words and looking toward Rome."

That means taking conservative positions favored by the Vatican--including strict opposition to gay unions and a chilly outlook on homosexuality in general.

But this also creates a stark dichotomy within the church, says Lakeland. "There's a huge divorce between positions that the bishops maintain, and a significant number of the Catholic population. It's a hot-button issue, but the Catholic population as a whole doesn't think the church should be involved in telling those outside the denomination what to do."

It also causes a great deal of pain, says Bennett Burke, a bishop in the Liberal Catholic Church. Burke's church is among denominations tracing roots back to the apostles, but providing a stark alternative to Roman Catholicism. Called breakaway churches, they welcome a growing number of gay members.

Burke says Kicanas and Olmsted pay a heavy price for their harsh positions. "The way I see the backlash, not just on this particular episode in the Roman Catholic Church, but in general, is measured by the number of people I run into who consider themselves to be ex-Catholics."

They are people "who have just walked away, and given up on a church that asks them to choose between a fundamental part of their human identity--their sexual orientation--and their Roman Catholic identity."

This latest episode may hasten that process, Burke says. "I think it's hard for anyone to remain affiliated with an organization like a church that speaks out strongly against them."

But others refuse to walk away. "I've been a Catholic all my life, and I've just made this decision to stay in and raise hell," says Terry McGuirk, an openly gay, 72-year-old retiree who knows Kicanas personally.

In this case, raising hell includes questioning the bishop's motives. McGuirk points out that Kicanas is currently vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, typically a warm-up for the top slot of that powerful body. "And just in conversations with the guy, he's very cautious not to do anything that would raise the eyes of the other conservatives in the church," McGuirk says. "He agrees with that jackass Olmsted, and he's never done anything positive for the gay Catholics since he's been here."

According to Burke, Kicanas could be shunning gays as a way of appealing to conservative Catholics, much like Gov. Sarah Palin plays to right-wing Republicans. "Just as we've seen in the recent election cycle," Burke says, "people are often preaching messages to their base, because they want to preserve it, rather than reaching across the aisle and across the boundaries to others of different viewpoints."

That base could include conservative, wealthy donors to the Tucson Diocese, such as Republican activist Jim Click. The car dealer has given lavishly to Catholic causes, and helped raise funds for parochial schools. Not surprisingly, he's a regular adornment in the diocese's newsletter, The New Vision.

As it happens, Click was also campaign co-chairman for Tim Bee, the former Arizona State Senate president who ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her District 8 congressional seat. While still in the Legislature, Bee cast the deciding vote to place the anti-gay measure on the 2008 election ballot.

Mere coincidence? Or was the auto magnate among those purportedly pressuring Kicanas to promote his candidate's ballot measure? For his part, Click didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Which raises another question: Where does the Tucson Diocese go from here? Gauging from sentiments among some, the bishop may have a tough time mending fences.

After the 2006 election, Bishop Kicanas professed puzzlement over gay resentment. "I am very sensitive to the concerns I have heard from people of same-sex orientation that they feel they have no place in our parishes or in the household of faith," he wrote in The New Vision. "We need to consider how we as a diocese or how I as bishop may be generating such misunderstanding."

That's hardly rocket science, says McGuirk, who back then called the bishop's remorse "too little, too late."

Today, he just calls it hypocrisy.

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