CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: San Francisco Archbishop Compromises on Domestic Partnerships

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

San Francisco Archbishop Compromises on Domestic Partnerships

On February 21, 1997, The National Catholic Reporter carried a small story for a decision that was actually big news.  Under the headline, “Archbishop Levada, San Francisco Compromise,”  the newspaper reported:

“The San Francisco archdiocese has agreed to provide employees with ‘spousal-equivalent’ benefits to comply with a city ordinance requiring contractors to extend job benefits to domestic partners of gay and lesbian workers.

“Archbishop William Levada had asked San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown for an exemption to the law and threatened to sue the city under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act if no such exemption was made.

“A compromise reached in a meeting between Levada, Brown and other city officials Feb. 6 will allow employees of city contractors to designate someone in their household to receive ‘spousal-equivalent benefits.’  Designees could include a spouse, sibling, other relative or unmarried partner.

“The changes in the language of the ordinance–which can be adopted by any contractor–permit the church to avoid officially sanctioning homosexual domestic-partner relationships.

“Two Catholic organizations in San Francisco, Catholic Charities and Catholic Health Care West, hold city contracts.”

In an essay in the journal First Things, Levada defended his decision against conservative opposition to it:

Archbishop Levada

“Our solution is not without its critics, and I would not want to discount their objections. But to those like my local Catholic critic who say that we implicitly give recognition to domestic partnerships by not excluding them from benefits, I must demur. Under our plan, an employee may indeed elect to designate another member of the household to receive benefits. We would know no more or no less about the employee’s relationship with that person than we typically know about a designated life insurance beneficiary. What we have done is to prohibit local government from forcing our Catholic agencies to create internal policies that recognize domestic partnerships as a category equivalent to marriage. I agree with moral theologians like William May who see no compromise of Catholic moral principle in this practice.

“Some have suggested that Catholic agencies should not be involved in any use of public monies, since it will inevitably involve them in the compromise of principles, if not sooner then later. I recognize that vigilance is required, since loss of funding could be the basis to justify even formal cooperation in evil. But I do not grant that such is the case here.

“Others have lamented that I did not challenge this ordinance in court. Surely the city did not want a court challenge. But then neither did I relish the prospect of a lengthy, expensive legal challenge with an uncertain outcome, while making adversaries of city officials with whom we should be working on questions that will help address many pressing social needs.”

It is important to remember that Archbishop Levada is not a progressive.  He became the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI, who had been the prefect as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

What is remarkable about this historic development is that it shows that Catholic leaders can find creative ways to live with pro-LGBT equality initiatives.  Indeed, they can even negotiate with political leaders to get past impasses.  This lesson is an important one for the 21st century where Catholic leaders too often choose an all-or-nothing approach to questions of religious liberty.  Instead of choosing a scorched earth policy of pulling out of all connections with the governmental and secular worlds, Catholic leaders can, if they choose, find ways to find common ground with those who promote LGBT equality.

Of course, the best thing would be if Catholic leaders would simply outright promote LGBT equality based on their Catholic principles of human dignity and respect for all.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 27, 2018


2 replies
  1. Allen Boedeker
    Allen Boedeker says:

    Blessings on the Archbishop’s willingness to look for ways to work with civic leaders and statutes without compromising Church teaching. May he be a model for other prelates who can make these fine distinctions for the benefit of both sides of this issue.

  2. Richard Boyle, OSM
    Richard Boyle, OSM says:

    Archbishop Levada wasn’t even close to being progressive. But he was rational and a very intelligent man… Who very carefully curated his words to find the elusive middle space on a divisive issue. Too bad the current Archbishop of SF, Cordileone, has few or any such talents or abilities.


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