Origins of that Connecticut Catholic bill

Many other bloggers besides ourselves noticed the absurd and unconstitutional proposal floated in Connecticut’s Judiciary Committee to order the Roman Catholic Church to turn its governance over to boards of laypeople. Prawfsblawg carries the text of a stern letter written by one leading law-and-religion scholar, Douglas Laycock, and signed by a dozen others, including Eugene Volokh and Kate Stith. Following a loud outcry which quickly went national, the lawmakers identified with the bill have agreed to table it, and it’s dead for the session.

Many traditionalist Catholic commentators, like Kathryn Lopez at National Review, have promoted the view that the bill somehow constitutes “retribution” for the Catholic Church’s Culture War stands, specifically its promotion of Proposition 8 in California. (William Lori, Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, has made the same claim.) “The bill is believed to be an act of political retribution for the Catholic church’s opposition to gay marriage,” Lopez writes, and then spends an entire interview eliciting vigorous assent to that proposition from her interviewee, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage.

Reports from news organizations that have looked into the Connecticut controversy, however, tell a different story.

The Greenwich Time of Greenwich, Ct., for example, reported yesterday that the bill arose from constituent pressure following priests’ diversion of large sums of money to their personal use at Catholic churches in Darien (home base of one former priest who’s now in prison) and Greenwich, both well-to-do New York suburbs:

…former state Rep. Claudia “Dolly” Powers, a Republican from Greenwich, pursued similar legislation. Powers said she submitted a proposal on behalf of constituent Tom Gallagher, a driving force behind the bill…

“The parishioners who are most devout are the ones advancing it, and I suspect it would be difficult for (Lori) to criticize his main contributors with some of the highest positions in the Catholic church,” [Sen. Andrew] McDonald said.

Gallagher, a member of the Knights of Columbus and Order of Malta, scoffs at the Bishop’s account of his motivations in promoting the bill; much more can be found at this Stamford Advocate profile of Gallagher. Said to be another backer is “John Santa of Fairfield, vice chairman of Santa Energy and a frequent donor to the church”. Organizationally, the main constituency for the bill appears to be a group called Voice of the Faithful, whose website describes itself as “a lay organization of faithful Catholics, who organized in 2002 as a response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church” and now claims 30,000 members nationwide. That group’s op-ed in the Stamford, Ct. Advocate has a great deal to say about the ins and outs of alleged parish misgovernance, and nothing at all to say about the social issues Lopez and others claim are the real motivation for the bill. And this account of a Voice of the Faithful panel discussion from last April lays out in some detail the thinking of some of the supporters of the idea; headlining the panel were theology professors Paul Lakeland of Fairfield U., who is among other things director of the Center for Catholic Studies at that Jesuit institution, and Holy Cross emeritus professor of church history David O’Brien. The Catholic News Agency is out with a well-reported, if partisan, article on VotF’s and Prof. Lakeland’s roles in the controversy.

Let’s stipulate again that as a matter of constitutional law and sound governance, the Diocese of Bridgeport and National Review are entirely, totally right to denounce S.B. 1098. Perhaps Kathryn Lopez and Brian Brown preferred not to give Voice of the Faithful (or Profs. Lakeland and O’Brien) any publicity by explaining their role in the bill’s origins. But in jamming the controversy into a familiar Culture War matrix the better to stir up a national conservative audience, I suspect they’ve disserved the cause of good reporting.

P.S. In a press release, Voice of the Faithful has distanced itself from the Hartford bill, which it says was drafted and submitted without its participation; more in comments.

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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