When Catholic Bishop Joseph Tyson of Seattle went to testify before the state legislature on a proposed domestic partners law, he surprised people by failing to speak out against it. In fact, he argued that the law should be expanded to include any two people who are legally domiciled together.
But don't be fooled: The Catholic Church is not about to drop its moral qualms about homosexual relationships. In a fine bit of casuistry, Tyson's proposal wouldn't force the Church to bless any particular living arrangement, and it would simultaneously advance one of the church's long-standing public policy goals: extending social benefits like health care more widely.
Washington State's Catholic bishops are mimicking a compromise worked out in San Francisco by then-Archbishop William Levada. There, the issue was benefits for domestic partners of workers in agencies that contract with the city. As in most cities, the Catholic Church is one of the largest contractors for the provision of social services. Levada is no longer in San Francisco. In 2004, newly elected Pope Benedict XVI gave Levada the new Pope's old job as the head of the Vatican's doctrinal office. The Vatican, therefore, is unlikely to oppose the proposal by the Seattle bishop.
This relative moderation is of a piece with an emerging theme in Benedict's papacy. Last summer, in Valencia, at an event on marriage and the family, Benedict declined to recite the laundry list of objections to contemporary social mores. Instead, he urged the Church to find ways to say "yes" to the world, and not merely fall into the role of societal scold. He even declined to challenge the newly enacted gay marriage laws in Spain.
Those who want a culture war--Father Richard John Neuhaus and his acolytes within the Church, and Karl Rove without--will doubtlessly see Bishop Tyson's proposal as backsliding. Nor will it satisfy gay marriage advocates. Therein consists its brilliance: Here is a path that, if followed, could provide actual benefits to same-sex couples without provoking a conservative backlash or another march to the barricades in the culture wars.
--Michael Sean Winters