BALTIMORE -- Those who expected Cardinal Timothy Dolan to lambast election victories for same-sex marriage in four states, including the one where the Catholic bishops are meeting this week, were surprised when he used his presidential address to urge the bishops to practice repentance and confession.
The task of reviewing the votes on same-sex marriage fell to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who warned that if the Supreme Court takes up California's ban on same-sex marriage and rules it unconstitutional, it will do to marriage and family laws in the United States what Roe v. Wade did to bans on abortion 40 years earlier.
"Marriage redefinition could ... be forced on the whole country, regardless of various state protections," he said.
The bishops paid attention, but it was Cardinal Dolan's talk that drew a standing ovation.
"The premier answer to the question 'What's wrong with the world?' is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming," he said, quoting the British writer G.K. Chesterton. "The answer to the question 'What's wrong with the world?' is just two words: I am."
He wasn't suggesting repenting of their convictions, but aligning their hearts and souls with Jesus.
The bishops must be "good examples of humble, repentant pastors, aware of our personal and corporate sins, constantly responding to the call of Jesus to interior conversion," he said.
He acknowledged that he would be criticized for not addressing burning public issues but "first things first," he said.
Then the bishops reviewed election-related issues. Archbishop Cordileone repeatedly called the legal situation with same-sex marriage "critical." The bishops and their allies were "vastly outspent by those seeking to redefine marriage."
"We were narrowing the gap and lost by just a small margin," he said. "This is not a time to give up but rather a time to redouble our efforts.
He said many Catholics don't grasp the church's understanding of the nature of marriage. What gay rights groups regard as marriage equality and legal protection for partners and their children, the bishops regard as social engineering that undermines the most basic building block of society. They believe marriage is defined by the fact that a man and a woman are both necessary to create a baby.
"Marriage is not a matter of two consenting adults simply coming together for the state to ratify their romantic relationship. Rather, marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union. It's child-centered, and its meaning is written in our nature," Archbishop Cordileone said.
He said the bishops are continuing a video series for young Catholics about the nature of marriage, including one formatted as a Spanish-language soap opera.
"We try to be sensitive to people who disagree with us," he said at a news conference. "All bishops are open to dialogue with partners who disagree with us on a whole range of issues."
Several bishops reported on other public policy initiatives. They celebrated the lopsided defeat of an assisted suicide initiative in Massachusetts, where Cardinal Sean O'Malley said the medical community, disabilities rights groups and many liberal political figures joined them in opposition. The church was a leader in another broad coalition in California that nearly succeeded in passing an initiative to abolish the death penalty. The bishops regarded 47 percent for abolition as progress.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said the bishops of Maryland, working with other immigrant rights groups, turned back strong initial opposition to pass a state version of the Dream Act. It will allow high school graduates who were brought to the United States illegally as young children to attend community colleges at in-state tuition rates.
Archbishop Lori is the bishops' point man on religious freedom, which includes their high-profile conflict with the Obama administration over new health care rules requiring most employers to pay for contraceptives, sterilizations and morning-after drugs in their employees' health insurance. They aren't satisfied with a proposed compromise for religiously affiliated hospitals and social service agencies, and argue that such institutions should fall under the same exemption that houses of worship do.
"It's impossible to know how the rule-making process will turn out," Archbishop Lori said. "The political landscape is the same, but so is our resolve to eliminate the HHS mandate."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.