The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland plans a statewide series of public meetings to promote its view of marriage, just as the campaign over November’s same-sex marriage referendum heats up.
Suzanne Lafreniere, associate director of public policy for the diocese, said speakers at the meetings will “promote the principles of the faith” in nine lectures beginning Saturday.
“The big take-away is, marriage is the union of man and woman and any children born of that union,” she said. “This is part of our communications effort. We’ll be continuing our educational efforts after the election.”
In 2009, the diocese played a leading role in the repeal of a state law that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry.
Marc Mutty, the diocese’s communications director, took a leave of absence to help run the campaign. Bishop Richard Malone, who recently became bishop in Buffalo, took extra Sunday collections to help fund the effort. The diocese donated more than $500,000 to the campaign that overturned the law.
This time, Lafreniere said, the diocese will not donate any money to the campaign, nor will it take up extra collections to oppose same-sex marriage. Any money spent on education will come from a fund that is part of the church’s ongoing effort to remind parishioners about Catholic doctrine, she said.
In March, Malone issued a 22-page pastoral letter on marriage that touches on divorce, cohabitation without marriage, and his concern that “there is another attempt underway in Maine to redefine marriage so that it would no longer be exclusively the union of a man and a woman as God established and blessed it in the created order of nature.”
Supporters of same-sex marriage say they, too, have support from religious groups — including one called Catholics for Marriage Equality — and they will work to win votes through those channels.
Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage, which supports same-sex marriage, said his campaign’s effort to speak one-on-one with voters has shown that Catholics are more likely to change their minds on the issue than other people.
“When it comes to issues like this, Catholics are used to thinking the issue through, hearing the official positions, then thinking for themselves and making adjustments for their own life,” said McTighe, who grew up in a Catholic family in Connecticut.
Specifically, McTighe said, Catholics have made their own decisions about contraception and abortion, despite church directives.
“They change to make that work within their faith and they consider themselves no less Catholic, nor should they,” he said.
Reaching out to people of faith will be a significant part of the effort on both sides.
Of those who claim a religious affiliation in Maine, 29 percent are Catholic, 26 percent are mainline Protestant and 15 percent are evangelical Protestant, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. One-quarter of Mainers are not affiliated with any religion, according to Pew.
Bob Emrich of Protect Marriage Maine, the leading opponent to same-sex marriage, said he welcomes the educational sessions.
“There’s a large Catholic population in Maine,” he said. “For the most part, they tend to be very engaged in terms of voting. I wouldn’t want to try to win without them.”
Maine is one of four states that will vote Nov. 6 on same-sex marriage. Maine voters will be asked if they want to allow same-sex couples to get marriage licenses.
Maryland and Washington voters will be asked whether they want to uphold or reject laws that allow gay marriage. In Minnesota, lawmakers want voters to decide whether to adopt a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said the Catholic vote is important, but it’s not necessarily a unified bloc.
“It’s the single biggest religious tradition in the state,” he said. “In terms of sheer numbers, it matters.”
More than 190,000 Catholics live in Maine, according to the diocese. But not all oppose gay marriage.
Frank O’Hara, a former speech writer for Democratic governors and the spokesman for Catholics for Marriage Equality, said he’s glad that the diocese has moved its message “out of the middle of the Mass,” an approach that drew complaints in 2009.
Still, O’Hara said, the forums won’t provide the kind of discussion that’s needed to address the issue.
“It would be better if it was an invitation to Catholics to dialogue about marriage,” he said. “All Catholics share the values of fidelity, love, faithfulness. These (forums) are designed to tell us what to believe and how to vote.”
Lafreniere said she has lined up theologians from around New England to speak at the events, and clergy members will serve on the question-and-answer panel.
Because the sessions will be open to the public, they could draw supporters of same-sex marriage. Lafreniere said the organizers will be prepared for give and take “so long as people are respectful.”
“Even Catholics don’t always agree with the church on it,” she said.
Staff Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at: