Few people expect their workplace benefits to be a casualty of the culture wars, but in Washington, DC, the battle over same-sex marriage hit local employees of Catholic Charities square in the pocketbook.
Last December, the District passed a law recognizing same-sex marriage and requiring any organization that has contracts with the city to provide equal spousal benefits to employees regardless of a spouse's gender. DC Catholic Charities, which has extensive contracts with the city to provide social services, argued that it could not offer benefits to same-sex spouses because doing so would violate Catholic teaching on marriage. To avoid that contradiction, it eliminated all spousal benefits for new employees and for current employees who have not elected to cover their spouses. The change became effective after a single day's notice to the organization's approximately 850 employees.
In other words, for the sake of "defending marriage," Catholic Charities has made it harder on its own employees who are or plan to get married. It has also taken the cheap way out: as it hires new employees with this reduced benefits package, it stands to improve its bottom line. Time will tell if Catholic Charities will pass those savings on to employees to supplement their slim social-service salaries.
While the decision may have upheld the church's teaching on marriage, the spirit of Catholic social teaching about fairness to workers got thrown under the bus. The Catholic labor priests of the 20th century would no doubt have objected to Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl's bald statement to The Washington Post that "employers have the right to frame compensation packages." Even more unfortunate is the precedent that the Washington archdiocese sets for the future, since it is unlikely that Wuerl will be the last archbishop to find himself in the same bind between church teaching on marriage and political reality.
Situations like this call for creativity, not retrenchment; a promising solution is modeled by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. That city's board of supervisors began requiring groups with city contracts to provide equal benefits in 1997. Rather than take the easy way out, then-Archbishop William Levada expanded employee benefits, allowing employees to cover any other legally domiciled adult member of a household -- a sibling, parent, or domestic partner.
Defending his position to the likely-suspicious readership of the conservative ecumenical journal First Things, Levada wrote: "We have achieved a notable success by shifting the debate so that what was intended by proponents of the legislation as a requirement that all employers accept an equality of status between domestic partnership and marriage has now become a situation where employers can expand health care benefits, while not being forced to recognize that marriage and domestic partnership are equivalent." That reasoning hardly hurt now-Cardinal Levada's ecclesiastical career; he currently heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
The debate around legal recognition of same-sex relationships has changed dramatically since 1997, but it is clear that its trajectory is leading to greater and greater acceptance. Society in many places is showing a willingness to be more generous to same-sex couples by extending to them the benefits and duties of civil marriage. The Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups who oppose this development have two basic options if they want to continue their social-service partnerships with the state. They can either adopt the DC response -- and, in effect, become as parsimonious as any corporate employer -- or, like San Francisco, they can do civil society one better by being even more generous, widening the circle of protection that benefits such as health insurance offer.
Given the deteriorating and uncompromising tone of the debate, one wonders if Catholic institutions in the future will have the courage to follow San Francisco's lead.
Bryan Cones is managing editor of U.S. Catholic in Chicago. This article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Sojourners.