National Commentary

Daniel Avila: The Catholic Culture Warrior Who Went Too Far


In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has veered hard right and become politically active in opposing abortion rights and marriage equality in America. For example, they played a key role in thwarting marriage for same-sex couples in Maine and have refused to give communion to pro-choice politicians such as Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).

Beginning under Pope John Paul II and accelerating under the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has inserted itself repeatedly into America’s “culture war.” In a doctrine called “co-belligerence,” the Catholic leadership has joined forces with the evangelical right to fight against the perceived threat of secularism. Bitter extremists who are quick to incense are overshadowing the sweet and peaceful aroma of church incense.

Unfortunately, for the church, one of its lead cultural warriors took it a bit too far when he ventured from co-belligerence to flat out belligerence. Dan Avila was forced to resign from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he served as policy advisor for Marriage and Family, after penning a column for The Boston Pilot that suggested Satan might cause people to become gay. According to the Avila’s column:

“…the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil. Any time natural disasters occur, we as people of faith look back to Scripture’s account of those angels who rebelled and fell from grace. In their anger against God, these malcontents prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. They continue to do all they can to mar, distort and destroy God’s handiwork. Therefore, whenever natural causes disturb otherwise typical biological development, leading to the personally unchosen beginnings of same-sex attraction, the ultimate responsibility, on a theological level, is and should be imputed to the evil one, not God.”

Avila’s demonizing words represented a major obstacle to the church’s questionable claim that it respects all people. It’s one thing for the Catholic Church to team up with Pat Robertson and quite another for its representatives to actually become Pat Robertson. While the actions of the church have become increasingly hostile and homophobic, up until this point their slick PR team had made an effort to appearreasonable. Avila’s screed lacked nuance and it appeared that the Church had gone full-blown Satan, like they were part of a Saturday Night Live skit with the Church Lady.

It seems that the Church had finally been pushed to its limit – at least for now. Prior to his resignation, The Boston Pilot, America’s oldest Catholic newspaper, retracted the tantrum: “his column does not represent the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the column was not authorized for publication as is required policy for staff of the USCCB.”

Only weeks before the brouhaha, Avila appeared at the Voter Values Summit in Washington, DC. In a video that I filmed with my telephone camera, Avila spoke of a furtive Catholic plot to undermine marriage equality in Massachusetts. While pontificating on stage he said, “a deliberate uprising has been put in motion, a careful tilling of the political soil has created a bumper crop of many new legislators dedicated to letting the people vote [on marriage equality].”

The more the Catholic Church plays political hardball, the more polarizing screwballs it seems to attract. In recent years we’ve seen the conversion to Catholicism of verbal flamethrowers such as Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Exhibit A is the perpetually aggrieved Bill Donahue from the Catholic League, a blustery bulldog who is about the only person in the world who can make Pope Benedict XVI actually seem warm and sympathetic.

Donahue once had to be reined in after defending the Mel Gibson movie Passion of the Christ by saying, “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it. That’s why they hate this movie. It’s about Jesus Christ, and it’s about truth. It’s about the Messiah.”

The ironic part of the Catholic Church’s recent posturing is that it is a morally challenged institution that has yet to recover from multiple and ongoing pedophile priest scandals. Even as it scrounges up dwindling funds to fight marriage equality, it closes down Catholic schools across the nation. This shows grossly misplaced priorities and an unnatural obsession with homosexuality that has been elevated above the wellbeing of children who are losing their schools.

To underscore the Catholic Church’s falling moral authority, once staunchly Catholic Ireland announced this week that it will close its embassy to the Vatican. This once unthinkable move is a major hit to the Vatican’s reputation and worldwide standing.

The Vatican should get back to basics and forgo the self-destructive path of co-belligerence. If not, we will see more extremists, such as Avila and Donahue, who are fast becoming the unappetizing public face of the Roman Catholic Church in America.


Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”