Seattle Weekly offers the story of a heroic gay mayor and the 'prison' that is Catholicism

The mayor of Seattle is a gay Catholic whose 2013 wedding to his male partner was at the local Episcopal cathedral. Ed Murray’s insistence on staying Catholic fascinated one editor at the Seattle Weekly to the point where he asked the mayor if Murray would expound on his faith.

The result was this nearly 4,000-word piece that ran about a month ago. The reporter stated up front that he didn’t wish to raise the issue of whether Murray was a “true” Catholic in terms of abiding by the doctrines of his faith, but instead learn why the mayor has stuck with a church that on many levels doesn’t want him. We will not read, in this long piece, what the church teaches about marriage and how the mayor flouts it.

Still, as far as I know, this is the only article anyone has done on the mayor’s faith journey. This is something the Seattle Times should have done years ago.

Thus, I am glad the Weekly stepped up to the plate, even though the premise is those who defy the teachings of the Catholic church are heroic while those who honor their vows to the church are, at best, robots.

After some intro paragraphs, the article picks up with:

Murray’s Catholic faith can seem a study in contradiction. Not only is he a practicing Catholic in a secular city, he is a gay man who has remained in a church that has been outright hostile toward homosexuality; he is a public official who seeks to follow the path of (Catholic Worker Movement foundress Dorothy) Day, who refused financial assistance from the government and declined to pay her taxes for years at a time; he is an impossibly busy man who says he feels closest to his Catholic faith when he is practicing quiet Benedictine meditation, which requires he wake at 5:30 a.m. if he has any hope of doing it at all.

After describing Murray’s childhood, it relates how he found certain Catholic institutions more gay-friendly than he had anticipated.

After graduating from high school, Murray attended St. Thomas Seminary in Kenmore, exploring the priesthood. After a year there, he decided against it, and finished his college studies at the University of Portland, a Catholic institution. There he got to know Trappist monks who introduced him to monastic worship, and counseled him on, among other things, his homosexuality, which he began to acknowledge in college. Far from the pious recriminations one might expect, Murray says that in college he was encouraged by priests to embrace that part of himself, rather that feel shame about it. It was further evidence, for Murray, that the Catholic Church, especially in its social-justice form, was a home for him, rather than the prison many people considered it.

“Many people?” Who does the reporter have in mind? Catholics who hang out with reporters from alternative newspapers?

Many of the world’s 1 billion-plus Catholics think their faith is anything but a prison. 

But for Murray, life outside the church proved less tenable that his life within it. Strangely, what brought Murray back to the church was the work of a Protestant, Kathleen Norris. In 1997, during Murray’s second full term in office, the South Dakota author published The Cloister Walk, a memoir of her time spent at Benedictine monasteries. A bestseller, it reminded Murray of his time with the Trappist monks in Oregon. “I read it, and it really was like a glass wall shattered. Here was a Protestant woman from the Dakotas introducing my tradition back to me. … I didn’t feel spiritually whole until I came back to the church as a practicing Catholic. There’s no other explanation I can give for it: As a spiritual home and a spiritual experience, it’s where I belong.”

After the turn of the century, Murray became involved in state politics, helping to craft the state’s same-sex marriage law.

After explaining how some bishops wouldn’t allow presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry take Communion because of his pro-abortion stance, Murray wondered if the same fate awaited him.

In 2012 … With the archdiocese actively campaigning against the law, it was not farfetched for Murray to fear a backlash. “I remember having a conversation [with another Catholic elected official] about the anxiety and pain that that kind of action would create for us,” Murray says. “To be denied [the Sacraments] is to be separated from the heart of your spiritual tradition.”

But he was never turned away from Communion, even after his very public marriage in 2013.

This raises a rather important question: Where does the mayor attend church and why isn’t that in the article? Is there a fear that the local archdiocese may pounce on whatever parish keeps serving Murray consecrated bread and wine?

I also get suspicious of too-good-to-be-true narratives when one person is angelic and the others mentioned (various Catholic officials) are always the bad guys. What saves this from being simply a puff piece are several meaty paragraphs about whether Murray is true to his faith in terms of how he deals with Seattle’s huge homeless population.

Today, the mayor seems more surefooted when talking about his Catholic faith -- in part no doubt because his public-policy focus has shifted from same-sex marriage to poverty. For someone raised on the writings of Day and now leading a city that counts at least 3,000 homeless people among its population, the connection between faith and civic responsibility is easy to make. Still, the mayor’s faith does conflict with his approaches to the issue. As a politician who must compromise to lead, Murray is not able to fully live by Day’s model; by invoking her, as he has on numerous occasions, he is setting a bar he can’t possibly meet. …
Murray defends his record on homelessness, noting that he’s drastically increased funding for homeless services. (During his State of the City speech, he announced an effort to pass a $55 million levy dedicated to funding for the homeless.) However, he recognizes the limitations he faces. “On some days, I’ll read things like Matthew, Chapter 25: Did you feed me when I was hungry? Did you clothe me? Did you welcome me when I was a stranger? That’s exactly who the homeless are. But how do I live that out in a city that’s also seen a rise in garbage and destruction and criminal activity?

The story ends with an anecdote about the Vatican inviting 40 mayors from around the world to Rome several years ago to discuss climate change. Murray was on that list, a tremendous victory for him.

So this piece does give us many insights into the impossible place the mayor is put into as wanting to live out Dorothy Day-like principles in the face of political realities. How many mayors really even know or care about Catholic Worker values?

However, the reporter didn’t stay true to his stated intent at the beginning of the piece to not argue whether Murray was true to the rules of his faith. That caveat allowed the reporter to dodge the debate over whether one can be an openly gay man in a same-sex marriage and slso a faithful, sacramental Catholic. However the reporter did grade Murray on that exact question in terms of his treatment of the homeless.

I’m not faulting the writer for letting the mayor define his faith the way he wants, but I wish he had pressed Murray a bit more. Certainly Murray resonates with Pope Francis but does he agree with everything the pope says and not just his pronouncements on the environment? Can one pick and choose elements of the faith? 

It's easy for reporters to fault the Catholic Church for, as the article words it, the church's "laser focus on sex." But that's where the culture was headed, with everything from abortion and cohabitation to birth control and homosexuality on the table for the past 50 years. The Catholic Church was also focused on the evils of war and world Communism; the latter not a huge concern for Seattleites but a huge deal for a Polish pope concerned about the oppressed millions in eastern Europe. 

It's good that the Seattle Weekly portrayed the local mayor as the complex man he is. I hope they remember that those who disagree with him in his own church are not villains either.

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