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Catholics split over petition drives at churches

At Immaculate Conception Church in Marlborough, activists recently sought signatures for a petition in support of a ballot initiative that would eliminate taxpayer funding for abortions.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

A controversy is brewing at local churches between Catholics whose faith guides their politics and those who favor a wall between church and state, after the archbishop of Boston said late last month that political signature drives are permissible on church property.

Mary Collins, who has attended Marlborough’s Immaculate Conception Parish for 15 years, said she was “startled” when it was announced last Sunday that some parishioners would gather signatures in the church lobby after Mass for a measure that would prohibit funding abortions with state dollars.

“I don’t want any explicit politics when I go to church on Sunday,” said Collins, 57,. “That’s not why I go to church.”


She said she is frustrated by Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s decision, announced Oct. 26, to permit signature-gathering at archdiocesan churches if it is approved by the pastor and occurs away from foot traffic.

O’Malley’s announcement reversed a policy he had issued jointly with the bishops of Worcester, Fall River, and Springfield on June 1, which prohibited gathering signatures.

Collins questioned whether the cardinal bowed to pressure from supporters of the effort to change the Massachusetts Constitution, which allows state dollars to pay for abortions for women who receive Medicaid, according to a 1981 ruling from the state’s highest court.

A 1976 United States law prohibits the use of federal funds for most abortions.

William Cotter, president of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue: Boston and spokesman for the Massachusetts Ad Hoc Pro-Life Coalition, said that group had indeed implored O’Malley to rescind the ban, but he didn’t know if that had factored into the cardinal’s decision.

“What exactly went into his thinking; what changed his mind? We don’t know,” Cotter said.

Terrence Donilon, an archdiocese spokesman, said O’Malley had not capitulated to activists.

“The church has long been active in a wide variety of public policy issues involving social justice, health care, as well as war and peace, among others,” Donilon said by e-mail. “We respect the varying opinions of all parishioners.”


Since O’Malley’s decision, the antiabortion effort has been “picking up steam,” Cotter said, with a few hundred people gathering signatures at “supermarkets, malls, other shopping places, places where people gather,” but especially at Catholic churches.

“At a Sunday Mass you would have, hopefully, a concentration of people who are disproportionately in favor of what you’re doing with the petition,” he said, “as opposed to the random crowd you would meet at a Walmart.”

The Rev. Marc Bishop, Immaculate Conception’s parish administrator, said that when several parishioners asked permission to collect signatures, he discussed the request with parish leadership, who supported the effort and he authorized it.

The signature gatherers were not disruptive, he said, and Collins was the only parishioner who voiced discomfort.

“It was a completely unobtrusive approach,” Bishop said. “People could self-select how they wanted to participate.”

But other congregants at Immaculate Conception — and at St. Matthias in Marlborough and several Boston churches — said politics shouldn’t intrude on their faith.

“I like to keep politics out of church,” said Penny Bisson, 77, of Marlborough, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception since the 1970s. “We come to worship.”

Immaculate Conception congregant Carol Caissie, 49, also of Marlborough, said she had not noticed the petition drive the previous Sunday, and was surprised and offended to learn that it had happened.


“The thing about the politics, it’s on the news already. We’re clearing our minds [at church],” Caissie said.

Ray Henning, 82, a parishioner at St. Matthias, said he supports the church’s opposition to abortion and he would sign the petition — but not on church property.

“It would probably divide a lot of people in the church, that particular subject,” Henning said.

Other churchgoers, though, said they would welcome a chance to engage with issues relevant to their religion, or that they weren’t troubled by politics entering the realm of faith.

At the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End, congregants leaving Sunday morning’s Latin Mass said they hadn’t seen anyone collecting signatures there, but they wouldn’t object.

Joe Rizzo, 57, of Hanson, said abortion is one of his central concerns when he goes to the polls.

“This is the number-one reason I voted for Trump, and Romney a few years ago,” Rizzo said. “I don’t see why [the cardinal] wouldn’t allow that to be done. A lot of people would sign that petition here.”

Bob Sullivan, 76, of Hingham, said he supports the campaign against using public funds for abortions and disagrees with the cardinal’s earlier prohibition on gathering signatures.

“Seems to me, any petition you can sign anywhere,” Sullivan said. “Why are there restrictions on this one? Who’s restricting this, the Catholic Church or society? Why should we be politically correct when no one else is? This is very important to us.”


At St. Francis Chapel, inside Boston’s Prudential Center, Gail Newell, 71, said she had not had a chance to sign the petition when it was there previously, though her sister had signed it. Newell said she has no problem with collecting signatures on church property, and she supports the antiabortion measure.

“I believe what God said in Scripture,” Newell said. “I believe all life is sacred.”

The Rev. Jim Doran, the chapel’s director, said, “I think we have to do what we can to defend human life.”

The Rev. Oscar Pratt, administrator at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Roxbury, said no one at the church has asked to collect signatures, but he wouldn’t object if it were done outside the church. Parishioners have gathered signatures for ballot questions in the past, he said.

“My opinion is, people have a right to ask if you want to sign this or not,” Pratt said.

In Marlborough, though, Mary Collins was so frustrated by the signature drive that she was ready to leave Immaculate Conception for good.

“I said it’s not OK with me,” Collins said, “so I’ll look for another church where I won’t be confronted with politics.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto@globe.com. Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com.