Nobody is surprised that Catholic officialdom opposes gay marriage. It's how it's involving the whole operation, top to bottom, in a political campaign.

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This weekend, many Catholics going to Mass will be greeted by something they haven’t seen in their churches for decades: political petitions.

The Catholic Church here is set to start collecting signatures, in churches, to repeal gay marriage, Referendum 74.

Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain announced last week he had approved the petitioning of the flock as part of church services in all local parishes.

That’s quite a volatile stew. Start with two topics you’re unwise to even broach at dinner — God and politics. Add in homosexuality. Marriage. A dash of separation of church and state.

We’ve got on our hands one big come-to-Jesus moment.

“We believe this issue is critically important,” Sartain wrote, explaining why the church was turning itself into campaign central this spring.

“The whole thing is very disturbing, to many of us,” counters Barbara Guzzo, 62, a Seattle Catholic who has formed a group to oppose her own church’s signature-gathering effort. “There’s a zealousness to it that just doesn’t seem very Catholic.”

Nobody is surprised that Catholic officialdom opposes gay marriage. It’s how it’s involving the whole operation, top to bottom, in a political campaign.

Churches can’t do political campaigning, or they risk losing their tax-free status. This doesn’t apply to initiative and referendum campaigns. Those are considered legislation, and churches are permitted to lobby on pending laws — even if that means passing political petitions around the pews.

But a lot of churches shy from it. Separation of church and state is partly to benefit the church.

A pastor in Tacoma recently said in a forum that while he planned to sign the anti-gay-marriage referendum, he wouldn’t allow a signature-gathering “three-ring circus” at his church, Life Center. The electioneering would detract from the “church’s message of transformation in Jesus.”

Local Catholics last did such signature-gathering in church in the 1980s, said Dominican Sister Sharon Park, director of the Washington State Catholic Conference. One cause was the 1989 Children’s Initiative to raise money for poor children.

“We don’t do it often, but we will if it’s a priority for us,” Park said.

Guzzo expressed disbelief that gay marriage could be the drop-dead issue of the last 25 years.

“I don’t think the church should be involved at this level in politics, but especially on an issue like this,” she said.

Guzzo says she’s pained her church now is in league with the entity that set up the group sponsoring Referendum 74, the National Organization for Marriage.

A confidential strategy memo showed that group had planned extreme tactics to try to defeat same-sex marriage. Such as trying to find disillusioned children of gay parents to talk on camera about their sorry upbringings.

This idea — to troll for broken families and exploit them, dubbed in the memo as “documenting the victims” — has got to be one of the most despicable campaign tactics I’ve ever heard of.

“The National Organization for Marriage is the antithesis of everything the Catholic Church is supposed to be about — like inclusivity and compassion for others,” Guzzo said.

Park said the church has coordinated with the group. The archdiocese also plans to donate money to the referendum campaign, she said. But “the National Organization for Marriage isn’t telling us what to say or do. We’re sending out our own materials, with our own message.”

To that end, in his letter about the heated campaign the church is embarking on, Archbishop Sartain struck a plaintive note. Please, he wrote. Give us room to explain our views on marriage.

“Catholic teaching cannot be reduced to a sound bite!” he said.

Probably not. But welcome to politics. It can be like dirt — it sticks to you when you roll around in it.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or