The refusal to gather anti-gay marriage signatures in some Catholic parishes is not about sidestepping the controversy. It's about confronting it, Danny Westneat says.

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One pastor figured his whole congregation might bail. Another worried about alienating gay kids.

And a third wrote a defiant message in this Sunday’s church bulletin (defiant for a priest, anyway). It called out the Catholic Church’s top-down penchant for “obedience without dialogue” and “authority without rationale.”

What a week it was in local religion and politics.

I doubt anyone was too surprised that some local Catholic parishes refused to gather signatures for anti-gay-marriage Referendum 74, as their archbishop had urged them to do.

But what I found fascinating — and hopeful — were the reasons they gave for not going along. They didn’t try to sidestep the gay-marriage controversy. No, these parishes were downright rebellious.

At St. Joseph’s in Seattle, the Rev. John Whitney, S.J., said that he couldn’t in good conscience allow signature gathering. In a bit of a broadside in this Sunday’s church bulletin, he writes that Catholic leadership seems deaf to the spirit of its own people, who, he implies, could teach the bishops a thing or two about acceptance of gays and lesbians.

“The leadership of the church sometimes confronts the world as an enemy of the Spirit,” he wrote. “The church needs greater humility and openness.”

At St. James — the cathedral church of the Seattle archdiocese — the Rev. Michael Ryan said he canceled any signature-gathering by the Catholic men’s organization Knights of Columbus because he thought his flock might revolt in a Mass no-show.

“I decided to take a pre-emptive strike … thinking that many of my parishioners would either boycott Mass this coming Sunday or that they would arrive in a white heat,” Ryan told the National Catholic Reporter. “I have received 115 responses — when none were required or even expected! — and fully 110 of them have been strongly supportive of my decision. And I mean strongly supportive!”

Likewise, at St. Mary’s in Seattle, the pastoral-life coordinator said in a statement that “I fear the collection of signatures would be hurtful and divisive to our parish.”

“I am particularly concerned about our youth who may be questioning their own sexual identity and need our support at this time in their lives.”

In other words: Humanity, some of which happens to be gay, is the lifeblood. Not this political campaign.

It’s never easy to resist your own group, especially openly (though the priests all stressed that the church had not ordered them to distribute petitions, only encouraged it). This episode makes me think highly, once again, of the Catholics — for the way they allow one another to struggle with this stuff.

A leader of Referendum 74, Joseph Backholm, wrote to say all the focus on Catholics is overblown.

“Just thought you should know that at least 1,500 non-Catholic churches have also agreed to take petitions for their churches.”

It’s a fair point. The referendum is likely to make the ballot regardless. That some Catholic churches are contesting their own leadership over gays getting marriage licenses won’t mean much in a tactical sense.

But symbolically, I bet it turns out to be huge. Maybe another dam breaking.

Barbara Guzzo is the parishioner at St. Mary’s who got this little rebellion going by speaking out against the archbishop’s campaign. She said she’s often asked how she hangs in there with a church that seems afflicted with an “institutional deafness” (as Whitney dubbed it in his Sunday bulletin).

“My answer is: because it’s a human institution,” Guzzo said. “I mean it took the Catholic Church 400 years to acknowledge we were wrong on Galileo! But eventually we did do it. We did say, ‘Oops, we were wrong.’ “

She’s not saying that’s coming again anytime soon. But this is how the change often starts. From the inside out.

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