For nearly 300 years, Irish-Americans have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by parading through the city streets. The two oldest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country are in Boston (since 1737) and New York City (since 1762). Given the large Irish populations of both cities, politicians from these cities typically show up for the festivities and to show their support for the Irish community. But boycotting the parades this year will be Mayor of New York Bill De Blasio (D) and Mayor of Boston Matt Walsh (D). The reason for their boycotts: both parades have a longstanding ban on gay organizations.
St. Patrick’s Day is also recognized as a holiday by Lutherans, the Anglican Communion, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. No doubt a few of the denominations who celebrate the holiday likely hold pro-gay views. But let’s not kid ourselves; for all intents and purposes St. Patrick’s Day is a Catholic holiday celebrating the patron saint of a nation that is 90+% Catholic. And media (mis)interpretation of Pope Francis notwithstanding, Catholicism has never treated homosexuality as anything other than an “objective disorder.”
In New York City, the organization hosting the parade, St Patrick’s Day Parade Inc., is run by members of an Irish-Catholic fraternity, the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The parade organizers are open about the large role the Catholic Church has in the parade:
“This annual parade has been held for more than 250 years in honor of the Patron Saint of Ireland and the Archdiocese of New York. The Parade is reviewed from the steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral by His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York. This tradition has remained unchanged since the early days of the parade when the Archbishop of New York observed marchers from Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in historic Greenwich Village… The Parade starts at 44th Street at 11 am and is held every March 17th except when March 17th falls on a Sunday; it is celebrated the day before, Saturday the 16th, because of religious observances.”
In Boston, the Catholic connection is much more tenuous, given that the parade also celebrates the evacuation of British forces during the Revolutionary War. The parade is organized by the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, and officially celebrates Irish heritage and military veterans. However, the parade marches through what media reports describe as a “traditionally Irish, predominantly Catholic neighborhood.” A number of Catholic groups and schools march in the parade, at least one of which has threatened to pull out if pro-gay groups are allowed to march. The Boston parade’s loudest defenders have been Catholic Action League of Massachusetts. “St. Patrick was a Catholic archbishop and is a Catholic saint,” its leader said in a statement. “Mayor Walsh’s efforts, if successful, would destroy the traditional character of the parade, empty it of its original meaning, and reduce it to a secular community festival, devoid of any religious significance.” So at the very least, the parade’s supporters and participants want the parade to maintain a Catholic character.
Boston organizers have been open to the idea of allowing gay groups to march if they “abide by our rules, which is military uniforms or a suit [and carrying] no signs except for one banner. If they don’t, they will be dismissed from the parade. It’s as simple as that.” Negotiations fell apart, however, when the Council stipulated that while statements supporting gay-straight diversity would be allowed, explicitly pro-gay messages would not. It becomes hard to dispute one Boston Herald columnist’s description of the LGBT group’s goal: “…including a unit whose only purpose in marching would have been to trumpet [the gay] lifestyle.”
Legally, the ability of the parades to ban gay groups from participating is unquestioned. Gay groups sued the Allied War Veterans Council for inclusion in the Boston parade, only to be completely shut down in a 1995 Supreme Court decision upholding the right to free association. The Court ruled 9-0 in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay Group of Boston that “disapproval of a private speaker’s statement does not legitimize use of the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts]’s power to compel the speaker to alter the message by including one more acceptable to others.”
But there might be some argument over whether excluding the gay groups is really the Christian thing to do. One could argue that there is nothing wrong with recognizing the existence of gay people and celebrating who they are as people without condoning their sins. Should Christians prioritize making those they don’t agree with feel loved and included, or should they be more concerned with appearing to endorse sin?
Catholicism has very strict rules against “scandal,” directly or indirectly contributing to sin. To quote the catechism, “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” The sin of scandal doesn’t necessarily require you to actually be sinning or outright endorse sinful behavior. All it requires is that through your actions, advertently or inadvertently, you lead others to sinful behavior, such as by staying silent in the face of sin.
The Center for Morality in Public Life’s Andrew Haines gave an excellent summary of the concept, and gives the example of participating in a wedding where the attendees all know the couple has been cohabiting: “What does our presence at the altar say to them—and to our friends and neighbors who are privy to what’s happening—about the sanctity of marriage? What if our own persona entails defending the Church and her teachings publicly (e.g., as a theology teacher or catechist, etc.)? In short, although we might not be ‘cooperating with evil’ by attending the wedding, are we acting in a way that ‘leads another to do evil’?”
In some ways, American Catholics, and by extension all Christians that celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, brought this hullabaloo upon themselves. The average American simply thinks of March 17 as the day where you wear green, drink too much, and inflate your Irish background. They might as well call it Patrick’s Day. Of course people will get angry and confused when faithful Catholics suddenly impose religious standards on what they see as a generic ethnic holiday, when those religious standards have been largely absent for half a century.
But by and large, the St. Patrick’s Day debates represent another front in a battle fought across the nation. As acceptance for gay marriage steadily grows, the ability for observant Christians to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs has been increasingly jeopardized. Sometimes the threat is legal, as with the numerous discrimination cases being fought by Evangelical wedding providers. Other times, the pressure is societal, such as the eventual capitulation to by the Boy Scouts. The St. Patrick’s Day parade cases have shades of both. Both the New York parades and Boston parades have faced and won lawsuits over the years, and one group of New York politicians is calling on the Mayor to ban uniformed police officers from attending the parade.
With a choice between upsetting liberal politicians and turning off local Catholics, the parade organizers are certainly in an unenviable position. But if there’s a ray of hope, it’s that despite these debates reaching back decades, people still swarm to the parades year after year.