Substantial open opposition to Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone’s full-press campaign to nullify the Marriage Equality Act constituted an unprecedented division in the Maine Catholic community.

Malone saw the Church defending tradition — “authentic teaching”: marriage is between a man and woman. Homosexual unions are evil. The state should not approve them. Same-sex parents cannot properly nurture children. Properly formed Catholic consciences must vote against same-sex union legislation.

Catholic defenders of the MEA argued that it did not affect sacramental marriages and that “God is love” includes gays. The law properly recognized the rights of homosexual couples to the legal protections of marriage and to social acknowledgment of their union: the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration of Religious Liberty opposes forcing others to accept Catholic moral teaching. They saw no evidence that children with same sex nurture are disadvantaged.

Months later, a great many Maine Catholics remain dismayed, angered and alienated as a consequence of their church’s role in abolition of the MEA. If this breach is not to fester in another referendum clash, there is need to understand the division.

The difference is in starting points. Bishop Malone became a bishop by commitment to unexceptional obedience to all church law and the Pope. Pius IX set that course in rejecting everything “modern” and insisting on absolute papal authority. Rome rejected democracy as it spread. It directed millions of abused wives to suffer rather than approve divorce. The Church Triumphal was a flawless hierarchy.

But the ’60s rebellion against authority, Second Vatican Council’s call for collegial decision-making , and Paul VI’s rejection of a near-unanimous recommendation of his appointed commission to allow contraception prompted general dissent from his prohibition. Fearful of loss of control, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have striven mightily to restore absolute papal power: bishops must conform and demand lay obedience. (Lost in this emphasis on authority has been recognition that the Holy Spirit does not speak only through hierarchs — and not without charity.)

The priest abuse scandal, extensive bishop complicity, and their common abandonment of innocent victims badly undercut that patriarchal restoration. Denial failing, the bishops focused blame on abusers, then reasserted authority and power by demanding that all oppose married and women priests and condemn homosexual relationships. Clerical advancement requires unswerving conformity.

So the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith declaration by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that the Church opposes homosexual unions and that bishops — and laity — must oppose them represented marching orders.

Bishop Malone marched. And, as Ratzinger dismissed the right of those of other faiths to be free of Catholic dictation, so did Malone. And when the campaign flagged, since heterosexual marriage was not under attack, it meant turning to the California sleaze tactic; the MEA would lead to “teaching homosexuality.”

Catholics who supported the MEA recognized that Scripture and tradition were at odds with their experience of homosexuality; it is a God-given orientation, not a freely chosen vice (as Rome now acknowledges). So the Church should learn from experience, as the churches did in eventually opposing slavery — as it should regarding remarriage and married and women priests.

MEA supporters also recognized the human right of homosexual unions to legal recognition and protection and that primacy of conscience does not mean doing the bishop’s bidding, but to follow faithfully and freely what one “knows to be right and just” (Vatican II) — in one’s heart, as Thomas Aquinas explains it.

Many recognized, in the insensitivity of Rome’s dismissal of homosexuals as “objectively disordered” and Bishop Malone’s appeal to authority and “authoritative teaching” and dismissal of human rights considerations a Pharisaical blindness to God’s presence and power at work in homosexuals’ lives.

Bishop Malone’s failure to hear the People of God before launching his campaign made this division inescapable.

Essentially, this divide is between the opening of the Church’s windows John XXIII announced, and the subsequent effort to reaffirm the Constantinian monarchical system that, in the inevitable corruption of absolute power, occasioned the sexual abuse disaster that extended from the papacy to every bishop’s office. Informed, caring Catholics are loath to bow to corrupt power that puts image before pastoral responsibility for innocent children.

Perhaps understanding the divide will make a difference. Otherwise, the next referendum may hinge on how many of those habituated to “pray, pay and obey” have since died and how many younger Catholics, open more to the truth of experience, vote.

William H. Slavick is coordinator of the Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi Maine, which supported the Marriage Equality Act. He lives in Portland.