Around New England

Roman Catholic Dioceses in Massachusetts To Allow Signature Gathering for Anti-Abortion-Funding Petition

September 12, 2019

All four Roman Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts plan to allow signature gathering at churches by supporters of a measure that would amend the state constitution to make it clear that it doesn’t require public funding of abortion.

Individual pastors will decide whether and where the gathering of signatures takes place but if it does it “must take place at a designated location(s) on the property away from the flow of parishioners approaching or departing from Holy Mass,” according to new guidelines issued this week by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the four Catholic bishops in the state.

Supporters of ballot questions need large numbers of signatures of registered voters to get their measures on a statewide ballot. The new policy affects all signature gathering efforts, which the policy states “must be in accordance with the teachings of the Church.”

The new policy flips a stance the Catholic bishops took in June 2017 not to allow signature gathering at parishes, which changed the previous practice of allowing pastors to decide. That June 2017 policy cited reports that some parishioners don’t like being approached before or after Mass and the interest of the bishops in emphasizing Catholic church-goers’ spiritual encounter with God through the Eucharist.

That decision hampered efforts by activists who were seeking at the time to put a measure on the November 2020 ballot asking voters to approve an amendment to the Massachusetts state constitution stating:  “Nothing in this constitution requires the public funding of abortion.”

If approved, the amendment would overturn a 1981 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that the state constitution requires public funding of abortion for poor women if the state provides health care services for poor women.

In October 2017, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, changed his mind and allowed signature gathering at parishes once again, citing the importance of the effort to stop public funding of abortion in Massachusetts. The bishop of Worcester did likewise, although the bishops of Fall River and Springfield didn’t.

The new policy covers all signature gathering in all dioceses in the state. It most prominently affects a current drive to collect signatures from at least 80,239 registered voters in Massachusetts and deliver them to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office by December 4, 2019.

If so, and if the measure gains the assent of at least 50 of the state’s 200 state legislators during the 2019-2020 legislative session and the 2021-2022 legislative session, it would go on the state general election ballot in November 2022.

The new policy of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference is dated Tuesday, September 10, 2019.