PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Frank Ferri made peace with God years ago.
Last month, Mr. Ferri defeated the Roman Catholic Church.
The openly gay state representative led the fight to legalize
same-sex marriage in what may be the most Catholic state in the
nation's most Catholic region.
In early May, Rhode Island became the sixth and final New England
state to allow gay couples to marry. The Democratic-dominated
Legislature, led by an openly gay House speaker, overcame years of
successful lobbying by the Catholic Church.
"They put the fear of God into people," Mr. Ferri said, claiming
that "the influence of the church" had been the primary stumbling
block as every other neighboring state, and many people across the
country, started embracing gay marriage.
Mr. Ferri's victory marked the Catholic Church's most significant
political defeat in an area where more than 40 percent of the
population is Catholic.
Perhaps more problematic for the church is that state-by-state
setbacks on gay marriage illustrate a widening divide between the
church hierarchy and its members that may be undermining Catholic
influence in American politics.
The disconnect plays out in polling.
In March, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority
of Catholics, 60 percent, felt the church was out of touch with the
views of Catholics in America today.
A CBS News/New York Times poll in February found that 78 percent
of Catholics said they were more likely to follow their own
conscience than the church's teachings on difficult moral questions.
That poll highlighted several areas where most Catholics break
with church teachings: 62 percent of American Catholics think same-
sex marriages should be legal, 74 percent think abortion ought to be
available in at least some instances and 61 percent favor the death
At the Vatican, newly selected Pope Francis, while a bishop in
Argentina, angered other church leaders by supporting civil unions
for gay couples ahead of that country's vote to legalize gay
He has taken no such position as pope.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a member of one of the most storied
Catholic families in American politics, says she's encouraged by
Francis' early leadership. But she says the church's political
influence will continue to wane unless it adapts.
"Gay marriage is part of a larger refusal on the part of the
church to listen to, and to understand, the people in the pews,"
said Ms. Townsend, who regularly attends church and wrote the book,
"Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God
With Politics and Losing Their Way."
Church officials in Washington, Boston and Providence declined to
be interviewed for this report.
The church for decades has employed aggressive lobbying efforts
on a range of political issues, and Catholic leaders have used the
power of the pulpit and substantial financial resources to maintain
clout. At times they've gone so far as to tell leading Catholic
lawmakers they were not welcome to receive Communion if they opposed
church teachings on matter such as abortion and gay marriage.
These days, the church remains active in political battles over
abortion, President Barack Obama's health care law, poverty and
immigration. But the church had little success influencing the gay
marriage debate in Rhode Island and elsewhere.
In many statehouses, the church relies on lobbying consortiums
made up of lay people, known as Catholic conferences, to influence
state policy, aided by donations from dioceses across the country. …