Bishop John Cummins was the first executive director of the California Catholic Conference — from 1971 (or 1972, depending on the source) to 1977. In 1974 he was named as auxiliary bishop of Sacramento and continued as executive director of the conference until 1977, when he was named bishop of Oakland.
Bishop Cummins was instrumental in passing two pieces of legislation in the mid-1970s that affected the moral life of California and eventually the nation.
The first was AB 489, known as the Consenting Adult Sex Bill. After the election in 1974 of Jerry Brown to succeed Ronald Reagan as governor of California, Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) knew he at last had a chance of getting a governor to sign legislation that would do away with what one state senator’s memoirs called “old-fashioned laws that criminalized behavior between consenting adults.” Assemblyman Brown knew AB 489 would be a priority for his gay San Francisco constituents. The vote taken in 1975 was not close in the Assembly (where it was adopted with votes to spare), but passed in the state Senate only because the lieutenant governor broke a 20-20 tie.
What was the Catholic conference’s role? Fourteen years later, Bishop Cummins told of the part he played in the Consenting Adults battle. On June 5, 1999, Cummins was meeting with a group organized by Father Jim Schexnayder at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in the Oakland diocese. Bishop Cummins, say eyewitnesses at the meeting, explained to the group how he and the CCC worked behind the scenes to pass AB 489.
According to Wikipedia, the Consenting Adult Sex Bill, which went into effect in January 1976, “made gay bathhouses and the sex that took place within them legal for the first time.” In 1984, because of the AIDS epidemic associated with the bathhouses, the San Francisco Health Department tried to close the baths but was unsuccessful.
“This could be the greatest victory of the movement,” said one gay activist quoted by the Gay News Alliance.
The second piece of legislation in which the bishops played an important role — and particularly Bishop Cummins as head of the CCC — involved euthanasia.
The euthanasia movement in the U.S. grew from roots established in the 1930s. Dr. Eugene Kennedy, who led the Euthanasia Society of America, advocated putting to death “the utterly unfit” among young retarded children; he was honored by the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in the summer of 1936. Even though the movement had attracted celebrities like Somerset Maugham, Margaret Sanger, and Robert Frost, the number of Society members remained at about the 500 mark for decades.
In 1967, a major breakthrough occurred. At a meeting of the Euthanasia Society, a document was proposed called the “Living Will.” In a subsequent law journal article, a proponent described the Living Will as “limited in its initial creation to adult patients who are capable of exercising their will.” (Emphasis added.)
Commentaries on the Living Will saw it as protective of patients’ rights and innocuous. Others saw a red flag. The Catholic Church and pro-life groups stood steadfast against such legislation. But read what happened with Living Will legislation in California from an article by Rita Marker in the Human Life Review (1987):
“Euthanasia opponents, present to testify on Tuesday, August 17, 1976 (the final day of debate on the measure) were stunned when Assemblyman Barry Keene, author of the legislation, announced he had received a letter from the California Catholic Conference stating a change in its position. Until then, the California Catholic Conference had opposed the bill. Notification of the change from opposition to neutrality was given in a letter from Bishop John S. Cummins, then-executive director of the Catholic Conference, to Assemblyman Keene, in which Cummins wrote:
“’The California Catholic Conference is modifying its position on AB 3060 from OPPOSITION to WATCH, and we will not offer any opposition next Tuesday.
“’We cannot commit ourselves to supporting the bill. Too many of our people still have problems about judicial definitions and the effectiveness of legislation in this whole matter.
“’On my own behalf, I wish to express appreciation for your sensitivity of the questions we had. I realize too, the diversity of concern with which you had to deal. Your care and seriousness have very much appreciated and have been very significant factors in the removal of opposition on the part of our people.
“’Thank you for the consideration. I hope we shall be in similar contact on future issues. I hope too, that we shall be able to help with your difficult and important endeavors.’
“The Catholic Conference withdrawal of opposition effectively opened the door for the measure’s passage – the bill passed the California State Assembly on the day the Cummins letter was read aloud by Keene.
“Commenting later on the legislation, Bishop Cummins said he found ‘nothing objectionable with the bill as written,’ although he admitted he did ‘not know what the ramifications of such a bill would be.’
“…Removal of Catholic Conference opposition in California led to more favorable consideration of Living Will legislation in other states as well and, within a year, seven additional states (Nevada, Oregon, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Idaho) had enacted ‘right-to-die’ laws.
“The Cummins letter, used during the close debate on Oregon’s Living Will legislation, was instrumental in passage of that state’s Living Will law in early 1977.”
Bishop Cummins became bishop of Oakland in 1977, where he served until 2003. He was succeeded as the Catholic Conference executive director by Monsignor John Dickie from the San Diego diocese, who held the position until 1982. Monsignor William Levada, who had just finished a stint at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, took over the leadership of the conference in 1982, until March of 1983, when he was appointed auxiliary bishop in the Los Angeles archdiocese.
From 1984 until 1991, Father William Wood, S.J., was the executive director of the California Catholic Conference. Father Wood had grown up and been ordained in the Los Angeles area, but he had taught at the University of San Francisco and became rector of Bellarmine, a Jesuit college prep school in San Jose. Father Wood founded the Santa Clara Valley Coalition Against Hunger, which over time evolved into the Second Harvest Food Bank. He participated in the California Food Policy Project, funded by the California Council for the Humanities in Public Policy.
In 1987 the following letter from a laywoman, Joan Patton, appeared in the San Diego diocesan paper: “For anyone who stayed up half the night to watch Ted Kopel’s recent special on AIDS, it should be apparent why the pro-family, pro-life workers in the Catholic Church in California have problems getting supportive legislation out of Sacramento. When the subject of morality came up, Ted turned to Fr. Bill Wood, Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference for a comment. Rather than taking this opportunity to state the Church’s teaching on sodomy, promiscuity, and perversion, he made a political statement against military spending and aid to the Contras, and encouraged support for the Bishops’ Pastoral on the Economy. What an embarrassment to the laity. When he did finally mention chastity, it was almost as an afterthought and the damage was already done.”
At approximately the same time, in September, 1987, state Senator Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara) got a bill through the legislature (SB 136) mandating every child in grades 7-12 attend a state-run program on AIDS education. As with most AIDS education programs of the time, this curriculum was to emphasize condom use and safe sex. Father Wood, on behalf of the California bishops, endorsed the Hart bill. Governor George Deukmejian vetoed the bill, but it eventually passed as SB 2840, which was modified to allow individual school districts to choose their own AIDS curriculum.
Sasha Alyson is the largest independent publisher of gay and lesbian books, including children’s books that depict families with homosexual parents. Alyson also started a weekly gay paper in Boston and Alyson Adventures, which offered outdoor and adventure travel for gay people. In 1988 he edited You Can Do Something About AIDS, in which Father Wood wrote the chapter “What Can Clergy Do About AIDS?” A sample from the chapter: “High among my priorities is working for legislation that will effectively do something about AIDS….”
On December 5, 1988 there was a special election to fill an Assembly seat in San Diego. Lucy Killea, a San Diego city councilwoman, a Catholic, and the Democrat in a Democratic-leaning district, ran TV and newspaper ads proclaiming herself “pro-choice.” Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego wrote Killea a letter in late November telling her she could not receive Communion because her proclamations put her “in complete contradiction to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Killea went on to win the election. Sometime between the election and Maher’s resignation as bishop (he turned 75 the following July), Father Wood planned to bring up the propriety of Maher’s decision at a California Catholic Conference meeting. Maher confided in a friend that he thought only one or two other bishops would support him. But he was incensed that Wood would make the move as executive director. “It’s not going to happen,” Maher told the friend. “Number one, only bishops have the right to put measures on the agenda; number two, and besides what I did was the right thing to do.”
Monsignor E. James Petersen succeeded Father Wood as executive director in 1991 and served until 1997. He had gotten to know Cardinal Roger Mahony, as they both served as priests in the diocese of Fresno. Together they owned a house in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Next week: Part 3: a layman takes over
To read previous parts of this series, click below:
Part 1: the years before