In the course of the last 24 hours, the President and the Pope seemed to signal the beginnings of a vigorous conservative counteroffensive against the idea that homosexual unions should be legally sanctioned.

In a statement released today by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican reaffirmed that "The homosexual inclination is.'objectively disordered'" and went on to state that "there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family." In fact, the Vatican stated, politicians who support gay marriage are "gravely immoral."

President Bush Wednesday responded to a question about the morality of homosexuality by stating, "I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other."

But look closely and there's an important difference between the approach taken by the Vatican and by the Pope. While the Papal statement refers not only to marriage but any "legal recognition to unions," the President used only the word "marriage."

Actually, that's not so conservative. Most of the Democratic candidates for president said the same thing in their debate before a leading gay rights group. President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which stated that marriage was "between a man and a woman." Even Howard Dean, the Vermont governor who has signed the most far-reaching gay union law, opposes "gay marriage".

In an interview with the gay newspaper The Advocate, Dean explained the Vermont "civil union" law like this: "What the bill says is that marriage is between a man and a woman but that same-sex couples have all the legal rights of marriage if they enter into a civil union. So it's not gay marriage. The difference is really about religion. Marriage was a religious institution until the evolution of civil law. What the legislature did, which I thought was very smart, was to divide the concept into civil and religious marriage. We don't tell churches who they can and cannot marry. But we do say with civil unions that everybody is equal."

The Vatican left no room for ambiguity, attacking all forms of legal sanction. U.S. conservatives' proposal for a constitutional amendment is quite clear also, banning not only marriage but "marital status or the legal incidents thereof."

Why was Bush more vague? Is it because the White House has thrown in the towel on civil unions? Is that now viewed as the moderate middle ground?

Before the Supreme Court ruling, Vermont was viewed as downright radical for having the only civil union law. Conservatives have been boycotting Disney for some time now in large part because they merely offer some insurance benefits to same-sex partners.

Then the Court ruling came down, and conservatives went into a panic. Thinking tactically, they shifted to the argument that this was a slippery slope that would end in sanctifying "gay marriage." And the public opinion polls seem to indicate that, as of now, the public is stopping just short of endorsing gay marriage.

Politically, there's a logic: retreat, fortify your position on the bluff where you have a better tactical advantage. But in the process of taking up this new position they may have just given up a huge swath of territory--civil unions.

Conservatives seem confused about how to talk about the morality of homosexuality. President Bush wanted to convey a sense of tolerance--"it's very important for our society to respect each individual"--but chose language that infuriated gays. Asked about the morality of homosexuality, Bush responded, "I'm mindful that we're all sinners." When criticized, a White House spokesman said, "the President doesn't believe in casting stones. He believes we ought to treat one another with dignity and respect."

After the court ruling, a surprisingly small number of religious conservatives even dared to frontally critique homosexuality. All the arguments were about the slippery slope. (The one exception was the Traditional Values Coalition, which said the ruling was a problem because of "public health problems" caused by gays).

It's hard to tell whether Bush has come up with the perfect political formula that shifts the debate on to the one area where he can rally his base without alienating moderate voters, or whether he's come up with a position that will anger his base (by giving in on civil unions) while annoying the middle for its view of homosexuality as a sin.

What is clear is that the political ground on gay issues is shifting rapidly, and it's making politicians of all stripes very dizzy.

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