Friday, August 31, 2012

Thanking You, Archbishop

As executive coordinator of Catholics for Marriage Equality MN, I'm happy to report a recent spike in the number of "Another Catholic Voting No" yard signs being distributed.

And, believe it or not, we may partly have Archbishop John Nienstedt to thank!

You see, last weekend our brother John either mandated or requested (it's not clear which) that a announcement on the Minnesota 'marriage amendment' be read out at every parish. From what I can gather, this announcement was either identical or very similar to the archbishop's latest column in The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. In short, the archbishop's message was a reiteration of the Roman Catholic understanding of sacramental marriage – one man, one woman for life, with the implied understanding that each and every sex act within this union must be open to biological procreation.

I have no problem with a church official articulating official church teaching. There's definitely a time and place for that. It gets problematic, however, when neither the perspective of the church's theologians or of the collective wisdom of the laity gets a similar hearing. In an earlier column about what it means to be "Church," the archbishop's focus was on the episcopal magisterium. Again, no discussion, much less recognition, of the role of either the theologians or the laity. This prompted the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice (of which I'm a member) to ask the archbishop:

Will you please follow up with a column about the role of theologians, clergy in orders other than bishop, and laity in the teaching authority of the Church? Do you believe that as part of the “faith assembly” theologians, lesser clergy, and laity have any contribution to make to the teaching authority entrusted to the bishops, particularly with regard to love, “properly understood and properly lived”?

Like many other people, I look forward to this particular follow-up column.

Crossing a line

It should also be noted that the archbishop's message last weekend, delivered via parish priests and deacons, is also problematic when one considers the wider context This context is, of course, the highly contentious issue of the 'marriage amendment' – an amendment that the Minnesota bishops are actively championing, yet which the majority of Catholics, if credible polls are to be believed, are decidedly less enthusiastic about. It's also a context that extends far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. Not that one gets that impression when reading the archbishop's message, which seems to assume the whole world is Roman Catholic and needs to be brought into line with the official Roman Catholic understanding of the meaning and purpose of marriage. According to the archbishop, this understanding of marriage is "authored by God," is unchanged since Adam and Eve, and is unchangeable. I heard that in at least one parish, the deacon – when dutifully imparting the archbishop's message – read or said something to the effect of: "You need to remember this when you go into the voting booth in November."

"That's when it crossed a line," one woman told me yesterday when she came by our Minneapolis office to pick up a yard sign. "I'd been thinking about getting one of your signs, but what I heard on Sunday finally did it for me," she said. "I realized I just had to display this sign and send a very different message as a Catholic."

Another woman, again while at our office picking up a yard sign, informed me that several people at her parish got up and walked out during the reading of the archbishop's message. In a number of other parishes, however, there was no need to walk out. Why? Because according to an informal survey conducted by Joe McLean on his Facebook page "I Am Catholic. I Am Voting NO!," as many as 15 parishes – some of them quite prominent – simply did not read the archbishop's message.

And thanking you, again

In contrast to the archbishop's 'marriage amendment' message, I share today two thoughtful, well-reasoned commentaries that have recently come to my attention. As with the increase in demand for our yard signs, it seems clear that we have Archbishop Nienstedt and his pro-'marriage amendment' activism to thank for the writing of these two insightful commentaries. My sense is that there are many, many Catholics who hunger for the reasonable and compassionate approach reflected in these commentaries – commentaries written in response to the words and actions of our clerical leadership. I believe that for the majority of Minnesota Catholics, the words and actions of our clerical leaders lack reasonableness and compassion. Such essential Catholic qualities are being sought and found elsewhere. This seems crystal clear to me, and I actually view it as a sign of hope. For as Simon Rosser notes, in the face of the clerical leadership's ultra-conservative and ill-informed rhetoric and actions, "Catholics [are being] forced to think for themselves. And that’s a good thing."

I posted the first of these two commentaries, a piece by Don Conroy simply entitled "The Marriage Amendment," at The Progressive Catholic Voice yesterday. Conroy makes the important distinction – one that appears lost on the archbishop – between the unchanging need for family and the historically changing laws of civil marriage.

Like all good teachers, Conroy leads us to new levels of understanding by posing thoughtful questions grounded in actual human realities. He writes, for instance that:

. . . Today we confront another development in our understanding of family, the inclusion of same-sex couples in our social, personal, but not necessarily religious definition of marriage. What consequence, if any, would the inclusion of same-sex couples have on the family structure? Would the meaning of family, our safe, comfortable and developing nest, be significantly altered or even lost, as has been claimed (Nienstadt's "letter to the priests")? What would be the religious, social, and personal consequences of excluding a significant percent of our adult citizens from the advantages of legal marriage? These are the questions Minnesota voters face as they go to the polls in November to vote on the proposed amendment.

The second commentary I bring to your attention is "Catholics and Gay Marriage" by an individual who goes by the intriguing pseudonym, "Knight of Nothing." I conclude this post by sharing an excerpt from this insightful commentary.

. . . In Minnesota, led by the bishops, the Catholic Church has come out in support of a constitutional amendment to permanently ban gay marriage. Frankly, I am not sure what is driving the Catholic campaign against gay marriage, nor do I understand why the church has chosen to take such a stand at this time. If I had to guess, I would say that it is a top-down effort by the Church to re-assert its moral authority in the United States at a time when it has been rocked by scandal and its influence is waning. It certainly does not seem like a widespread and spontaneous expression of anti-gay sentiment by its members.

In a way, I can understand why this debate is so important to Catholics. For Catholics, marriage is more than a long-standing and powerful institution; it is a sacrament: a sacred rite that binds its recipients to each other and to the church. Catholic marriage has many tenets: it is a lifelong, indissoluble commitment and the only proper place for sexual expression. Procreation is seen as a primary purpose. Marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics is circumspect and even frowned upon. And so on. In a formal and strict sense, the church does not recognize non-Catholic marriage because its expression outside of the church does not enshrine these tenets as its foundation.

I have seen a fair number of essays and other commentary by Catholics that purport to explain why everyone should oppose gay marriage. Really, though, all of these arguments simply express why people should oppose Catholic marriage for gays. Essentially, they reiterate Catholic beliefs about coupling, reproduction, and sexual morality. Forgotten or abandoned in these essays is that there are other ideas about marriage that simply do not conform to Catholic beliefs.

Religious people of many faiths, as well as non-religious people, define marriage differently, and some religious organizations openly embrace marriage between same-sex couples. I am certain that Catholics do not want to have the marriage standards of another faith imposed upon them. So they should not seek to impose their standard on others. This is the heart of the matter, and everything else simply clouds this essential truth. . . .

Recommended Off-site Links:
Archbishop Nienstedt's Latest Marriage Amendment Letter Adds to Catholic Turmoil – Beth Hawkins (MinnPost, August 31, 2012).
Catholic Q&A on the Minnesota 'Marriage Amendment' – Michael Bayly and Florence Steichen (Sensus Fidelium, August 7, 2012).
Why Catholics Can Vote 'No' – Bob Pierson, OSB (Sensus Fidelium, June 11, 2012).
Gay Marriage, Bishops and the Crisis of LeadershipNational Catholic Reporter (July 5, 2011).
A Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage – Jeannine Gramick and Francis DeBernardo (Washington Post, February 14, 2012).
Amendment Campaign Contrary to Church Moral Teaching – Paula Ruddy (The Progressive Catholic Voice, March 3, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Catholic Rationale for Opposing the 'Marriage Amendment'
"A Thoughtful, Entertaining, and Inspiring Program"
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
The Minneapolis (and Online) Premiere of Catholics for Marriage Equality
Sharing the Good News of Marriage Equality at the Basilica Block Party
At UST, a Rousing and Very Catholic Show of Support for Marriage Equality
Tips on Speaking as a Catholic in Support of Marriage Equality
Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Gay Marriage
Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues: An Overview
A Catholic Statement of Support for Marriage Equality


Paula said...

Interesting point about the Archbishop's continual defense of sacramental marriage, as if that were in contention. I think it might be related to another idea I saw in a writing of his: the law should reflect the ideal. He holds sacramental marriage as an ideal, and he thinks the law should require it. The force of the state brought to bear to require ideal behavior from people? Some historian should have a go at that idea.

Terry Nelson said...

The letter was the Archbishop's homily, and it wasn't mandated to be read - the priests were asked to read it - it was optional.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for that clarification, Terry. But I wonder if you could substantiate it with a link. If so, I'd gladly correct my post.



jamez said...

I have posted the following response to any online article I see discussing the Catholic Churches obsessive efforts while spearheading the marriage amendment issue.

I was taught that if you weren't married in the Church, you were living in sin. Therefore, the Catholic Church doesn't even recognize the civil marriages of heterosexuals. Why then, would the Church be so obsessed with a civil matter that they don't even recognize as valid in the first place? They don't recognize it but everyone else must recognize it the way they - don't? The cognitive dissonance is mindboggling! They are rendering up to God that which is Caesar's.

It is wrong theologically, pastorally and morally for any Christian to look to the civil laws of any land to confirm or affirm their moral view. We are called to exemplify Christ To the world, not to coerce the world to exemplify Christ to us - which is impossible for Us to do...

Phil said...


Perhaps you might consider educating us further on the following two points in your future articles.

1) If the amendment passes, what marriage options will remain open to gays in Minnesota? Are civil unions available? If yes, how do they differ from a fully legal marriage? In short, what exactly is on the line in this vote?

2) What is your movement's relationship with Church leaders?

This is a more complicated question...

I understand it on the political level. The Church leaders are an influential political voice, and so their statements must be responded to in political dialog. This would be true even if one was not Catholic, and opposed the ballot initiative. I get this part.

However, I sense there is more to the dialog with Church leaders. As example, your posts seem to always focus on Church leaders, and not on non-Catholic politicians who also support the ballot initiative.

I could be entirely wrong here, but as just one reader, I sense your movement still considers Church leaders to be moral leaders, whose opinion on sexual issues matters to you morally, not just politically.

If that is true (it may not be) it's puzzling to me.

What else would the Church leaders have to do to persuade you that at least in regards to pretty much anything having to do with sex, the Church leaders are not qualified to stand in moral judgment of anybody? Other than pure politics, why do you care so much about their opinion on these matters?

As example, imagine that gay marriage rights were made permanent in the federal constitution. Would you still be interested in the opinion of the Bishops, or would that conclude the matter for you?

Thank you for any clarification you may choose to provide.

Stephen said...

If God is the 'author of marriage' how come it took twelve centuries for it to become a sacrament?!

brian gerard said...

This from Phil:

"I could be entirely wrong here, but as just one reader, I sense your movement still considers Church leaders to be moral leaders, whose opinion on sexual issues matters to you morally, not just politically.

If that is true (it may not be) it's puzzling to me.

What else would the Church leaders have to do to persuade you that at least in regards to pretty much anything having to do with sex, the Church leaders are not qualified to stand in moral judgment of anybody? Other than pure politics, why do you care so much about their opinion on these matters?

As example, imagine that gay marriage rights were made permanent in the federal constitution. Would you still be interested in the opinion of the Bishops, or would that conclude the matter for you?"

Even though this could be a bunch of passive aggressive baiting from him, it is a legitimate question.

Phil said...

Thanks Brian, I agree that it could be passive aggressive baiting, and that it is a legitimate question. Or perhaps potentially useful is a better descriptor.

Potentially useful personally, and potentially useful politically.

Focusing lots of attention of Church leaders tends to reinforce their authority claims, the most important tool they have in persuading other Catholics to march blindly behind them in to bigotry.

It might be more effective to largely ignore Church leaders (at least on this issue) and talk over their heads directly to the real heart of the Catholic Church, the laity.

Personal flaws admitted, I am still sincerely trying to make some kind of contribution to the effort, and if I simply agree with everything being said, I'm not making much of a contribution.