Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Church gets "political" in Minnesota

Minnesota Catholics are buzzing (at least in my parish) about the DVD sent out by Abp. Nienstedt last week to all Catholic households in the state advocating for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.  Aside from the ongoing debate about the substance of the Church's teaching on marriage and the priority placed on that teaching over other issues, as well as the Archbishop's characterization of the state's elected leaders as "ruling elites," there has also been criticism over the "political" nature of the mailing, coming just four weeks before election day.  Though the marriage question is not on the ballot (Abp Nienstedt is arguing that it should be on the ballot), only one candidate for governor opposes SSM, while the other two support it.  Whether or not the Church's position on a given issue is shared by lots of candidates, no candidates, or only a single candidate, issue advocacy cannot be transformed into candidate endorsement for purposes of the laws on tax-exempt status (though if I'm wrong on that, please tell me).  I was puzzled, though, by this paraphrase of the Archbishop's response to criticism:

Nienstedt, who says he does not know how much the DVD campaign cost or who donated the funds, insists the DVD is not political but part of an ongoing effort to educate Minnesota Catholics about marriage.

Since this is not a direct quote, I'm not sure if the Archbishop actually said that the campaign is "not political" or if that was the reporter's characterization.  Either way, the phrasing seems unnecessary and unhelpful to the conversation about the Church's role in public life.  Of course the DVD campaign is political -- how could it not be?  It may not be partisan, but we should be careful not to conflate "partisan" and "political."  The Church's teaching has political implications, just as the Gospel has political implications.  That's not a bad thing, and it's difficult to conceive of how it could be otherwise.


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I agree that there is a problem with the word "political." It has many meanings and connotations depending on the context. In the sense of the Church's social teaching, the word is not a taboo and the Gospel impacts that sphere like it impacts every sphere. To be fair, this article does not put the denial of that word in the diocese's mouth in *quotes*, so by this article alone we don't know what they said. (Because there are no quotes, we can fairly assume that their response was more nuanced--so nuanced that the reporter had to paraphrase.) But assume that they did say "this wasn't political." The word political in this context, as shown in the article, is being used as a slur. People opposed to the Church's actions are improperly cashing in on the word's ambiguity--that people hear it as meaning pure partisanship and something violating the law--to accuse the Church backhandedly. Then the response, which will only get printed if it is in soundbyte form, is subject to being so nuanced that it fails to get printed (an exposition of the nature of politics in Church teaching and the difference between issue advocacy and moral implications on politics and pure partisanship and the First Amendment and tax law)--and if that response gets issued in the form of an 80 page document, the Church is criticized for being inarticulate and bumbling and the news coverage conveys even less of what they said if anything at all. Instead, the response (we are supposing) was issued was to say this isn't political, this is issue education. Which is basically accurate in this charged context. It fails to possess the precision of a treatise on social justice, but where the word political is being used *because* of its partisan baggage, the response actually gets printed and delivers the message, and that seems reasonable to me.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Oct 5, 2010 12:02:14 PM

There's a very interesting analysis on Vox Nova by Keri J. Lundgren titled "Teaching and Politics in the Minnesota Bishops' Marriage Mailing." Here's the link.

Lundgren analyzes a transcript of an interview with Archbishop John Nienstedt, of which this is an excerpt:

CRANN: You also make a political statement at the end [of the video segment] that you feel that this issue should come before the voters of Minnesota.
NIENSTEDT: Well, that’s not so much a political statement as it is saying that, as other states have done, we need to bring this to the people, rather than have it decided by the judiciary or by the legislature… We need to let the people say what the reality of marriage is going to be. I don’t see that as that big of a political statement.
CRANN: Let’s hear that, if we could.
EXCERPT FROM NIENSTEDT IN THE DVD: The archdiocese believes that the time has come for voters to be presented directly with an amendment to our state constitution to preserve our historic understanding of marriage. In fact, this is the only way to put the one man, one woman definition of marriage beyond the reach of the courts and politicians.
CRANN: Is that, in fact, a political statement?
NIENSTEDT: I don’t believe so, no. I think that’s a reasonable, common sense thing.
CRANN: And you’re calling for something to be put to a vote. Isn’t that a political action?
Nienstedt: That is a political action, yes, but I think it also, in the context of the whole video, I think it makes sense.

The archbishop is being disingenuous in the way politicians and other men of power so frequently are.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 5, 2010 12:19:23 PM

Matt Bowman says: "People opposed to the Church's actions are improperly cashing in on the word's ambiguity--that people hear it as meaning pure partisanship and something violating the law--to accuse the Church backhandedly. Then the response, which will only get printed if it is in soundbyte form, is subject to being so nuanced that it fails to get printed . . . "

Unfortunately for Matt's interpretation, an audio recording of the full interview is available, along with a printed transcript.

The archbishops statements are not nuanced. As I have already said, they're disingenuous.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 5, 2010 12:57:10 PM

Perhaps you missed this sentence and the analysis following: "But assume that they did say 'this wasn't political.'"

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Oct 5, 2010 1:38:56 PM

Here's my problem with the Archbishop's mailing. It extends beyond a clarification of the Church's teaching on marriage and proposes a single and specific policy proposal that is supposed to encode, or support, or delay the ongoing decay of, this teaching. I am in deep agreement with the Church's sexual ethic, but I also believe that America is largely populated by pagans who are argumentatively immune to that sexual ethic for a variety of reasons. The barn door has long been left open; all the animals are gone; and shutting it now in the face of civil "gay" marriage will make no difference at all so long as contraception and no-fault divorce remain widely available. Better that the Church spend her energies convincing *her own members* to live the sexual ethic she teaches rather than pretending that America is something it is not. Such a position is often derided as a retreat from politics, or an abandonment of the common good, etc. But this need not be so: how best may the Church influence Americans as to the beauty and truth of Christian sexual ethics other than to embody this ethic among her own members? So long as that is not happening, I have little patience for the Church intruding herself into the political process.

Posted by: Anonymous | Oct 5, 2010 2:25:48 PM

Everything the Church says these days is political. This is because this whole country is insane.

Posted by: Colin Leicht | Oct 5, 2010 3:07:08 PM

As Rob says, the Gospel has implications for how political communities are ordered and operate. The Church may, and should, (prudently) propose to Catholics, and others, claims about what those implications are, both for the community and for individuals' "political" decisions -- including decisions about voting. "Conservative" Catholics are mistaken when they object to the Church's "liberal"-tending proposals, and "Liberal" Catholics are mistaken when they object to the Church's "conservative"-tending proposals.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 5, 2010 3:14:43 PM

I don't see how anyone who has watched the video can fail to conclude that it is both political and partisan. Expressing the Church's view on marriage is certainly a legitimate exercise of teaching authority. Telling Catholic voters they should support a consitutional amendment because the the political/legal issue should be decided by the people and not by the elected officials or judges is not at all an exercise of teaching authority. That is telling Catholics how they should vote in an election in which there is only one candidate for governor who supports a constitutional amendment on this issue.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Oct 5, 2010 3:26:16 PM

"Political" has very specific meaning under tax law. It is narrowly defined as advocacy for or against a political candidate and prohibited for 501(c)(3) organizations such as churches. But "political" can also mean something more general (as suggested above, a kind of ambiguous slur) or it may mean activity which is more properly called lobbying or issue advocacy under tax law, which are in no way prohibited. So perhaps the DVD can be called political in a general sense. Of course, any discussion of how we are to govern ourselves is in some sense political. But the DVD is not political in the stricter sense and I think the Archbishop, aware of the distinction, is correct to say so. It neither endorses or opposes any candidate. Just because Emmer has the same position is not the same thing as the DVD advocating or endorsing him.

Posted by: Pat Sternal | Oct 5, 2010 4:03:05 PM

Pat Sternal,

Isn't the Archbishop capable of saying something like, "In the sense that voting on a referendum to change the constitution is political, of course it is political. But it's certainly not partisan politics, or politics for the sake of politics. It's about what's good for society as a whole." But when the interviewer asks, "Is that, in fact, a political statement?" the Archbishop replies, " I don’t believe so, no. I think that’s a reasonable, common sense thing." And when the interviewer asks if calling for something to be brought to a vote isn't a political action, the Archbishop replies, "That is a political action, yes, but I think it also, in the context of the whole video, I think it makes sense." Either he isn't very articulate, or he doesn't want the word "political" associated with the video, in which case he is dissembling.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 5, 2010 4:48:07 PM

Let me rephrase my comment in light of Pat's. I did not intend to express a view about the character of the Church's statement as a matter of tax law. (I agree that the statements are not such as to risk jeopardizing the Church's tax-exempt status.)

I think, however, there is a big difference between, on the one hand, the bishops educating Catholics as to the Church position on various matters and telling them things they ought to consider in deciding how to vote, and on the other, and effectively telling them how they have to vote to be good Catholics. I view the former, but not the latter, as a proper exercise of their teaching authority. While it is true that the Archbishop spoke very carefully in not endorsing a particular candidate, I think there is no question, based on both the timing and the content of the video, as to the message he intended Catholic voters in this state to take from his words.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Oct 5, 2010 4:54:09 PM

Of course, if the anonymous donor is the Republican candidate for governor (Emmer), or someone associated with his campaign, or even someone with a million dollars to throw around who thinks this will give Emmer a boost, then the DVD is *very* political.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 5, 2010 4:54:26 PM

Two points: First, when it comes to public policy questions, my experience is that bishops and their state Catholic conferences use the IRS definition of "political." Yes, there are other definitions, but accusations of being "political" usually concern the church's tax status and that is the context in which the word is used.

Second, whether or not it is "political," since when is it wrong for a bishop or bishops' conference to urge Catholics to pursue a particular course of action? They do it all the time with health care, immigration, minimum wage, etc. Bishops do not say that you must support a particular approach in order to be a good Catholic and, by and large, Catholics understand that. If the bishops' legal and political advisers conclude that one approach is best, what is wrong with sharing that with the faithful?

The argument that the bishops should avoid urging particular courses of action on marriage sounds no different than the argument of some from the right that think the bishops should keep quiet on health care, immigration, housing, foreign debt relief, and climate change.

Posted by: Chris D | Oct 5, 2010 5:49:38 PM

Chris D,

Yes, but it wouldn't even be "political" by the IRS's definition to urge Catholics to vote YES on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Can you or anyone else explain what this is supposed to mean: "That is a political action, yes, but I think it also, in the context of the whole video, I think it makes sense."

Maybe I am so biased I think other people are biased in not seeing what I see, but it seems to me that the archbishop is engaging in "spin." Oh, heavens no, we're not involving ourselves in politics. We're just teaching.

Posted by: David Nickol | Oct 5, 2010 6:01:14 PM

"David" you seem to think that if someone COULD have said something differently, in a way that agrees with you, then they are REQUIRED to say it that way, and they are lying if they don't (of course now you're backing of your allegation that the Bishop is "disingenuous" and just calling the Bishop inarticulate--even while you propose that he instead respond using another inarticulate, long-winded answer). Thankfully the Bishop does not take advice from unverified blog commenters.

There are two issues here, whether the Bishop legitimately denied in these attacks that what the Church was doing was "political," and whether as Prof. Stabile argues the Church should have been engaging in that teaching as a substantive matter. On the first question the Bishop's answer was legitimate: political was and is being used by his accusers as meaning (1) violation of tax law, a commonly used specific meaning of the term especially in this context, and (2) partisan support of a party or candidate due to party loyalty and not morality, a common understanding of "political" used by citizens as well as Catholics in the pews. The DVD itself proves that the Bishop does not believe that the Gospel is irrelevant to how we order society (since it applies the Gospel to the ordering of society), so he wasn't denying the Church's social teaching in that regard. He was legitimately defending against a charge in a way and a context that required a simple and accurate answer to an intentionally loaded question.

The second point is worthy of debate and I think the Bishop is right in his approach on that too, though the focus of Prof. Vischer's post was to discuss issue one.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Oct 6, 2010 9:11:05 AM

I've deleted several comments -- let's keep the focus on the ideas, not on the identity of those who are critiquing or supporting the ideas.

Posted by: rob vischer | Oct 6, 2010 1:22:08 PM

I take it that you think that the "conservative" Catholics are also mistaken when they object to the conservative tending proposals? And the "liberal" Catholics also mistaken when they object to the liberal tending proposals? This does happen after all, since some are at least trying to defend principled objections and not merely partisan objections to particular proposals.

Posted by: Fritz Warfield | Oct 6, 2010 3:48:57 PM

I am so glad that the Archbishop is taking a stand and proclaiming the faith. He will suffer for it. He is a brave man.

Posted by: Fr. J | Oct 6, 2010 6:30:09 PM

in the video, it says:
"If we are to change our societal understanding of marriage, it should be the people themselves, and not politicians or judges who should make this decision."

Just why is it that a small part of the population has to bow down and relinquish rights based on a religious organization's view? There is a constitution that says I don't have to practice your religion and we have representational democracy for a reason: to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

There is still no logical explanation as to why gay marriage is going to adversely affect anyone else. Just saying it's a dangerous social experiment without supporting evidence is merely slander.

Posted by: Joseph R. Yungk | Oct 31, 2010 1:14:53 PM