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.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Church in Minnesota and the Marriage Amendment

As many people doubtless are aware, there will be an amendment on the ballot in Minnesota this November to amend the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Minnesotans appear to be deeply divided on the issue; a poll conducted in November found 48 percent of Minnesotans in favor and 43 percent opposed to it.

In the Twin Cities, Archbishop Neinstedt has been strongly supporting the amendment. In October 2010 he sent a video to all Catholic households in Minnesota advocating for the amendment. (Rob discussed reaction to that here.) Over the past several months he has taken a number of steps, including directing parishes to appoint committees to garner support for the initiative and proposing a prayer to be read at all masses for the passage of the amendment.

Most recently, the Archbishop sent a letter to the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese reiterating the importance of supporting the amendment and stating his expectation that priests and deacons who have personal reservations on the issue not express those publicly. In relevent part it reads:

It is my expectation that all the priests and deacons in this Archdiocese will support this venture and cooperate with us in the important efforts that lie ahead. The gravity of this struggle, and the radical consequences of inaction propels me to place a solemn charge upon you all — on your ordination day, you made a promise to promote and defend all that the Church teaches. I call upon that promise in this effort to defend marriage. There ought not be open dissension on this issue. If any have personal reservations, I do not wish that they be shared publicly. If anyone believes in conscience that he cannot cooperate, I want him to contact me directly and I will plan to respond personally.

Not surprisingly, there has been some criticism of the Archbishop's letter to priests and deacons.  Whatever else one thinks, the reference to ordination vows to defend Church teaching equates one's position on whether the State constitution should be amended with Church doctrine.  Church teaching on marriage is clear, but is it really self-evident that whether the state constitution be amended is a matter of Church doctrine?  


Stabile, Susan | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Church in Minnesota and the Marriage Amendment :


                                                        Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

This seems to be the relevant document.


Posted by: Roger | Jan 6, 2012 8:10:49 AM

There is no conflict involved here between the state constitution and the Church. The doctrines of the Church and clear and firmly established. Pursuant to them, any entity that seeks to violate them must be opposed, with emphasis on the ANY. It was not the Church that initiated this conflict, it was a portion of the public in Minnesota who did. The Church did not however in any sense target the constitution. The Archbishop correctly targets any movement that violates Christian doctrine.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Jan 6, 2012 8:30:06 AM

Joel: I wasn't suggesting a conflict between the state constitution and the Church. My question is whether - in the context of a state in which there is no law recognizing same-sex marriage and no proposal that it be recognized - Church doctrine requires one to support a constitutional amendment to ban it.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Jan 6, 2012 8:35:15 AM

I don't iterpret this as an amendment to ban anything. It is a proposed amendment to clarify the existing law. It has been necessitated by a movement to amend the law by stealth. The whole matter is unquestionab;y in play, whether or not anyone has mooted a SSM law or not. While the institutional Church has taken a posiion on the matter, it is not a "church" issue. Plenty of Minnesotans have taken public positions pro and contra, as is their right as citizens. It is not a Church/state issue, it is a Justice/state issue.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Jan 6, 2012 9:16:01 AM

One could argue that Archbishop Neinstedt recognizes that some priests and deacons as well as members of the Royal Priesthood have failed to form their consciences in communion with God and His Will for Marriage and the Family, and that a Constitutional Amendment that serves to affirm the self-evident Truth that Marriage requires that a couple live in relationship as husband and wife, in a Time when there are those who deny the very essence of Marriage, is for the Common Good.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Jan 6, 2012 9:26:09 AM

Susan I think we need to more closely examine the idea that there is a fundamental divide between Church doctrine and public policy. Ironically, it is usually conservatives who say that Church social teaching is only generalistic (prefer the poor) and not specific (enact welfare, vs. enhancing capitalism to grow the economy and benefit everyone), while it is liberals who usually treat ecclesial statements on such issues in the opposite way. But the "conservative" position recognizes not only is there no total separation between "doctrine" and "policy," but the more important an issue is, the more symmetrical the two become. St. Thomas, in teaching that the government cannot prohibit every vice or prescribe every virtue, notes explicitly that there are some things that a polity MUST prohibit such as murder. Thus, the Church's "doctrinal" opposition to abortion as an action cannot possibly be separated from the doctrine that it must be illegal. Opposing the latter is equally as irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine as opposing the former, as Evangelium Vitae declares consistent with every Church teaching on the subject. But, frankly, liberal Catholics wishing to justify their support for partisans who legalize and fund abortion have been speaking for a long time as if there is a fundamental divide between Church doctrine and social policy, imagining that someone can affirm the former on abortion and support legalization and state endorsement of murder. So, too, on such a core issue as what is marriage, for Catholic social teaching that places the family at the core of society. The principle that marriage = one man and one woman is so pure and fundamental that it cannot be separated from the "policy" that the state affirm the same. So we should not be suspicious of the claim that there is a near-identity on this question between "Church doctrine" and whether state law should affirm this principle. On some really important questions, such an identity readily exists.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jan 6, 2012 2:10:48 PM


You say: "The principle that marriage = one man and one woman is so pure and fundamental that it cannot be separated from the 'policy' that the state affirm the same."

But it seems to me that the state does *not* affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman, at least in the Catholic understanding, because marriage is indissoluble, and therefore divorce and remarriage should not be permitted by law. Also, theoretically, it seems to me that Catholic Charities and other religious organizations who do not want to recognize same-sex marriage should not recognize marriages between those who have divorced from a valid marriage and civilly remarried. Yes, the Church has fought divorce in the past, but it does not seem to me that it has ever done much, if anything, to refuse to recognize legal marriages (of heterosexual couples) who, in the eyes of the Church, cannot marry. So it seems to me the Church has a history of compromising this "pure and fundamental" principle after it loses the battle against divorce laws.

Also, although it may be argued that abortion must be illegal, there are many ways in which it could be made illegal, and although two people might be in agreement that abortion should be illegal, they might be in total disagreement about the *way* it should be illegal and the circumstances under which a legal ban would be acceptable. Suppose I agree that abortion should be legal, but only if the state guarantees a certain level of support for pregnant mothers and a certain guarantee of financial support for a woman who goes through with an unwanted pregnancy. (That's not exactly my own position, but it is not all that far from it.) There is little hope with people with a position similar to that to coming to an agreement with the majority in the pro-life movement, who are extraordinarily unlikely to support the kind of massive government programs it would entail.

One might envision outlawing abortion and not enforcing the laws, or outlawing it in such a way that the penalties are minimal, or outlawing it in such a way that the penalties for women who procure abortions are severe. So it is not at all clear to me how "abortion must be illegal" must be translated into public policy, even if there is universal agreement among Catholics of good will that abortion must indeed be against the law.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jan 6, 2012 2:45:03 PM

I don't think Fr. Araujo, in his latest post, addresses the issue raised by Susan Stabile in this one. I doubt that anybody on Mirror of Justice would deny Archbishop Nienstedt's constitutional right to speak out on public issues, including constitutional amendments and ballot initiatives. Susan Stabile's question is, "Church teaching on marriage is clear, but is it really self-evident that whether the state constitution be amended is a matter of Church doctrine?" The priests in Archbishop Nienstedt's archdiocese also have a First Amendment right to speak their political views. Of course, the silencing of those priests who disagree with him is not a violation of the First Amendment, but the question is whether it is justified by Catholic doctrine, or whether Nienstedt is illegitimately demanding silence on the part of those priests who disagree with him on a *political* issue when he has only the right to command their silence on a doctrinal issue.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jan 6, 2012 3:19:00 PM

David, a bishop in his diocese has the final word on "what the Church teaches." So, if +Niendstadt exercising his teaching role in his diocese thinks that it is in the best interests of the common good and of the Church to promote this amendment and directs his priests to promote it, then, most certainly, their ordination vows are implicated.

Posted by: AML | Jan 6, 2012 3:44:01 PM

There is no plausible question about the fact that the laundry list of pro-abortion things that politicians like Obama and Pelosi and Kennedy have championed are incompatible with Church doctrine that abortion must be illegal, which is why liberal Catholics have resorted to claiming that there is a difference between Church teaching against abortion and Church teaching that it must be prohibited, so they can support such people or do such things themself when in office. Many honest Catholics on the left simply admit that they oppose the Church's teaching that abortion must be illegal. But this thread is about the point that the principle of marriage being one man and one woman is closely joined to the principle that the state should affirm the same, and that there is no Catholic reason to think a chasm between doctrine and policy exists that would rend the two asunder.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jan 6, 2012 3:44:44 PM

It would be very difficult to conclude, from the Church's teaching documents, that Catholics are not obligated to protect marriage as one man and one woman in the civil law, according to legal institutions of a particular society.

The encyclicals, Catechism, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is very clear - marriage is not just a religious institution, it is also a civil institution. Moreover, that institution is, by definition, one man and one woman. The documents also repeatedly state that marriage (as the Church understands it) is the primary institution in the temporal order necessary for the common good and, subsequently, the life and dignity of human persons. Finally, the Church teaches that Catholics have a moral duty to defend this institution.

Certainly, one could argue that the Church's teachings don't say anything about the means of defending the institution because She never speaks on specific means. The means are dictated according to the time, place, and legal institutions of a particular case. But the fact that the Church does not specifically teach about specific legislation does not mean that Catholics or bishops can take a pass. They are obligated to find a means. In the United States the most obvious method of protecting the institution is through a state constitutional amendment, especially since most of the instances of creating same-sex marriage have occurred through the courts.

One could fault the Archbishop for proposing a state constitutional amendment. I wouldn't, but someone could argue that proposing a particular means was beyond his competence. But once it is on the ballot, the Catholic position - based on the teachings themselves - would seem to be very clear.

I think the Aquinas position that not everything prohibited by the moral law needs to be prohibited by the civil law is not applicable here. Aquinas referred to those vices which would be truly counter-productive if they were prohibited at that time. That is not the case with marriage since really nothing changes if same-sex marriage is prohibited in a state constitution (California being the exception.) Even if it did change anything, the Aquinas example would not apply since the counter-productive effects would have to be truly contrary to the common good. Most importantly, Aquinas was not conceding that some things should never be prohibited under the civil law, but that there were times and places when doing so would not be wise. The lesson to be learned from Aquinas' teaching on this matter is that society did evolve to a point where prostitution could be prohibited - the support, by the way, of the Church.

Posted by: ctd | Jan 6, 2012 4:20:33 PM

It's unfortunate that the Catholic church is structured in such a way that it allows this kind of suppression of dissent. An argument that cannot survive dissent is lacking, and those who suppress dissent are weak in their convictions.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jan 7, 2012 12:26:40 AM

One other point that has not been raised is that diocesan priests have an obligation to avoid scandal - actions that could lead others to sin or the occasion of sin. Publicly disagreeing with a bishop on a matter of morals could be considered scandal. Even if it is done solely because of a disagreement with a bishop as to the best means to protect marriage, that nuance would likely be lost on the average parishioner, who is likely to interpret dissent by the priest as license to part from the bishop on matters of doctrine and morals.

Posted by: ctd | Jan 7, 2012 1:28:37 PM

Bravo to the Archbishop. He expects priests to actually defend Catholic faith and morals.

Posted by: Fr. J | Jan 7, 2012 1:36:12 PM

Andrew I don't think you or anyone else really believes that. No one is telling the men who are Catholic clergy not to support gay marriage nor anything else against church teaching. They are free in this country to leave the church and do it in their own name or the name of some other organization. You don't really think that it is "suppressing dissent" for someone to *choose* what *they themselves* shall say. Otherwise, every time you posted your comments here, you would follow those comments with equal posts, under your own name, espousing all alternative and contradictory viewpoints on those subjects. But I've never seen a post from you veer from your one perspective. Do you "suppress dissent" within yourself? It would be bizarre to label it that. It is equally bizarre to say the church "suppresses dissent" by speaking with one voice.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jan 7, 2012 3:57:43 PM

Matt, a few points. First, if you examined everything I've written over the years, I'm sure you would indeed find many perspectives pushing back and forth on one another. I did not come into this world with a fully unified set of beliefs, and indeed I hope that internal disputation continues for the rest of my life. It makes my intellectual life much more fulfilling.

Second, it's silly to suggest that, in the absence of suppressing internal dissent, I would espouse all hypothetically possible positions equally. Opinions that do not exist within me will not be expressed by me, but they also are not being suppressed in any meaningful sense of the word.

Third, institutions are different from people precisely in their ability to entertain and express dissent more fully, while still holding a unified, institutional stance. That is more difficult in individuals because of the nature of human consciousness, but that's hardly a reason to ignore the benefits of group structures.

Last, membership in a group (especially a religious priesthood) is rarely based on a single issue. Thus, any choice that involves leaving the group is restricted. It's still real choice, of course, but the presence of choice does not eliminate the presence of coercion or suppression.

The Catholic Church harms public discourse, in a rather cowardly way, when it suppresses dissent and debate in this way.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jan 12, 2012 1:42:45 AM