Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Fight of Their Lives

Archbishop Nienstedt rallies the priests & deacons
of the archdiocese
to “fight” against same-sex marriage
at the state and national level.

By Paula Ruddy

Would you have pictured a meeting of the archdiocesan priests and deacons with their new archbishop as a genial get-together of the brotherhood? There would be lots of affable greeting, talking and laughing before they settled down to a serious exchange of views about the announced topic, the sacrament of marriage. They would be serious because some research shows that as many as one in five Catholic marriages end in divorce.

According to our sources, the meeting on marriage scheduled by Archbishop John C. Nienstedt for August 28, 2008, at St John the Baptist Parish in New Brighton had been announced as just such an opportunity for priests and deacons to get together for discussion in between the every two-year presbyterate meetings that are customary in the Archdiocese. About 200 priests and deacons attended.

Instead of being about sacramental marriage, however, the meeting was almost entirely about homosexuality and same-sex civil marriage. There were four speakers to present the well-known moral position of the Roman Catholic Church on same-gender sex and partnering.

Instead of discussion, there was a Q&A period during which priests were asked to write their questions and submit them to the speakers. The opportunity to talk to one another was limited, as one priest put it, to asking: “How’s your chicken sandwich?” At the end, according to our sources, the Archbishop told the priests to ready themselves for the fight of their lives against legal recognition of same-sex partnerships.

Several of the priests and deacons we spoke to expressed dismay at having been misled about the subject matter of the meeting and the lack of opportunity for discussion. Two were reported to have left in disappointment. One said he felt like he had been “duped.” One priest said, “I was embarrassed to hear what we were hearing and to sit together with my priest friends and do nothing. But it just didn’t feel like anything we could say or do would make a difference.”

To obtain information on the meeting agenda, we called Dennis McGrath, Archdiocesan Communications Director. He said no information was available through his office. We got the following information from printed materials the speakers at the meeting provided to clergy in attendance and from the internet.

The first speaker was Dr. Janet E. Smith, guest lecturer at the St Paul Seminary during the current term, and a professor of moral theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. She is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family. A search of the internet does not reveal where Dr. Smith went to school or received her training.

Our sources said Dr. Smith’s presentation had been announced as “Marriage from the Perspective of Canon Law.” Her handout, however, was entitled, “The Natural Law Argument Against Homosexual ‘Unions’.” In an attempt to define what is “human,” Dr. Smith wrote that humanity is characterized by “living in community, seeking knowledge (art, music, sports), and worshipping God.” Humans live “in a rational way.” Examples were “eating in a rational way (plates, utensils); having sex in a rational way (married).” Inexplicably, she also noted that “Everyone is disordered sexually; chastity is a challenge for everyone.”

Other speakers were Dr. John C. Cavadini, Reverend Michael Prieur, and Professor Teresa S. Collett.

John C. Cavadini is Associate Professor of Theology, and Chair of the Theology Department at the Unversity of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. He received his B.A. in 1975 from Wesleyan University; an M.A. in 1979 from Marquette University; and his 1988 from Yale University. Dr. Cavadini’s lecture was entitled “Marriage from the Perspective of Church.” Contacted by phone, Dr. Cavadini said he did not have a written copy of the lecture.

Fr. Michael Prieur, who graduated from St. Peter’s Seminary, London, Ontario, in 1965, obtained his Doctorate in Theology from the Pontificio Ateneo di S. Anselmo in Rome in 1969. As a professor of Moral and Sacramental Theology at St. Peter’s Seminary for over thirty-five years, he has specialized in Bioethics, the Sacrament of Marriage, and the Art of the Confessor. He is Coordinator of the Permanent Deacon Program for the Diocese of London.

Fr. Prieur’s subject was “The Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Issue in Canada: What Happened?” Fr. Prieur warned against allowing the issue of legalizing homosexual unions as civil marriages to be framed in “rights” language. That is what happened in Canada, he said, and it led to some lower courts holding that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms required recognition of same sex civil marriage.

The relevant passage in the Charter reads: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (Section 15 (1)) The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was embedded in the Canadian Constitution in 1982, replacing a Bill of Rights which had been a federal statute since 1960.

After the lower court decisions, instead of appealing, the Canadian government drafted a bill, which the Supreme Court ruled was constitutional, and the Parliament passed. On July 20, 2005, Royal Assent was given to the Civil Marriage Act and it became the law of Canada. It reads: “Marriage, for civil purposes, is the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.” The Act also “recognizes that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.”

The problem with framing the question in “rights” language, according to Fr. Prieur, is that it “totally bypasses looking at the institution of marriage in any ontological sense, rooted in the ‘givens’ of creation and objective reality.” He did not specify why the government of Canada should view civil marriage in sacramental terms.

In addition to bypassing the sacramental aspects, Fr. Prieur wrote that “rights” based civil marriage bypasses the question of the “common good.” In separating “love” from “procreation,” the primary purpose of marriage, the best interests of children, is overlooked. Fr. Prieur sees the equal protection of same sex civil marriage as possibly resulting in many evils – discrimination against heterosexual marriage, the blurring of all objective differences in relationships, the increase of illness due to anal intercourse and consequent law suits against the government, and the state’s inability to determine criteria for consummation. All of these arguments weigh in on the side of prohibiting same sex civil marriage for the common good in Fr. Prieur’s view.

To avoid the negative consequences to the common good in the US, Fr. Prieur advised the priests to use the media, and to stand up strongly against legalizing same-gender civil marriage. “We may need simply to say: ‘Our teaching about marriage as being between a man and a woman is inherent in creation itself. This is the way God made marriage. It is unchangeable by human beings. And this teaching is on the level of the Creed. This is a teaching for which I am willing to die’.” Emphasis his.

Teresa S. Collett, Professor of Law at the University of St Thomas Law School, gave a presentation, entitled “Marriage & Government, An Uneasy Union.” Professor Collett earned her B.A. at the University of Oklahoma and her J.D. at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

In her power-point talk, Professor Collett showed the gradual decline of sexual morality from the Middle Ages, when marriage was a matter for ecclesiastical courts, to the present, when civil governments set the criteria for civil marriage. She cited statistics on the “cultural erosion of civil marriage,” including no-fault divorce, creation of legal rights for cohabitants, acceptance of out of wedlock births, and legal recognition of same-sex unions.” The rest of her presentation was on the history of the legal struggle for GLBT rights in the US and particularly in Minnesota. She warned that in 2008 “nineteen state legislators sponsored a bill to include marriage within the Minnesota Human rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and to delete the prohibition of state recognition of marriages between persons of the same sex.”

The bills she may be referring to are Senate File 3880, authored by Senator John Marty, and House File 4248, authored by Representative Phyllis Kahn, providing for gender-neutral marriage laws. The Senate bill is entitled “Marriage and Family Protection Act.” Under the “Legislative Findings” section, the bills declare that the state has an interest in encouraging stable relationships regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the partners and the entire community benefits when couples undertake the mutual obligations of marriage. The bills also specify that religious institutions are not required to solemnize such marriages.

If anyone has more or more accurate information on this initiative of the Archbishop to influence civil law and would be willing to share with the laity, we would appreciate hearing from you. Email us at

Paula Ruddy is a founding member of The Progressive Catholic Voice.