By Paula Ruddy
I admire Archbishop Nienstedt’s determination to strengthen the culture of marriage, but I question his vision of what a good culture would look like and his strategies for making change happen. His strategies seem to be counter-productive. His intolerance of discussion prevents collaboration and it is only through collaboration that a vision of the good can be developed and then made actual in practice.
The Archbishop seems to believe that change toward some idea of the good requires intention and strategic action. I think we can all agree on that. Culture doesn’t just change for the good willy-nilly. Someone has to be paying attention. In religious language, we could say that the Holy Spirit works through human intentionality toward goodness. Or in human dynamics language, when people share a vision of the good, they tend to self-organize to work toward it together. An example of cultural change we have experienced is the change from a smoking society to a largely non-smoking society in about 30 years. I’m sure someone has documented the efforts that made that happen.
I think the Archbishop has been intending to impart a vision of a healthy culture of marriage and to direct strategic action toward it. Since January of this year he has promoted a program of talks given by Archdiocesan personnel called “Reclaiming the Marriage Culture.” I attended a session at the Cathedral on February 20, at which Peter Laird, ordained priest and Vicar General, and Teresa Collett, professor of law at St. Thomas, were the main speakers. Laird spoke on the theology of marriage and Collett spoke on the “slippery slope” of legal changes with regard to contraception, cohabitation, divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
The question I’d like to ask the Archbishop is about how people develop a vision of what a good culture might look like. Is vision inspired by “non-debatable” pronouncements about “God’s will”? A lot of communication is necessary to develop shared vision. At the Cathedral session in February, there were written questions but no one in the audience was allowed to speak. There was no interchange, no testing of information or logic. There is no mechanism within the Archdiocese for airing differences of opinion and reasoning together. How is a vision to be developed?
As to the vision of a healthy marriage culture, wouldn’t it include a nuanced understanding learned from married people of what makes a marriage good? What kind of personal development in the children should be the outcome of a good marriage with children? What does it mean that “the kids are okay”? Are the kids okay if the partners are not, and what does an okay partnership entail? We need communication about this to come to a common understanding. I think I heard the “Reclaiming” speakers say that civil marriage laws are not about love. Then what kind of culture are they meant to provide for children? What are the values that need strengthening?
If it is not about love, is it about coercion? I think the chief problem is that the Archbishop has chosen to focus his strategy for change on coercion by law. He is both depending upon the U.S. legal system to produce a healthy culture of marriage and undermining the legal system at the same time by demeaning politicians and “activist” judges. He wants a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex civil marriage “or any legal equivalent” and at the same time he wants the people to subvert the constitutional protections for minorities. This ambiguity doesn’t make for good strategy.
He has framed the problem as a decline from some time in the past when marriage culture was strong. The assertion is that the values of marriage have been undermined by decriminalization of contraception, cohabitation, and abortion and the relaxing of marriage dissolution laws. Is it true that marriages and the culture of marriage were stronger when contraception, cohabitation, and abortion were illegal? Is it true that marriages were stronger when one partner had to accuse the other in court to get a divorce? If the conflict is between the value of stability and the ideal of personal authenticity, we have to explore that and arrive at common understanding.
For example, the Archbishop points to all the women and children who live in poverty because of divorce. Would they be better off living with the man who won’t support them? Is marital stability an absolute value? Is repealing the no-fault divorce law the solution to the problem of unsupported families? How about more attention to moral development for the people who refuse to support their children?
Is same-sex marriage the final step to devaluing marriage as the Archbishop claims, or is it a step to legitimate thousands of families who value marriage?
There is no doubt that the marriage culture is evolving. Is coercion by law the way to direct it toward the good? Aren’t there more effective strategies drawn from the Gospel tradition? There is need for open discussion on these important questions. Pronouncements from on high do not equal teaching.
As long as local Catholics live in a culture of fear where those who speak are vilified or punished, we will not develop a common vision or effective strategies to collaborate with other Minnesota citizens in strengthening the culture of marriage.
I would appreciate your telling me where I have got this wrong or discussing any of these ideas with us on The Progressive Catholic Voice. If you don’t have a Google account, you can open one with your email address and a password. Then click on comment. Thanks.