Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dialoguing with the Archbishop: Amendment Campaign Contrary to Church Moral Teaching

By Paula Ruddy

The first item on the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s new legislative agenda for 2011/2012, prior to poverty, the educational achievement gap, or abortion funding, is a Minnesota constitutional amendment preventing same-sex civil marriage equality.

One of the MCC’s primary initiatives in this session is to develop and identify sponsorship for a Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. If this bill is passed by both the House and Senate, it will be placed on the ballot in 2012 for approval by the voters of Minnesota. Once the bill is introduced, many hearings will be called. It will take ongoing efforts to shepherd the bill through the committee process, get it to the floor of both the House and Senate and ensure that it receives a positive vote.

Is this legislative effort in accord with ethical citizenship or with Catholic Church teaching? I believe it is a violation of both. I respectfully ask the Archbishop to drop the Constitutional Amendment campaign from the legislative agenda. If you agree, please write to him at 226 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, 55102.

First, I am assuming that Archbishop Nienstedt has the power to direct the agenda. It is possible that the prime mover could be one of the other Minnesota bishops – John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Paul D. Sirba of Duluth, John M. LeVoir of New Ulm, John M. Quinn of Winona, or Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston. Or it could be David McCauley, Interim Executive Director of the MCC. Or, for all we know, it could be Kathleen M. Laird, Director of the Office for Marriage, Family and Life. It is not clear who sets the legislative agenda for the bishops, but it seems that all of these Catholic leaders are in support of the Constitutional Amendment campaign. On the website of the Minnesota Catholic Conference you will find the Minnesota Bishops’ names and addresses. As Church teachers, they have a duty to explain to us how their decision to wage this campaign for a Constitutional Amendment fits with our ethical duties as citizens and the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human persons, Dignitatis humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Let’s write to all of them.

I don’t doubt that the Archbishop is following his conscience. But he, like all the rest of us, has to make sure his conscience is informed. If he immerses himself in a closed ideology of air-tight conclusions – not negotiable, indisputable – and faces down all questioners from the high status of his authority as head teacher of the Archdiocese, he is risking culpable ignorance. The risk is greater if no one may dare to question him without fear of reprisal. A closed-minded authoritarianism isn’t an optimal position to be in for the formation of conscience.

Here is the question I would like to pose to him:

Given the ethics of citizenship in a constitutional democratic republic, and given the Church’s teaching in Dignitatis humanae, how do the Minnesota bishops morally justify depriving gay and lesbian Minnesota citizens of equal protection of the laws of civil marriage?

We are not talking about Church practice of sacramental marriage for Catholics. We are talking about civil marriage for Protestants, Jews, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, (I won’t go on) and non-believers of every description – who are gay and lesbian citizens of the State of Minnesota.

Ethics of Citizenship

In a constitutional democratic republic, which is the form of government we have, the people have committed ahead of time, in the constitution, to some principles that govern all their law-making. One principle is that we value freedom. We don’t restrict freedom by law unless there are good reasons to do so. Another principle we value most highly is the principle that each person is equal under the law. The people have already decided, long ago, in ratifying the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that equal protection of the law is in the common good. We cannot decide to exclude some people from legal benefits we afford to others or from restrictions we put on others. Since we are our own law-makers through our representatives, we all have the duty to observe these principles in making law. We have committed ourselves to principles that protect individuals and minorities from majority injustice.

Distinctions: Persuasion, Coercion, and the Legitimacy of Coercion

There is no question that the Church’s teaching authority has a duty to contribute to society by persuading people of the justice of its thinking on social issues. Bishops should enter into the public discourse and add the ancient wisdom of the Church’s tradition to the discussion of the common good.

When it comes to making law, however, another level of moral discretion kicks in. Law is coercive, not persuasive. A law either forces people to do an action, (e.g. File your income tax return) or it slams the door on a freedom they would otherwise enjoy (e.g. Do not exceed 30 miles per hour on this street). The coercion of law requires good public reasons. We restrict freedom to prevent foreseeable harm to the public. The law has legitimacy when people, for the most part, can see the harm to be prevented for the common good. Sometimes the people are divided, maybe even fractured, on the values underlying societal issues. Unless we have substantial agreement about the good involved it is prudent to err on the side of freedom. If we restrict freedom of action when a substantial number of people don’t see the public harm to be prevented by the law, we risk the legitimacy of the law. Public order breaks down when people do not respect the law. Most marriage laws have legitimacy. For example, people generally agree that there are good reasons why an adult should not marry a minor or that minors should not marry. It’s about having the experience and knowledge for free consent. But what is the harm prevented by restricting the freedom of gays and lesbians to marry?

The Position of the Minnesota Catholic Bishops

The Minnesota Roman Catholic bishops are urging people to violate their Constitutional commitment to freedom from restriction of law without good reasons. Denial of freedom to marry to same-sex couples has had legitimacy until quite recently. As happens in the ethical sphere, people begin to question long held assumptions and to see that they have no basis for continued belief. The status of the questioning on same-sex marriage is now such that a law restricting the freedom to marry is quickly losing legitimacy.

The DOMA law, Defense of Marriage Act, is still on the books in Minnesota. To make it harder to repeal the Minnesota bishops want to make the restriction constitutional. Instead of persuasion by good reasons, they want to deprive a minority of equal protection of the law by majority rule.

Even if they firmly believe they are preventing a harm, they surely know that not enough people agree to make the restriction of the freedom to marry legitimate. They may be able to get a simple majority of votes, but the ethics of citizenship requires them to refrain from making a law with a simple majority to force a restriction on such an important freedom as the choice of a life partner with all its legal protections and obligations. Why would the bishops want to force millions of people to live under a law that they have no respect for?

The Minnesota Roman Catholic bishops are urging people to violate their constitutional commitment to equality under the law. If heterosexual unions are called “marriage” and afforded benefits under the civil law, there have to be good reasons for denying the status and the benefits of the law to homosexual unions. Law-makers, who have sworn to uphold the constitution, and the people they represent have an ethical duty to keep a clear breach of the constitutional commitment to equality off the ballot. Saying “Let the people decide” in an act of defiance against the principle of equality is irresponsible. So is calling judges and law-makers who honor their constitutional commitment “ruling elites” and “activist judges.” Why would the Minnesota bishops do that? Why show such contempt for the principle of equality?

Dignitatis humanae, Declaration on Religious Freedom

Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church’s official teaching is that the Minnesota Catholic bishops have no moral justification for urging people to violate their constitutional commitments to freedom and equality.

The Universal Church in Ecumenical Council has spoken to that question. In Dignitatis humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Second Vatican Council in a 2308 to 70 vote said that the dignity of the human person requires governments to protect the freedom of all citizens to practice their religions and codes of ethics.

Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens.

While holding firm to our own ethical precepts, in respect for the freedom of other citizens, we responsibly limit our power to make laws coercing them to act or to make laws depriving them of freedom to act according to their own consciences.

Dignitatis humanae is clear that the right to religious freedom is inalienable. It is also clear that the exercise of this right is not inalienable, and can be subject to “certain regulatory norms.” The first of these norms comprises the personal and social responsibility by which individuals or groups impose limits on the exercise of their own religious liberty. “In the exercise of their rights,” the council wrote, “individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all.” (John Tuohey, Commonweal, January 11, 2011.)

These principles of constitutional protections for citizens are abstract, but I hope not too abstract to move us to stand up against the Minnesota bishops who are ignorant or careless of them. They are the backbone of our civic community life and, like the backbone, we don’t think about them much until we fear losing their support.

We could go on asking questions: Why do the Minnesota bishops want to enact a law that makes family life more difficult for thousands of same-sex oriented people who, though they cannot conceive children together, have biological and adopted children in their care. How can all the bishops of Minnesota be in lock-step with the Archbishop’s reasoning? How can Archdiocesan employees in conscience cooperate in this?

The shining ray of hope is that the Catholic people will not follow and will by their leadership call the Archbishop to re-think the morality of his campaign.

Recommended Off-site Link:
Catholics for Marriage Equality MN


  1. Paula,

    Thank you for this article. Your reflections are insightful. Here is my two-sense (for what it is worth) regarding this subject...

    You quote John Tuohey's article in the "Commonweal" quoting the council fathers declaration on religious freedom ("Dignitatis Humanae") stating,

    "individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all."

    At first glance your interpretation and argument that the church is violating its moral stance on religious freedom because it is "oppressing" the civil liberties of gay and lesbian persons right to marriage is commendable; however, a closer study of how Catholic morality views same-sex relationships reveals that the Roman bishops are not violating the precepts of "Dignitatis Humanae."

    Here's the moral premise Roman Catholic morality works from: The Roman Catholic Church respects the individual dignity of gay and lesbian persons, and does not morally fault them for their "condition," which the church labels same-sex acts as "intrinsically disordered" and sinful (i.e. not in a state of lived grace). The gay and lesbian person, if he or she is to live in a state of grace and receive the sacraments of the church, must live a celibate life (See Catechism, no. 2357-59).

    Thus, the moral response from the church is not to uphold anything that is considered morally sinful; that is, something that seperates and severes one's relationship with God. In Roman Catholic morality, sin must always be combated because its evil spreads and corrupts the faithful.

    Here's the punch line...if we work from the beginning premise of Catholic morality regarding same-sex relationships, one can reasonably conclude the Roman Church and its bishops are not incorrect for combatting same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage (civil and/or religious) is not viewed as a religious freedom or infringement on one's civil rights or against human dignity in Roman Catholic morality. In fact, by combating same-sex marriage the Roman Church believes it is upholding human dignity on all accounts. Roman Catholic morality begins with the premise that same-sex relationships are sinful because it is not procreative. There is no getting around this fact. Thus, as commendable as your article is, and well written, I think it ignores this foundational moral principle and falls short in its argument.

    I argue the Roman Church's beginning premise about same-sex relationships. I do not believe same-sex relationships are sinful, but life-giving and procreative in its own way--that is, proper to its order in creation. The Roman Church does not agree with my premise (which is completely different from theirs). I respect the Roman Church's stance by following their mandate to not receive the sacraments in the Roman Church b/c I am in a same-sex relationship. I do not believe I am in a state of sin, but I also respect communion, and in this instance I am not in communion with the Roman Church's teaching on a significant moral issue that damages gay and lesbian persons in a most abusive manner.

    Let's not live in the illusion that gays and lesbians can live healthy lives in the Roman Church...this martyr mentality of "fighting the good fight" is in my opinion a waste of time and energy. It is time for us gay and lesbian persons to find Christ and our catholicism apart from the Roman Church. That is why I choose to be Old Catholic and live this identity in the Episcopal Church.

    Shalom, ~Bob Caruso

  2. Hi, Bob. Your argument makes a different point from the argument I am making. I can see your argument that the Roman Catholic Church sees its position on the sinfulness of same-sex coupling as correct, you do not. You are not in communion with the RCC on that so, instead of arguing the point with them, you choose to be out of union. That is a reasonable position for you to take, and, I suppose, you may make the judgment that it is "a waste of time" for anyone else to believe or act differently from you. But I am making a different point. The fact that the RCC believes and teaches that same-sex coupling is sinful does not give them the duty to force other people by law to live by their beliefs. Not only do they not have the duty to force that belief on others, they are not justified ethically in doing so. Personal conscience is free. Unless there are good reasons that almost everyone agrees upon, government should not deprive a class of persons of equal protection of the law. Persuading others to see it their way is in order for the Minnesota bishops, but forcing people by law is not. Some hierarchs may still believe that "error has no rights" but that is not the official teaching of the Church.

  3. As a life-long Catholic, I have always known my Church is not perfect. They are mistaken about women's issues (ordination) and are mistaken about their view on homosexuality. They were mistaken about Joan of Arc when they put her to death and mistaken about Galileo when they put him under house arrest. It took my Church nearly 400 years to apologize to Galileo. Although the leaders may not apologize to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in my lifetime they should not continue to "burn them at the stake" by denying them their civil rights.

    Although I disagree with my Church on some issues, I can remain a Catholic in good conscience because of important church teachings such as primacy of conscience. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, before he became Pope Benedict,
    "Morality of conscience and morality of authority as two opposing models, appear to be locked in struggle with each other. Accordingly, the freedom of the Christian would be rescued by appeal to the classical principle of moral tradition that conscience is the highest norm which man is to follow even in opposition to authority."

    Thank you, Paula, and the Progressive Catholic Voice, for helping Catholics such as myself inform our conscience.

  4. Under law two humans of differing sex can apply for a marriage license. For a nominal fee they get something like 515 legal rights. Roughly half of these marriages will end in divorce.
    The amendment issue comes down to who can legally enter into this licensing? Limiting it to just differing sex parties means contractual rights are denied to same sex applicants. It is a legal matter solely. Some people get tax deductions and some people cannot apply.
    On the religious front there are large church groups that believe Eden was in Missouri, or that the space ships are coming back for the saved, that the mother of the Christ was a virgin etc. Under law religious belief is protected.
    Licensing, in this case marriage licensing, is a legal, not a religious question. Remember the refrain when you vote… “with liberty and justice for all.” It’s the constitution in question here, not a religious tenant.
    Jeff Wilfahrt, Rosemount, MN

  5. Great comment, JJ! Mind boggling religious beliefs held by church groups are protected by law, and mind boggling amounts of money accumulated by church groups are also protected by law,i.e., they don't have to pay taxes on the monies they accumulate. Still, again by law, these church groups can't spend their money any old way. They must be careful to follow IRS guidelines on how they can and can't spend their funds. If they ignore these guidelines, they'll have to pay taxes. Seems more than fair.

    Now, this mind boggling marriage amendment campaign that reeks of mind boggling injustice has cost big bucks already and will cost more as election day grows near. Are those expenditures permitted by the IRS? If not permitted, our Archdiocese might have to begin paying taxes. Has our mind boggling Archbishop thought of that? Perhaps not. Perhaps he thinks he's dealing with a religious question. Well, as JJ points out, he's not. He's dealing with a constitutional question. It's NOT okay for churches to spend money to change the constitution. Don't be mind boggled or even mildly surprised when this question comes up in the legislature.