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