Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dialoguing with the Bishop

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt writes a column in The Catholic Spirit entitled “In God’s Good Time.” As the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice, we take his public statements as an opportunity to discuss his views with him.

Dear Archbishop Nienstedt:

Your column in The Catholic Spirit, December 17, 2008, entitled “Natural Law, Marriage, and the Holy Family” has left us wondering if we have any commonality in reason or language. We seem to think and speak in two different worlds.

You divide moral law into five categories: eternal, natural, revealed, ecclesiastical and civil, designating the last two as emanating from human reason. We take that to mean that church laws and civil laws are made by human beings who decide, based on their current knowledge, what rules and procedures best serve people’s interests. We are with you so far. We know that church laws and civil laws change with the times and cultures of people who make them. You say the ends to be served are “human happiness and fulfillment.” We agree with that too.

You then write four paragraphs about “natural” law. It is “written on our hearts.” “This law of our hearts guides the consciences of men and women in knowing right from wrong….” It is “perceived by reason.” But then you say that, although natural law is written on our hearts, not all of us can access it because of sin. How do we know who has accessed it correctly? How is accessing the law written on our hearts different from questioning conventional ideas of right and wrong in the light of Gospel principles and making reasoned judgments? How are eternal law, revealed law, and natural law related to civil law? We need a lot more light on these points.

From those confusing observations, you plunge directly into universal conclusions about marriage based on all the categories of law you mentioned above. Despite the lack of reason in presenting it, your central conclusion is about civil law and it is crystal clear. You believe that civil law should not recognize any form of marriage other than the union of one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation of children, and, therefore, civil law should not recognize same-gender marriage.

If your conclusions are, as you say, based on natural law, shouldn’t they be explainable by reasoning? Don’t you have to give reasons why the form of marriage the Catholic magisterium recognizes as sacramental should be the only one that civil law recognizes? Why should physical complementarity be the only factor in a society’s decision to recognize civil marriage?

The civil society is comprised of many groups of people who hold different theologies of marriage. Why should they agree to be governed by the theology of the Roman Catholic magisterium?

What are the “misguided notions of inclusiveness” that you mention as the basis of people’s desire to change civil marriage laws to include same-gender partners? Are they notions of equal protection under the law established in our Constitution? Are they Gospel notions of love of neighbor, including people whose sexual orientation is different from the mainstream? Those are the two bases for inclusiveness that we are aware of and that we value. In what way are they “misguided”?

You argue that the one man/one woman form of marriage should be maintained because in the past “society in its collective wisdom has established” that form in civil law. Are you then willing to defer to the collective wisdom of society to fashion future civil marriage laws?

Were the priests and deacons who attended the two “marriage study days” satisfied with the reasoning presented to them? Did you give them an opportunity to question you? You may have convinced them, on your authority, that they should preach against same-gender civil rights, but you have further alienated many Catholics who are asking you not just for reasonable moral guidance, not just for good citizenship in a pluralistic society, but also for sensitivity to the Gospel message.

Our disagreement leaves open the question of whose sinfulness prevents them from reasoning clearly about the natural law or discerning the Christian revelation in the matter of same-gender sex and partnering. Is it ours or yours? We are open to your telling us it is ours, but, since it is a matter of natural law, we can’t take it on your authority. The questions have to be answered reasonably.


The Editorial Team of The Progressive Catholic Voice:

Michael Bayly
Mary Beckfeld
David McCaffrey
Rick Notch
Paula Ruddy

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