As efforts to legalize same-sex marriage advanced in Washington state, New Jersey and Maryland, Archbishop Nienstedt addressed the issue with National Catholic Register correspondent Barb Ernster. Following are some highlights from the article in which the Archbishop shares backgrounds on why the Catholic Church in Minnesota supports the Minnesota Marriage Amendment is encouraging Catholics to vote “yes” in November.
Why is this such an important issue?
The other Minnesota Catholic bishops and I see the erosion of healthy, happy marriages all around us: the high degree of marriages ending in divorce, the rising number of couples cohabitating with no intention to marry, and the spike in the number of children born out of wedlock, many to single mothers living in poverty. The true importance of marriage as a natural and, for us as Catholics, a sacramental reality is being eclipsed throughout our society.
Now there is a driving force, with full media support, to redefine or, in truth, “undefine” marriage from a child-centered institution that unites one man and one woman together with any children born from their union into something different altogether: a system of domestic partnerships based on the romantic inclinations of adults. We understand this to be yet another assault against the dignity of marriage that will likely reinforce some of the negative cultural trends I previously mentioned, developments that research clearly shows are having very bad effects on children and, in turn, all of society.
According to the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune, you stated in a letter to priests and deacons that the endgame of those who oppose its passage is to eliminate the need for marriage altogether. Can you expound on this aim?
The battle for marriage is an ideological one. For Catholics, it involves our basic understanding of anthropology (i.e. what does it mean to be human?), understood through the medium of the natural law and of theology (i.e. what is our understanding of God vis-à-vis an earthy existence?). What we know by faith is supported by reason: Research and experience make clear that family structure matters to children and that laws should support institutions such as marriage that foster children and, thus, societal, well-being. One could call our view deeply communitarian.
Those who oppose the traditional definition of marriage are often caught up in a secular ideology that rejects any concept of the natural law having any control over human behavior, as well as rejecting the will of a loving God who indeed knows what is best for his sons and daughters.
How would a marriage amendment strengthen the Minnesota law that already exists against a federal or state court challenge, given the recent ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down California’s Proposition 8?
A marriage amendment would prevent local politicians from redefining the statutory definition of marriage and prevent state court judges from writing a new one into the Minnesota Constitution. The prospect of either happening is a very serious reality, not just a hypothetical one, and shows why the constitutional amendment is needed now. In fact, there is presently a case working its way through the state court system by three same-sex couples that seeks to have Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional and discriminatory. And multiple pieces of legislation have been introduced to turn marriage into a system of genderless domestic partnerships or eliminate marriage altogether.
At the federal level, the absence of a system of civil unions in Minnesota, as well as a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that there is no right under the U.S. Constitution for same-sex couples to receive a marriage license, likely insulates Minnesota from a lower federal court ruling similar to the one in California.
We have seen, however, how the U.S. Department of Justice has refused to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, even though it is the law of the land, which could mean that a challenge to DOMA would end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Hopefully, should the court take up the marriage case, it would affirm the ability of the states to protect the institution of marriage and not require them to recognize same-sex unions performed in other states as valid marriages.
Some religious groups have come out against the amendment, and some have remained neutral, stating it is up to individuals to vote their consciences. How would you address this issue with Catholics?
First of all, I remind our Catholic people that an understanding of marriage is not something the bishops or the Church made up. Marriage between a man and a woman predates any civil government or even religion, for that matter. The state simply recognizes and supports marriage; it has no power to redefine it.
It is unreasonable and, I dare say, unnatural to think that changing the definition of a word has the power to change the reality that underlies that word — it does not; it cannot. And it becomes a pretense to argue differently.
Secondly, I believe that it is extremely unfortunate that many in both the media and the public square continue to repeat the false accusation that supporters of the amendment are out to harm people. That is simply not true. My only intent, and that of others whom I know, is to safeguard the pro-family institution of marriage and to promote human flourishing and the common good. It is not an “anti” anyone amendment. Rather, it is a “pro-marriage” amendment, a legal safeguard driven by the desire to protect that which is foundational for the common good. And we have to remember that there would be no need for an amendment if others were not first actively trying to redefine marriage. This is not a debate we have chosen, but it is one in which we will not sit on the sidelines.
By participating in this public debate about the future of marriage, I would never, ever want to encourage any discrimination toward people with same-sex attractions. There are known cases where such individuals or groups have been ostracized, bullied and thus driven to physical or emotional pain. Yes, we have to and we are reaching out to such people and will continue to do so. But the answer to injustices against those who suffer with same-sex attraction cannot be the redefinition of marriage. That would simply compound one injustice with another and would definitely not be the compassionate or loving thing to do.
How do you address the claim that the Church is getting too political and detracting from its spiritual mission?
What is more central to the spiritual mission of the Church than fostering good, healthy marriages between husbands and wives and ministering to the varied challenges that they and their children face in their family life?
We have to remember, too, as the Holy Father has been reminding us of late, that the Church’s work in the public square contributes to the New Evangelization. It is not just the Church “doing politics,” but instead, constitutes her perennial task of forming consciences, promoting justice and announcing truths that are written on the human heart. In this way, we also point to the source of those truths — the eternal Word who has written them into the fabric of our human nature.
Unfortunately, it has become quite apparent, especially with the issue of the health-care insurance mandate, that there are forces desiring to exclude the voice of religion from the public square. Let’s be clear — that is discrimination.
In addition, I would say that we are not forcing our viewpoint on anyone. The point of rational inquiry and public debate is to arrive at the truth. Our view is that there cannot be one understanding of the human person for people of faith and another for people without faith. There can only be one, true understanding of the human person. Proposing those truths is the Church’s contribution to the discussion.
Catholics are struggling to find the words to defend marriage between one man and one woman, given the state of heterosexual marriages and the broad acceptance of same-sex relationships and the idea of granting them legal “rights.” How can they educate others on this issue when society as a whole is so far away from understanding the truth and meaning of human sexuality and God’s design for marriage?
We are facing a crisis over marriage in the Western world. What is so badly needed for couples and their children is a proper understanding of what marriage was meant to be “from the beginning,” as Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel. And we have to take seriously the overwhelming scientific evidence that children flourish best in a home with a mother and father. I realize that this is not always possible, but we must work to see to it that it should be the norm.
The difficulty in attaining the ideal of marriage should not lead us to abandon that ideal, much less our voice in the public sector relative to its protection. Rather, it should compel us all, clergy and laity alike, to work for those conditions in our own homes, parishes, neighborhoods and, indeed, our state that protect and defend that which is good and necessary for authentic human flourishing. The best way to communicate the truth of marriage is encouraging couples to live their own marriage well and then equipping them to translate this truth and the natural law into a language that modern ears can understand.
National Catholic Register correspondent Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota. Her full article can be found here.