Defending marriage: Is the Church being too ‘political’?

Some people, Catholics included, are complaining that the Church’s very public defense of marriage through the promotion of the Minnesota Marriage Protection Amendment is too “political.”

It certainly is political, but the complainants are mistaken about what that means and the Church’s legitimate sphere of activity.

This objection typically comes from three types of people: 1) well-meaning folks who genuinely think speaking out on controversial topics will get the Church in trouble, most likely with the IRS; 2) people who wish to intimidate Catholics into silence; and 3) people who disagree with the Church’s defense of marriage and wish we were politically engaged on other issues, namely, the ones they care about.

In all three cases, the argument for silence is based on pseudo-knowledge about what “everyone” supposedly “knows,” which is that the Church should not be participating in the political arena because churches have no right to impose their religious views on others or be politically active. Churches will surely get in trouble, the naysayers claim, if they wade into the political thicket, so better to keep quiet.

The argument preys on people’s ignorance and fear. But it is harder to be intimidated when one is well-informed. So, let’s unpack what the Church is actually doing to defend marriage in the political arena.

Educational efforts

The bishops of Minnesota are working to educate Catholics about the meaning of marriage, its importance as a cornerstone social institution that promotes human dignity and the common good, and the consequences for society if marriage is redefined.

In doing so, they are helping the faithful exercise their responsibilities as citizens, as well as put their faith into action by equipping Catholics to educate and advocate for just policies in their community.

And protecting marriage is decidedly a matter of justice — especially to children and society.

This “political” activity is the same thing that the Church has been doing on any number of issues for years.

Along those lines, the same crowd of naysayers expresses shock and outrage that the bishops have asked parishes to form committees to work on the marriage issue. Again, the complaint is that this is so “political.”
But the development of these committees should surprise no one. Parishes have had respect life committees and Sowers of Justice/social concerns committees for years. Advocacy within the parishes and dioceses for legislation that protects life at all stages and defends the poor and vulnerable has been a key task of those groups.

Now that marriage is under attack, it is only prudent to ensure that our parishes are actively working to promote and defend marriage, which is not just a personal relationship between two people, but one with a very public component that affects us all.

In living this responsibility, the Church does not desire to “rule” over society or take the reins of power. Rather, the Church’s political activity is instructional.

According to Pope Benedict XVI, “This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: It has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just” (“Deus Caritas Est,” No. 28).

In other words, the Church cannot impose her views on society. She has no bayonets, nor does she want to coerce others.  Rather, she desires to appeal to the consciences of all persons and to witness to those truths written on the human heart by the Creator.

People are free to accept or reject the Church’s instruction, but she cannot remain silent because, in the words of Pope John XXIII, she has a responsibility given to her by Our Lord to act as “mother and teacher of the nations so that all who would come to her fold might attain a fuller life on this earth and eternal salvation.”

As the “pillar and ground of truth,” the Church “has the twofold task of bringing forth, educating, and governing spiritual sons and of caring for the life of individuals and nations, the profound dignity of which she has always deeply respected and alertly protected” (“Mater et Magistra,” No. 1).

And as Pope John XXIII reminded Catholics 50 years ago, and as the U.S. bishops exhort us again today in the document “Faithful Citizenship,” this responsibility is not limited to the clergy. All Catholics have the duty to “take an active part in public life, and to work together for the benefit of . . . their own political communities.

“It is vitally necessary for them to endeavor, in the light of Christian faith, and with love as their guide, to ensure that every institution, whether economic, social, cultural or political, be such as not to obstruct but rather to facilitate man’s self betterment, both in the natural and in the supernatural order” (“Pacem in Terris,” No. 146).

Such is the task of Catholics today in defense of marriage.

The Church’s business

Now, because we live in an adolescent culture, many will reject a “mother and teacher” who lovingly seeks to guide them and will try to silence the Church with the drum beat of “separation of church and state.”

But as noted in a previous column, Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor was not meant to deny churches the right to free speech and assembly. Instead, it meant that our Constitution forbade the government from interfering in the Church’s business, the core of which is giving public witness to the truth in both word and deed.

The marriage debate has exposed some latent threats to the Church’s identity and public witness, which all Americans who respect religious liberty should care about.  Catholics especially should equip themselves to adequately respond because these threats have implications far beyond the meaning of marriage.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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