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Star Tribune defends rejection of priests’ anti-marriage-amendment letter

Star Tribune cartoonist Steve Sack's April 30 cartoon.Courtesy of the Star TribuneStar Tribune cartoonist Steve Sack’s April 30 cartoon.

Star Tribune editorial page editor Scott Gillespie has seemed to float serenely over months of catcalls about relentless Vikings stadium cheerleading, but he is still livid nearly a week after MPR reported the Strib rejected a priestly letter attacking the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ support of Minnesota’s proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment.

MPR reporter Sasha Aslanian recounted parallel tales: three retired priests who argue it’s Catholically cool to VOTE NO, and 80 former priests also championing dissent. Her kicker: Strib commentary editor D.J. Tice nixing the retired priests’ letter that was suffused with man-bites-archbishop news value.  

“The MPR story was poorly done,” Gillespie charges. “The only thing that made this letter stand out was the story by MPR that made it seem as if we were hiding the fact that 80 Catholic priests were going public with their opposition to the amendment. That’s a gross mischaracterization and it leaves the ridiculous impression that we would suppress a commentary or letter simply because the Catholic Church might be offended.”

MPR reporter Sasha Aslanian calls Gillespie’s contentions “wildly inaccurate,” adding, “The Strib has tangled these two stories together.”

‘It did not say anything unique’

To those of us who oppose the amendment, the letter seems spectacular: Three priests concluding, “We write now to say there is not just one way for Catholics to vote in November.”

To Gillespie, “It did not say anything unique.”

He notes the Strib has printed at least three recent anti-amendment pieces from clergy, including a December one from local Catholic priest Michael Tegeder. Overall, Gillespie says the Strib has published 15 commentaries and 35 letters packages on the issue “and they have been lopsidedly against the proposed change.”

Pointing to a three-week-old Steve Sack cartoon (above), Gillespie adds, “Anyone who would suggest we have some sort of ban on criticism of the Catholic Church simply does not read our opinion pages or website. … in case there is any confusion, our Editorial Board is opposed to the amendment.”

MPR’s response

Aslanian’s piece made no judgment about the Strib’s overall coverage. It included Tice’s explanations that similar pieces had run, and paraphrased his view that “the bar is high for delivering something new.”

Aslanian says the two stories were woven because a spokesman for the 80 ex-priests got back to her the same day the retired priests received Tice’s rejection.

Reading the web version of Aslanian’s piece, it’s not initially clear which group wrote the letter. But the story later specifies “the retired priests submitted their letter to the Star Tribune.” A prominent photo box with John Brandes, Thomas Garvey and Timothy Power states “Retired Catholic priests … wrote a letter to the Star Tribune.”

Gillespie says even that statement is not quite accurate; the letter was forwarded from a parishioner via business columnist Neal St. Anthony. The Strib isn’t above printing such sideways submissions, he says, but made it less clear that getting it into the paper was the primary goal.

Power, who wrote the letter, says the parishioner “mentioned she knew Neal, so the way to do it was send it to him and [have him] deliver it to editorial. I can understand the protocols, but we played the influence game. In hindsight, that was maybe not the best way to do it, but that’s what we chose.”

Similarly, Aslanian notes, “In hindsight, we probably should have had [the retired priests’ letter and the former priests’ effort as] two separate stories – the retired priests have so much more at stake.”

(Power says he and his co-signers have received no sanctions from the church since Aslanian’s piece ran May 17. “At this point, nothing beyond their initial response” to MPR.)

News value

Tice is a conservative, but when I worked for him at the Twin Cities Reader 20 years ago, he was also fairly libertarian. (I remember him taking a live-and-let-gamble approach during the state lottery amendment campaign.) The Strib’s opposition to the marriage amendment — “we will weigh in again and again before Election Day,” Gillespie states — also argues against a church-coddling agenda.

Still, I think the paper made the wrong call. Gillespie cites Fr. Tegeder’s December letter but acknowledges him as a usual suspect whose church dissents have appeared in the Strib since at least 2006.

Says Power of Tegeder, “We know him, but we would be seen as more moderate” — a key reason they wrote the letter without him even while claiming “there are many other priests who support this position.”

It may be a bit much to expect the lay journalist to fully grasp intra-Church politics. Still, Tegder’s letter appeared five long months ago, and the three priests’ letter confronted the issue much more directly. Aslanian rightly recognized the news value.

For his part, Power says it’s all worked out for the best. “In some ways, my feeling is, the MPR story put it in better context than a letter out of nowhere in the Star Tribune. It got on social media, social networks … I’m getting calls from Chicago saying ‘Is that you who wrote it?’ I count it as a lucky turn of events.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/25/2012 - 09:37 am.

    There is a reason those 80 priests were de-frocked. They left their right to speak on the church’s behalf, or to identify themselves as connected with the church in any way, on the same foor they dropped their vestments.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/25/2012 - 11:41 am.

      My knee jerk reaction

      Is, as usual, to point out that you’re skating around the facts when you post your opinion as a fact.

      However, there is a good question to be brought up here. Were those 80 priests defrocked or are they retired or did they otherwise leave willingly? At least one of the priests, in a different letter, clearly is identified as being retired. Being defrocked is different from leaving or retiring. Though, considering the Catholic Church’s reputation regarding what they tolerate from priests, I’d say that being defrocked is of questionable importance.

      Back to my regularly scheduled reaction: Still, the point is, these individuals clearly see themselves and their views as Catholic, and provide an alternative to the Church’s mandate–conscience. As conscience is an essential part of faith, even to the Catholics, while these priests can’t necessarily speak for the Church, they can certainly speak for the Catholic faith.

  2. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 05/25/2012 - 11:30 am.


    There is no such thing as an ex-priest. But that is beside the point for the purposes relating to Brauer’s article..

    Those 77 anonymous priests were no doubt men who left the priesthood in the 60s, 70s and 80s in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. They are no longer Church ministers and are entitled to their own opinions.

    Even the Strib probably recognized that fact.

    The Catholic Church, contrary to what its enemies say, rarely punishes its critics. At most it will forbid them from teaching or serving in Catholic facilities.

  3. Submitted by John Edwards on 05/25/2012 - 11:51 am.

    David’s labeling

    As a liberal, David was quick to label (ooh, watch out for him, he has a bias) D. J. Tice as a conservative. There was, of course, no such helpful brand on Scott Gillespie (psst, David, he is a liberal.) As this sample dust-up suggests, the “gay marriage” battle is destined to provide riveting entertainment this fall as the Star-Tribune, MPR and MinnPost vie to not be “out liberaled” in their coverage by the others, lest they outrage some of their collective audience. My prediction is that their liberal, gay friendly reporting bias will reach unprecedented levels.

  4. Submitted by Richard Parker on 05/25/2012 - 12:17 pm.

    Wrong call

    I’m a retired Strib staff member, a Catholic who has suspended participation in church membership over this issue, and a parishioner of Fr. Tom Garvey when he was at St. Andrew’s in St. Paul. I like and respect Scott Gillespie and D.J. Tice — proud to have worked with them — but I disagree with the decision not to publish the letter. I think “nothing new here” is a weak argument. Exposure of the incident by MPR and Minnpost is a healthy step; I hope it’s not just preaching to those of us who have quit the choir.

  5. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 05/25/2012 - 12:38 pm.

    We are the church

    Priests who choose to be laicized do not automatically lose their right to be full members of the Catholic Church. They, like all the baptized, have the obligation to speak with consciences and to share the word of Christ that is love one another. The scriptures do not have a amendment excluding anyone from that love. Similarly the Minnesota constitution does not need an amendment that excludes our fellow citizens.

  6. Submitted by Tom Clark on 05/25/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    The letter should have been published

    because it shows there is dissent within the Catholic Church on the subject of gay marriage. I think the laity deserves to know that before they enter the voting booth.

  7. Submitted by Tim Milner on 05/25/2012 - 01:31 pm.

    I will be a

    yes vote for the amendment but for a far different reason than most.

    In my opinion, the government needs to get out of the marriage business completely. No more marriage certificates. For anyone.

    Instead, a civil union certificate be granted to any and all couples – I don’t care what genders represented – that society believes should have the legal rights defined by such a civil union certificate.

    If you marry in the church you get your civil union certificate from the government and a marriage certificate from your church. Each has it’s own separate purpose – one grants civil rights to the couple, the other spiritual benefits from their church.

    It’s that simple. And, having talked to numerous Catholics, including several priests, the Catholic Church would support it.

    But would the other side? I am not so certain. I have felt for many years that there is a far greater undercurrent on this issues. I believe it’s far more than just obtaining legal rights – it is also about changing cultural norms to hopefully gain acceptance in to the church structure – something that is currently closed due to church law in many faiths.

    So, my hope is that if the amendment passes, the effort to try and change the church’s position on what marriage is through civil actions will be forever closed. Then we can move on to the far easier, and far more productive discussion on how we recognize ALL CIVIL UNIONS made in our society and through a mechanism that bestows the civil rights equally to all.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/25/2012 - 03:02 pm.

      Coming from the “other side”

      (that is if the “other side” means those opposed to the amendment) I find this reasoning lame. I do agree that the state should get out of marriages entirely, but I can’t find any logical reason that voting yes for this amendment would necessarily lead to such a conclusion. In fact, I can’t find where it would even nudge in that direction. The “other other side” seems to feel that their marriages would become less special if others were allowed to enjoy the same legal benefits that state-recognized marriage provides. It’s a notion that just can’t be justified by anything but greed and envy. So much so that I suspect that, even if states got out of marriages entirely, some churches and individuals would rant and rave about how those “other churches” are allowed to use the word “marriage” in those ceremonies for same-sex couples.

    • Submitted by Tom Clark on 05/25/2012 - 03:29 pm.

      I’m not Catholic

      and neither is my wife, so the Catholic Church does not recognize my marriage as being religiously legitimate. Hey, that’s their business. What matters to me is that the state recognizes our marriage and from that makes it possible to have my wife covered under my employer’s health insurance and eligible for Social Security spousal benefit, among other things. There is no legitimate reason why the Catholic Church can’t live with gays getting legally married and being treated the same my wife and I are.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/26/2012 - 10:31 am.

    Anyone can claim to be Catholic and preach apostasy; their specious claim lends them no legitimacy. Just as they can also call themselves robins…but they still won’t fly.

    The Catholic church’s position is clear, and is justified given the fact that the sacrament of matrimony is core to the church’s teachings. I don’t expect non-Catholics to understand, but their lack of understanding has no bearing on the facts or the correctness of Catholic faith.

  9. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 05/26/2012 - 11:57 am.


    A factual correction.

    It is extremely unlikely that the eighty priests mentioned by the first commenter were all “defrocked.”

    In the Catholic Church, dismissal from the clerical state as a penalty for certain grave offenses, or by a papal decree granted for grave reasons could perhaps be described as “defrocking.”

    However, there is also a voluntary process, properly referred to as laicization, in which a priest voluntarily requests to return to lay status for a variety of personal reasons, the most common of which is to marry.

    See for example: Shaw, Russell B.; Stravinskas, Peter M. J. (1998). Church & state: a novel of politics and power. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor. p. 595. ISBN 0-87973-669-0.

    Thus to imply that these laicized priests are not in good standing with the Church or that they have no right to speak out on this matter is misleading and untrue.

    One might also profitably look at the life of the late bishop James Shannon. Once excommunicated by the Church, he married, was reconciled with the Church, and died in the faith.

    Today’s dissenters are often prophetic, in politics as well as religion.

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