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On marriage amendment, Catholic Church leaders would be well served by words of the Gospel and history

Attending Catholic Mass in Minnesota can be challenging these days.

Attending Catholic Mass in Minnesota can be challenging these days. The messages from the pulpit, not long ago steeped in themes of love and compassion derived from the Gospel, have more frequently turned into diatribes against gay marriage and the need to protect the “traditional” family. This should come as no surprise given stories that have appeared in the local media, though it’s no less disconcerting.

With the vote on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage in Minnesota as only between a man and a woman one year away, Catholic leaders are stepping up their efforts to garner support for the amendment. Two recent reports confirmed this. One story about Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt’s active push to get the amendment passed and how he has encouraged parish pastors to appoint ad hoc committees to spread his gospel. The other, an op-ed piece by Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, lamely attempted to explain why Catholic leaders are and will be speaking in favor of the amendment and against gay marriage.

As my mind pondered the words of the Gospels and homilies during two recent Sunday Masses — one in St. Paul, the other in Texas — I couldn’t help but put the messages into a modern-day context with some historical perspective.

Love, compassion and social justice
On a recent Saturday evening, I had the chance to attend St. Mary’s Church in Fredericksburg, Texas. Following up on the message of the Gospel, the priest’s homily stressed the need to display love and compassion in our daily lives. A fitting message, I thought, to take place in Texas Hill Country just miles from the LBJ Ranch. After all, many of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs were rooted in a sense of love, compassion and equality, though his inspiration might not have necessarily been derived from the Gospel.

Missing from the message Archbishop Nienstedt and others are preaching is the simple yet poignant commandment from the Gospel that day: Love your neighbor as yourself. The archbishop’s stance on marriage would suggest a caveat to that commandment: It’s OK to love your neighbor as yourself just as long as your neighbor isn’t gay and wants to get married.

Civil rights vs. discrimination
The fact that Adkins attempts to draw a correlation between the church’s current vocal stance against same-sex marriage and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for civil rights would be laughable if it weren’t so ludicrous, an argument ripe with hypocrisy. King worked for civil rights; the church’s stance on this issue opposes them. By attempting to impose its teachings on millions of non-Catholics in the state of Minnesota by actively supporting the amendment, people like Adkins and Archbishop Nienstedt display an element of self-righteousness that dictates discrimination, not the support of civil rights.

“It’s all of us,” President Johnson told Congress, “who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” His words applied to civil and voting rights for blacks in America in the 1960s. Those same words could easily apply to the rights of gays and lesbians today.

Vision and leadership
The debate over same-sex unions and the constitutional amendment actually offers Archbishop Nienstedt and other Catholic Church leaders an opportunity to show real leadership and vision. It’s unreasonable, at least at this point in time, to expect the Catholic Church to openly support and recognize gay marriages within the church. But it’s not beyond expectation for church leaders to display the same judicious traits Jesus showed in a recent Sunday Gospel when confronted about how to handle paying taxes to Caesar. Give to Caesar what belongs to him, and give to God what is rightly His. It’s a prescient argument for the separation of church and state.

Instead of defining what types of marriage the state should recognize, support for initiatives to get the state out of the marriage business completely would be much more productive. Change the law so the state of Minnesota issues only civil-union licenses regardless of sex. Reserve the right of churches and religions to choose whom they will marry based on their own teachings.

Back to LBJ for a moment. David Grubin’s excellent documentary about President Johnson includes a poignant story about an Oval Office meeting between LBJ and Alabama Governor George Wallace, during which the president used his best persuasive powers to get the governor to come out in support of voting rights for all Americans. At one point, Johnson asked Wallace what he wanted on his tombstone: “George Wallace: He built” or “George Wallace: He hated.” Shortly thereafter, Wallace publicly asked the president to mobilize the National Guard in Alabama to protect people marching in support of voting rights.

A choice on where to focus their efforts
There are so many other social issues that need attention — unemployment, poverty and hunger. Archbishop Nienstedt and other church leaders have a choice where to focus their political efforts and whether the manifestation of those efforts is building through love and compassion or destroying through hate and discrimination.

We’d all do well to keep in mind these words uttered by a priest in his homily a few weeks ago at a church in St. Paul: “What we focus on is what we become.”

Rob Hahn is a St. Paul business owner; he ran for governor in the Independence Party primary in 2010.