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Conflicted Catholics: Consciences wrestle with church actions on marriage amendment

Anguished and feeling silenced, some Catholics have moved to a different parish, quit attending or stopped donating.

LGBT flag and Cathedral of Saint Paul

Lisa Vanderlinden grew up a Roman Catholic. She went to a Catholic college, married in the church and taught at a Catholic high school.

Six years ago, Jason, the youngest of Vanderlinden and husband Brent’s four sons, came out as gay. He was 13, in the eighth grade and every bit as devout as his mother.

The family continued to attend services in the large, suburban parish where they had worshiped for more than two decades. A talented composer even as a teen, Jason in particular loved the music and the liturgy.

But as time went on it became increasingly painful to reconcile their consciences, which told them all four of their sons were worthy of the same rights, with the direction the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was pushing the church to take.

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But the family had no idea what else to do, so they stayed. Then three years ago, Lisa Vanderlinden read a newspaper article that mentioned a parish that billed itself as inclusive. Even though the new church immediately felt like home, she’s found it hard to hear what’s been going on in the old one recently.

In keeping with orders from Archbishop John Nienstedt, a prayer is now said during Sunday services affirming marriage as the union of one man and one woman. A committee has been formed to work in favor of a proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution banning same-sex marriage that will appear on the November ballot.

And a percentage of every dollar parishioners give goes to the archdiocese, which recently donated $650,000 to the group pushing for the ballot initiative.

‘We must speak our conscience’

“The Catholic hierarchy would like the public to believe that it is the only voice of the people,” she said. “Since Vatican II that’s not true. Our teaching says we must speak our conscience even when it conflicts with church authorities.”

Like other Catholics interviewed for this story, Vanderlinden is uncomfortable naming either her new parish or the old one. They do not want to put clergy and church staff, who they feel are doing their best to care for conflicted parishioners, in a bad spot. Some fear they will be written off as not being “real” Catholics.

Most have long disagreed with other official church stances but previously felt that the church’s teaching on conscience allowed them both to disagree and be active members of their parishes. The difference this time: Preaching is one thing; political activism is something else entirely.

“The silencing that’s going on is incredible,” said Vanderlinden. “I know a lot of people are not giving money anymore. I know a lot of people are not going to church anymore.”

Some, like her, have joined the local group Catholics for Marriage Equality; the Vanderlindens explained their decision in a DVD recently created by the group.

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Some just stopped attending. Others move to parishes such as St. Joan of Arc or St. Frances Cabrini, which run the gamut from liberal to openly defiant. Some end up in places like Spirit of St. Stephen’s, a faith community attended by parishioners who belonged to Minneapolis’ St. Stephen’s before the church shuttered it in 2008, citing “liturgical confusion.”

Views on issue are changing

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, support for same-sex marriage has increased in recent years. Almost three-fourths of the religiously unaffiliated now support making same-sex marriage legal. In a survey carried out by the group in 2008-2009, 44 percent of white Catholics favored marriage equality and 45 percent were opposed. In 2010, 49 percent said they support same-sex marriage while 41 percent were opposed. Among those attending services less than weekly, support increased from 51 percent to 59 percent.

“Among Catholics as a whole,” Pew reported recently, “supporters of same-sex marriage now outnumber opponents (52 percent vs. 37 percent)…. A majority of white Catholics (57 percent) now express support for same-sex marriage, while Hispanic Catholics continue to be closely divided (42 percent favor same-sex marriage, 42 percent are opposed).”

Lisa Vanderlinden
Catholics for Marriage EqualityLisa Vanderlinden, right, thanks those who gathered for the second week of Catholics for Marriage Equality-Minnesota’s Lenten prayer vigil.

Laura Kuntz grew up Catholic and married into a family whose life revolved around the church. “They talk about Catholicism the way other people talk about baseball and football,” she said. “It’s really the fabric of our life. I hadn’t realized exactly how much until this issue came up.”

Kuntz started exploring alternatives to her large suburban church just a few weeks ago. Her husband and son still attend.

Kuntz has a sister and a dear friend who are lesbian and has long wished for the ordination of women and optional celibacy for priests. And she was long comfortable with the notion that “we agree to disagree and come together in the Eucharist.”

A year and a half ago when Nienstedt circulated a DVD calling for a same-sex marriage ban, Kuntz and her husband stopped giving to their church, because it was obligated to tithe 8 percent to 10 percent of their donation to the archdiocese.

‘My heart just stopped’

Two months ago, there were a series of communications about the marriage amendment in the church bulletin, including the announcement of a committee to manage communications about the amendment.

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“My heart just stopped,” she said.

A financial adviser, Kuntz has some gay and lesbian clients. It’s her job to get to know their aspirations and values. “I know this amendment will hurt them,” she said. “I think it’s already hurting them that it’s even out there.”

At some point after she shared her feelings with a few fellow parishioners, she got a call from someone she describes only as a diocesan employee, who told her about a group called Catholics for Marriage Equality. Throughout Lent, the group held vigils outside the chancery in St. Paul. For Kuntz, participating brought comfort.

“I just did not know how big a national issue this was,” she said. “I did not know how much money the church has spent on this. I looked carefully at the latest appeal a month ago and certain political contributions were not on the list of activities the money was being used to support.”

The church’s spending on the upcoming election also angered Woodbury resident Beth-Ann Bloom, who participated in the Lenten vigils. “Catholics are allowed to try to persuade other Catholics,” she said. “It’s one thing if [priests] argue from the pulpit. It’s another thing if they give money to someone else who they have no control over.”

She’s also angry that there’s no way for her to stop a portion of her donations from being used for an effort that violates her conscience. “That’s money we gave for maintenance, for social programs, for pensions and all that,” she said. “And it’s considerable.”

Nienstedt’s role

In March, Nienstedt was one of 13 bishops from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota who met with Pope Benedict XVI to report on affairs in their diocese. According to The Catholic Spirit, “Archbishop Nienstedt told Pope Benedict that ‘all the bishops are resolved to take this opportunity that we have in the political area to catechize in the religious area, to catechize about the meaning and the sanctity of marriage.’

“’What I think is so important in the pope’s message is that he said — and I hadn’t heard him say this before — it’s really a question of justice that we maintain the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman,’ Archbishop Nienstedt said. ‘If we take that away, it’s going to be an injustice for all of society. I believe that — particularly for the young, for our children and our children’s children.’”

The former bishop of New Ulm, Nienstedt called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage even before he was named archbishop in May of 2008. And he had previously denied communion to gays and lesbians.

But it was his DVD that tipped the balance for many. In September 2010, six weeks before a gubernatorial election pitting two pro-gay-marriage candidates against one opponent, the archdiocese used donated funds to mail DVDs advocating a constitutional ban to 400,000 Minnesota households.

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“At best, so called same-sex marriage is an untested social experiment,” Nienstedt said in the video. “And at worst, it poses a dangerous risk with potentially far-reaching consequences. An exercise of caution should be in order.”

The move angered many Catholics, who saw it as going beyond reinforcing church positions to engage in political advocacy. At first, John Rogers was one of them.

“When I received the video in my mailbox I was pretty upset,” said Rogers, who now writes “Catholics in the Pew,” a blog for the pro-amendment Minnesota Catholic Conference. “Personally, I was not in support of gay marriage but I was uncomfortable with the church getting involved in what seemed like a political issue.”

After several months of conversation and reading, Rogers was persuaded that the church had a role to play in the debate. “I think there’s a lot of wisdom there that should be part of a conversation,” he said. “As Catholics, we are obligated to follow our consciences. But we are also obligated to form our consciences.”

‘I call upon that promise’

Others were not convinced, including some clergy and church staff who voiced their opposition publicly. In a speech to the diocese’s priests in October, after the campaigns for and against the ballot initiative had gotten under way, Nienstedt warned that there was no room for open dissent.

“The gravity of this struggle and the radical consequences of inaction propels me to place a solemn charge upon you all,” he said. “On your ordination day, you made a promise to promote and defend all that the church teaches. I call upon that promise in this effort to defend marriage. There ought not be open dissension on this issue. If any have personal reservations, I do not wish that they be shared publicly. If anyone believes in conscience that he cannot cooperate, I want him to contact me directly and I will plan to respond personally.”

Nienstedt also directed each parish to establish a committee to work in favor of the amendment and ordered their captains to report directly to the archdiocese. And he distributed a prayer for marriage: “Grant to us all the gift of courage to proclaim and defend your plan for marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong, exclusive relationship of loving trust, compassion and generosity, open to the conception of children.”

Parish reactions have varied

One of the authors of the blog The Progressive Catholic Voice, Paula Reddy is unconvinced the prayer is being said in very many parishes. “I don’t know anyone whose parish is pushing this,” she said. It doesn’t matter whether the priest agrees with it or not, the issue is introducing a potentially divisive element to a worship service.

“One of my friends said their deacon was asked to give it as part of the homily,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s not that I am opposed to it, but I don’t want to do something so controversial.’ ”

Her fellow blogger Mary Beckfeld has friends in four western suburban parishes who say the prayer is not being said there, either. A friend of hers was asked to read it on Good Friday and refused. Her pastor’s response: “Do what your conscience tells you.”

In some parishes the prayer is not recited by the community but is present nonetheless. In John Rogers’ parish it is recited by the lector during special intentions. Some include a printed version in the program while others display copies in the entrance.

Some are actively campaigning. Edina’s Our Lady of Grace, for example, has posted a link to Minnesota for Marriage’s “marriage minutes” videos on its homepage. Parish newsletters contain ads and messages about the amendment from Nienstedt. Last week’s newsletters contained the archdiocese’s response to a Star Tribune column by Jon Tevlin quoting students at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis who were offended by a diocesan presentation on marriage being made at local Catholic schools.  

Finally, parishes on both ends of the spectrum are holding conversations about marriage. Some are being imposed from outside; some are more organic. University of St. Thomas College of Law Professor Teresa Collett, who has worked on the intersection between religion and conservative politics nationally, has appeared at several of the forums. St. Joan of Arc recently welcomed in speakers on both sides of the issue.

And people are finding their way to Catholics for Marriage Equality, whose first Lenten vigil drew 80 people and last 250. An interactive map on the group’s website shows that people throughout Minnesota have signed a statement of support.

According to the group’s director, Michael Bayly, Catholics who disagree with church hierarchy face different obstacles from members of other denominations when it comes to finding each other. At the moment, they can’t use parish newsletters, make announcements in church or meet to support one another.

Ron Joki became a Roman Catholic 25 years ago, nearly two decades after meeting his partner, Jay Pearson, and fully aware of the official stance toward gays and lesbians. “I chose at that time in spite of some of these restrictive rules,” he said.

He had long before quit the evangelical free church he was raised in and had explored a number of spiritual paths. Joki was older and secure in his identity when he tumbled onto a parish that was home to a number of welcoming, intellectual Catholics.

“I felt drawn,” he said simply. “I’ve continued to be called on that path.”

‘We are not breaking the important rule’

Joki sees no contradiction between his sexual orientation and his faith. “There are many ancient rules in the Bible that no longer serve us, that were cultural,” he said. “We are not breaking the important rule, which we interpret as the basic rule of loving God and loving our neighbors.”

He’s comfortable with the approach some liberal parishes are taking of engaging in discussions about the church’s support for the amendment, but making sure multiple viewpoints are represented. “God speaks to us in our conscience,” Joki explained. “We need to be respectful of all sides.”

He knows plenty of people who are on the fence, as well as people who have left Catholicism altogether for other faiths.

“The spirit works in many levels, not only at the top of the hierarchy but at every level,” Joki said. “Many of the people the church now recognizes as saints, as heroes of the church, were originally people who were renounced and condemned.

“Sometimes, the opinions that are the last to change are at the top.”