When Bob Minton began volunteering for Minnesotans United for All Families, he took note of the long list of faith communities that had joined the coalition’s campaign to defeat a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
There were Lutherans and Episcopalians and Jews and Unitarians and Methodists and pretty much every other denomination, but no Roman Catholics.
This upset Minton, who left the priesthood in 1970 after serving 12 years. He knew what the church’s position on the amendment was, and he knew there was no way a priest in active ministry could voice disagreement.
He called a friend, another retired priest who agreed that this was indeed a void they could — and should — step into. With three others, they formed an ad hoc committee that hashed out a five-sentence statement.
“Free to express our opinions openly, we call on all people of good will to exercise their fundamental right to follow their consciences and to resist discrimination against any of God’s children,” it read.
As of last week, the former priests had 95 signatories who together have devoted 1,182 years of service to the church. (Their goal is 100 — and while 95 may sound very close to 100, at this point they are out of obvious channels for finding the final five.)
The group’s roster is deep with names that are well known in both the church and civil-rights communities.
A priest for 23 years, John Estrem was rector of the St. Paul Cathedral and went on to become director of Catholic Charities.
Project for Pride in Living founder Joe Selvaggio’s name is a staple in social-justice circles.
A priest for 48 years, Ed Flahavan was head of the Archdiocese’s social-justice agency, the Urban Affairs Commission (UAC), and a member of former Gov. Rudy Perpich’s Task Force on Lesbian and Gay Minnesotans.
Labor studies professor Bill Moore was chief of staff of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, and before that education and organizing liaison for the UAC.
William C. Hunt was a professor of theology at St. Paul Seminary and the director of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota. He attended Vatican II as an expert on theology.
Science Museum of Minnesota Community Relations Manager Paul Mohrbacher is also a playwright and novelist. His 2010 mystery, “The Magic Fault,” is set around the theft of the Shroud of Turin.
Charles Pilon is also an author; his debut novel, “Waiting for Mozart,” deals with “the sometimes lovely, often discordant strains resonating throughout the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.”
Dick McCarthy was the longtime head of Merrick Community Center on St. Paul’s East Side and a founder of the East Side Neighborhood Development Company.
Minton, Frank Kenney and Dave Vinck were all appointed to Minneapolis’ St. Stephen’s in the 1960s and played pivotal roles in establishing its storied progressive culture. They were followed — “more successfully,” Minton quipped — by Flahavan and Mohrbacher.
‘This is not doctrine’
In addition to hoping their authority will reassure Catholics who are struggling with the church’s advocacy in favor of the same-sex marriage ban, Minton said the former priests also want to counter what they see as misinformation circulating around the issue.
“One of the things that concerns us is the Archbishop likes to gloss over the difference between doctrine and teachings,” said Minton. “The distinction is not clear to the laity and the Archbishop tries to confuse this. … This is not doctrine.”
While doctrine is ironclad through the ages, teachings change, he explained: “One of the most famous examples is from Galileo’s time, that the sun revolves around the Earth.”
The organizers have heard from a number of active priests who appreciate the effort, Minton said.
And they have also been in contact with a group of former priests in Washington state, where voters this fall will vote to approve or reject a law already passed by that state’s legislature — and signed by its Catholic governor — legalizing gay marriage. The former Washington priests are borrowing both the Minnesotans’ strategy and a little of their verbiage.
In May, with 80 signatories, the group held a press conference in Minneapolis to announce its formation and explain its agenda. In response, the Minnesota Catholic Conference issued a statement.
“As with any citizen, they have the right to share their views in the important public debate about the definition of marriage,” it read. “While we are grateful to many of these men for their previous years of service, they have now chosen to separate themselves from the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding marriage.
“The Minnesota Bishops, like their counterparts across the country, along with every Catholic priest and deacon, have the responsibility to communicate Catholic teaching on this most fundamental matter,” the statement continued. “Only marriage between one man and one woman is consistent with the Gospel and the demands of justice.”
It’s the most critical comment Minton has heard to date — almost. “There was one person who called me an apostate and a heretic,” he said. “I didn’t answer, but I would agree with the apostate part since I’m retired.”