By Michael Bayly
Not all Catholics support Archbishop John Nienstedt's and the Minnesota Catholic Conference of Bishops’ aggressive support of the proposed “marriage amendment” to the Minnesota State Constitution. Indeed, according to recent findings of the Public Religion Research Center, “Catholics are more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.”
Unlike the bishops, U.S. Catholics recognize and respect that in a pluralistic society such as ours, the Roman Catholic hierarchy should not be expending time and resources imposing its understanding of sexuality and marriage onto wider society. This is especially true when one acknowledges that the bishops’ understanding of these realities is out-of-step with the collective wisdom of the Catholic people. On issues relating to the intimate lives of heterosexuals (such as contraception) and homosexuals (civil marriage rights) the Catholic faithful have clearly moved beyond the hierarchy’s limited understanding of sexuality.
My sense is that the Catholic faithful are not, in theory, opposed to the bishops making statements on important social issues. After all, in the Catholic tradition the bishops collectively comprise one of the church’s three sources (or magisteria) of truth. However, the teachings they articulate must be reasonable. In other words, they must be informed by and in constant dialogue with the church’s other two sources of truth, namely the insights of Catholic theologians and the wisdom of the Catholic people (the sensus fidelium). Yet on issues relating to sexuality, the bishops tragically abandoned such dialogue years ago. As a result, official church pronouncements on sexuality are woefully impoverished and disturbingly fixated on specific sex acts rather than on the relational quality of consensual adult partnering. The bishops have forgotten that truth (including the truth of human sexuality) is discovered through time, and that tradition (including the tradition of marriage) evolves. Thankfully, the Catholic people have not forgotten these liberating hallmarks of our living Catholic faith. Accordingly, we not only respectfully listen to and consider what the hierarchy says, but also seek out the wisdom of theologians and our own and others’ lived experiences. All need to be prayerfully considered if we are to make an informed and authentically Catholic response.
It is also important to remember that in the past, when the bishops have weighed in on social issues such as racism and immigrant rights, they did so in order to reduce discrimination and expand the circle of acceptance and inclusion in our society. This is not the case with their activism around marriage equality. Indeed, they are advocating the exact opposite: discrimination and exclusion. For many Catholics this is a blatant and grievous betrayal – not only of Catholicism’s rich social justice tradition, but of the very way of being Catholic in the world. This “way” reflects the way of Jesus and is always seeking to discern and celebrate God’s presence in the lives and experiences of all. Many Catholics want their bishops to embody this way and to stand boldly for the principles of justice, compassion, equality, and inclusion. Yet when it comes to gay people, gay lives, and gay relationships, the bishops have chosen not to embody these Gospel principles in their words and actions. For many Catholics this is both painful and scandalous.
No doubt some parishes will follow the Archbishop’s recent directive and establish committees to rally support for the “marriage amendment.” They are free to do so. I hope, however, that they and others will take the time to be open to other Catholic perspectives on this issue. A good place to start is with the video series recently produced by Catholics for Marriage Equality MN and premiered last month at the Riverview Theater. It features local gay and lesbian Catholics and their loved ones sharing their perspectives on faith, family and marriage. This and other helpful resources can be viewed at www.c4me.org.
Michael Bayly is the executive coordinator of Catholics for Marriage Equality MN.