Friday, January 6, 2012

Minnesota Archbishop Nienstedt Seeks to Bludgeon Consciences of Clergy re: Marriage Equality

An important posting yesterday at Michael Bayly's Progressive Catholic Voice site, to which I want to draw readers' attention: last month, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis issued a letter to the priests and deacons of his archdiocese, instructing them that, vis-a-vis the issue of marriage equality, they are either to get on board with his anti-marriage equality crusade or keep silent.  Michael publishes the text of the letter, which Nienstedt originally gave as a presentation to diocesan clergy last October.

Andy Birkey provides commentary on Nienstedt's statement yesterday at Washington Independent.  As he reminds us, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota are actively promoting an amendment to the state constitution outlawing all definitions of marriage other than a male-female definition.  He also notes that, prior to the 2010 election in which a single gubernatorial candidate--the Republican one--held their anti-marriage equality position, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota sent out an anti-gay marriage video to all Catholic households in the state.  

The bishops have refused to disclose the name of the donor(s) for this expensive video, whose objective was widely thought by political commentators around the nation to be primarily political, rather than religious.  The Knights of Columbus have stated that they helped pay for the distribution of the video.  The bishops of Minnesota have also formed teams headed by "church captains" in every parish in the state to drum up support for the anti-gay marriage amendment in 2012.  Anyone seeking information about the preceding points can click on the "Minnesota" label below and follow my own trail of postings on them.  Those postings will point to other links with valuable information about these points.

Nienstedt's instructions to his priests and deacons contain the following surprising claim: 

The gravity of this struggle [i.e., to pass an amendment to the state constitution], and the radical consequences of inaction propels me to place a solemn charge upon you all — 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.

Here's why I note that this claim is surprising:

1. It contains a barely veiled threat of episcopal reprisal if clergy do not participate, along with their bishop, in a political crusade with which many clergy may well not agree.  The phrase "solemn charge" and the reminder of the promises made at ordination are attempts to bludgeon the consciences of clergy, and, if clergy fail to adhere to the episcopal command represented by the letter, it implies there will be consequences in the form of hierarchical punishment. 
2. The promises priests make to obey their bishops do not extend to promising obedience to a bishop in his political penchants and views. 
3. If clerical obedience has to be commanded by recourse to veiled threats of punishment and talk about solemn charges and ordination promises, then those using such techniques to bludgeon the consciences of others are implicitly admitting that their own ethical case is not exceptionally strong.   Because strong ethical cases stand on their own two feet and don't need weapons to bludgeon the consciences of others. 
4. At the very heart of Catholic moral teaching is a longstanding notion, derived from the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, that the conscience of all believers is inviolable.  Aquinas views conscience as the sacred inner sanctum in which we come face to face with God, and he teaches that we have a sacred obligation to listen to and do what our conscience (as the voice of God inside us) tells us to do, even when our informed conscience may point in a direction opposite to that commanded by church leaders.

Nienstedt's letter makes mincemeat of the longstanding traditional Catholic notion of conscience and its sanctity.  Has he even read Aquinas, I wonder?

And what kind of morally noble or upright crusade has to resort to such shoddy bully tactics?  And what does the decision to resort to these shoddy bully tactics reveal about the place in which many clergy find themselves, vis-a-vis conscience and what it dictates re: the issue of human rights for gay persons?

These are questions that demand to be asked.

The graphic shows a drawing of a bludgeon (the bottom picture) from Lewis and Clark's journals, 1 January 1806.

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