As Minnesota voters prepare to go to the polls this fall, the Catholic Church has mounted a major effort to convince them to approve a constitutional amendment that would only allow marriage between men and women.
But Catholics are not united behind the church's official position, a point made clear today, when a group representing 80 former Catholic priests spoke out against the marriage amendment. They said the amendment violates Christian principles of love and justice.
Also coming forward to oppose the amendment were John Brandes, Tom Garvey and Tim Power, three retired priests who are still part of the church. They also came forward to oppose the amendment, putting them on a collision course with John C. Nienstedt, the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who last year informed all priests that they could not publicly dissent.
Catholic bishops have made passage of the amendment a top political priority this year, even though Minnesota law already prohibits gay marriage. Proponents of the amendment say it is needed to block a Hennepin County court case that seeks to overturn state law and numerous attempts by Democratic state legislators to legalize gay marriage.
In a letter submitted to the Star Tribune, titled "Catholics of Minnesota you have a choice!" they wrote, "There is not just one way for Catholics to vote in November."
Their letter describes gays and lesbians as brothers and sisters in Christ, who need allies.
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Brandes, 85, served in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for 61 years, including time at the Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Rita's in Cottage Grove and St. Mark's in St. Paul. Brandes said he and the two other retired priests want to be respectful of those who hold other views, and at the same time encourage dialogue about the diversity of Catholic views.
Garvey, ordained in 1957, served the Archdiocese for 40 years including at St. Luke's in St. Paul and St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis. He said his views on homosexuality changed decades ago after he watched an interview with a lesbian woman who described how she was different. "She began to cry convulsively and I said, 'We've got the wrong position on this,' " Garvey recalled.
Power, ordained in 1966, served at St. Thomas the Apostle in Minneapolis and St. Timothy's in Blaine before retiring after 24 years at Pax Christi in Eden Prairie. Power calls their letter "a small counterbalance" to the Church's official position on the amendment.
Power said he was compelled to speak out by the collective silence of other priests.
"People [were] saying to me, 'Where is the voice of the priests that believe the way we do? They can't all believe the party line,' "he said. "And I'm thinking too, 'Yeah, where are they?' That's us."
DEFENDING TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE
Jason Adkins of the Minnesota Catholic Conference said all citizens are welcome to share their opinions on an important public debate but the Catholic position on marriage is abundantly clear.
"We certainly anticipate unfortunate attempts by some to divide Catholics from their shepherds, their bishops, and while we think it's unfortunate, we do recognize it's only a small portion of the Catholic community," Adkins said. "The vast majority of Catholics stand with their bishops and the teaching of the church regarding marriage and protecting marriage as the union of one man and one woman."
The priests' letter attempts to carve out some middle ground. The retired priests say they agree with the church's position on Sacramental marriage.
Power said that if they perform marriages in the church's name, they adhere to its policies. But the priests say if voters approve the constitutional amendment that would cut off the dialogue Minnesota is just beginning to have about gays and lesbians and what kind of recognition their unions should have.
The retired priests submitted their letter to the Star Tribune, the state's largest newspaper, for publication. But the Star Tribune declined to publish the letter. Commentary Editor D.J. Tice told MPR News that the newspaper receives numerous submissions on the marriage amendment and has published many of them.
Tice didn't recall the retired priests' letter, but said the bar is high for delivering something new.
The men say they know many other priests — retirees and those in active priesthood — who support their position but are either too prudent or fearful to speak out.
Last year, Archbishop Nienstedt sent a letter to all priests in the diocese calling the charge to defend traditional marriage "one of the greatest challenges of our times." He reminded them of the vow they took on their ordination day to promote and defend the church's teachings and warned, "There ought not to be open dissention on this issue. If any have personal reservations, I do not wish that they be shared publicly."
The three retired priests received the letter.
In his 55 years of being a priest, Garvey said he can't remember a similar warning.
"That was a terrible thing, such an injustice to us to say you cannot disagree with me on this matter," he said. "And it's just not true."
FORMER PRIESTS STEP FORWARD
Also Thursday, a group representing 80 former priests expressed their opposition to the amendment. Bob Minton, a former priest who organized the group, distributed a sheet with 80 names, tallying up their combined "more than 1,000 years of service to the Church" who are now free to express their opinions openly.
Ed Flahavan, who was a priest in the Archdiocese for 48 years, talked about overcoming his own homophobia through getting to know gay and lesbian people in his parish work.
Flahavan, who's now been married to his wife for seven years said, "For the life of me, I cannot see how same-sex marriage is in any way a threat to my happy marriage."
Paul Mohrbacher spent 16 years in the priesthood during the time of another great social divide: the civil rights movement. Mohrbacher recounted how he walked the final two days of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, wearing his priest collar.
"Back then, nobody told me I had to support a civil rights plank or had to speak out for it. It was a matter of conscience," said Mohrbacher. "I call for similar restraint today on the part of church leaders: people of faith can be opposed in good conscience to this amendment."
"For the Church to actively be promoting systematic exclusion in society grieves me," said John Estrem, a former rector at the Cathedral of St. Paul who went on to head Catholic Charities.
The Minnesota Catholic Conference released a statement in response:
"As with any citizen, they have the right to share their views in the important public debate about the definition of marriage. 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. Only marriage between one man and one woman is consistent with the Gospel and the demands of justice."