In Minnesota, Catholics on Both Sides of Marriage Debate Gear Up

Catholic involvement in the struggle for marriage equality in Minnesota received a lot of press this week.  That state is facing a November ballot initiative to amend their constitution to prevent lesbian and gay couples from marrying.

The St. Cloud Times reports:

“The Diocese of St. Cloud has donated $50,000 to a fund supporting passage of Minnesota’s proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“The donation is among Central Minnesota’s largest contributions to the costly battle over whether the state constitution will be amended to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Voters will decide in November whether to adopt that amendment. . . .

“According to campaign finance reports, the St. Cloud diocese’s donation was made this month to the Minnesota Catholic Conference Marriage Defense Fund. The Marriage Defense Fund has given $750,000 to Minnesota for Marriage since the start of 2011.

“Catholic diocese in Crookston and Winona also gave to the Marriage Defense Fund this year, and diocese in the Twin Cities, New Ulm and Duluth gave in 2011.

“The Diocese of St. Cloud’s donation came from parishioners’ contributions to special collections taken at Masses throughout the diocese, according to Christine Codden, director of the Office of Marriage and Family for the diocese. Those funds are separate from the general collections at each Mass, Codden said.”

The National Catholic Reporter notes that Catholics who support and Catholics who oppose the amendment are working hard for their cause:

“Catholics — numbering around 1.1 million — make up the largest single religious denomination in Minnesota, and they are gearing up for November when voters will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as solely between one man and one woman.

“The Catholic church in Minnesota has been one of the most, if not the most, active religious groups in support of the constitutional amendment, which is in line with Catholic church teaching about marriage.

“At the same time, notable opposition to the law has come from inside the church, from groups of priests opposed to the amendment and from Catholics who have joined organizations opposed to the proposed statute. . . .

“In Minnesota, the Catholic church’s campaign in favor of the amendment includes the formation of parish marriage committees to educate parishioners on marriage and the consequences of a change in definition, according to the website of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the church in the state. . . .

“However, as was the case in other states, some Catholics have been vocal about their disagreement with the church’s campaign. . . .

“Also, three retired Catholic priests wrote a letter in May to the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper (although it was not published) and held a press conference May 17 in Minneapolis, expressing their opposition to the Catholic church’s campaigning on the issue. Minnesota Public Radio took up the story and posted the letter online along with the story.

“Although the priests said they agree with the church’s position on sacramental marriage, they opposed a state constitutional amendment that would deny rights and privileges to same-sex unions. Asserting that ‘there is not just one way for Catholics to vote in November,’ they ask the letter reader to consider voting against the amendment.

” ‘We feel that our church is stronger when both sides of an issue are part of the public dialogue,’ the letter stated.”

Jim Smith

CNN’s Belief Blog spoke with Catholics in Minnesota who are working to oppose the amendment, including Jim Smith of DignityUSA, and Michelle LaFrance, a parishioner:

“Jim Smith is a former Roman Catholic priest who left his post with the church 10 years ago. He’s an ex-priest for several reasons, he says, but one of his main concerns was the church’s stance against same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues.

“But Smith remains a Catholic – though he says being a Catholic who actively campaigns for legalized same-sex marriages can be difficult these days.

” “I’d much rather this wasn’t happening,’ Smith says of the division that the issue has created among Minnesota  Catholics. ‘But it does provide some real opportunities because it challenges us to talk to each other, Catholics talking to other Catholics.  .  .  .’

“A group he helped form,  Catholics for Marriage Equality-Minnesota, aims ‘to encourage Catholics to consider the profound sacredness of same-gender relationships and to defeat this marriage amendment,’ Smith says.

“Vatican edicts against same-sex marriage often give Catholic same-sex marriage supporters the impression they’re in the minority.

“But a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggests 59% of American Catholics support rights allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. One reason behind that statistic – says PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones – is because U.S. Catholics “overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed.” A PRRI poll bears that out – with 69% of Catholics nationwide saying a person’s sexual orientation cannot be changed.

“In the Midwest alone, Catholics are evenly divided on the issue of same-sex marriage -– with 46% in favor, 47% against.

“Like Jim Smith, Michelle LaFrance is a Catholic who has also taken the bold step against the church in support of marriage equality.

” ‘I remember thinking “wow, maybe I shouldn’t [remain a Catholic],” ” LaFrance said. Ultimately they’ve remained with the Catholic faith, citing its many positive aspects including going to church. It’s an important weekly ritual for LaFrance, her husband and their three kids.

” ‘The Catholic Church, despite the media [attention] it typically gets, does a lot of great things, a lot of great social justice,’ LaFrance said. She noted the church ‘feeds the poor, houses the homeless, takes care of the abused.’ ”

“The LaFrance family belongs to the Church of St. Margaret Mary in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley, a congregation which LaFrance describes as fairly progressive. She says the majority of her fellow parishioners agree with her stance on same-sex marriage.

“But when LaFrance hears the archdiocese telling people how they should think about it, she can’t help but sometimes feel like less of a Catholic.

“‘ I don’t think anybody – whatever their religious denomination – whole-heartedly follows every single rule down to the letter.’  . . .

“For ex-priest Jim Smith, grappling with the issue has been difficult – a personal struggle that extends to the heart of his faith.

“The inner conflict between what Smith believes is right and his love for the church has pushed him to consider leaving the Catholic religion altogether.

“In the end, Smith vows he will stay. ‘It’s in my bones.’ “

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry