Archbishop Nienstedt Fights the Attempt to Redefine Marriage in Minnesota

The archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis discusses the true importance of God’s plan as a vote on the nature of marriage comes to a vote in November.

Archbishop John Nienstedt with school children in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Archbishop John Nienstedt with school children in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (photo: Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit)

In November, the people of Minnesota will vote on a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as one man and one woman. The Minnesota Marriage Amendment was passed by a bipartisan majority of the state Legislature and is supported by a broad coalition of people and religious faiths.

The Minnesota Catholic bishops have been among the strongest supporters of the Marriage Amendment, and Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been at the forefront of this support. As efforts to legalize same-sex marriage advanced in Washington state, New Jersey and Maryland, Archbishop Nienstedt addressed the issue with Register correspondent Barb Ernster.

Why is this such an important issue?

The other Minnesota Catholic bishops and I see the erosion of healthy, happy marriages all around us: the high degree of marriages ending in divorce, the rising number of couples cohabitating with no intention to marry, and the spike in the number of children born out of wedlock, many to single mothers living in poverty. The true importance of marriage as a natural and, for us as Catholics, a sacramental reality is being eclipsed throughout our society.

Now there is a driving force, with full media support, to redefine or, in truth, “undefine” marriage from a child-centered institution that unites one man and one woman together with any children born from their union into something different altogether: a system of domestic partnerships based on the romantic inclinations of adults. We understand this to be yet another assault against the dignity of marriage that will likely reinforce some of the negative cultural trends I previously mentioned, developments that research clearly shows are having very bad effects on children and, in turn, all of society.

What actions are the bishops taking to promote its passage?

We have undertaken a multipronged educational program which has already included sending an educational DVD, made by the Knights of Columbus, to 400,000 Catholic households throughout the state of Minnesota. This kicked off our efforts, through the Minnesota Catholic Conference, to educate Catholics about what marriage is, why it is important, and what the likely consequences will be if it is redefined by judges or politicians.

To further this initiative, all of the bishops throughout the state have asked for a leadership couple or committee in each of our parishes to coordinate materials and education on this subject. We have also mobilized lay groups, such as K of C councils and chapters of the Council of Catholic Women all around the state.

In addition, each diocese is contributing financial support to the Minnesota Catholic Conference to cover the cost of its activities, as well as to support Minnesota for Marriage, the broad coalition of religious and secular groups created to pass the marriage-protection amendment.

Furthermore, this year, the archdiocese is sponsoring many seminars around the Twin Cities regarding the meaning of marriage, with a priest addressing the theology of marriage and a lay expert, often a lawyer with knowledge of the many legal issues involved, addressing the civil dimension of marriage, why government actively supports the institution, and how it serves the common good. Presently, we have a team of one priest and one married couple giving presentations on the Catholic understanding of marriage in all of our Catholic high schools. In addition, I have addressed several large groups in parishes and K of C council halls.

What do you hope will be accomplished within the parishes?

We hope to educate our Catholic people on why our understanding of marriage matters for the good of the couple, for the good of children and for the common good of the society in which we all live. In short, we hope to show to our people that this is not just a “Catholic” or “Christian” issue. This is a question that touches upon the foundational principles of our society.

We understand that our efforts do not just matter for the short term. As outlined in the U.S. bishops’ statement “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” there is a long-term need to reclaim and rebuild a healthy culture of marriage and family life in our society. Marriage today is facing a lot of challenges, and much renewal needs to happen. Therefore, we need to strengthen marriage, not redefine it.

According to the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune, you stated in a letter to priests and deacons that the endgame of those who oppose its passage is to eliminate the need for marriage altogether. Can you expound on this aim?

The battle for marriage is an ideological one. For Catholics, it involves our basic understanding of anthropology (i.e. what does it mean to be human?), understood through the medium of the natural law and of theology (i.e. what is our understanding of God vis-à-vis an earthy existence?). What we know by faith is supported by reason: Research and experience make clear that family structure matters to children and that laws should support institutions such as marriage that foster children and, thus, societal, well-being. One could call our view deeply communitarian.

Those who oppose the traditional definition of marriage are often caught up in a secular ideology that rejects any concept of the natural law having any control over human behavior, as well as rejecting the will of a loving God who indeed knows what is best for his sons and daughters.

How would a marriage amendment strengthen the Minnesota law that already exists against a federal or state court challenge, given the recent ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down California’s Proposition 8?

A marriage amendment would prevent local politicians from redefining the statutory definition of marriage and prevent state court judges from writing a new one into the Minnesota Constitution. The prospect of either happening is a very serious reality, not just a hypothetical one, and shows why the constitutional amendment is needed now. In fact, there is presently a case working its way through the state court system by three same-sex couples that seeks to have Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional and discriminatory. And multiple pieces of legislation have been introduced to turn marriage into a system of genderless domestic partnerships or eliminate marriage altogether.

At the federal level, the absence of a system of civil unions in Minnesota, as well as a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that there is no right under the U.S. Constitution for same-sex couples to receive a marriage license, likely insulates Minnesota from a lower federal court ruling similar to the one in California.

We have seen, however, how the U.S. Department of Justice has refused to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, even though it is the law of the land, which could mean that a challenge to DOMA would end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Hopefully, should the court take up the marriage case, it would affirm the ability of the states to protect the institution of marriage and not require them to recognize same-sex unions performed in other states as valid marriages.

Some religious groups have come out against the amendment, and some have remained neutral, stating it is up to individuals to vote their consciences. How would you address this issue with Catholics?

First of all, I remind our Catholic people that an understanding of marriage is not something the bishops or the Church made up. Marriage between a man and a woman predates any civil government or even religion, for that matter. The state simply recognizes and supports marriage; it has no power to redefine it.

It is unreasonable and, I dare say, unnatural to think that changing the definition of a word has the power to change the reality that underlies that word — it does not; it cannot. And it becomes a pretense to argue differently.

Secondly, I believe that it is extremely unfortunate that many in both the media and the public square continue to repeat the false accusation that supporters of the amendment are out to harm people. That is simply not true. My only intent, and that of others whom I know, is to safeguard the pro-family institution of marriage and to promote human flourishing and the common good. It is not an “anti” anyone amendment. Rather, it is a “pro-marriage” amendment, a legal safeguard driven by the desire to protect that which is foundational for the common good. And we have to remember that there would be no need for an amendment if others were not first actively trying to redefine marriage. This is not a debate we have chosen, but it is one in which we will not sit on the sidelines.

By participating in this public debate about the future of marriage, I would never, ever want to encourage any discrimination toward people with same-sex attractions. There are known cases where such individuals or groups have been ostracized, bullied and thus driven to physical or emotional pain. Yes, we have to and we are reaching out to such people and will continue to do so. But the answer to injustices against those who suffer with same-sex attraction cannot be the redefinition of marriage. That would simply compound one injustice with another and would definitely not be the compassionate or loving thing to do.

How do you address the claim that the Church is getting too political and detracting from its spiritual mission?

What is more central to the spiritual mission of the Church than fostering good, healthy marriages between husbands and wives and ministering to the varied challenges that they and their children face in their family life?

We have to remember, too, as the Holy Father has been reminding us of late, that the Church’s work in the public square contributes to the New Evangelization. It is not just the Church “doing politics,” but instead, constitutes her perennial task of forming consciences, promoting justice and announcing truths that are written on the human heart. In this way, we also point to the source of those truths — the eternal Word who has written them into the fabric of our human nature.

Unfortunately, it has become quite apparent, especially with the issue of the health-care insurance mandate, that there are forces desiring to exclude the voice of religion from the public square. Let’s be clear — that is discrimination.

In addition, I would say that we are not forcing our viewpoint on anyone. The point of rational inquiry and public debate is to arrive at the truth. Our view is that there cannot be one understanding of the human person for people of faith and another for people without faith. There can only be one, true understanding of the human person. Proposing those truths is the Church’s contribution to the discussion.

Some people say that they are not for redefining marriage, but they have no problem with civil unions. Is there a distinction between the two, with regard to the Church’s position?

Civil unions, in my opinion, are just a smoke screen for so-called same-sex “marriage.” In fact, so-called “marriage equality” groups have already begun opposing them, and in states where civil unions exist, such as in Washington, New Jersey and California, the movement to redefine marriage simply accelerates. There are ways of ensuring that people of the same gender have access to certain public services or privileges without redefining marriage. By contrast, civil unions are, if you will, the nose of the camel coming under the tent.

Catholics are struggling to find the words to defend marriage between one man and one woman, given the state of heterosexual marriages and the broad acceptance of same-sex relationships and the idea of granting them legal “rights.” How can they educate others on this issue when society as a whole is so far away from understanding the truth and meaning of human sexuality and God’s design for marriage?

We are facing a crisis over marriage in the Western world. What is so badly needed for couples and their children is a proper understanding of what marriage was meant to be “from the beginning,” as Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel. And we have to take seriously the overwhelming scientific evidence that children flourish best in a home with a mother and father. I realize that this is not always possible, but we must work to see to it that it should be the norm.

The difficulty in attaining the ideal of marriage should not lead us to abandon that ideal, much less our voice in the public sector relative to its protection. Rather, it should compel us all, clergy and laity alike, to work for those conditions in our own homes, parishes, neighborhoods and, indeed, our state that protect and defend that which is good and necessary for authentic human flourishing. The best way to communicate the truth of marriage is encouraging couples to live their own marriage well and then equipping them to translate this truth and the natural law into a language that modern ears can understand.

Register correspondent Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.