US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Is same-sex marriage really priority number one?

Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint |

Earlier this month, Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul sent a letter to all priests in his archdiocese calling for support of a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. While voicing the church's opposition to same-sex marriage is nothing new, Nienstedt went a step further--asking every pastor to appoint a parish captain of an ad hoc committee to support the amendment.

It is somewhat unsual to see a bishop tell all of his pastors to start a specific parish-level ministry, no less one with a political agenda. But Nienstedt has made clear that for priests in his archdiocese, fighting to ensure that the state defines marriage in the same way as the church is today's top priority.

On a national level, the actions of today's church leaders leave little doubt about how they view the importance of marriage. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, current president of the bishops' conference, has blogged often about the issue and even wrote a letter to President Obama about it. And Louisville's Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who heads the bishops' ad hoc committee for the defense of marriage, last year warned his fellow bishops that "today is like 1970 for marriage," meaning that America is on the verge of a decision on marriage that would be akin to Roe v. Wade. Can we really compare allowing two people of the same sex to get married with legalizing abortion?

I've seen "pro-marriage" rallies organized by Catholic parishes and dioceses draw small crowds who support the church's position on this issue. But if we were to poll average Catholics in the pews, how many would really consider a law that prevents same-sex marriage to be the most important issue in the church today? How many would even place it in the top 10?

The church certainly has every right to profess its teachings on marriage, to evangelize, and to try to convince others to follow the gospel. It is worthwhile for practicinig Catholics to have a better understanding of what the church teaches about marriage and why. But many Catholics would draw the line at trying to make those beliefs into law and forcing non-Catholics to follow them as well. Catholics may not believe two people of the same gender can exchange the sacrament of marriage, but if the state wants to let them have a marriage license, that's a different issue. 

That's not to say that how the state defines marriage doesn't have any impact on the church. There are still a lot of religious liberty issues that need to get ironed out here, such as whether state-contracted Catholic institutions should have to provide adoption and foster care services to same-sex couples. Those are important questions, and the church should not have to compromise its definition of marriage because the state changes theirs.

But the real question is whether this issue should be getting so much attention. If an archbishop can call upon all his pastors to form grassroots committees, appoint parish leaders, and organize a large-scale effort, is this the issue on which to do it? What if every parish developed an unemployment committee dedicated to helping out of work people in the parish community find jobs? What if a bishop mandated that every parish have a committee to provide outreach to women in crisis pregnancies so they would be less likely to choose abortion? Or if every pastor was mandated to create a food pantry, or a soup kitchen?

Given the chance, Catholics could probably come up with a long list of initiatives that parishes could implement to address the growing number of problems in society today. It is doubtful, though, that preventing certain people from being able to get married would be at the top of everyone's lists.