Minn. Bishop’s Intervention In Politics Sparks Backlash From Clergy

A Roman Catholic bishop in Minnesota is under fire for distributing nearly half a million DVDs attacking same-sex marriage, a move some observers interpreted as an attempt to intervene in the state’s gubernatorial race.

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of Minneapolis/St. Paul mailed the DVDs to Catholics in the state in late September. Each disc contained a six-minute message by Nienstedt and a 12-minute presentation by the Knights of Columbus blasting state recognition of same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Several people who received the DVDs were bothered by the timing. Minnesota was the site of a hard-fought governor’s race between Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer.

Dayton, a former U.S. senator, voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in 2006, calling it “un-American, un-Christian, and unnecessary.” Emmer, who received strong support from the Religious Right, highlighted his opposition to same-sex marriage during the campaign. (At press time, it appeared Dayton had won the election by a narrow margin, and a recount was pending.)

Some Catholics in the state did not react well to the campaign. Americans United received several complaints about the DVD, and one woman took it upon herself to launch a campaign urging residents to mail the discs back to Nienstedt.

Federal tax law allows religious groups to speak out on social issues but not to endorse or oppose candidates. Churches are supposed to avoid tying their stands on issues to specific candidates as well. In the DVD, Nienstedt never mentioned any candidates by name.

The National Catholic Reporter, however, questioned Nienstedt’s alliance with the Knights of Columbus and the National Organization for Marriage. The latter group, the Reporter said, ran television ads in favor Emmer.

“The archbishop may not have explicitly crossed over the IRS tax-exempt line, but – with NOM’s help – he is walking the tightrope,” observed the Reporter. “By associating so closely with a political organization, he runs the risk of endangering the charitable status of the archdiocese and – with that – the hard-earned money with which the Catholic faithful of the diocese have entrusted him.”

One priest decided to take a more active stand. The Rev. Michael Tegeder of the Church of St. Edward in Bloomington criticized Nienstedt’s move in a letter to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Tegeder said the real threat to marriage in America comes from poverty.

“In every serious study, poverty is the top reason for marital breakdowns,” wrote Tegeder. “It is very hard to make the case that a small percentage of the population who bond with members of their own sex and seek to live in a committed relationship with members of their own sex could have anything but a positive effect on the general population’s appreciation of stable, faithful, life-giving unions.”

Tegeder told the National Catholic Reporter that the reaction to his letter had been mostly positive and that he had not heard from Nienstedt and that he did not fear reprisal.

Lucinda Taylor, an artist at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, lost her job after she spoke out against the DVD. Tegeder said he is not worried.

“If he throws me out, I can walk away from this with my head up,” Tegeder said. He added, “This man is leading us in the wrong direction. We have to call it for what it is – it’s bullying behavior. It’s not the work of Jesus Christ.”