Whether or not MN’s marriage amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman passes in November, the Roman Catholic Church has already lost.  Here’s why:

The dominant cultural and political paradigm that drives Archbishop John Nienstedt and others to place their religious, political, and cultural authority behind passing this state constitutional amendment is a losing game, both politically and – more importantly – spiritually and morally.  The recent letter sent to every registered Catholic in the archdiocese, asking them to financially support Minnesota for Marriage, is just the latest series in a losing battle.

The dominant paradigm goes something like this: Cultures are shaped and formed by the hearts and minds of citizens.  Pluralism makes it impossible to find total agreement on issues like gay marriage.  First we start by forming Catholics and others – through preaching, moral suasion, etc. – into the beliefs and values that lead one to conclude that we should all see marriage as between one man and one woman.  When that doesn’t work, then we move to legislation and the power of the state to form the culture.  If we pass an amendment, even if others do not agree, at least they will not have the legally mandated power to do anything about it.  The effort to engage the coercive power of the state in order to create a more “Christian” culture is precisely what we mean by the culture wars.

The problem with this is that it is a false view of how cultures are formed and how they change, and all of the efforts in this paradigm – from the left or the right – have done absolutely nothing to make American culture a more Christian culture.  The Christian sociologist, James Davison Hunter outlines this false assumption about changing American culture in his recent book, To Change the World. (In much of this post, I am deeply indebted to Hunter’s analysis.)

What this culture wars approach does do (and pardon my technical philosophical terms here for a public blog), is to foster a Hegelian notion of the State as the locus of absolute truth and power, and to underwrite the Nietzschean idea that all political engagement with culture is nothing more than a raw “will to power” fueled by ressentiment (which is roughly equivalent to resentment in English).

Now here is why – whether the amendment passes or fails – the Roman Catholic Church has already lost.  The Catholic moral tradition upholds what we in the business call “moral realism” – that is, that there is such a thing as moral truth that can be known to the human mind and put into action (albeit imperfectly as long as we live in this world, due to sin, pride, human error, etc.).  But the engagement in the culture wars only underwrites the wider cultural perspective that there is no moral truth, and that politics is about raw power fueled by anger and resentment.  So, if the battle to pass a marriage amendment wins because of the authority of the archdiocese and its institutional support (including a whole lot of money), they will simultaneously contribute to the erosion of the foundations of the very principles of Catholic moral theology upon which support for the amendment is supposedly built.

In other words, the very attempt to put its political, moral, spiritual, and financial authority behind such a culture wars approach simultaneously erodes the very foundations of our entire moral tradition.  The irony, of course, is that those who support such actions believe they are doing precisely the opposite.  But – assuming it passes – these actions will give further inspiration to those who work tirelessly in the trenches of the culture wars to support the amendment and will spur future alienating campaigns.  And for those who do not support the amendment, they will feel further isolated from and spiritually abandoned by their Church, and they will be more likely to experience the very resentment that erodes a rich life of prayer, worship, and communion.

If Christians – both individuals and those with authority in church institutions – cannot find another way forward, we will only continue to make ourselves more irrelevant to the modern world, more angry, and more entrenched in and blinded to the worst aspects of the very culture that we (rightly) criticize.  There must be a way to uphold the beauty and integrity of the Catholic intellectual, spiritual, and moral tradition that draws people into the beauty and the joy of the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection without fostering deeper resentment. As my very wise sister-in-law reminded me recently – when I was dealing with my own resentment over some of these issues – the true sign of the Holy Spirit in the church is unity.  The culture wars are only driving wedges between those who are trying their hardest to love Christ and his Church even amidst radical disagreement.

As it is, we’ve already lost.  There has to be another way to practice what Hunter calls “faithful Christian presence” in our culture.  May the Holy Spirit show us how…