Minnesotans are set to vote on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman in November 2012.  On October 4, Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Rev. John Nienstedt sent a letter to the priests of the archdiocese (nienstedtletter) asking them to form ad hoc committees dedicated to spearheading the effort to pass the amendment at the grass roots level, an effort modeled after the one undertaken by a broad coalition of groups that helped to pass proposition 8 in California in 2008.  This follows upon a controversial decision to send out 400,000 DVDs to parishioners in September 2010, funded by an anonymous donor, in which he called upon the faithful to ask legislators to approve a vote on a constitutional amendment (which the MN legislature did in May 2011 – hence the upcoming constitutional amendment vote).

On October 13, The Murphy Institute at the University of St. Thomas’s Law School, hosted a debate between Maggie Gallagher, President of The Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and Dale Carpenter, University of Minnesota Professor of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law.  (The debate can be heard online.)  In her comments, Gallagher presented arguments that are remarkably similar to statements by archbishop Neinstedt in the aforementioned video.

Their comments are remarkable for several reasons.  First, neither Gallagher nor Neinstedt – somewhat surprisingly – appeal to any kind of broad natural law argument that would deny the legitimacy of gay marriage (or same-sex relationships of any sort) on the grounds that they are incapable of fulfilling the “procreative” function of human sexuality or the institution of marriage (ala, Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, par. 11-12).  Rather, they take the rhetorical position of trying to convince the Catholic faithful and others of the negative social implications that putatively will follow from allowing gay marriage to become inscribed within the laws of our polity.  Gallagher, for example, provides a litany of social indicators – backed by social scientific research – about the breakdown of the traditional family unit: children out of wedlock, single parent families struggling to support themselves, fathers abrogating their responsibility, etc.  She then continues to claim that in order to defend the institution of marriage – and correlatively to combat the breakdown of the family – all men and women of good will have a stake in legally defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

But I believe that to cast the terms of the debate in such a rhetorically and logically fallible position is already to have lost the debate.  As Carpenter points out in his reply to Gallagher, her argument is a non sequitur.  Even as one may agree with her lament about the breakdown of the traditional family – as I and Carpenter and just about everyone else do – it does not follow from her premisses that banning gay marriage will have any impact upon strengthening the traditional family.  Gay marriage – and same-sex relationships in general – have not, do not, and never will constitute a threat to a single heterosexual marriage considered independently or to the social institution of marriage as a whole.  I would suggest, however, that Gallagher’s choice to frame the debate in terms of the social conditions necessary for the thriving of the traditional family unit does point us in some more hopeful directions for addressing the real issue, even as her argument misses the mark.

On this issue, Jean Porter writes that

Whatever other purposes it may serve, the institution of marriage exists in order to facilitate the generation and upbringing of children in an appropriately human way, which fosters education and integration into a society as well as physical nurture, and which more broadly sustains the ties of kinship and generations in such a way as to give meaning to the natural development of human life…They presuppose a wider set of social arrangements, especially economic arrangements, which enable men and women to enter into marital relations freely and to build and enjoy a family life without having to undergo extreme financial hardships or drastically curtail the freedom, the civic life, and the intellectual and spiritual development of one partner or the other (Ministers of the Law, p. 287).

What this suggests is that the real threat to the social stability provided by the traditional family unit is not the breakdown of respect for marriage as between one man and one woman, but rather the larger question with which we are dealing throughout the Western world right now – that is, the breakdown of political, civic, and fiduciary trust in those vested with the authority to serve and protect the common good, in all of its political, judicial, and economic aspects.  This is a significantly more complex set of questions than the simple question about whether or not to prevent gay marriage through a constitutional amendment, and its solution is going to require cooperation beyond the traditional liberal-conservative divide in our political life.

While I respect his role as archbishop and his freedom to engage in these issues as he sees fit, archbishop Neinstedt has invested all of his political clout into supporting the passing of a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.  This is unfortunately for several reasons.  First, even if the amendment does pass, it seems fairly obvious that the momentum of those coming of age as citizens today (except for a small, but quite vocal and politically active sub-group) consider gay marriage – or at least civil unions that would extend a similar set of legal rights, privileges, and responsibilities to same sex couples – a non-issue.  Passing a constitutional amendment may provide a sense of security that one has acted to protect the institution of marriage, but the legal process can be undone in the future, especially if it does not adequately represent the sentiments of the majority of those in our culture.  Secondly, and more importantly, it avoids the bigger threat to our common welfare that is posed by the current economic and political crisis of our country.  And thirdly, to the extent that these kinds of public actions continue to align the official channels of the Catholic church with one side of the partisan divide, especially on the “pelvic issues” where the Church’s authority is already almost entirely non-existent due to the sex-abuse crisis (among other things), it further undermines her authority to speak a word of hope and encouragement to those who seek wisdom and moral guidance from the spiritual pastors of the flock.  The unintended consequence is that well-meaning and thoughtful Christians, unable to find the guidance they seek, will only continue to look outside the Church for answers to the biggest questions of human existence – either on spiritual questions (the ones that matter the most) or on material questions regarding faithful engagement in civic life.

Addressing these bigger questions, the ones that truly threaten not only the well-being of the family but of our political community as a whole, requires a great deal more patience and nuance than can be found in simply advocating for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.  Conscientious Christians are seeking guidance on these issues, and it would be a wiser investment of the political capital of Church leaders to speak a word of hope on these issues.  Not only would this help foster greater civic trust and virtue (admittedly of secondary value for Christians), but it would also build more trust among the faithful in the spiritual leadership of the Church and her pastors, enabling the average person in the pew to hear the saving Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which, at the end of the day, is the most important message for Christians of any age.  A drastically different approach, much wider in scope than the issue of gay marriage, is called for in order to meet the material and spiritual needs of Christians in such difficult times.

The resources for addressing these bigger questions are available within the rich tradition of the Church – in her social thought, among other places – and it is to these resources that I believe both Church leaders and thoughtful Christians may turn to find the spiritual and moral guidance needed to remain faithfully engaged in our societies in these difficult times.