The decision by Minnesota’s bishops to send a letter and DVD on marriage to Catholic households in Minnesota has generated a substantial amount of media coverage and accompanying commentary in newspapers around the state.
While people — Catholic and otherwise — are certainly entitled to their opinions, some characterizations of the bishops’ initiative have been inaccurate and unfair.
First, the bishops’ effort is not rooted in hate of homosexuals, as some critics have claimed; rather, it is rooted in church teaching about marriage and sexuality. Homosexual persons have the same God-given human dignity as heterosexual persons and deserve our Christian love and respect. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states no less.
But the church teaches that sex is something to be reserved for a lifelong union between a man and woman who are open to having children and are committed to raising strong families for the common good of society. Everyone else — whether they are gay or “straight” — is called to abstinence. The church realizes this call can be a struggle, particularly in today’s sex-saturated society, and so it offers information, resources and programs as a means of help and support. The bishops’ opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in this teaching, nothing else.
Second, many critics of the bishops’ marriage initiative have taken them to task for speaking out on an issue that has public policy implications as well as religious ones. But the bishops have every right to enter public policy discussions, as they have for a very long time on both the state and national levels.
Minnesota’s bishops, for example, recently spoke together on immigration, designating a day last January as Immigration Sunday to educate Minnesotans about the issue and remind residents of the importance of welcoming the stranger. During the last legislative session, the state’s bishops spoke in favor of a reformed program for General Assistance Medical Care to help the poorest of the poor. And, several years ago, Archbishop Harry Flynn initiated an interfaith anti-poverty effort in the archdiocese.
Few people cried foul when the bishops spoke out on these issues, as it should be. Public policies have moral implications, and every member of the church is responsible for studying those implications and making voting decisions in light of them. The bishops have a responsibility to teach about them.
An additional point of clarification: the bishops’ support of particular public policies doesn’t make them partisan, although they are sometimes accused of that. The bishops, if one looks at the full breadth of issues they address during any legislative cycle — which ranges from poverty and immigration, to abortion and caring for God’s creation — advocate positions that the major parties sometimes support and sometimes oppose, as do individual candidates of both parties.
The bishops’ marriage initiative is all about teaching the faithful on an important societal topic — not party politics.
Education, listening needed
Perhaps some of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations about what the church teaches shouldn’t be surprising in light of a recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Catholics didn’t score impressively on questions about religious knowledge, including a question about Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, to which only a little more than half of Catholic survey-takers responded correctly.
While it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from a single survey, we might reasonably conclude that if a large number of Catholics fail to understand the church’s teaching on something as basic as the Real Presence, they might also struggle to understand church teaching on other matters, including sexuality and marriage.
That’s something catechists and other formers of the faith should take to heart as they teach youth and adults. Many Catholics have questions about faith and morality, and they need catechists who are willing to listen, empathize, and articulate church teaching in an accurate and loving manner.
Likewise, Catholics who are unfamiliar with basic church teaching or who struggle to understand it with regard to important social issues like marriage should check out their parishes’ educational offerings and read The Catholic Spirit’s Lesson Plan section, which offers articles to help form them in their faith.
Ongoing education and conversation around issues like marriage is a good thing, but it should be rooted in accuracy, fairness and Christian charity.