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Archbishop John Nienstedt is warning Catholic clergy across Minnesota that there should be no "open dissension" of the church's strong backing of a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would define marriage as a union only between a man and woman.
In other early signs of the fervent campaign the church intends to wage for the amendment, which will be on every ballot in the state this fall, Nienstedt is appointing priests and married couples to visit archdiocesan high schools to talk about marriage. He has directed parishes to form committees to work for passage of the amendment. He also has warned a priest that he may be stripped of his ministry if he continues to disagree "with the church's teaching on marriage."
In a recent letter to priests and deacons, Nienstedt laid out why he believes it's important that the marriage amendment pass: "The endgame of those who oppose the marriage amendment that we support is not just to secure certain benefits for a particular minority, but, I believe, to eliminate the need for marriage altogether."
"As I see it, we have this one chance as Minnesotans to make things right," he said. "The stakes could not be higher."
With nearly 1.1 million Catholics in Minnesota, the church and its political arm, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, are likely to play a crucial role in whether the marriage amendment wins passage in November.
At the same time, other organizations such as Minnesotans United for All Families, a coalition that includes faith-based groups, are joining forces to defeat the amendment -- making it certain that Minnesota will be thrust into the growing national debate over whether states should sanction gay marriage.
Besides urging parish priests to form church committees to support the amendment, Nienstedt also wants Catholics to recite a special "marriage prayer" during mass that endorses marriage between a man and woman.
In the coming months, teams of a priest and a married couple are also set to talk to high school students in the archdiocese about why marriage should be a union between a man and woman.
David Meyer, principal of Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, said juniors and seniors are scheduled to hear a presentation by a team in April.
"We don't have a lot of details other than they're obviously going to be presenting the benefits of marriage," Meyer said. "I certainly support that."
But there is opposition to the church's strategy. One vocal critic of Nienstedt is the Rev. Mike Tegeder, who spoke against the amendment at a priests' meeting with Nienstedt in October.
In November, Tegeder received a letter stating that if he did not end his public opposition, Nienstedt would suspend his "faculties to exercise ministry" and remove him from his "ministerial assignments."
Marking the first clear standoff over the church's role in the amendment, Tegeder is not backing down.
He said he believes the church is being too political and contends that it's inappropriate for its leaders to campaign in support of the amendment.
"That's not the way to support marriage," said Tegeder, pastor at both St. Frances Cabrini and Gichitwaa Kateri churches in Minneapolis. "If we want to support marriage, there are wonderful things we can do as Catholic churches and ministers. We should not be focused on beating up a small number of people who have this desire to have committed relationships."
Some parishes are divided
Other priests in the Twin Cities metro area say many in their flocks believe the state's bishops are being too political.
One priest, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears censure by the archbishop, said he is not reciting the "marriage prayer" during mass. He also said that he has struggled to find volunteers to participate with the pro-amendment committee.
"Too many of us have a relative, a good friend, someone we know who's gay," he said. "A lot of churches are not doing the prayer. They're also appointing shell committees. Churches are creating them ... but there's really no true endorsement of the amendment."
Archdiocesan officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, defends the campaign.
"We don't believe we're imposing anything on anybody in terms of ideas," he said. "We're simply training ... and working in educating and informing our citizens to go out and be good citizens in the public arena and explain to others why we think this is an important issue.
"People are free to object to that ... but we like everybody else have a responsibility and the freedom to participate in public debates."
Church more active here
The emerging campaign by Minnesota bishops is "very unusual,'' said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies politics and religion.
"Churches are about spiritual things, and it's not that churches can't take positions on human behavior or sexuality,'' he said. "But the common complaint I've heard in many contexts is if the institution becomes politicized ... it can detract from the spiritual mission of the church because you'll have people having trouble praying with each other, who are going to feel uncomfortable coming to church."
It is also uncommon for bishops to suspend priests for failing to abide by Catholic teaching. Still, religious scholars say that priests have been suspended in recent decades for supporting the ordination of women and having differing views about church doctrine on birth control.
Rose French • 612-673-4352