Archbishop John Nienstedt crusades against gay marriage

But increasingly, his flock of Minnesota Catholics isn't following

"In some ways it feels like the society we're living in has a better view of how all of us can get along than the church," Anderson says. "By trying to protect marriage, the church is becoming an enemy of human beings, causing divisiveness.... I think the dangerous thing that Nienstedt did is that he decided to step out politically, and crossed the boundary of being a teacher of the faithful to trying to influence the political background of the state."

But these men appear to be outliers when it comes to diverging from Nienstedt's same-sex views. The few remaining priests who were willing to go on the record shared some blend of sympathy and support for the archbishop.

"We've had this definition of marriage for 3,200 years, so why do we get to change it today?" says Father Robert Fitzpatrick of St. Rose of Lima. "And remember, Nienstedt's also part of the human race, too, and nobody's perfect. I thank God he's got that job and not me."

More than 80 faith organizations have already pledged to vote against this fall's upcoming amendment
Kate Brickman
More than 80 faith organizations have already pledged to vote against this fall's upcoming amendment

Nienstedt is, of course, parroting the Vatican's party line, and was recently burnished by Pope Benedict in a March visit to Rome. Still, few bishops have taken such public, vocal stands on the matter — and none have employed the panoply of methods the archbishop has utilized to get out the anti-gay message.

Most of Nienstedt's priests acknowledge changing social mores, yet remain nevertheless enthralled by the church's teachings. But some — despite all evidence to the contrary — believe the church is with the majority on this issue.

"The archbishop's got a good, strong ego. He knows who he is, and who we are — he doesn't appear to me to be wounded, but determined," says Father Frank Fried at Corpus Christi. "I don't think people necessarily in large number, young people even, feel that same-sex marriage is desirable."

Remarkably, some priests saw shades of martyrdom in the archbishop's position — this, despite the fact that Nienstedt is the one in the position of power.

"Why not use the word 'crucified'? He's supposed to be Christ-like, and Christ was crucified," says Father James Wolnik at Holy Childhood. "The archbishop is a prophet of life in a culture of death. Nienstedt's not afraid to have his nose bloodied for the truth.... He has to live this out despite the fact that it means persecution and suffering. And I applaud him. I love him."

Kate Brickman knows what she's up against.

"Minnesota for Marriage is our direct opposition, but we basically equate it with the Catholic Church," she says.

Brickman, the petite brunette spokeswoman for Minnesotans United for All Families, points to the numbers. So far the Archdiocese of St. Paul is the largest fiscal contributor in supporting Minnesota's same-sex marriage ban, donating $650,000 to Minnesota Catholic Conference, the self-described "public policy voice for the Catholic Church in Minnesota," according to the most recent filing. Meanwhile, MCC has donated $350,000 to Minnesota for Marriage. The Diocese of New Ulm and the Diocese of Duluth have both contributed $50,000 to MCC.

Tegeder has said that these were "parishioners' funds," but officials with MCC say the funds come from "investment income." This may be the case, but it is little consolation to the 21 parishes that have either shuttered or merged due to budgetary constraints during Nienstedt's tenure.

"We know what the church is dictating," Brickman says. "And not to refute [them], but we certainly don't think God is on their side."

Brickman is quick to point out that her message and her coalition — the brainchild of OutFront Minnesota and Project 515, two local gay-rights organizations — are not trying to rebut any argument put forth by the Catholic Church. She doesn't want this to devolve into a rote rendition of Religious Right vs. Godless Left. After all, she says, among the 300 coalition members in Minnesotans United, more than one-fourth are faith-based organizations.

"The faith organizations were some of the first to join the coalition," says Grant Stevensen, a local Lutheran pastor tapped as Minnesotans United's faith coordinator. "Our campaign is not against a particular church. [But] I don't think one kind of faith community should be able to say that you people over here, you will live this way, you will worship this way — that's very un-American, don't you think?"

One of the most notable signs of support came recently from Peter Rogness, the Lutheran bishop of the St. Paul Synod, who penned an open letter saying, "Allowing for the possibility of lifelong, committed same-gender relationships poses no threat to faithful heterosexual marriage or healthy settings for our children."

Simultaneously, the synod leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which represents approximately 800,000 Minnesotans, voted to support striking down the amendment.

Stevensen says Minnesotans United isn't trying to convince citizens what God would want, or what a 3,000-year-old Levitical script actually means. Rather, his coalition just wants to have a dialogue between neighbors.

"As an American, this is the covenant we made with each other: that we would figure out how to be a people together through discussion," Stevensen says. "If we don't have a conversation, how do we pull off democracy? ... So for goodness's sake — don't stop the discussion by embedding in the Constitution an ending to the conversation."

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