With more than 1 million members, the Catholic Church is the single largest religious denomination in Minnesota.
Catholics' numbers, and their financial contributions, make them a powerful force in the debate over a constitutional amendment that would only allow marriage between men and women. If approved by voters this fall, the amendment would effectively write a ban on gay marriage into the state constitution.
Minnesota law already prohibits gay marriage. But Catholic bishops have made passage of the amendment a top political priority this year, so much so that the Catholic Church is putting a lot of money and prayers into the effort to pass the marriage amendment.
Proponents of the amendment say it is needed to block a Hennepin County court case currently being litigated that seeks to overturn state law, and numerous attempts by DFL legislators to legalize gay marriage.
Catholic parishes are assigning church captains, typically a married couple, to educate parishioners and get out the vote. The church holds special offerings to collect money for the amendment effort.
"I make no apologies for the defense of marriage, because it's an important social institution," said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the political arm of the Catholic Church.
Adkins is quick to stress that the church's official position is not against gay people; rather, its position is pro-traditional marriage.
Adkins leads the Minnesota Catholic Conference Marriage Defense Fund, a registered ballot lobbying group that reported $750,000 in contributions to the Campaign Finance Board at the end of January. That's more than half of what the pro-amendment side raised. He said more contributions are coming.
"It takes money to speak in a democracy, and it takes a lot of it these days," Adkins said. "It's going to be an important debate, and the Catholic Church is very committed to getting that message out, so we're going to raise and spend the money we need to do that."
The Duluth diocese has contributed $50,000 from the estate of a deceased priest. The New Ulm diocese has given another $50,000 from the sale of real estate.
But the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis donated $650,000 -- the single largest contribution in the race so far.
Archdiocese officials declined to comment, but explained in a press release that the money came from investment income and not "from parish assessments, the Catholic Service Appeal, or donations to parishes or to the Archdiocese." It also noted that contributions to Catholic Charities and Parochial Schools remained constant or increased.
Still, some Catholics aren't happy with the big spending on the marriage issue.
"None of us knew that there was that large amount of money available to be used for any purpose," said Bob Beutel, a St. Paul attorney who describes himself as a "cradle Catholic."
A product of Catholic Schools, Beutel is a member of Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, a group that has pressed the church to disclose more information about its finances.
In a March 2011 letter to the archdiocese's chief financial officer, John Bierbaum, the group asked for details about how the church was spending its money.
"We got no response," Beutel said.
Earlier this year, the Archdiocese's web site indicated that audited financial reports were available by written request, but the chief financial officer denied MPR's written request for those reports.
Reached by phone, Bierbaum said he did not have to honor media requests because the documents are available only to parishioners -- those with a financial stake.
An MPR reporter who identified himself as a parishioner and a reporter was mailed a copy of the Catholic Spirit newspaper that published the Archdiocese's 2011 Annual Report. It contains very little detail about the Archdiocese's $61.5 million budget but notes that pension funds are underfunded by 40 percent.
Nationwide, dioceses vary widely in the amount of information they disclose, said Jack Ruhl, a professor of accountancy at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He has collected financial statements from slightly less than half the dioceses in the country and said the Twin Cities Archdiocese is about in the middle when it comes to disclosure.
The Archdiocese of Boston posts complete audited reports online, whereas the Lincoln, Neb., diocese won't release any information at all.
Ruhl became interested in how the Catholic Church was disclosing financial settlements in the wake of the scandal involving priests accused of sexual abuse. His wife received a settlement.
At MPR's request, he reviewed the only audited report available, from 2009-2010.
That's before any big activity on the marriage amendment, but it offers some clues to the Archdiocese's debt burden prior to the restructuring announced late in 2010 that reduced the number of parishes by 21.
It also notes that the church set aside $2 million between 2009 and 2010 to cover potential costs of sex-abuse litigation. Ruhl said there's more that's missing from the report than what's included, but he can glean a little bit about its financial health.
"They certainly are not particularly cash-rich," he said. "They have about $11 million of cash as of June 30, 2010. And for an archdiocese the size of St. Paul and Minneapolis, that's not a lot of cash."
But the Archdiocese is putting more into the amendment battle than money.
As hundreds of Catholics gathered Sunday on the steps of the State Capitol for the 65th annual May Day Family Rosary Procession, It was clear that this year the focus was on defending traditional marriage.
"How do we define marriage? One man and one woman!" they chanted. "Amen! All right!"
Joan Davis drove down from Cambridge, Minn., with her daughter Maria Krienke, of Andover, and her three children. Davis said she prays the rosary daily to pass the marriage amendment.
"If we don't protect that, marriage between one man and one woman, then we're going to go down," she said, adding that the moral flavor of the nation depends on it. "We need to stand up and protect this, because this is the family."
Her daughter said that it is important "for families to have one man as the father and the woman as a mother. That's the way God intended it."
An auxiliary bishop in purple robes and the Knights of Columbus in their plumed chapeaus and capes led the faithful up John Ireland Boulevard to the St. Paul Cathedral, reciting the rosary.
A block from the Cathedral, three men stood silently, holding signs opposing the church's stand on the amendment. One read, "I am embarrassed by my church."
It's unclear how widespread support for the amendment is among Minnesota's more than 1 million Catholics. Adkins, of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said the group's internal polling of Minnesotans shows the amendment with a strong lead.
"We get an enthusiastic response," he said.
Adkins said Catholics are free to take their own position.
Beutel, of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, is among those who has. From looking at the financial disclosures of Minnesotans United for All Families, the largest group opposing the amendment, Buetel thinks other Catholics have as well.
"I recognize those names," he said. "Those are people I go to church with. People that I know are Catholics. People that I know are heterosexuals -- a very broad base of contributors."
Beutel said he'll continue to push for both more disclosure and input into how the Catholic Church spends its money.