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Catholics still split by marriage amendment fight

In his office at St. Frances of Cabrini Church in Minneapolis, the Rev. Mike Tegeder holds a stack of letters he received from Minnesotans around the state thanking him for speaking out against the Catholic Church’s position in support the marriage amendment. Sasha Aslanian | MPR

By Sasha Aslanian, MPR News 91.3 FM

ST. PAUL – More than a month after Minnesota became the first state to defeat a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, some Catholics say it’s time to acknowledge how divisive that effort was within the church.

Among them is Kathleen Nuccio of Colhasset, a cantor and choir member for St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Grand Rapids.

Nuccio sings during Mass each Sunday, as she has done for half a century. But when it came to her opposition to the marriage amendment, she couldn’t make her voice heard.

“There was no dialogue,” she said. “The only way people had to express themselves … [was] by withdrawing donations, walking out of sermons – which happened – and leaving the church altogether. Many people still have not returned.”

Catholic Bishops put significant financial and spiritual resources behind the amendment, which would have defined marriage only between a man and a woman, reinforcing a provision against same-sex marriage in state law. The church’s official position alienated some parishioners and may have contributed to the amendment’s defeat in November.

There is no exit-poll data on how Catholics in Minnesota voted on the amendment. Although the Associated Press asked voters in exit polls if they attended religious services and if they were evangelicals, it did not ask if they were Catholic. National polls from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life find Catholics are among churchgoers who are most supportive of same-sex marriage.

A retired professor whose research expertise is on families headed by single parents, Nuccio advises the GLBT student club at Itasca Community College. During the campaign, she found herself leading a sort of double-life, serving as cantor during Sunday Mass because she loves the music, and later hosting fundraisers and running phone banks to encourage Catholics to defeat the amendment.

She was heartened when voters rejected the amendment, but she feels like something still hangs in the air at church.

“A bell was rung that can’t be unrung,” Nuccio said.

Her priest, Father Jerry Weiss, acknowledges the amendment was “somewhat divisive” in his parish, and that he’s still sensing the repercussions.

“There’s just no doubt about it,” Weiss said. “Some people simply walked away from the church, and could not understand how we could possibly take a stand like we did, but other people would have been disappointed if had we not...I think we were sort of you know caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Weiss, who preached on the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage, said offerings are down, but it’s hard to know how much of that is because of the marriage amendment, or other factors, like the economy.

He estimates that about 20 of the 1,000 families in his parish chose to leave because of the church’s stand on the amendment. He hasn’t reached out to them.

“Part of it is, you know, what do I say? I mean, they’ve heard me preach on it,” he said. “And is the church going to change? I would say no, the church is not going to change. Some of them called me and asked to come in and sit down and talk. But at this point, no I haven’t and I just want to take a deep breath because it was hard on people, myself included.”

Weiss said it’s only a matter of time before the courts or the legislature take up the issue of legalizing same sex marriage in Minnesota, slicing open the divisions anew.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was the biggest Catholic contributor toward the “yes” vote side, giving $650,000 of investment income.

After the election, the Archdiocese issued a statement that expressed disappointment in the vote, and Archbishop John Nienstedt published an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press seeking common ground among Catholics.

Archdiocese spokesperson Jim Accurso disputes anecdotal reports that Catholics are staying away from Mass or reducing their giving.

“We’ve not noticed any decline in our Mass attendance or in our parish collections in the last two years,” he said. “In fact, our Catholic Services Appeal, which is our annual appeal, that’s tracking very closely to last year’s pace. So we’ve not noticed any declines in either.”

Nienstedt is launching a new initiative to re-engage Twin Cities Catholics in their faith. Those who show up for Christmas Mass will receive a copy of the book “Rediscovering Catholicism.” The church will soon launch a website, iPhone and Android apps, a speakers’ series and parish book clubs. Accurso said the evangelizing effort comes as part of a 2010 strategic plan, and is unrelated to the marriage amendment.

For Father Mike Tegeder, a priest in Minneapolis who was the rare voice within the hierarchy to speak against the amendment, the church still has some healing to do.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that this has been very painful,” Tegeder said. “I mean, the Archbishop is engaged now in this Rediscovering Catholicism. Well, I think that’s putting the cart before horse. I think first we need to go back and say, ‘hey, some people got hurt. We had a lot of casualties.’ Maybe they were unintended but there were casualties in this process.”

Tegeder has a stack of letters in his office from people all over the state who were upset by the church’s push to pass the amendment. He published his own letter in the Star Tribune after the election, suggesting Nienstedt “prayerfully consider stepping down” because of the division caused by the church’s controversial stand on the amendment. Tegeder, who is 64 and serves two inner city parishes, has received no response.

Accurso, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said church officials have a long-standing policy against commenting on personnel.

Tegeder said he’d like to see some public event, where people could talk with the archbishop about how they’ve been affected.

“I think it would show that he has a heart, and I think a lot of people are wondering about that right now,” he said. “The silence speaks louder than anything and right now we have a lot of silence.”

In Advent, the season of waiting, Tegeder continues to wait.