The MN Marriage Amendment Fight | Bad Catholics: Divorced Mailman Scolds Family, Says Their Daughter is Diseased
On this All Saints Day, when the church celebrates all those, known and unknown, who have been united with God in heaven, I’d like to discuss a disturbing newspaper story that appeared last week about the battle over the proposed Minnesota “Marriage Amendment” on the Nov. 6 election ballot. You may remember the story: A devout Catholic family whose daughter is a lesbian was harshly chastised by a divorced fundamentalist former Episcopalian mailman.
I am not making this up. Of course, the man who is a divorced Episcopalian mailman with a strong fundamentalist streak was not identified that way in the newspaper article. Instead, he was referred to as a Roman Catholic pastor, the Rev. Michael Rudolph, a divorced (he was married 13 years) former letter carrier who I knew when we both were members of an Episcopal church in the early 1990s. Mike was ordained as a Catholic priest in 2005, a few years after I, too, divorced, was remarried and then returned, a wandering soul, to the Catholic faith of my upbringing.
I am no one to tell others how they should live. And although Father Rudolph has only been a priest for seven years and has a limited experience as a pastoral caregiver, I acknowledge that he is more qualified than I to discuss the teachings of the church. Still, the man I remember from my Episcopal days was as possibly perplexed about how to live his life as anyone else I knew, and I am glad if he has now replaced all the questions and doubts we shared with the certainties of conviction and dogma that he seems to have found since becoming a Catholic.
My return to the Catholic fold started when my mother died. She had not been raised Catholic but converted in order to marry my orthodox Catholic father who, as these things often went, divorced her seven children later, remarried and still got the big funeral at the Cathedral. Mom was bitter about it (she skipped the proceedings), but she remained Catholic (even though she threw the Catholic lay people who came to her hospital room to pray for her out of her room with a string of curses). When she died, we held her funeral in the small church where I had grown up and where most of us were baptized. Wanting to take Communion at her funeral, but not wanting to be struck by lightning, I reconciled with the church after asking the priest whether it was acceptable to be a “bad Catholic.” He told me the church was full of bad Catholics, that it was the best place for them, and took me back. I felt at home.
Not that being home is always easy. Like many — nearly all — of my Catholic friends, I find it difficult at times. This year has been hell for Catholics, living with the constant bullying of ex-mailmen and ambitious bishops who are determined to win a political victory at the polls, no matter how much money and heartache it takes. For Catholics who don’t accept the Church’s political instruction as divinely inspired, this has been a time of pain, mixed feelings, wariness and quiet resistance. At the church where I send my young boys to religious education, and have seen them receive their First Holy Communions, many of us communicate with nods, brief conversations, meetings at each others’ homes, and lapel buttons — worn only after Mass is over — that signal our determination to vote no on the marriage amendment. It is a silent witness, for the most part: When Church leaders threaten to fire priests who oppose the amendment while hiring new ones who are more willing to flog the flocks to vote for the hierarchy’s agenda, open confrontation is unwise. So the people have organized a Catholic underground that is, for the most part, soft-spoken but fiercely determined.
We will vote no. and, if you believe the polls, we will be in the majority of Catholics.
I allow for Michael Rudolph to do as he sees fit. But I confess I am unable to understand how any priest — new or old — could dump such hurtful comments on one of his parish families as Father Rudolph was reported to have done in the newspaper story. Apparently, Father Rudolph has been quite energetic in his campaigning for Yes votes for the marriage amendment among his parishioners on St. Paul’s West Side. And when one family among the faithful whose daughter is a lesbian wrote him to say, basically, that he was forcing them to choose between loving their daughter or loving the political agenda of church leaders, Father Rudolph replied with words of rejection that threatened and stunned the family: Their daughter, he wrote, suffered from a “disorder” similar to “alcoholism … or clinical depression, or kleptomania.” What’s more, believing otherwise would lead the family down a “spiritual dead end.”
This is a long way from urging a yes vote on a political proposition. This is abuse.
A lot of people, including priests and divorced people, suffer from disorders. We all struggle with something. But Father Rudolph’s words were impassive and indifferent to the human ordeal of a family struggling to cope with the pain stemming from being rejected and disapproved by society, the state and, now, their church. Archbishop John Nienstedt has spent upwards of $1 million bankrolling the so-called marriage amendment, a useless bit of unnecessary boilerplate that would restrict marriage to One Man and One Woman, as state law already prescribes. (Actually, the reality of marriage law is different: The law in practice, says this: “One Man, One Woman. At a time.”) Whether His Excellency has chosen to do so because he has set his sights on a bigger job or gets a kick out of joining forces with fundamentalist churches that have fomented anti-Catholic hate for centuries (politics makes strange bedfellows, eh, Archbishop?), I can’t tell. (I previewed Nienstedt’s extreme anti-gay views in a 2007 column: click here to read). But Nienstedt has pushed and bullied and intimidated and threatened and spent his flock’s hard-earned money like a sailor on shore leave all to make a cudgel to use against gay people and Catholics stricken by his heavy-handedness.
It is a terrible pity.
And it isn’t working. If the marriage amendment fails, it will go down because Catholics did not listen to their leaders.
“There is a massive number of us,” my Catholic friend “Jim” tells me. “There’s a widespread cognitive dissonance going on. A lot of non-Catholic friends ask me how I can reconcile my faith with the church politics. And what I tell them is that I still believe that the good that’s done by the church greatly outweighs the quite substantial harm that the church does. The church is a human institution and it errs, it falters and it fails. There is a lot that the church does that makes the world a worse place, but when you look at it all on balance, it still comes out strongly positive.”
I am not quite as confident about that positive balance as Jim, but I do want to believe it, and I don’t think that leaving the church is an answer to its problems. I think staying is an answer. Staying, and fighting for a better church.
I pray for a November 6 outcome that ends this sad chapter in the church I love.
Here is the sign I have in my yard: