It's time for another update from the "framing religion as politics" beat, care of The Star Tribune, up in Minnesota. This latest same-sex marriage story is pretty standard fare -- Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt keeps talking about doctrine, the newspaper frames everything as political ambition -- except for two paragraphs that raise interesting questions. One of the questions is legal, in a church-state sense, and the other concerns a misquote that should be corrected (that is, if theology means anything to the newspaper's editors). As a bonus, there there is a pitch-perfect example of language that smacks readers in the face with the newsroom's views on this subject.
First, there is the money question:
Working aggressively behind the scenes, the 65-year-old Nienstedt has emerged as a key financial and political force for passage of the marriage amendment, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot and is the most contentious issue in the state this election season.
He has committed more than $650,000 in church money, stitched together a coalition of leaders from other faiths and exerted all his power within the church to press Minnesota's million-plus Catholics to back him.
Now, churches and non-profits are allowed to get financially involved in issues in the public square, as opposed to endorsing candidates. I assume the Star Tribune team knows that. It's one thing to tell members of your voluntary association where the group stands on a matter of doctrine. It's something else to urge them to support a particular candidate -- whether that is an A.M.E. Zion pastor plugging President Barack Obama or a Mormon leader pinning an overt endorsement on Mitt Romney.
What, precisely, is meant by "more than $650,000 in church money" going to this campaign? Did the archbishop literally pull those funds from church accounts or did he seek donations from Catholic donors, charities, etc.? Readers deserve information there, not fog.
But Nienstedt's central role in the campaign has also brought blistering criticism from the faithful.
"I just see that this is terrible. This is not how Christ would have spent this money," said Pauline Cahalan, 67, a lifelong Catholic from Roseville. "It's very concerning to me when someone says you have to think like I tell you to think."
So this one woman represents "the faithful" on an issue linked to an ancient sacrament of the church? "The faithful" -- the implication is all or most Catholics in the region -- oppose his actions?
This language is simply too vague. It's clear, in this age in which American Catholicism is splintered on issues of moral theology, that many would oppose the archbishop and they deserve to be quoted, on the record. But all, or even most, of the "faithful," active Catholics? Come on, people. Back that claim up with some facts or, at the very least, a poll that digs into the specifics. "Some" of the faithful? Sure. "The faithful" is another matter.
And finally, there is this brief moment in which a Catholic leader is allowed to speak in Catholic, non-religious language. Note that this is a reference to a written statement from the archbishop.
Undeterred by the criticism, Nienstedt has raised the stakes. To a mother who pleaded for acceptance for her gay child, he wrote: "I urge you to reconsider the position that you expressed. ... Your eternal salvation may well depend upon a conversation of heart on this topic."
To clergy, he issued orders that no "open dissension" would be allowed. He wrote one outspoken priest, the Rev. Mike Tegeder, that if he persisted, "I will ... remove you from your ministerial assignments."
What, precisely, is "a conversation of heart" on this issue? That makes no sense, in terms of grammar or theology. Is there any chance that what the archbishop actually wrote was that, on this matter of fidelity to doctrine and sacrament, his woman needed to seek "a conversion of heart"?
According to this Catholic source, quoting what appears to the same Nienstedt letter, that is exactly what the archbishop wrote. Who altered this crucial quote and why? It just doesn't make any sense.
UPDATE: A website called Truth Wins Out has posted what it says is the original letter from Nienstedt and -- while the "conversion" instead of "conversation" logic remains -- it appears that this typo was made by the archbishop and/or his staff. Thus, the copy desk merely passed along that language, while it appears that other Catholics who read it have corrected the wording.
I think the editors still should have noticed that the original wording made zero sense and asked about it. However, it is not a journalistic sin to have no one on the copy desk who thinks theologically or thinks "Catholic" on such a matter. It's sad that no one caught it, but it appears that the mistake was not that of the newspaper.