In an op-ed published last weekend in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, former Lutheran Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom respectfully but firmly rebuked Twin Cities Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt for his aggressive support and promotion of a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would permanently strip the freedom to marry from same-sex couples. Chilstrom — a Minnesota native who served as the first presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and as vice president of the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland — wrote that in his view the archbishop, who is frequently quoted in the media as having “drawn the line” on marriage, has drawn it in the wrong place — in a place, in fact, that would effectively impose the Catholic Church’s definition of marriage on all Minnesotans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He notes that previous attempts throughout history to do just that have failed miserably:
Eight hundred years ago, Pope Innocent III presided over church and state in most of what is now Western Europe. He left no room for dissent. Non-Catholics, including Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers, were even required to wear clothing that distinguished them from the church’s faithful.
Several centuries later, John Calvin held monumental sway over society in Switzerland, fostering regulations that prescribed much of daily life.
For years kings and heads of the churches in Scandinavia allowed only Lutherans to hold worship services. Believers who gathered without the presence of a clergyman were imprisoned.
Since Israel became a sovereign nation after World War II, some Orthodox Jews have tried to form a government ruled by religious law. They have been firmly resisted.
But in neighboring Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is now attempting to force Islamic law on every citizen.
As these efforts have failed in the past, I believe they will fail in the future as well.
Bishop Chilstrom also notes that Nienstedt’s authoritative-sounding words and decisive actions leave the misleading impression that the Catholic Church is a monolithic institution intolerant of dissent, then points out that Nienstedt’s predecessor in the Diocese of New Ulm (where Nienstedt was bishop before being promoted to his current position) spoke openly and publicly about the need for the Catholic Church to consider ordaining married men and women to the priesthood. “He clearly understood,” writes Chilstrom, “that one could be a good Roman Catholic and still be open to change.”
Chilstrom acknowledges that both he and Nienstedt are entitled to their own opinions as private citizens of our republic, but that the enactment and enforcement of laws should be left to the legislature and the judiciary. He concludes by pointing out that dissent in the Catholic Church isn’t just limited to the hierarchy: “There is evidence that many in your church will vote ‘no’ on this amendment,” Chilstrom writes. “I stand with them and with all who will vote ‘no.’”