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abortion, Catholic Church, gay marriage

The Clash of Frames in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

We’ve fallen rather behind here at Religious Rhetorics – our one-post-a-month goal long since replaced by grad school pragmatism and prioritization. I think it may be more realistic to simply boldly announce that we will post “occasionally” – ever holding to an ideal of frequency and regularity, but conscious of (and, alas, often distracted by) our other professional commitments. I think I can speak for Martin, too, in thanking you for bearing with us, faithful readers.

With that said, I’d like to offer a reflection on education, politics, and the ever fascinating rhetoric of American Catholicism.

In particular, I’m interested in an interview yesterday between Minnesota Public Radio’s Tom Crann and Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis John Nienstedt, the topic of which was a DVD being mailed (by the Archdiocese, funded by an anonymous donor) to over 400,000 Catholic households across the state. The DVD, which the Archbishop says is the first of its kind that they’ve sent out, is called Preserving Marriage in Minnesota, and is on the topic of (you guessed it) same-sex marriage. Specifically, the Archbishop is calling for Minnesota Catholics to vote for a constitutional amendment “to put the one man, one woman definition of marriage beyond the reach of the courts and politicians.”

Throughout the MPR interview, Archbishop Nienstedt frames his rationale for mailing the DVD in terms of “teaching.” It is not a matter of politics, but simply of education and truth, and it should thus be outside the reach of “politicians.”

In using the word “frame” here I’m not so much trying invoke a particular term of art (although plenty has been written on the concept of frames), but rather what I hope is a more common sense usage – namely, a way of presenting and categorizing information that guides how the information is interpreted.

At the start of the interview Nienstedt tells MPR’s Crann that “The bishops of the state have an obligation by ordination to be teachers.” He goes on to explain that, therefore,

“we intend to and have been teaching what we believe is the God-given reality of marriage. Marriage isn’t something that we create as human beings. It’s already a given from the work of creation by almighty God.”

Crann, however, seems wary of the “teaching” frame, asking at one point,

“Of all of the many of the issues the church champions, issues like social justice and poverty and speaking out against abortion, why this issue, and specifically why now?”

He goes on in this vein a little later, asking,

“And so I’m wondering how is this position not partisan politics, especially timed as it is, six weeks before the election?”

In other words, perhaps this mailing might in fact be influenced by more temporal concerns.

In both cases, Nienstedt replies from his “teaching” frame, saying that it’s simply

“one piece of an overall teaching that we’ve been doing here in this archdiocese” and that “as a religious leader in this state, as a pastoral leader, I have a right to raise the issues and bring that to the attention of my people.”

This is not political advocacy, he insists – this is simply education.

At the end of the interview, Crann finally gets the Archbishop to concede that there might be something political about this mailing.

Crann: You also make a political statement at the end [of the video segment] that you feel that this issue should come before the voters of Minnesota.
Nienstedt: Well, that’s not so much a political statement as it is saying that, as other states have done, we need to bring this to the people, rather than have it decided by the judiciary or by the legislature… We need to let the people say what the reality of marriage is going to be. I don’t see that as that big of a political statement.
Crann: Let’s hear that, if we could.
Excerpt from Nienstedt in the DVD: The archdiocese believes that the time has come for voters to be presented directly with an amendment to our state constitution to preserve our historic understanding of marriage. In fact, this is the only way to put the one man, one woman definition of marriage beyond the reach of the courts and politicians.
Crann: Is that, in fact, a political statement?
Nienstedt: I don’t believe so, no. I think that’s a reasonable, common sense thing.
Crann: And you’re calling for something to be put to a vote. Isn’t that a political action?
Nienstedt: That is a political action, yes, but I think it also, in the context of the whole video, I think it makes sense.

What’s most interesting to me about this excerpt is is how explicitly it demonstrates the clash of frames between “teaching” and “politics.” According to Nienstedt, he and the bishops of Minnesota are simply exercising their pastoral role as bishops, teaching Catholics about the nature of marriage and, more specifically, the danger that same-sex marriage poses to society (which he specifically mentions earlier in the interview). Since they are being pastoral, the bishops are de facto not being political. Being political is not only bad because it would compromise their tax-exempt status; it is also bad because that which is political is not eternal – unlike “teaching,” which deals with “reality.”

That which is “political” is based on uncertainties; that which is “teaching” is based on certainties – at least, according to this worldview. Thus, that which is presented (or framed) in terms of “teaching” can be clear and certain, in contrast to the ambiguity of that which is merely “political.” So, calling for a political action like voting to define marriage as “one man, one woman” is not really political, because it’s based on something eternal – something “given from the work of creation by almighty God.”

This is the same basic assumption that motivates and justifies the oft-heard argument during election years that Catholics must simply “vote pro-life,” which always means voting for candidates who promise to overturn Roe v. Wade (regardless of whether the abortion rate is likelier to go down with another candidate). Abortion is a moral issue, not a political one, they tell us – as if the moral and political aren’t inescapably intertwined when it comes to electoral politics.

This disassociation between the moral and the political has dangerous consequences for religion in the public sphere, because by ignoring the complexity of politics, it leaves room for well-intentioned voters to be manipulated by behind-the-scenes power brokers – and, in the case of this DVD mailing, “anonymous” donors. It’s also dangerous because such supposedly timeless teachings can have very tragic, time-bound consequences – like the gay teen suicides reported on Minnesota Public Radio today in Archbishop Nienstedt’s own Twin Cities.


One thought on “The Clash of Frames in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

  1. I was happy to see that, at the end of your blog, you keyed in on what became obvious to me while reading your blog: (1) that the two frames of “teaching” and “politics” have significant overlap when “teaching” about social issues (issues that involve more than one person); and more so, (2) teaching about morality, since morality (always) involves interactions with others in a community.

    I’ve seen this issue with non-profit parachurch organizations. Their main objective is to teach, yet because of their non-profit status, they go to great lengths to clarify that they are not being political, lest they lose their non-profit status.

    In the sense we are entertaining in this blog, that seems futile. Yet, in another sense, maybe one can teach the moral position on certain issues, inform the voter what candidates stand for what and what bills stand for what, and then let the voters vote freely. “Bill 1234 is against God’s will; vote wisely.” Eh?

    Posted by Eric | December 28, 2010, 11:53 am

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