MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, May 24, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The Minnesota Catholic Conference has condemned attempts to “divide” Catholics in the state after three retired Catholic priests and 80 former priests penned letters criticizing the Catholic Church’s support for a state amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

In a letter originally sent to the Minnesota Star Tribune - which declined to publish it - and subsequently published by Minnesota Public Radio, retired Revs. John Brandes, Thomas Garvey, and Timothy Power said that the Minnesota Marriage Amendment, which will be on the November 2012 ballot, would “deny GLBTQ couples the right to pursue civil protection in their partnerships,” constituting discrimination which “should not be written into such a permanent document as our State Constitution.”

The three priests asked Catholics to remember that, “in our own parishes there are gay-lesbian couples who are strong active and faithful Catholics,” and argue that “there is not just one way for Catholics to vote in November.”

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Eighty former priests also lent their names to a statement urging voters to “exercise their fundamental right to follow their conscience and to resist discrimination against any of God’s children” by rejecting the amendment.

One of the signatories, Ed Flahavan, said he “cannot see how same-sex marriage is in any way a threat to my happy marriage,” and another, John Estrem, said it “grieve[d]” him to see the church “promoting systematic exclusion in society.”

But state Catholic leaders rejected the criticism. “We certainly anticipate unfortunate attempts by some to divide Catholics from their shepherds, their bishops, and while we think it’s unfortunate, we do recognize it’s only a small portion of the Catholic community,” Minnesota Catholic Conference Executive Director Jason Adkins said. “The vast majority of Catholics stand with their bishops and the teaching of the church regarding marriage and protecting marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”

The Conference also released a statement saying the dissenting priests “have now chosen to separate themselves from the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding marriage” and are failing their “responsibility to communicate Catholic teaching on this most fundamental matter.”

In a separate statement released on May 17, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis accused Brandes, Garvey, and Power’s letter of misrepresenting Catholic teaching on the issue.

“[T]he writers misunderstand what marriage is – a social reality that unites a man and a woman and any children born from their union,” the statement reads. “Marriage is a natural and universal human institution that government and religious communities recognize and affirm. To say that man-woman marriage is simply a religious view would be to falsely assert that the truth of marriage as a social reality does not apply to all persons and societies.”

The archdiocese also argued that the amendment does not threaten gay couples’ rights to “share or distribute property, direct medical care, visit loved ones in the hospital, or attend to personal needs at the point of death,” and affirmed that gay people are “beloved family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors,” against whom the Church will not tolerate discrimination.

In January, LifeSiteNews reported that Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of Saint Paul and Minneapolis told his clergy that uniformity on the issue was essential to the culture’s future, with priests under a “solid charge” to “defend all that the Church teaches.”

“Today we can say with clarity what the natural reality of marriage is,” Nienstedt said. “That may not be possible in years to come if we fail to be successful now.” 

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis told LifeSiteNews.com that the diocese had nothing to add to their statement provided to Minnesota Public Radio.