Lesson 1: Homosexuality 101
Lesson 2: Diversity: The “True Tradition” of the Church
Last week it was announced that New Ulm Bishop John Nienstedt (pictured above at right) had been appointed by the Vatican to be the successor of St. Paul/Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn (pictured above at left).
Nienstedt will serve as “coadjutor archbishop” until Flynn’s retirement, the date of which has yet to be announced. As coadjutor archbishop, Nienstedt will share with Flynn the various duties related to the governance, administration, and pastoral ministry of the archdiocese.
Since the announcement of the appointment, there has been much discussion among Catholics about the implications for the archdiocese of Nienstedt’s leadership style. It’s common knowledge that John Nienstedt holds views and opinions generally termed “conservative.” Archbishop Flynn, on the other hand, is viewed by many as a moderate. Under his leadership, for instance, a diversity of worship styles has been tolerated within the archdiocese – from the traditionalist practices of the Church of St. Agnes, to the “liberal” practices of parishes such as St. Joan of Arc.
How will the more liberal communities fare under the new archbishop? Will it be a time of “cracking down” and “reining in”? Some are obviously hoping so, and welcome Nienstedt as “someone who plays by the rules and doesn’t bend them to please every crowd,” someone who will give the archdiocese “a good house cleaning.” Others have responded to the news of Nienstedt’s appointment with dismay and apprehension.
“I expect disaster,” retired priest Kenneth Irrgang is quoted as saying in an article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “[Nienstedt] is a micro-manager. He has to control everything. He hews the line from the Vatican without question whatsoever. He’s not a very good people person.”
Others disagree. “Bishop Niensted is a consummate man of the Church,” says the Rev. Philip M. Schotzko of the Church of St. Peter in St. Peter, Minnesota. “He thinks with, prays with, and loves the Church with everything he’s got. He just follows very carefully the teachings and all aspects of Church theology and moral teaching. You’ll get a very committed man in that way.”
Both Irrgang and Schotzko are quoted in David Hanners April 25 Pioneer Press article on the appointment of Nienstedt. While acknowledging that “some in New Ulm lauded [Nienstedt] as an able administrator and liturgist,” Hanners also reports that “some of his actions have rankled his own priests and parishioners in the diocese he has led since August 2001.”
“For instance,” writes Hanners, “soon after being named bishop of New Ulm, [Nienstedt] condemned some of the theological views of the man who had the post before him for 25 years, Bishop Raymond Lucker, a noted progressive clergyman who died in 2001. Denouncing his predecessor’s views was an ‘extraordinary step,’ the National Catholic Reporter noted in an article on the incident.”
Hanners goes on to note that, “As bishop in New Ulm, Nienstedt prohibited cohabitating couples from being married in Catholic churches. He barred female pastoral administrators from leading prayers at a semi-annual leadership event. He once disciplined a priest for holding joint ecumenical services with a Lutheran congregation after the Catholic church [in the priest’s town] had been destroyed by a tornado.”
A learning curve
Such controversial matters appear to be off-limits in the coverage of Nienstedt’s appointment by The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese. Instead, writers such as Maria Wiering simply note that “those who know Nienstedt say he is ‘patient,’ ‘honest,’ and loves to snow ski.”
In another Catholic Spirit article about Nienstedt’s appointment, Julie Carroll reports that the new coadjutor’s “first priority will be to learn what makes the archdiocese tick.”
Neinstedt himself stressed this priority when, during a news conference last week, he declared: “I see myself as a learner. I’ll come here, I’ll listen, I’ll talk to people . . . This next year will be a sharp learning curve for me.”
Well, that certainly sounds promising.
I’d like to suggest a couple of topics of study for the new coadjutor archbishop (and his supporters, as well).
First: homosexuality. I'm sorry to say that judging from what Nienstedt has said about homosexuality in his regular column, “And Miles to Go,” in the New Ulm diocese’s newsletter, he truly has “miles to go” in grasping and articulating a credible (not to mention, pastorally sensitive) understanding of this particular aspect of human sexuality.
Neinstedt, for instance, has expressed the view that people become gay or lesbian as “a result of psychological trauma” when a child between the ages of eighteen months and three years. Furthermore, homosexuality, according to Neinstedt, “must be understood in the context of other human disorders: envy, malice, greed, etc.” He also advised parishioners to avoid the film Brokeback Mountain, which he bizarrely describes as “a story of lust gone bad.” (As if lust on its own isn’t already understood by the Church as “bad”!)
If Neinstedt really is dedicated to listening and learning, then I urge him to make a start by getting to know local Catholic parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. In 2005, many of these parents formed a grassroots Catholic organization and issued a pastoral statement entitled, The Catholic Rainbow Parents Declaration. These parents would be more than happy to share with the new coadjutor archbishop the wisdom and love they’ve experienced and gained as the result of being parents of LGBT persons.
Such wisdom stands in stark contrast to Nienstedt’s ill-informed views on homosexuality noted in Hanners’ April 25 article. These views shocked, saddened, angered, and embarrassed local Catholic parents of LGBT persons (not to mention LGBT persons themselves).
Nienstedt’s views also prompted the following May 1 letter-to-the-editor by St. Paul resident Margaret Klempay:
For Catholics, the Second Vatican Council was a beacon of hope. In its decrees, church leaders embraced the challenges of an ever-changing civilization with all its demands, insights, unknowns and discoveries, confident in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, this confidence seems to be lacking in the newly appointed Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt, especially as he confronts the status of homosexual persons in the church. Attributing homosexual orientation to a trauma undergone by a child between 18 months and 3 years old lacks any shred of scientific credibility. Equating homosexual orientation with greed and malice seems to be more a fearful reaction to the unknown rather than a confident openness to a pastoral challenge.
Should Catholics not be concerned about the imposition of a leader who appears to be fearful of the future while he clings to the comfort of the past?
Others, of course, relish the thought of a return to pre-Vatican II formality and orthodoxy – which they see embodied in John Nienstedt. Take for example, the following comments left on the Pioneer Press website in response to David Hanners April 25 article:
Thanks be to God for our new Bishop Nienstedt. He will be a welcome change for the [arch]diocese. The 60s are dead, let’s move forward [or backwards, as the case may be].
Bless the Lord! A Bishop without a limp wrist, but more importantly without a limp spine. [Ouch! What’s this person insinuating about Archbishop Flynn? And must he/she do so in such a homophobic way? I mean, “limp wrist”!?]
The Church is the Church and with it comes its theology. For those who don’t like it there are other, more liberal denominations waiting to welcome you.
As you can see, many are gleefully anticipating that the new archbishop will crack down on Catholic parishes and organizations that are not toeing the traditionalist line. In the eyes of these so-called conservatives, such communities are not authentically Catholic.
Accordingly, the individuals who comprise such communities better shape up or get out and leave the “true believers” in peace with their rigid, calcified understanding of “the Church” – an understanding that sees the Church, supposedly by its very tradition, incapable of growth and change.
But wait! Such a reactionary and fearful perspective is not only very sad and pathetic, it’s also a terrible and tragic betrayal of our richly diverse Catholic tradition.
Diversity in the Catholic Church?!, I can well hear some exclaim, Surely, Michael, you jest?
Yet before you dismiss such an outlandish contention, let me share the findings and insights of scholar Gary Macy. And think of these insights as comprising the content of Lesson 2 of that “learning curve” to which Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt has committed himself.
Diversity: The true tradition of the Church
In his book, Treasures from the Storeroom: Medieval Religion and the Eucharist, Macy reveals the long-held theology within the Church that recognizes and celebrates “each generation of Christians as equally graced by God, each striving to fulfill God’s will as they understand it. Each generation failing, misunderstanding, or succeeding as much as we do [today].”
“If this theological approach is correct,” says Macy, “then the past seems not so much a simple path leading (how reassuring!) right to our doorstep, but rather many paths attempting to find their way to God. Perhaps not surprisingly, seen from this perspective, the past may well be more tolerant of diversity than some scholars have led us to believe.”
The upshot of all of this, and its connection to current events in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis?
Well, according to Macy, “the discovery of such diversity suggests two theological conclusions. First . . . is the well-founded belief that our true tradition is diversity itself.”
“To be tolerant is a substantial part of our better Christian heritage,” insists Macy. Furthermore, “If there was diversity in the past, and that diversity was tolerated, then the best way to truly honor the past is to foster such diversity in the present.”
“Secondly,” continues Macy, “this understanding of the history of Christianity frees us in the present from a tremendous burden. If the past did not lead ineffably to us, then the future does not absolutely depend upon us ‘getting it right’ either (whatever that might mean to different groups). We are surely called to do and live by, to the best of our ability, what we determine to be God’s will (just as those in the past were supposed to do).”
Macy also notes, no doubt much to the chagrin of those who can’t wait for the “liberals” within the Church to pack up and move out, that “in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a truly autocratic notion of Church was propagated with great success and then read back into the rest of Christian Catholic history. [In the] twenty-first century we are still wrestling with this terrifically successful campaign of misinformation.”
Yes, and here in Minnesota this “wrestling” will undoubtedly intensify with the appointment of John Nienstedt, a man known to be very much committed to this “autocratic notion of Church.”
Yet in the midst of such doom and gloom some are finding, albeit ironic, signs of hope. Tom Murr, for instance, a lifelong Catholic and co-founder of Catholic Rainbow Parents, recently shared with me his opinion that the appointment of John Neinstedt is simply one more indication that the institutional Church has chosen to enter into “self-destruct mode.”
Of course, this makes perfect sense when we consider how it was the institutional Church (i.e., the Vatican) that created and continues to fuel that “campaign of misinformation” identified by Macy. It also makes perfect sense when we consider how stubbornly the Vatican and its supporters have denied and sectioned themselves off from the authentic Catholic tradition of diversity and tolerance. Let us also not forget their failure to adopt an attitude of trusting openness to the Holy Spirit present and active throughout all aspects of the people of God, an attitude upon which the Church’s “true tradition” of diversity depends.
A “strange form of authoritarianism”
Yet what is the theological basis for the Church’s “official” aversion to diversity? It’s certainly not the theology of our forebears, who as Macy documents, embraced a theological tradition which recognized “each generation of Christians [as being] equally graced by God, [and] striving to fulfill God’s will as they understand it.”
No, the theology that today’s so-called traditionalists embrace is far more narrow, prescriptive, and authoritarian. Macy describes it as the ‘Big Book of Doctrine’ school of theology.
“This strange form of authoritarianism,” says Macy when describing this particular school of theology, “fomented both by the ultra-montanism of the late nineteenth-century papacy and by Enlightenment anti-clericalism, understands Roman Catholicism as fundamentally an attempt to provide the definitive answers to all questions, usually in one ‘big book of doctrine,’ whether it be Thomas’s Summa, Denzinger’s Enchiridion, or lately the Roman Catechism of the Universal Church.”
So think about it: those being pushed out of the Church for being open to and tolerant of diversity are actually more attuned to the true tradition of Catholicism than the so-called traditionalists doing the pushing!
Of course, these traditionalists, these defenders of the “autocratic notion of Church,” do not see their efforts as misguided or ultimately self-destructive. I have no doubt, however, that many of them do believe that a smaller, more homogeneous Church - one dedicated to the ‘Big Book of Doctrine’ school of theology - would be better than a Church that welcomes and encourages diversity.
Accordingly, efforts to “crack down” on parishes that aren’t up to their standards – to the extent that people are compelled to leave and join other denominations – may well be part of a plan to establish a “remnant” of “true believers,” or perhaps more accurately, a “leaner/meaner” style of Church. Yet would such a Church be “Catholic”? Our history, our very tradition says no, it would not. And why not? Because it would lack diversity.
A prayer and a challenge
My prayer is that John Nienstedt will reject any misguided efforts to forge a “leaner/meaner” style of Church. May he instead be open to seeking and nurturing our living, evolving Catholic Church’s “true tradition” of diversity.
I also pray that there will be folks within the archdiocese willing to connect and share with our new coadjutor the theological and pastoral insights and the spiritual gifts they’ve gained as a result of their embodiment of this tradition of diversity. Believe me, there are many of us out there.
My sense is that it’s going to be quite some “learning [and teaching] curve” for more people than just the new coadjutor archbishop in St. Paul/Minneapolis if we want to see a Catholic Church that lives up to its true tradition - a tradition of diversity.
I’m up for the challenge.
So are, among others, the Catholic Rainbow Parents.
Is Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt?
Image 1: Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune.
Image 2: David McCaffrey.
Special thanks to my friend Eduard for bringing Gary Macy’s book to my attention.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Who Gets to be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
A Not So “New” Catholic University
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”