Friday, May 04, 2007

Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt's "Learning Curve"

A Suggested Trajectory . . .

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.

Much discussion

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).

Homosexuality 101

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?

Are you?

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”


Winnipeg Catholic said...

What the heck is going on in Minnesota?

I repeat - you're skills and tax dollars are welcome here in Massachusetts!

But we also have an orthodox Bishop. In fact, I really doubt one can become a bishop these days without being very orthodox. A lot of orthodox fols like that.

The way to thaw his heart is to find out when he is offering confessins and then line up in droves to confess the truth to him.

But then, I do think there has to be some middle ground between Courage & Dignity.

All the Best, -B

Peggy said...


Can you please clarify this for me:

"The way to thaw his heart is to find out when he is offering confessins and then line up in droves to confess the truth to him."

Anonymous said...

Mike: Catholics believe that the Catholic Church, as the one established by Jesus Christ, teaches the truth as Jesus commanded - I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. And the truth never changes. Only people's perception of the truth change. So if Bishop Nienstedt follows and professes the teachings of the Church to the letter, how can he be criticized for that. You can disagree with him or the teachings of the Church if you so choose, but you cannot and should not criticize him for what he does as the faithful minister of the Catholic Church and it's teachings. The ones who should be criticized are those who profess to be Catholics and refuse to accept the orthodox teachings of the Church.

Winnipeg Catholic said...


I don't understand what is wrong with that statement on any level or from any perspective, liberal, orthodox, or ultramontane. Reconciliation is a place to both speak and to be admonished. If the HS is working in someone and revealing a truth of consience that is in some way opposed to church teaching that is the place to work it out.

I challenge you to find a priest that would disagree. Even a super conservative one would likely welcome the opportunity to witness to a dissenter in the confessional.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks for your comment.

First, it’s “Michael,” not “Mike.” If your future comments use the latter, they will not be posted.

Second, we obviously have very different ideas and opinions on the meaning and nature of “the Church,” revelation, and authority. I simply haven’t the time or inclination to debate these things with you.

I will, however, say this: I agree with you that Ultimate Truth doesn’t change, but I disagree with you that the Roman Catholic Church has a monopoly on this Truth. The very thought of this is absurd. If, in your eyes, this makes me a “bad” Catholic, then so be it.

I’ve come to believe that the entire Body of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ, is what holds within itself Ultimate Truth.

And as Dorothy Day noted: “That the Mystical Body includes only the Roman Catholic Church is heresy. The Mystical Body [of Christ] is the inseparable oneness of the human race. . . . In all human creation, there is no one that does not have Christ within.”

Together as the Mystical Body of Christ, we are on a pilgrimage of discovery. We are continually discovering new aspects and dimensions of what it means to be fully human, and thus new depths of “the Truth.”

I’m not an absolutist. I don’t need to know that “my Church” has all the answers to every possible question, right at this moment in time. To claim that it does smacks of hubris – or, as some have termed it, “religious imperialism.”

I don’t subscribe to a model of revelation that sees truths handed down from on high — complete and unchangeable. For as Pope John XXIII reminded us, "We are not on Earth to guard a museum but to cultivate a flowering garden of life."

Such a statement implies that revelation filters upwards through human life and experience, that revelation is ongoing. It's a concept that is both wondrous and unsettling. Yet for those who need absolute answers for absolutely everything, it’s a concept that is extremely threatening.

Embracing the reality of ongoing revelation propels us out of our comfortable ghettos of formulated answers and into compassionate, and at times challenging, engagement with the world. Our tradition tells us that it is through such engagement that we are called to discern and incarnate the reign of God in every aspect of life.

I don’t believe that the current teaching of the Church with regard human sexuality reflects the whole truth about human sexuality. I think this is obvious to any reasonable person. For the vast majority of Catholics it is obvious. Hence the non-reception of much of what the institutional Church teaches about sexuality.

I have much more respect for those who dissent from teaching that, in good conscience, they cannot accept, than those others who unquestioningly profess obviously inadequate and flawed teaching from an institution that, in matters of human sexuality, has repeatedly shown itself to be intellectually dishonest and spiritually blind.

In closing, I believe that our rich, diverse, and evolving Catholic tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is not about fearful and unquestioning obedience to a monolithic and rigid hierarchy of institutional power – one that is mired in the “diseased system” of clericalism.

Rather, our tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is all about trustful openness to God’s transforming presence within and throughout the vast arena of human life and relationships.

Our responses of integrity and love to this presence trumps unquestioning obedience to the institutional Church – the function of which seems to be more about continuing itself in its current crystallized, opaque form, rather than being open to Spirit which blows where it wills.

And as Jesus reminds us: the form profits nothing. It’s the spirit that gives life.



Peggy said...


I didn't disagree with your previous comment, I simply wanted a clarification as to what you were saying.

When you said "the way to thaw his heart", were you referring to the bishop?

I'm not trying to be critical but I'm missing something.

Winnipeg Catholic said...

Hi Peggy,

To be honest I do not really know that much about your bishop so I am not trying to be critical of him at all. And I have plenty of sympathy for the virtue of obedience types who maintain that the bishop has a duty to represent the church. So if I hear someone complain about their priest or bishop being insensitive somehow without knowing anything about it, I would advocate the confessional as one means of communication. Very often both priest and penitent learn something.

Peggy said...

"...we obviously have very different ideas and opinions on the meaning and nature of “the Church,” revelation, and authority."


If you decide that two plus two equals five, does that make it so?

You're redefining terms to suit your agenda.

If everyone did that, there would be as many churches in the world as their are people.

Michael J. Bayly said...


We are a pilgrim Church still very much discerning and living the important realities of "the church," revelation, authority, etc.

Of course there's different meanings to these things; just as there's always been different schools of theology.

Even official Church documents present differing, sometimes conflicting, meanings. For e.g., the "Church as Institution," and the "Church as People of God."

These are two very different ways of understanding and thus being Church. Some would even say they're incompatible understandings. Given this, why are we surprised that there are tensions?

Yet maybe such tension is necessary, part of the pilgrimage we're on together?

I've come to consider such tensions as creative tensions, or growing pains of the Church. I don't fear them. The challenge isn't to deny or demonize them but to work through them with others (especially those with whom I disagree) in a spirit of openness, trust and compassion.

Most Catholics I know are open to being active participants in such a creative discerning and learning process - especially as it relates to matters of human sexuality. Yet other aspects of the Church, i.e., the Vatican, are not. Why is this?

I think part of the reason is to do with that "strange form of authoritarianism" identified by Gary Macy and others; an authoritarianism that's a relatively recent development within our tradition but which some try to project back onto the entire tradition. This is yet another cause of tension.

By the way, I'm not "redefining" anything. These differing understandings I refer to are all part of our Church's tradition - a tradition of diversity, as Macy and others have clearly demonstrated.

I sense you fear such diversity; that it somehow undermines your understanding/experience of "the Church."

I wish you peace.


Winnipeg Catholic said...

Hi Peggy,

Check out Andrew Sullivan's post here in his running debate with an atheist, Sam Harris:

It's great sabbath reading and it has nothing to do with homosexuality. But it has a lot to do with the # of great catholics we might chase away from the church if we're intolerant. And I must resonate with Michael. As Fr. Alison notes, we are all ignorant of the full truth of G-d, we tether our lifeline to the rock beyond the veil and do the best we can, all of us in error.

And frankly, I am quite proud and inspired that Fr. Alison and Andrew Sullivan profess to be catholics.

I also tend to have sympathy for those who wish to be ultramontane. But I agree with Michael in that these teachings we are touching upon are not defined infallible, they are fallible. And in this case I think that they are quite flawed, though they resonate with certain deeper truths. And at least for me, it's going to require actual gay persons deciding that the church is right for me to listen. I can't imagine straight people deciding for gay people that monogamous relationships are wrong for *all* of them somehow.

And there are what, .001 percent of heterosexuals who actually manage to achieve perfect chastity anyway? And would that small number of saintly heterosexuals succeed without the church pointing the way towards marriage? I doubt it. And I tire of the sexual self loathing in the church, and the scanty numbers of actual normal, sexual, parenting saints. I feel like a servant of celibates. I love my celebate pastors and would defend them like my mother, but I am tired of the flaws in article six of the catechism.

Let she with a free hand throw the first stone. As for me, you can have my stone, I'll be standing in front of a gay couple. Preferably that couple will be a chaste, monogamous gay couple. And I think that's where Jesus wants me in this particular stoning. He might also wish that I advocate for conservativism within gay chastity, I don't know yet. But I'm listening.

Hi Michael,

It seems a bit odd to me that St. Stephen's has a Deacon and no priest. Is it a bit of a rebel church?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Winnipeg Catholic,

Fr. Jon Shelley is the "sacramental minister" at St. Stephen's.



Anonymous said...

This bishop guy is coming today to our school to say mass. (cretin-derhamhall) i have hope that all will go well, but i am a little worried. To me his views are very off, and im hoping they dont affect todays service.