Written by Jeff Strickler, the article was misleadingly entitled: “Archbishop Nienstedt: His Own Man.” Why misleading? Well, on more than one occasion, the archbishop has made it clear that his controversial statements are not just his personal opinions but the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This is troubling, especially given that the archbishop is obligated to do more than just parrot the Catechism on such clearly unresolved issues in the church such as homosexuality. He’s called to listen and learn, to be open to new discoveries and to growth. In short, he’s called to be more than a gatekeeper for orthodoxy. He is called to be a profound spiritual leader, and such leaders must be open and responsive to God’s presence in the world and the people around them. That’s how anyone in a position of leadership can best inspire and lead others.
Below are excerpts from Strickler’s article (accompanied, in bold, by more of my thoughts).
Archbishop John Nienstedt: His Own Man
Archbishop John Nienstedt: His Own Man
Those who have worked with the new leader
of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
say he defies easy labeling.
of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
say he defies easy labeling.
By Jeff Strickler
May 11, 2008
May 11, 2008
John Nienstedt was greeted at the Chancery door by high hopes and no small measure of trepidation.
The man who on May 2 started his tenure as archbishop of the 650,000 Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis arrived with a moving van of preconceptions about him.
He was described as “rigid,” “ultra-conservative” and a “hard-liner.” Progressive parishes grew edgy as bloggers spread the word that he was out to “get them” and already was making a hit list of potential targets. Gay Catholic activists worried that hard-won programs would disappear.
[Actually, these “programs” have been disappearing for some time. (See David McCaffrey’s February 2008 article in The Progressive Catholic Voice, here.) Nevertheless, there is an increased chilling effect throughout the archdiocese since news of John Nienstedt’s appointment. Sadly, parishes are self-censoring themselves with regards to the gay issue. Such self-censorship may, in part, be in response to the chancery’s crackdown on St. Frances Cabrini parish, which was told last October that it could not host a CPCSM-sponsored talk by an 82-year-old cradle Catholic and his lesbian daughter. The two had just written a book entitled Are There Closets in Heaven? A Catholic Father and His Lesbian Daughter Share Their Story.
Also, when Paula Ruddy and I submitted material to The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis, in response to an editorial on homosexuality, we were told that the paper could not serve as a forum for dialogue on church teaching. There may not be closets in heaven, but it would seem that the new archbishop wants closets in the archdiocese – not just for gay people, but for anyone who talks about gay issues in ways that suggest support of gay folks and/or questioning of official church teaching about them.
For instance, just yesterday the Rev. Michael O’Connell, formerly of the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, was interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. At one point he was asked about the future of gay people in the church. He acknowledged that given the conservative shift in the church, it will be more difficult for gay people. Yet he insisted that the Basilica and his new parish will remain places where all are welcome. When asked about gay marriage, O’Connell said he couldn’t comment about such things in the forum of a public radio interview. He did acknowledge, however, that the question of gay marriage was one with which all religions are grappling.
Toward the end of the interview, O’Connell was asked if he felt free to say what he really feels about the gay issue. He responded that he does, but that he’s learned to choose his battles. He basically stepped inside a closet. Of course, he’s not the only church leader to do this. Sadly, it would seem that for many in positions of leadership, gay people are not worth “the battle.” And I say this with the utmost respect for all the good work that O’Connell and others have done in the church around a range of important issues – including gay issues. Yet without doubt, when push comes to shove, or in other words, when there’s an opportunity to go public and declare solidarity with and/or support for gay people, many balk. And the message that gay people get from this? We’re expendable.]
For Nienstedt, 61, who was used to a different pace and level of scrutiny as bishop in New Ulm, such an onslaught before he even figured out how to work the phone in his new office is frustrating. An avid hockey fan – he grew up in Detroit during the Gordie Howe era – Nienstedt feels as though he has been checked from behind.
He waited in the wings during a 10-month transition that ended nine days ago in the retirement of the gregarious Archbishop Harry Flynn. Now, as he ascends to the peak of his career so far and moves into a new office at the summit of Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Nienstedt has a simple request:
“All I’m asking is that people have an open mind. At least they should get to know me and see for themselves.” [A number of people have told me that they find this statement disingenuous. In relation to Nienstedt’s stance on gay issues, for instance, I and others have seen (and heard) more than enough. In April 2004, for example, Nienstedt (as Bishop of New Ulm) spearheaded the efforts of the Minnesota Catholic hierarchy to actively support the “marriage amendment” to the State Constitution. This amendment would not only have banned same-gender civil marriage but domestic partnerships and civil unions. Thankfully it was defeated.
And then there was Nienstedt’s October 2007 statement about how those who “actively encourage or promote” the “homosexual lifestyle” are themselves cooperating in a “grave evil.” Many parents and friends of gay people find such thinking and such words deeply hurtful and offensive. In light of all of this, I think the question for the new archbishop from gay Catholics and their families is: How much more do we need to know about you when it comes to your views and actions on an issue that greatly impacts us and those we love?]
He recalls his first taste of how different this job would be, on the day when Flynn introduced him as his coadjutor – an assistant and heir apparent. “The first morning I was here there was a press conference, and I thought everything went fine,” Nienstedt said. “But by the time I got back to New Ulm, people were digging through every talk I’d given looking for any little thing they could pick out.” [The new archbishop actually seems surprised by this! Which is itself surprising as it’s a legitimate way for people to “get to know” him, something he claims he wants them to do.]
The fact is, Nienstedt has taken some controversial positions and he’s not retreating from anything. Transcripts of his pastoral letters, homilies and speeches are still posted on the Diocese of New Ulm website – including those that brought a hue and cry from some quarters. He’s not shy about expressing his opinion on everything from same-sex unions to stem-cell research to later bar-closing times. (He’s opposed to all three.) [Of course, in relation to stem-cell research and same-sex unions, the archbishop would say (and has said) that it’s not his opinion so much as the church’s teaching on these issues that he’s expressing.
For instance, in his December 6, 2007 column in The Catholic Spirit, Nienstedt (then coadjutor archbishop) stated: “My duty before God as a priest and as a bishop is to set forth, with clarity and conviction, the truth as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and as it has been handed down throughout the church’s history . . . I know that my eternal salvation as well as that of those whom I serve depends on how well and with what clarity I preach and teach the truth. I ought never do so without forethought. But I also ought not do so by way of compromise, no matter how difficult the truth may be perceived by the hearer.”
To which the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice responded:
“We are not asking you, as you fear, to compromise truth. Truth is discovered through time. Tradition evolves. The Church is currently teaching in Section 2358 of the Catechism, that homosexuals should be treated with compassion and sensitivity. That represents evolution of the tradition. There is no reason that the moral teaching on this matter of ‘intrinsic disorder’ should not evolve further, and there is plenty of scientific evidence and moral/pastoral reasoning that it should evolve quickly.
“Your duty as a bishop to be a stand-in for Christ, which you have quoted from Lumen Gentium, is an awesome responsibility. Doesn’t it stand to reason that a duty of such magnitude requires from you more than insisting on a formulation of moral teaching that is widely questioned by faithful people who are earnestly seeking to live moral lives? Doesn’t a duty of such magnitude include having the imagination and sensitivity to discuss, at least, a moral teaching that many clearly see as being out of line with Christ’s admonition to love one another?
“Our duty to listen to you is also an awesome one. We think it requires more than just being ‘yes’ persons. We take our duty seriously in trying to reason with you about this teaching that impacts so many lives. These GLBT people are our loved ones, our children. We rejoice with them in their finding partners to support them in living good lives. We believe we also stand as Christ through our baptism and our Christian life. We believe that on every moral issue we have to study the pertinent facts, reason about their implications, and consult the experience of those who are most impacted by the teaching. Do you agree with this method of arriving at moral positions? And if not, why?”]
[T]hose who know Nienstedt best say he will confound anyone who tries to pigeonhole him.
“This is not a man you can put into a box,” said Mark Kemmeter, his chief of staff in New Ulm. “He’s much too complex for that. I suppose that you could say that he’s theologically conservative and pastorally progressive, but Archbishop Nienstedt ultimately will defy any label you try to put on him.”
. . . No shortage of leadership challenges face any new archbishop. But Nienstedt assumes the role at a time when American archbishops often are caught in the middle of an increasingly conservative Vatican hierarchy and a sometimes rebellious American Catholic Church.
When Flynn ordered an end to lay preaching at mass this year, it was Nienstedt who was publicly rebuked. Among the most vocal: members of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis, who recanted their statements about him when they learned other churches in other dioceses received the same edict.
Asked why he never defended himself, Nienstedt shrugged his shoulders. “Change can be very difficult for some people,” he said. [Yes, especially when it’s forced upon a community without this community’s input. See here.]
Although he has not met Nienstedt, Michael Bayly, executive coordinator for the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, predicts that the archbishop will provoke more vocal dissent.
“I think his [forceful] approach is going to make all Catholics take a stand,” said Bayly, who also publishes the online Progressive Catholic Voice and runs The Wild Reed blog. “I think more people will be willing to stand up and say, ‘No, you’re wrong.’” [In saying this I was thinking in particular of the 300+ people who attended last December’s “Vigil of Solidarity for LGBT Catholics” on the steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul. They were there to express their disagreement with the archbishop’s statements on homosexuality. More recently, I’ve heard that when Archbishop Nienstedt has celebrated Mass at local Catholic high schools, there have been some students who have taken it upon themselves to either refuse to attend or attend wearing rainbow ribbons as a sign of solidarity with LGBT persons. And in yet another example of Catholics standing up and saying, “No!,” a parish has opted to withhold a certain percent of its money from the archdiocese until it is allowed to resume lay preaching. This practice, both popular and meaningful in a number of parishes was recently banned by Nienstedt’s predecessor - a ban that Nienstedt supports and, who knows, perhaps encouraged during his tenure as coadjutor archbishop.]
Reacting to Nienstedt’s opposition to gay relationships, Catholic Rainbow Parents said his stance “gives license to hatred and violence against all of us.”
None of this has sent Nienstedt into hiding. Just the opposite: He has been on a mission to visit as many parishes, schools and retirement homes as he can.
“I’m on the road a lot. I want to meet the priests and pastoral leaders. A diocese is only as strong as its parishes.”
During his time in New Ulm, he preferred to lead by consensus[!], Kemmeter said. When that diocese, like many, needed to close parishes, he insisted that the people affected make the decisions. “He got all the priests together and discussed it,” he said. More discussion ensued before they worked through 15 drafts of a report. [There are many others who have very different experiences of John Nienstedt’s leadership style, so much so that I question Kemmeter’s contention that Nienstedt “preferred to lead by consensus” when in New Ulm.]
“You can have a disagreement with him and still enjoy a meal together afterwards,” said the Rev. Douglas Grams, Nienstedt’s vicar general in New Ulm who has been filling in there. He said Nienstedt will tell you what he thinks, not what he thinks you want to hear.
Nienstedt will face plenty of difficult issues. Part of the tension between the Vatican and U.S. Roman Catholics is because many Americans want to expand involvement by women and give laity more input into decision-making. Last year’s reinstatement of the Latin mass revived complaints of anti-Semitism. There are lingering concerns from the clergy sex abuse scandal.
Closer to home, Nienstedt sees three core challenges: establishing trust with the priests in the archdiocese, restructuring a downsized staff at the chancery and reducing the archdiocese’s debt level. The annual Catholic Appeal remains $1 million short of its $9 million goal. [I predict that the amount of this shortfall will only increase.]
Although some observers have opined that Nienstedt might end up back in Rome – speculation based mostly on the fact he studied there – Nienstedt insists that he’s in the Twin Cities for the long haul. [I find the archbishop’s naivety with regards his future rather embarrassing. Of course he’ll end up somewhere else. He’s the quintessential “company man” and is, I’m sure, destined for a place higher up on the company ladder.]
“I plan to retire here,” he said. “I plan to be buried here. I made the mistake of telling that to my mother, who was upset that I wasn’t going to be buried in the family plot. But I truly believe that a bishop’s place is with his parishioners, in death as well as life.”
To read Jeff Strickler’s article in its entirety, click here.
Following is a May 17 letter to the editor of the Star Tribune from Brian Willette, president of Call to Action Minnesota, in response to Jeff Strickler’s article on Archbishop Nienstedt:
On May 2, Archbishop John Nienstedt became the official archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He does not come from the local faith community here. The local faith community had little, if any say in his coming. He was selected and sent here by the institutional part of the Catholic Church – the Roman Curia with Pope Benedict’s approval.
With the new archbishop’s arrival, there is a crucial question in the air. This crucial question directly affects Catholics living here, but it also less directly affects others who call Metro Minnesota home – other Christians, people of other faith’s traditions and even non-believers.
The question is this: Will Archbishop Nienstedt be a servant leader supporting the local faith community as it strives to live fuller lives in the Christ Spirit, or will he primarily function like a Roman governor sent to impose man-made institutional laws?
We pray for the former. Regarding the latter, we watch with concern.
Update: Abigail Garner of the blogsite Damn Straight has posted the LGBT segment of Michael O’Connell’s interview on MPR. It’s definitely worth taking a look at, and I appreciate Abigail’s commentary on the wider issues at stake for LGBT people.
I recognize that Father O’Connell is limited in what he can say, and I doubt he would think it some great revelation to hear me say that the key to “dignity” is not that tricky. Stop the spiritual violence. Stop the conditional love that hangs over the heads of LGBT people when they step into a sanctuary.
Sadly, the Basilica’s website has removed specific references to “Boulevards” (the LGBT outreach/support/social group) [an example of the self-censorship I mentioned above!] and only has a phone number for you to call for help to meet with someone to “grow in knowledge and understanding.”
At some point, even the most patient and faithful LGBT people grow weary of “dialog.” At some point, LGBT people want communities of faith that will move beyond the presumed “pain” and re-frame their faith community as a place where everyone can bring their joy, too.
Also worth reading is Mary Lynn Murphy’s article, The Fear Factor, in the May 2008 issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice.
Image 1: Official portrait of John C. Nienstedt from the Diocese of New Ulm website.
Image 2: Archbishop John C. Nienstedt speaking during a sermon at John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Brighton, Wednesday, May 6, 2008. (Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune)
See also the previous Wild Reed posts
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
Interesting Times Ahead
An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt
Nienstedt’s “Trauma of His Own”
300+ People Vigil at the Cathedral in Solidarity with LGBT Catholics
Why We Gathered
NCR’s Coverage of December 2 “Vigil for Solidarity”
Local Media Coverage of December 2 Vigil Falls Short
Far from Innocuous
My Advent Prayer for the Church
The Talk of the Archdiocese