Friday, November 30, 2007

Out and About - November 2007

Above: Standing with my friend Jacques in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol – Friday, November 2, 2007.

I visited Jacques in Madison while on my way to Milwaukee for the Call to Action National Conference.

Above: The focus of this year’s national conference of the Catholic reform movement known as Call to Action, was “From Racism to Reconciliation: Church Beyond Power and Privilege.”

Above: Journalist, author and commentator Richard Rodriguez chats with Sister Jeannine Gramick.

Rodriguez, acclaimed author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2003), Hunger of Memory (1983), and Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992), was one of the conference’s plenary speakers.

Writing about Rodriguez's talk for the December issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice, my friends Tom and Darlene White note:

The scandal of the [institutional] church, as [Richard Rodriguez] sees it, is: “They know not love . . . to love would mean to become a learning church not a teaching church.”

He finished his presentation by telling us something about Jim, his partner of 20+ years. A street person, an older man named Phil, would frequently approach Jim for money outside the bookstore Jim owned. Jim always obliged, though he knew it made some customers uncomfortable. As Phil lay dying, Jim visited him in the hospital and these are the last words Phil shared with his benefactor: “I used to think you gave me money because you wanted sex. Then I thought you gave me money because you wanted drugs. Now I know: it was because of Jesus!”

Hopefully, more and more of our own stories are lived out “because of Jesus.”

Above: Dolores Huerta, the co-founder with the late César Chávez and the late Philip Vera Cruz of the United Farm Workers of America, was honored with Call to Action’s 2007 Leadership Award.

Above: On the evening of Sunday, November 18, a number of concerned Catholics gathered at The House of the Beloved Disciple for a special meeting to discuss and strategize a response to Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt’s comments on homosexuality in the November 15 issue of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

From this initial meeting was born the idea to hold a “Vigil of Solidarity” with LGBT Catholics, their families, and supporters.

Above: Another planning meeting – this one in the small theater of the Arcadia Café in Minneapolis! – Sunday, November 25, 2007.

Above: Celebrating Thanksgiving with my friends (clockwise from left) Sue Ann, Ken, Carol, Paul, Cass and Kerry.

Above and below: Blooms in my back garden, wilting in the cold air of approaching winter. They still hold a certain beauty, though, don’t you think? I hope I can age (and fade) as gracefully.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Back in the USA
It Sure Was Cold!
An Energizing and Spirited Weekend
Out and About – April 2007
Out and About – May 2007
Out and About – June 2007
Out and About – July 2007
Out and About – August 2007
Out and About – September 2007
Out and About – October 2007

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Nienstedt's "Trauma of His Own"

Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman has weighed in on Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt’s recent comments on homosexuality.

In writing his op-ed for today’s issue of the Star Tribune, Coleman interviewed two friends of mine, Mary Lynn Murphy and Brian McNeill. He also interviewed St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese spokesperson Dennis McGrath, who attempts one of the lamest and most nonsensical clarifications I’ve ever heard.

Actually, I feel sorry for McGrath. It must be the job from hell to be the spin doctor for the regime being ushered in by John Nienstedt. I’ve spoken to a number of people working within the archdiocese - including priests. Morale is at an all time low.

Anyway, following is Coleman’s commentary, which, as of 8:30 this morning, is one of the newspaper’s most e-mailed stories of the day!


Future Archbishop’s Compassion Stops Short When it Comes to Gays
By Nick Coleman
Star Tribune
November 27, 2007

John Nienstedt, Coadjutor Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, has been quoted as saying he believes homosexuality is the result of some kind of childhood trauma. Today, he is inflicting trauma of his own.

That’s the opinion of many Catholic friends and relatives of gay and lesbian people in the Twin Cities. They say they have been wounded and angered by comments Nienstedt made about homosexuals in the Nov. 15 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the archdiocese.

“Those who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts or such activity within a homosexual lifestyle formally cooperate in a grave evil,” wrote Nienstedt, who is scheduled to succeed retiring Archbishop Harry Flynn in May. “If they do so knowingly and willingly, [they] are guilty of mortal sin.”

Nienstedt went on to set three conditions for such church members to receive communion: They must experience a “conversion of heart,” express “sorrow for their action” and receive absolution from a priest.

His views, a church spokesman said, merely reflect Catholic teachings as delineated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church which also requires individual homosexuals to be accepted with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

The catechism, in my reading, says homosexual acts cannot be approved but does not label them a “grave evil.” Homosexuals, like all baptized persons, are “called to chastity.” But somehow, the sins of homosexuals always get denounced before the sins of straight people. And if gays must be accepted with compassion and respect, those qualities seem notably missing from Nienstedt’s statement.

“He’s the only archbishop in the country to put this aggressive of a spin on Catholic teaching,” says Mary Lynn Murphy of Catholic Rainbow Parents. “We knew he was very conservative, but people had hoped that he wanted to bring people together. Then, right out of the chute, he fired this cannon. It’s extreme talk, and it gives license not just to homophobia but even to violence. This bishop says gays are ‘evil.’”

Dennis McGrath, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Nienstedt’s comments were not aimed at families of gays, or at individual homosexuals.

“It was about the sin, the activity – not the person,” McGrath said. “He didn’t mean you must stop loving your child. But if you say, ‘Why don’t you go hit the gay bars tonight? . . . ’ He was talking about those who encourage or promote homosexual activities, like a pornographer might.”

But as Nienstedt prepares to succeed Flynn, who tried to steer a less confrontational course, gay Catholics and their families are feeling more and more isolated.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” says Brian McNeill of Dignity Twin Cities, a group of gay Catholics who have been pushing for acceptance in the church. “They want us to go away, to make the church so hostile for the gay and lesbian community that we won’t want to be there anymore.

“And it is working.”

Maybe so, but McNeill and other members of the extended GLBT family in the church aren’t giving up yet.

This Sunday, they plan to hold a 2 p.m. vigil on the steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul to demonstrate against Nienstedt’s comments, and to deliver an open letter to the Chancery, across Summit Avenue from the Cathedral.

For Mary Lynn Murphy, who has been cursed, spat at and manhandled by good churchgoers in the past as she demonstrated on behalf of her grown gay son, it is important to speak up and show up.

“It is a human right to express your sexuality,” says Murphy, who met last week with Catholic parents of gays who were in tears over Nienstedt’s statements on homosexuality.

“They are being tormented by a church that is driving a wedge between parent and child,” Murphy said. “They believe they are being asked to choose between loving their church and loving their child. And they are furious. For the most prominent religious leader in the state to use that kind of language, well, it brings shame on him.”

To read Nick Coleman’s commentary on the Star Tribune website, click here.


December 4 Update: In the past few days there have been a number of letters-to-the-editor in response to Nick Coleman’s November 28 Star Tribune commentary.

Following is a selection of these letters.

A higher standard

Thank you, Nick Coleman, for your Nov. 28 column speaking out on behalf of Catholic homosexuals and their families in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. While deeply troubled with the incoming archbishop’s editorial on homosexuality, I am amazed and humored at the comments of archdiocesan spokesman Dennis McGrath about the gay bars.

I have, on occasion, joined friends at the Gay ’90s for a “social beverage”; and, being a church musician, I have also been in sacristies, rectories and choir lofts. Guess where I have experienced the most sexual advances?

The Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, desperately need to reexamine their understanding of and teachings on human sexuality. It’s time for biblical scholars and sacramental theologians – men and women – from a diversity of disciplines to take a step out of the 16th century and dare to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to the churches in the Third Millennium. As human beings, all made in the image and likeness of God, we need to stand together and call our religious leaders to a higher standard of compassionate leadership.

Lalonne Murphy
November 30, 2007

Children first

If the institution of the Catholic Church had been half as concerned about the safety of children over the years as it is about the sex lives of consenting adults, perhaps our whole society would be better off. It amazes me that an institution that has behaved with criminal recklessness and negligence for decades would dare to lecture anyone about his or her personal morality, and it amazes me even more that anyone would listen.

I suggest that the archbishop remove the log from his own eye before he worries about the speck in others’.

Mike Bailey
November 30, 2007

Archbishop responds

In a Nov. 28 column, Nick Coleman accuses me of not being compassionate toward friends and relatives of persons with same-sex attractions. I vigorously deny the charge. For 13 years I prepared priesthood candidates for celebrating the Sacrament of Penance by counseling them to welcome persons with warmth, compassion and understanding. Anyone who has celebrated that same sacrament with me knows I follow my own advice.

What Coleman wants is for the church I represent to be accepting and compassionate toward homosexual acts and lifestyles. And that can never be.

Coleman further claims the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say that homosexual acts are a “grave evil.” What it does say is the following: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (Genesis 19: 1-29, Romans 1: 24-27, 1 Corinthians 6: 10, 1 Timothy 1:10), tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ . . . Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

As a priest and bishop, I have the responsibility before God and in the name of Jesus Christ to call all men and women to conversion, the first step of which is recognizing sinful activity for what it is. Sometimes that is not a comfortable thing to do, but it is always the compassionate thing to do.

John C. Nienstedt
St. Paul
Coadjutor Archcbishop
Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
November 30, 2007

Picking and choosing

In his Nov. 30 letter to the editor, Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt cites four verses from the Bible and concludes that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and under no circumstances can they be approved.” Well, the Bible has much to say about divorce as well. Are the Catholic Church’s grounds for granting an annulment consistent with what the Bible has to say? The church is picking and choosing what it wants to uphold in the Bible.

Mark Bisignani
November 30, 2007

What would Jesus say?

Did any other reader notice that in Archbishop Nienstedt’s response to Nick Coleman’s Nov. 28 column regarding the church’s and the archbishop's lack of compassion toward gays, none of Nienstedt’s biblical references included a direct statement by Jesus?

There of course is a reason for that, leaving open the question: What would Jesus say? Many of us Christians faithfully believe that Jesus would be open, and, yes, compassionate and accepting toward his homosexual brethren.

Howard Herbst
Minnesota Lake
November 30, 2007

What compassion?

It would be much easier to have patience with the Catholic Church’s official stance on homosexuality if one were to see evidence of its caring and acceptance.

We know that about 10 percent of our children are not heterosexual. Where is the church when it’s time to teach them how to handle the challenges of that compassionate “call to celibacy”? If adult seminarians, who choose celibacy, are supported in that difficult decision, why doesn’t the church provide support for our children who enter puberty and find out they’re not heterosexual?

It’s pretty hard to believe in caring and acceptance when the real message is “Don’t tell! Hide or leave!” Quoting St. Paul is easy; taking real action to help real human beings is much tougher.

Furthermore, it’s time to stop saying “lifestyle.” If we mean “promiscuity,” let’s say that. I think we could achieve general agreement that promiscuity harms people. Sincere, adult, committed relationships strengthen people, regardless of the sexual identities God gave them.

Mary Hudson
New Hope, MN
December 4, 2007

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
Interesting Times Ahead
Monitoring Nienstedt
Choosing to Stay
Local Archdiocese’s Misstep Makes National News

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt

As a member of The Progressive Catholic Voice editorial team, I was honored to contribute to the writing of the following open letter to Archbishop Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis (pictured above).


An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt
Concerning His Recent Comments on Homosexuality

November 21, 2007

Dear Archbishop Nienstedt:

Your November 15 column in The Catholic Spirit on homosexuality leaves us grief-stricken and questioning.

We cannot accept your teaching on this matter.

Your first point is that the US bishops are concerned that Catholics might get “confused about what is right and wrong according to the teachings of the Church, prompting them to endorse or even to commit immoral behavior.” Because of this concern, homosexuals in partnered relationships may not get awards, honors or be allowed to speak in a Catholic church.

Our question is: Is it Church teaching that right and wrong are determined by the bishops? We believe that moral positions emerge by discernment from the experience of the faithful as a whole in dialogue with scientific and philosophical communities of inquiry. From our study, as well as our experience as homosexual people, as parents of homosexual people, and as staunch supporters of people who are seeking to live a life of goodness and love, we see homosexuality as one of many good ways to develop our human capacities to love as a preparation for receiving the gift of divine life. Please clarify this for us. Do bishops by their elevation have an infusion of knowledge of right and wrong in all areas?

Your second point is that “those who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts or such activity within a homosexual lifestyle formally cooperate in a grave evil and if they do so knowingly and willingly, are guilty of mortal sin. They have broken communion with the church and are prohibited from receiving holy Communion until they have had a conversion of heart, expressed sorrow for their action and received sacramental absolution from a priest.”

By the threat of sin, you have divided parents from children, family members and members of loving communities from each other. Many of us are not affected by your words because we firmly believe that homosexual love is, as all love is, of God. But upon others who are still struggling with Roman Catholic Church teaching on this subject, you have placed an intolerable burden.

For all of us the vagueness of the statement renders it absurd. We are sad to see our leadership in such a position. Is it a mortal sin if we support our homosexual family members and friends in loving, partnered relationships? May we have them to dinner? May we worship with them? May we take care of their children when they need us? May we tell them that we love them and are very happy that they are happy?

Are we not to allow lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons who accept and express their sexuality, or their supportive families and friends, to engage in any of the following activities: 1) work for us if we are employers, 2) rent from us as landowners, 3) secure loans from us if we are bankers, 4) take classes from us or attend our schools if we are educators, 5) engage in business with us if we own or operate a business, or 6) utilize public accommodations or public services if our jobs give us responsibilities over the usage of these public services?

To engage with LGBT persons in any of these above ways certainly could be construed as “encouraging” or “promoting” their “homosexual lifestyles”; yet, to refuse LGBT persons access to any of these activities or services would be in direct violation of Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, which has protected them from discrimination based upon sexual or affectional orientation since 1993. Such an interpretation of your recent statement would create much confusion and cause extreme stress for the faithful. Please explain to us what your statement says about these areas of possible conflict.

Your third point is that Always Our Children is not “normative” because it did not come from the whole body of US bishops after discussion and vote. However, your brother bishop, Thomas J. Gumbleton, who served with you in Detroit, disagrees with your opinion about the authority behind this document. He informed us that his recollection of the history regarding this document leads him to conclude that it is clearly normative. Gumbleton recalls that due to criticism from conservative bishops such as yourself, the original draft of Always Our Children (1997) was sent to the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, where it was ratified after some changes were made that did not “significantly alter the message of the document.” The document was then reissued by the US bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family in its current form in the summer of 1998. Our understanding is that ratification of a document by the Vatican would supersede the authority of a country’s conference of bishops. Our search of documents revealed a news story in the July 17, 1998, issue of the National Catholic Reporter that verifies Bishop Gumbleton’s recollection of these events.

Also, in light of your concerns about the authority of episcopal statements, does this proclamation of yours on mortal sin for all supporters of homosexual people have the affirmative vote of the whole body of US bishops? It is curious that it could be mortal sin in the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis to support homosexual partners while in other states in the US and other countries it is not.

Your fourth point is about the pastoral care of homosexuals who accept that they have the “disorder” of same-sex attraction (SSA). Given current science on human sexuality, including the official pronouncements from pertinent professional mental health and educational organizations, we cannot accept your definition of homosexuality as disordered or pathological, nor accept that reparative therapy is ethical or effective. Can you show us reputable scientists of human sexuality that support your position and whose peer-reviewed academic publications agree with your assertions? Does not sound theology need to be informed by solid science?

Also, please note that we recently consulted with experts in the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota who tell us that the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which has been used as a reference for your positions on homosexuality in recent articles in the Catholic Spirit, have no credibility or respectability among legitimate professional associations pertinent to the study and treatment of homosexual persons. These associations include – among many others – the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association.

We believe that you genuinely want to create a well-ordered Catholic community in the Archdiocese. Yet must “orderliness” depend on rigid legalism and unquestioning obedience? Does not the life and example of Jesus demonstrate that such qualities are subordinate to that type of hospitality that invites and includes all: the different, the marginalized, the sinners, the exceptional, all classes, colors, genders, and orientations. Intrinsic to this “radical hospitality” is a trusting openness and response to the presence and action of God within the Church as People of God and thus the vast and diverse arena of human life and relationships.

Accordingly, instead of top-down teaching, we believe that all of us should be in continual dialogue from our own study and experience about the norms of right-relationship between and among us in all our differences. As Patrick A. Heelan, S.J., has pointed out in an analysis of John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, “the process of learning truth is embodied, dialogical, evolutionary, emergent, metaphorical, imaginative, lifelong, and committed to the entanglement of goodness and truth.”

We need a strong and clear leader who will respect our faith experience and grow together with us to create a witnessing community in this complex society. We have hope that you will join us and that we can support you.


The Editorial Team of The Progressive Catholic Voice:
Michael Bayly
Mary Beckfeld
Steve Boyle
Susan Kramp
David McCaffrey
Brian McNeill
Mary Lynn Murphy
Rick Notch
Theresa O'Brien, CSJ
Paula Ruddy

UPDATE: This letter to Archbishop Nienstedt was delivered to the chancery during a Vigil for Solidarity with LGBT Catholics, held at the Cathedral of St. Paul on December 2, 2007. For more on this event, including photos, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Monitoring Nienstedt
Interesting Times Ahead
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
Local Archdiocese’s Misstep Makes National News
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
Choosing to Stay

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Monitoring Nienstedt

Following is journalist Andy Birkey’s Minnesota Monitor article on Archbishop Nienstedt’s recent comments on homosexuality.


Activists Respond to Archbishop's Comments
on Homosexuality

By Andy Birkey

Minnesota Monitor

November 17, 2007

When Archbishop John Nienstedt was appointed by Pope Benedict to lead the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, many argued his tenure would be more conservative than outgoing Archbishop Harry Flynn. Nienstedt made good on those expectations Thursday when he wrote a statement accusing not only gays and lesbians of mortal sin, but their friends and family as well, a statement that has enraged gay and lesbian Catholics.

“Those who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts or such activity within a homosexual lifestyle formally cooperate in a grave evil and, if they do so knowingly and willingly, are guilty of mortal sin,” wrote Nienstedt. “They have broken communion with the church and are prohibited from receiving holy Communion until they have had a conversion of heart, expressed sorrow for their action and received sacramental absolution from a priest.”

LGBT Catholic groups responded to the statement, strongly criticizing Nienstedt.

“This should be a wake-up call for all Minnesotans,” said Catholic Rainbow Parents convenor Mary Lynn Murphy. “Such extreme talk from the most prominent Catholic leader in our State not only offends Catholics, but all LGBT citizens, their families and friends, and gives license to hatred and violence against all of us.”

Murphy said, “The new Archbishop should apologize, begin to educate himself on the topic of sexual orientation, and be the prophetic voice for the much-needed reform of the Church’s understanding of homosexuality.”

Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) co-founder and communications coordinator David J. McCaffrey said, “This piece from Nienstedt marks an all-time high in this Archdiocese in the level of spiritual violence – actually, it should be called ‘persecution’ – directed at LGBT persons, their families, friends, and supporters.”

“He seems to be targeting parents and families of gay people,” Michael Bayly, CPCSM executive coordinator told Fox 9 Twin Cities. He said the community reaction “ranges from disgust to disappoint to sadness and frustration.”

For those looking to discuss the issue and help strategize a formal response to Nienstedt, community members are hosting a meeting at the House of the Beloved Disciple located at 2930 13th Avenue South in Minneapolis on Sunday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.

To leave a comment on the Minnesota Monitor website about this article, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Interesting Times Ahead
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
Local Archdiocese’s Misstep Makes National News
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory

Friday, November 16, 2007

Interesting Times Ahead

As executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I was interviewed late this afternoon by Jamie Reese of Twin Cities Fox 9 News in relation to this article on homosexuality by Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt. (Fox 9’s news story was the lead story of their 10:00 p.m. news broadcast, and can be viewed here.)

Archbishop Nienstedt’s article appeared in the November 14 issue of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis. Among other things, the Archbishop stated that:

Those who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts or such activity within a homosexual lifestyle formally cooperate in a grave evil and, if they do so knowingly and willingly, are guilty of mortal sin. They have broken communion with the church and are prohibited from receiving holy Communion until they have had a conversion of heart, expressed sorrow for their action and received sacramental absolution from a priest.

The implications of Archbishop Nienstedt’s comments are incredibly far-reaching - for Catholic universities and colleges, for parishes, and, of course, for families and individuals.

I mean, think about it: in light of Archbishop Nienstedt’s comments, could it not be reasonably argued that the employment by a Catholic parish of a gay person in a committed relationship is actually “encouraging” and “promoting” the “gay lifestyle”? Are these parishes in a state of “mortal sin”? Does it now mean that a purging of all gay people from the work environments of our Catholic parishes and institutions is in order? Is this on the Archbishop’s agenda for the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis?

And here’s something else to think about: Archbishop Nienstedt’s comments are effectively saying that parents and family members who affirm and support their LGBT children in forming loving and committed relationships, in living relational lives of honesty and integrity are “cooperating in a grave evil” and “guilty of mortal sin.” Furthermore, these same parents, family members, and friends have separated themselves from the church and are therefore not to receive Communion!

You know, it’s one thing to attack and condemn me as a gay man, but to start judging and condemning
my parents, well, that’s something else. As one friend remarked on reading Archbishop Nienstedt’s article: “It looks like the gloves are off.” It does indeed.

And I’m left to wonder: does Archbishop Nienstedt have any idea of the struggle, the often painful journeys of faith that many Catholic parents have undertaken so as to recognize, embrace, and support their gay children as God made them to be?

And who are we? As gay people we’re neither “intrinsically disordered” martyrs to celibacy or promiscuous hedonists. Rather, we are relational human beings capable and worthy of loving relationships - some of which we’re called to experience and express sexually.

I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people - Catholic or otherwise - find this understanding of what it means to be gay to be one grounded in both reasonableness and compassion. Kinda like good parental love!

Which is interesting when one remembers how Jesus chose the figure of a loving parent to exemplify the love of God. Notice he didn’t chose the figure of a religious leader of his day. I think there’s something significant we can and should learn from that, don’t you?

When, then, are the
experiences and insights of parents of gay people (not to mention of science and of gay people themselves!) going to be respected and utilized as necessary resources in the ongoing development of the church’s teaching on human sexuality? Sadly, it would seem, not under Archbishop’s Nienstedt watch.

I think for a lot of gay Catholics, their parents, and their friends, reading Archbishop Nienstedt’s most recent statement on homosexuals and those who love and support them, will serve as a galvanizing moment. Pardon my language, but we’re not going to take this crap - regardless of whether it’s trumpeted as “church teaching” or not.

For example, the following is an excerpt from a letter sent to the Archbishop by a supporter of CPCSM:

For over 50 years I have endured every conceivable slander, ridicule, condemnation, and insult because, among other things, I happen to be gay. . . .

I am a 56-year-old man with a professional career in social services and am active in my contribution to the betterment of society and the dignity of human life. I have been baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. I have served God as a member of a religious community and now as an active member in my parish ministries. I also happen to be gay and happily partnered with the most wonderful man in the world for over 21 years. I’ll save you the effort at guessing; yes we have a very happy and “full sexual relationship”. I am a card carrying Roman Catholic and I’m NOT going anywhere. I am also The Church.

Go ahead, condemn me to hell but I will still have my Catholic faith in God and will embrace you when we meet in the Heavenly Kingdom.

Refuse to give me the Eucharist and I will go to another Catholic Church to receive.

Excommunicate me and I will keep coming back to church to receive the Eucharist and celebrate God’s love for me.

For as St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

And that includes the hierarchy of my church. I’m not going anywhere and I will not leave.

And here’s how one Catholic couple has responded to the Archbishop’s statement about the acceptance and support they give to their gay son: it’s a letter they’ve written and sent to The Catholic Spirit, though having
experienced firsthand the “no dialogue on church teaching” policy of this mouthpiece publication of the archdiocese, I don’t expect to see it printed.

Dear Archbishop Nienstedt,

You say in a recent issue of “The Catholic Spirit”:

“Those who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts or such activity within a homosexual lifestyle formally cooperate in a grave evil and, if they do so knowingly and willingly, are guilty of mortal sin. They have broken communion with the church and are prohibited from receiving holy Communion until they have had a conversion of heart, expressed sorrow for their action and received sacramental absolution from a priest.”

So, obviously, it would also be true to say (about another of the Church’s teachings): “Those who actively use, encourage, or promote the use of CONTRACEPTION . . .”

Logically and consistently, then, your ruling can only be that anyone who uses or supports the use of CONTRACEPTION is also, in fact, guilty of mortal sin and may not receive Holy Communion.

Average parishioners may not know or remember this. Thus, we think a good way to continue to rid the Church of grave evil would be to continuously remind people from all the pulpits in the Archdiocese about the use of contraception being strictly against the teachings of the Church. You should also make it clear that those sitting in the pews who use, encourage, or promote contraception should not come up at communion time as they are in the state of mortal sin.

For one thing, it would show your consistency in defending the Church’s teachings. People who just think that you’re homophobic would have another think coming! The great majority of contraceptive use is among heterosexual couples. Furthermore, these couples certainly use contraceptives “knowingly and willingly” as you say. No one accidentally takes a birth control pill or unknowingly slips on a condom.

Of course it probably would have an economic impact since there are so many people who continue to use contraception that they would likely stop coming to Church due to their state of mortal sin and their inability to receive communion. But that would be a small price to pay for your vigorous defense of the teachings (not of Jesus, mind you) but of “The Church.”

On the other hand, it could have a positive economic effect as well. Think of the money the Church would save on communion wafers!


Maria and Charlie Girsch

(The Girsches have a child who is gay and are part of the Catholic Rainbow Parents group. They have recently moved to Denver, Colorado, but spend significant time in St.Paul.)

The Girsch’s light-hearted tone belies their deep concern about Archbishop Nienstedt’s recent comments, concerns that raise some very serious issues and questions. Why are gay people disproportionately targeted by the hierarchy of the church - especially in light of the estimated 96 percent of Catholic married couples who practice birth control? Is the relentless fixation on demonizing gay people a form of internalized homophobia on the part of many of our bishops and priests? Will Archbishop Nienstedt be consistent and denounce and condemn, along with gay people in relationships, straight couples and families who use birth control?

Without doubt, my friends, we’re in for some interesting times ahead. And I say this not because I look forward to any more extreme statements by Archbishop Nienstedt, but because I really believe that in response to such extremism we’re witnessing an inspired and energized re-emergence of the Sensus Fidelium, i.e., what the Christian people believe, accept, and reject.

I appreciate how the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church discuss and clarify this core component of our Catholic Christian faith:

Church hierarchy (the rulers) have taught what to believe, accept, and reject, but always with acceptance or a corrective response by theologians (experts) and the faithful even from the very beginning. (Acts 15)

This corrective response especially among the Church faithful, wherein the Spirit of truth resides, is a re-emerging tradition. Except in the early Church, never have so many faithful Christians been so educated in our faith and Church history and so aware of its meaning in our lives. We mark self awareness as a corner stone in the development of the human species. It just might well be that our collective reawakening of a spiritual self awareness regarding truths of faith marks a corner stone in the concept of “Ecclesia semper Reformanda” (The church must always be reformed).

Herein lies present day conflict; the resistance of the hierarchy of the Church to recognize and honor the fact that the Spirit of truth speaks through the faithful who accept or reject their teachings. Theologians are suppressed and persecuted when attempting to express a better understanding of faith and morals that perhaps better reflects the sense of the faithful. This is not surprising since bishops are chosen because they echo mandates from Rome, and not because they reflect or listen to their people.

It has not always been thus in the Church and a re-awakening of the faithful people to their role in “Ecclesia semper Reformanda” is happening. It is long overdue.

And to think we have folks like Archbishop Niensedt to thank for helping facilitate such a re-awakening of the faithful!

How ironic is that?

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Choosing to Stay
Local Archdiocese’s Misstep Makes National News
Voices of Parental Authority and Wisdom
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Listen Up, Papa!
Grandma Knows Best
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Keeping the Spark Alive

Thursday, November 15, 2007

When Quackery Goes Mainstream

The Catholic Spirit’s November 1 editorial that I referred to in my previous post, reflects what could be described as the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis’ long-standing pastoral approach to homosexuality – one that was endorsed and articulated by the past administrations of both Archbishop John Roach and Archbishop Harry Flynn.

That approach has, however, been replaced by a very different one – as demonstrated by various statements made by incoming Archbishop John Nienstedt, and by Fr. Jim Livingston in his “My Turn” column in the November 8 issue of The Catholic Spirit.

For both Archbishop Nienstedt and Fr. Livingston, it seems that the only valid pastoral response to “persons with same-sex attractions” is the national apostolate Courage, which for the past ten years has had a branch in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis that goes by the name of Faith in Action.

The endorsement and support of Courage/Faith in Action by the incoming administration, though disappointing, is certainly not surprising, especially given John Nienstedt’s reputation for being a “conservative hardliner,” in the words of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Yet there’s more. For as well as promoting Courage, both Nienstedt and Livingston rely on the “research findings” of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). This should immediately raise a red flag for anyone remotely aware of the legitimate scientific consensus on the complex issue of sexual orientation.

Why? Because NARTH is a sham organization of “therapists” that teaches that homosexuality is a disorder that is not only chosen, but can be changed through effort. Not surprisingly, NARTH’s findings and methodology are seldom, if ever, offered to peer-reviewed journals for critical analysis. In short, the group lacks any respect from the wider scientific community.

Sadly, the quackery of NARTH lends itself to the Catholic Church’s scientifically uninformed teachings on homosexuality. Not surprisingly, some reactionary elements within the Church frequently employ terminology and “statistics” concocted by NARTH to bolster the institutional Church’s crude and erroneous “truth” claims about homosexuality.

For instance, Livingston wrote that people can learn more about the “emotional root causes” of homosexuality by visiting NARTH’s website. Yet, in the real world, no credible scientific body is talking about “emotional root causes” of homosexuality!

Livingston serves as lead chaplain to the local chapter of Courage (which, as I noted above, goes by the name of Faith in Action in the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese). Courage purports to help people move beyond “same-sex attraction” by encouraging a life of “interior chastity in union with Christ.” The movement labels itself a “pro-chastity ministry,” and equates chastity with celibacy.

Although Courage, which, along with NARTH, Livingston enthusiastically promotes in his November 8 commentary, acknowledges that the “inclination of homosexual attractions” is “psychological understandable,” such attractions are nevertheless considered “objectively disordered” – a view promulgated by the hierarchical church.

Courage often substitutes the words “homosexuality” and “gay” with the NARTH-coined phrase, “same-sex attraction disorder” – a term unrecognized by any professional health association.

Writes Livingston: “[The word] ‘gay’ often connotes a lifestyle inconsistent with the pursuit of chastity. Persons with homosexual, or same-sex attraction may or may not consider themselves ‘gay.’ Those who believe in the church’s teaching on SSA [same-sex attraction] often are actually insulted by being called ‘gay’” Oh, really?

It gets worse. Following NARTH’s lead, Courage actually likens homosexuality to alcoholism, and conducts its “support group” using the 12-Step format developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Some members of Courage even consider their “disorder” to be curable, and explain its origin using debunked theories of dominant mothers, distant fathers and abusive family relations.

Livingston’s commentary in The Catholic Spirit is clear evidence that the quackery of NARTH is actively endorsed and encouraged by some within the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

I’m sure that you’ll agree that as Catholics we can do better.

Recommended Off-site Link:
Debunking NARTH

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Real Meaning of Courage
The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part II)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)
The Dreaded Same-Sex Attracted View of Catholicism

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper

In the November 1 issue of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis, editor Joe Towalski discussed what the Church “really teaches” about homosexuality. Towalski’s editorial was in response to the archdiocese’s October 22 decision to prohibit 82-year-old “cradle-Catholic” Robert Curoe and his lesbian daughter Carol from speaking at a CPCSM-sponsored event at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. (To read more about this, click here and here.)

Towalski’s editorial reiterates the official church teaching on the immorality of “homosexual activity,” and reaffirms the catechism’s call for homosexuals to be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” The editorial also directs people to the 1997 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s statement, Always Our Children – a statement that encourages parents to “accept and love” themselves and their gay son or daughter, and to do all that they can to “urge [their] son or daughter to stay joined to the Catholic faith community.”

As executive coordinator of the 27-year-old Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I wrote and submitted a “counter-point commentary” to The Catholic Spirit in response to Towalski’s November 1 editorial. My friend Paula Ruddy submitted a letter-to-the-editor. Neither was published in subsequent issues of the newspaper. Upon inquiring why this was the case, we were informed that it was not possible for The Catholic Spirit to serve as a forum for dialogue around church teachings.

A response to Towalski’s editorial was published, however, in the next issue of The Catholic Spirit. I’ll write about that particular response in my next post to The Wild Reed. For now, though, I’ll simply share my unpublished commentary and Paula’s unpublished letter.


In his November 1 editorial, Joe Towalski notes that homosexuality is a “hot button issue for the church,” yet he does not say why this is the case.

I’d like to suggest that one reason why many issues related to human sexuality remain controversial is because the majority of Catholics intuitively sense that the teachings of the church about these issues lack credibility. The reason for this is simple: the laity has had no part in shaping these teachings.

The belief that the laity should be consulted in matters of doctrine, especially when teachings concern their lives intimately, is part of Catholicism’s rich heritage. For instance, the great English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) wrote that: “The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and . . . their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.”

With regards to the issue of homosexuality, the “body of the faithful” is still very much engaged in the journey towards “consensus.” And in other areas, the consensus that has been reached is at odds with the teaching of the hierarchical church. For instance, even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concedes that 96 percent of married Catholics use birth control. Clearly, the church’s teachings on a range of sexual issues are not set in stone.

This shouldn’t be at all surprising, for as Jesuit Philip Endean reminds us: “Dogmas of tradition exist not as truths complete in themselves, but rather as resources for helping us discover the ever greater glory . . . of the God whose gift of self pervades all possible experience.” And, whether we like it or not, “all possible experience” includes gay people’s experiences of love, intimacy, and relationship.

The reality is that gay people can and do experience sexual relationships marked by justice, wholeness, and life-giving love. Shouldn’t such experiences be considered as sources in the ongoing formulation of church teaching on homosexuality? And if not, why not? What exactly are the sources of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality? Shouldn’t such sources include the findings of science and people’s experience?

These are the types of questions that many Catholics are asking. They are legitimate questions with important theological and pastoral implications. Yet sadly, the “official” church response to such questions is woefully inadequate. It’s simply not good enough to say, “Well, this is how it’s always been, so it must be right,” especially since it’s clear that the basis of “what it’s always been” has been informed by limited sources from bygone eras.

And when we limit our sources, we limit and obstruct God’s wise and loving outreach to us – and end up with limited and impoverished church teachings. As Catholics we can do better.

Michael Bayly
Executive coordinator, Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM)

In the November 1, 2007, issue, editor Joe Towalski does a good job of spelling out the “fullness” of the hierarchical teachings on homosexuality. By this he means that although the teaching is that homosexual activity is sinful, the teaching is also that homosexuals should be treated with love within the church.

Two points: First, the bishops’ moral teachings are not infallible and have changed significantly over the years. Unlike disciplinary rules, the bishops can’t just declare sexual relations to be sinful on their authority. They have to have reasons. Towalski does not go into the theory of human sexuality underlying the teaching. In The Human Core of Spirituality, (SUNY, 1996), Daniel Helminiak shows that reducing the purposes of sex to procreation robs it of its most human dimension, the spiritual. It would be wise of the bishops to enter into dialogue about human sexuality with the scientific and philosophical communities rather than to insist on a closed set of pronouncements.

Second, it doesn’t take a scientist or a philosopher to see the fallacy in calling the bishops’ teaching a loving one when people are denied participation in such a basic need of human life as sexual expression. Moreover, there is daily evidence of the suffering caused by the rejection of people in an essential aspect of their personhood. It is a violence to them.

For these two reasons many of the Catholic faithful reject the teaching of the hierarchy on this matter. We don’t believe that committed homosexual relationships are per se sinful. I admire the hierarchy’s determination to strengthen family life, but condemning committed relationships of homosexuals is counterproductive and cruel.

Paula Ruddy

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Choosing to Stay
Local Archdiocese’s Misstep Makes National News

Friday, November 09, 2007

What Does It Mean to Be a Catholic University?


The Star Tribune’s token “conservative” columnist Katherine Kersten has reached a new low in whining about her pet peeves – you know, all those “‘60s bugaboos” of liberals, like “the oppression of women [and] environmental catastrophe.” (Hey, of course these are all just “bugaboos” from the past. After all, we all know such things have been eliminated from our world, don’t we? Just ask the women of Saudi Arabia, or visit the open waters of the Arctic or the burnt remnants of California.)

But seriously, Kersten is currently in an actual frenzy about “Baby Boom professors” at the University of St. Thomas “shock” treating freshmen students with The Handmaid’s Tale, a work of dystopian fiction by Margaret Atwood.

Writes Kersten about the book’s plot:

Right-wing Christian fanatics have taken over America and imposed a theocratic state. Women are virtual slaves, the continent is awash in pollution, abortionists are executed. Many fertile women must become “handmaids” – reproductive machines – who are compelled to breed with male “Commanders.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” portrays the dominant Christian culture of the future as totalitarian and consumed with hatred toward women. The book includes graphic scenes of sexual abuse.

It’s a grim view of humanity’s future, for sure. But, sadly, one that is not totally implausible. Any religion - Christianity included - has its shadow side that can (and has) reared its terrifying head and dragged the blood-soaked thread of religious-sanctioned violence across human history. Hey, let’s not forget the “witches” and “faggots” burnt at the stake by the Inquisition.

To his credit, University of St. Thomas president Fr. Dennis Dease has stood his ground against accusations by a minority of parents and students that the book is not suitable for a Catholic university, and, accordingly, this same minority’s demands for the book’s removal from the curriculum. St. Thomas spokesperson Doug Hennes explains why:

Father Dease allowed the Department of English to use “The Handmaid’s Tale” as the common text this fall because the novel fits the criteria for the common text program: to be an innovative piece of literature that asks students to grapple with complex and timely ethical and political issues.

While it is appropriate to be shocked and horrified by what goes on in the Republic of Gilead, the novel is not meant to be an attack on religion in general or Catholicism in particular. Instead, it is intended to explore the question of how authentic religious expressions and institutions might be co-opted for other purposes - a theme certainly relevant to the intellectual life of a Catholic university.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” presents Christians as resisting the new regime, and has been interpreted as a novel in which the most authentically religious persons fight totalitarianism and affirm the power of scripture and the integrity of one’s conscience.

Well, that certainly feels like a refreshingly cool splash of reason compared to Kersten’s vitriolic diatribe!

Kersten’s predictable rants are, of course, easy to dismiss. And this particular one is no different. Yet what this latest brouhaha at the University of St. Thomas does serve to do is draw attention to that important and often pondered question: What does it mean to be a Catholic university?

It’s a question that seems to be off Kersten’s radar, yet one that I find especially intriguing given the fact that Catholic schools across the U.S. are situated at all points across quite a wide spectrum.

For instance, schools like Ave Maria wouldn’t think of hiring someone who’s ever been divorced. And if you get divorced while employed there, you’re fired. Thomas Aquinas College requires all faculty and staff to make an oath of fidelity to every aspect of Church teaching.

At the other end of the spectrum there are Catholic institutions like Georgetown, the Jesuit university that has extended health care and other benefits to employees’ domestic partners; and let’s not forget De Paul, which just last month hosted the “Out There Conference” for Catholic college faculty and administrators ministering to gay and lesbian students in Catholic colleges and universities.

Perhaps the current president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Richard Yanikoski, sums it up best. In an article entitled “Do Catholic Universities Make the Grade,” in the November 2007 issue of U.S. Catholic, Tanikoski notes that: “Catholic colleges and universities manifest their Catholic identity in very different ways, depending upon their founding charism, mission, resources, sponsorship, size, and student body. Yet each is Catholic and adds to the church’s mission in unique ways.”

To support this view, Yanikoski cites the findings of Melanie M. Morey and Fr. John J. Piderit, S.J., who in their book Catholic Higher Education, identify four models of Catholic higher education. As Yanikoski notes, each one of these models represents “distinctive rather than mutually exclusive points of emphasis.”

Here’s how Yanikoski summarizes Morey and Piderit’s four models:

Immersion colleges serve only staunchly Catholic students, who are required to take at least four courses in Catholic theology and philosophy. Campus life is infused with Catholic moral teaching, sacramental opportunities, and spiritual vitality. Faculty are overwhelmingly Catholic. Most institutions in this category are relatively small and located outside urban areas, such as Southern Catholic College in Georgia. With nearly 2,000 undergraduate students, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio is considerably larger than the typical immersion college.
(Thirteen percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution, while eighty percent disagreed with the statement that immersion colleges should be a model for all Catholic colleges and universities.)

Persuasion schools seek to instill in all students, Catholics and others, “a certain religious maturity in knowledge of the Catholic faith.” Required Catholic courses number about half of what is expected in immersion schools. Persuasion universities provide Catholic worship services and activities, but participation is encouraged rather than expected. Catholic professors are actively recruited but do not necessarily predominate. This type of institution is the most common and includes, for example, Villanova University in Pennsylvania and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
(Forty-eight percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution.)

Diaspora universities, often located in inner cities or in predominantly non-Catholic regions, serve a student body in which Catholics are a minority – although Catholics are actively recruited. These institutions encourage but seldom require students to take courses on Catholic teaching. Catholicism anchors the institution’s character and provides a clear guide to activities and policies, while a predominantly non-Catholic faculty strives to blend Catholic teaching with interreligious sensitivity. DePaul University in Chicago is the most prominent of the diaspora institutions.
(Sixteen percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution.)

Cohort universities attract academically distinguished students who as graduates are expected to exercise considerable social influence in promoting viewpoints informed by Catholic teaching. Among an internationally distinguished faculty and student body, Catholics are well represented but typically are in a minority. Students usually are not required to take Catholic courses but may do so. Catholic students, who form a “cohort” at such institutions, are given generous resources to strengthen and express their Catholic faith outside the classroom. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is the most prominent of the cohort institutions.
(Fifteen percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution.)

(NOTE: Three percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to a non-Catholic school, while 5% said some “other” type of school. Eighty-six percent of readers said the various ways a college could be Catholic, as described by Yanikoski’s article, are all legitimate.)

All this variety, concedes Yanikoski, can be “unsettling to some people.” Yet he is adamant that it also “helps to address the complex and seemingly endless needs of the church in secular society.”

Yanikoski is convinced that “across-the-board uniformity among Catholic colleges and universities would diminish rather than enhance the church’s impact in the world.” He also says that “in part for this reason, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ex Corde Ecclesiae guarantees a generous degree of autonomy to institutions.”

Yet surely there must be some things that all these Catholic colleges and universities share in common!?

Again, Yanikoski turns to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, noting that in this document Pope John Paul II “wrote that the fundamental responsibility of a Catholic university is ‘to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.’ He added that every Catholic university must exhibit four essential characteristics: Christian inspiration, research and reflection in light of the Catholic faith fidelity to the Christian message, and an institutional commitment to service.”

Hmm, the “cause of truth.” Now that opens a whole new can of worms!

Is this “truth” defined and possessed only by “the Church” as understood as the magisterium?

What about the “truth” of women’s lives? Of gay people’s lives? Do these folks get to contribute to the process of discerning “the truth”?

And what of science? Are it’s insights welcome? What if they, like the experiences of women and gay people, challenge centuries-old teachings of the church? What then?

And what happens when authors such as Margaret Atwood disseminate these challenging experiences and insights through their writings? Do we ban their books?

These are important and legitimate questions. It’s clear from the work of Melanie Morey, John Piderit, Richard Yanikoski, and, no doubt, others, that there are Catholic centers of higher education willing to wrestle with such questions. And for that I’m thankful


Postscript (November 12, 2007): The following responses to Katherine Kersten’s column on The Handmaid’s Tale have recently appeared in the Star Tribune.

A novel, not a tract

What I find most shocking about Katherine Kersten’s Nov. 8 column, “Shock therapy for freshmen at St. Thomas shockingly trite,” is her utter inability to see the book she discusses (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) for what it is – a novel.

While the book obviously addresses political issues (what narrative doesn’t?), it is not a political tract – not a description of reality, a series of recommendations, etc.

Kersten describes Atwood’s novels as “a dime a dozen,” and says that “in literary circles,” they are “utterly passé.” Why, then, has Atwood either won, or been shortlisted for, virtually every major literary prize for which she is eligible?

I mean no disrespect to Kersten, but to treat Atwood as a hack (or to simply dismiss her with the term “feminist novelist”), rather than portraying her as the major literary figure that she is, is at best deeply dishonest. As such, Kersten’s column has the opposite effect from the one she intends, as it demonstrates the importance of teaching great writers like Margaret Atwood – the importance, that is, of teaching students to think about literature in original and non-reductionist ways.

Cory Stockwell
PH.D. candidate, Comparative Literature Program, University of Minnesota
November 9, 2007

Too tough for Kersten

“Trite.” That’s the word Katherine Kersten used to describe the challenge first-year students at St. Thomas University would experience reading The Handmaid’s Tale, a futuristic story about life under extreme fundamentalist Christian law.

Katherine spins this choice of common reading at St. Thomas into a broader diatribe about liberalism in universities and the blame-Western-culture-first attitude she attributes to academics.

Judging from Kersten’s own writings, I suspect she would have been quite satisfied had St. Thomas chosen a book describing a futuristic world under extreme Islamic shariah law, which, borrowing from Kersten’s playbook, I boldly attribute – sans evidence – to her blame-everyone-else-first attitude. Perhaps the challenge of imagining her religion made the boogey is too much for Kersten.

Justin Revenaugh
St Paul
November 9, 2007

Real world, real abuses

So Katherine Kersten is upset over another college book choice (column, Nov. 8). In the literary circles I travel in, Margaret Atwood is a writer of great depth and The Handmaid’s Tale is not “utterly passé” but prescient. The suppression of women and environmental catastrophe – what Kersten calls “‘60s bugaboos” – are very real dangers we face today.

I realize that on the ideological block where Katherine Kersten lives, a female college student’s big worry might be “finding an equally well-educated man to marry” and the sun always shines through a pure and cloudless sky, but if she crossed the street into the real world, Kersten would recognize the abuses against women and our planet are massive in scope.

There is a chance that if Kersten put on her backpack and attended a classroom discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale, she might be exposed to thoughts and ideas that run contrary to her own – is that the “liberal indoctrination” she’s so afraid of?

Lorna Landvik
November 12, 2007

A timely assignment

Katherine Kersten rails against the selection of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the common text at the University of St. Thomas, in part because the abuses depicted in the novel have no relevance to the lives of modern college-educated women. But if she thinks that women have nothing to fear from the dominant culture at St. Thomas, I’ll refer her to the series of hate crimes directed against three women that occurred in their residence hall the week of Oct. 29.

But those hate crimes were racially motivated, not gender motivated, Kersten might respond. Those were black women and the crimes involved racial slurs and threats. Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right: So a book about the dominant culture subjugating a minority group through fear and violence has no relevance at St. Thomas. Sorry, my mistake.

I applaud St. Thomas for choosing a controversial book that will engender spirited discussion among all its readers, and I feel sorry for anyone who is so threatened by the book’s message that they would rather deny that discussion than allow an open dialogue.

Wood Foster Smith
November 12, 2007

Recommended Off-site Link:
Jesuit University Says Support to Gay Organizations is "the Catholic Thing" to Do - Catholic News Agency.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Not So “New” Catholic University
Out at a Catholic University

Image: The beautiful ornate doors of the chapel at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota - where I came from Australia to study theology (1994-1996). The school is renowned as the country’s largest women’s college, yet its graduate programs are open to both men and women. During my years of study at St. Kate’s, I lived in the men’s dorm of the college’s Minneapolis campus - the former St. Mary’s School of Nursing. After graduating in 1996, I taught for a number of years various theology classes in the Liberal Arts and Science department of the Minneapolis campus.