Friday, May 02, 2008

An Asinine Decision by the Chancery

The recent decision by the chancery of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis to ban scholar and anti-torture advocate Dr. Steven Miles from speaking at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church is, in a word, asinine.

Am I being too harsh? Well, judge for yourself by reading the following Star Tribune column by Nick Coleman on what he maintains is yet another example of how the archdiocese is “clumsily tightening the chancery’s control on parishes and demanding orthodoxy from pulpit and pew.” (For an earlier example, click here).

I’m reminded of America magazine writer William Droel’s observation on the works of Robert McClory and, specifically, how such works have documented how authoritarianism leads to scandal and declining church membership.

Incidentally, today was John Nienstedt’s first day as archbishop. My sense is that the vast majority of Catholics are deeply embarrassed by the treatment of Dr. Miles. That the chancery and, I presume, Archbishop Nienstedt himself are not, does not bode well for the archdiocese. As I’ve said before, we have some
interesting times ahead.


Anti-torture but Pro-choice?
Can’t Have that in Church, Please

By Nick Coleman
Star Tribune
May 2, 2008

Dr. Steven Miles, a world-renowned scholar, author and anti-torture activist, has won many awards in his career on the faculty of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics. But the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has bestowed an especially rare distinction on Miles, one that puts him in excellent company:

He just got Tutu’d.

As you recall, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu recently was barred from speaking at the University of St. Thomas. Now Miles, who has written extensively about torture practices authorized by the Bush administration and who has warned that America is becoming “a torturing society,” has received the Tutu treatment.

Miles was invited months ago to talk about torture and its effects on society before masses at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis on Sunday. The invitation was issued by the peace and justice ministry at St. Joan’s, which has a tradition of social justice work in the Twin Cities. In addition, Miles was scheduled to speak Tuesday to an adult education class at the church.

But last Wednesday, four days before Miles was scheduled to speak, the archdiocese intervened: St. Joan’s was ordered not to let Miles talk before mass. Or Tuesday, either.

He was persona non grata.

According to a spokesman for the archdiocese, Miles was barred from St. Joan’s because he supports abortion rights, a position “contrary to the teachings” of the church. Miles acknowledges that, but says he had no intention of speaking about abortion and that he sent the text of his talk on torture to the archdiocese.

“I wasn’t asked about my position on abortion, euthanasia (he opposes it), divorce, papal infallibility or the Nicene Creed,” he says. “The issue is whether I have something relevant to say to Catholics on torture.”

On that, there is no doubt. Miles believes passionately that torture violates fundamental rights of life and dignity. And causes abortions.

“Torture causes women to abort at a horrendous rate,” Miles says, “and people who have been tortured are much more likely to commit suicide. The point is that an anti-torture campaign is a pro-life campaign.”

But at a time when the archdiocese is clumsily tightening the chancery’s control on parishes and demanding orthodoxy from pulpit and pew, a whispering campaign developed against Miles after word of his St. Joan’s appearance appeared in a recent church bulletin.

According to the archdiocese, anti-abortion activists called to complain about Miles’ appearance at St. Joan’s. Miles has been seen as a highly visible antagonist by some since he helped reverse an anti-abortion scare tactic by the Minnesota Department of Health.

The department was telling women that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. There is no established connection between abortion and breast cancer, and that spurious assertion was removed after scientists, including Miles, testified at the Legislature that it had demoralized the health department and “besmirched” (Miles’ word) its reputation.

Miles, a geriatrician, has performed no abortions. But when the Catholic Bulletin threatened to publish the names of doctors who provided abortions to indigent women, Miles wrote a letter to the editor asking that he be named, too, since he supported safe, legal and affordable abortion for those who needed them.

“As a Christian,” he wrote, “I will continue to try to respond with compassion to the complex and sometimes tragic situations [in] which my patients find themselves in a way which is sensitive to the hard facts, difficult choices and individual differences which are present.”

His letter was published in 1978.

Last week, 30 years later, it was circulated by those who wanted the archdiocese to ban Miles from speaking at St. Joan’s. Many in the church are perplexed by the ban.

Nick Coleman


5/7/08 Update: Hundreds of people packed the large dining room of the Carondelet Center in St. Paul last night to hear Dr. Steve Miles speak on state-sanctioned torture and how as U.S. citizens we can best work to end it.

As was noted above, Miles was to give his talk at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in South Minneapolis. However, a directive from the chancery effectively banned the church from hosting the event. Miles’ pro-choice stance with regards to abortion was the reason for the chancery’s banning of his talk on anti-torture advocacy.

After being approached by representatives from St. Joan of Arc Church, the
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet agreed to host Dr. Miles. The Sisters are well-respected and renowned throughout the archdiocese for embodying, through a range of ministries, their special charism of “love of God and the dear neighbor without distinction.”

Following are images from last night’s event at the Carondelet Center.

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Torture Expert Banned from Speaking at Catholic Church - Because He’s Pro-choice - Paul Schmelzer (Minnesota Monitor, May 2, 2008).
An Interview with Steve Miles (first published in the January 13, 2006 issue of the National Catholic Reporter).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Catholic Father and Lesbian Daughter Banned from Speaking on Church Property
Choosing to Stay
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocese Newspaper
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
300+ People Vigil at the Cathedral in Solidarity with LGBT Catholics
No Really . . .
The Shrinking Catholic Tent


CDE said...

What is perplexing about asking speakers at Catholic institutions and events to have a consistent life ethic?

Allowing such a speaker could cause scandal -- even if he is not speaking about his pro-choice position, if he is publicly known for holding such, his appearance could be construed as an endorsement of his ethical positions... which are inconsistent from the Church's point-of-view.

Why not find someone more consistently supportive of the Gospel of Life to speak at a Catholic event? Surely such persons exist...

CDE said...

The changes in the archdiocese extend beyond the appointment of a new archbishop. A new vicar general and vicar for clergy have been chosen and I imagine the names will be announced shortly.

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested in the text of my remarks for St. Joan,

Steve Miles

CDE said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for posting your remarks.

I have a question for you: How do you propose to raise concern about torture without standing in opposition to a mother killing her own child? If a mother can end the life of her own child, on what moral authority do we tell one person that the torture of a non-relative is unacceptable? If the most intimate natural bonds do not contain moral obligations, why should less intimate ones?

This was the logic behind Mother Teresa's statement that there will be no peace in the world unless we are ready to say that a mother cannot murder her own child.

I'm not trying to be simplistic about the complex situations of those who are single mothers, victims of rape, etc., but a Christian witness to the value of human life needs to be consistent.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Clayton,

More than the issue of abortion, I think this particular situation has to do with the administration of Archbishop Nienstedt being unable to deal with responsible or conscientious dissent, regardless of the issue.

Indeed, it seems that such dissent will simply not be tolerated. Instead, a very rigid and narrow way of being Catholic is being presented, and it seems that folks need to either shape up or ship out. Such authoritarianism is not an authentic (let alone healthy) expression of spirituality (Catholic or otherwise). It’s also a betrayal of Catholicism’s rich intellectual tradition and Jesus’ radical hospitality.

You pose a legitimate and important question, and I’m sure Dr. Miles' response would be one that many would be interested in hearing. What a pity a representative from the chancery (or anyone, for that matter) can’t now be present at St. Joan of Arc Church to respectfully ask it. Instead of engaging Dr. Miles in this way, the chancery simply bans him from speaking at St. Joan’s! He doesn’t fit the chancery’s way of being a Catholic (or a Catholic equivalent). Accordingly, nothing that the highly respected Dr. Miles has to say, according to the chancery, can be heard by Catholics.

This is a great loss, for as Miles himself has noted, “the position . . . that no voice can address any subject within the church unless that voice is anti-abortion . . . would seem to cut the church off from a fair amount of social dialogue.” I consider the rigidity, obstinacy, and heavy-handedness that have characterized the chancery’s reaction to Dr. Miles and the community of St. Joan of Arc to be asinine.

I think as Catholics we can do better. And thankfully there are Catholics within the archdiocese that can indeed do better and, in so doing, model for all of us an alternative, more compassionate way of being Catholic. Yes, the good Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet – St. Paul Province, renowned and respected throughout the archdiocese for their “love of God and the dear neighbor without distinction,” will host Dr. Miles tonight (Tuesday, May 6). He will deliver the talk he was to give at St. Joan’s, “Torture and the Courage to Be Inconvenienced,” and I hope to be there to hear it.

Indeed, like so many cases were a talk, film, or, in this case, a person has been condemned and/or banned, Dr. Miles and his talk will now get more attention and draw a larger audience than if he had been allowed to speak as originally planned.

In short, the chancery’s reaction to this particular situation seems to many Catholics to be unnecessary, overblown, and, well, reactionary. Yet, unfortunately, my sense is that we’re going to experience more of the same under the administration of John Nienstedt.



CDE said...


No one has been condemned. Ideas have been rejected as false. That is something different. We are required to make judgments about ideas, while we are supposed to refrain from making judgments about persons.

You have formed your opinions of Archbishop Nienstedt's ministry when he has been in office less than a week. This strikes me as rash. And the description of his decision as asinine is uncharitable.

By way of contrast, the archdiocese has been more than patient with the uncooperative and rebellious tactics of Saint Joan of Arc parish for more than two decades.

I agree that numerous changes seem to be coming in the near future. This set of appointments today seems to be setting a direction for the future.