Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thoughts on Archbishop Nienstedt

About a week ago I was quoted in a lengthy story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about John Nienstedt (pictured at right), who on May 2 commenced his duties as Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

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

Those who have worked with the new leader
of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
say he defies easy labeling.

By Jeff Strickler
Star Tribune
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.

Brian Willette


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.

Writes Abigail:

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
Monitoring Nienstedt
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


kevin57 said...

I have no problem with the Archbishop speaking the orthodox position with clarity. That orthodox position, of course, includes the primacy of conscience and the inviolable dignity of every person, gay included.

Where he fails--as have nearly all the US bishops since their infamous pastoral letter re: homosexual persons--is their utter failure to engage gays in the dialogue to which they committed themselves. I strongly suspect this is because they are bureaucrats at heart and not theologians. They know they cannot defend their positions in the light of Christian conversation.

Anonymous said...

Michael, your style of catholicism already exists in the Twin Cities and can be found here:


Why insist the RCC be the same?

Gerald Augustinus said...

I'm afraid that there is no room for gays in the Catholic Church, unless they are of the Courage type and reject their homosexuality and view it as a disease, an affliction.

Gay men are basically no longer welcome in the seminaries. The message should be pretty clear by now.

It's sad really. Nothing enrages some people more than homosexuality. I - and my wife and family - will always vote against amendments banning gay marriage, unions etc. The more mainstream gays become, the faster the awful parts of gay culture will vanish. Closeted and self-loathing gays are a danger to themselves and others. Of course, given the reactions by many people, it's no wonder they got twisted. A prime example of this are the priests who abused male adolescents.

Tc said...

Michael, I don't know what the solution is for your part of the Church, or for the Church universal, but I pray that it is found quickly. Otherwise, some of our best and our brightest will be lost for good. People on sinking ships always make good use of lifeboats.

Pax et bonum.

Anonymous said...

Re the "infamous pastoral letter," was that letter really a pastoral letter of the whole USCCB (formerly known as the NCCB), along the same lines as the pastoral on economy or the just war pastoral, OR wasn't it a letter from a committee only? I think it was a committee camel, was it not? I'd love to know who actually wrote that thing.

Anonymous said...

Here's the URL:


The exact title is "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers. It was produced by the "Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family," which is part of the "Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life & Youth" of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This committee may have been placed differently in the org chart of the former National Conference of Catholic Bishops organization & structure.

So, this often-referred to document was a pastoral message from a committee. It was not and is not a pastoral letter in the strict sense.

Unknown said...

Well, dialogue between bishops and gays is rather pointless right off the bat. "Stop what you're doing", "Your actions are intrinsically disordered", not to mention "it's an abomination" and "your deathstyle cries for vengeance from god" aren't exactly ways to break the ice and unlikely to elicit "Why, I think I'll become Catholic !". Of course, one can tune that out and behave like the vast majority of Catholic who use birth control other than NFP - shrug it off. But, you don't see many bishops campaigning to make the pill illegal, these days.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mark,

I make no mention of any "infamous pastoral letter" in this post.

The pastoral statement, Always Our Children that you cite is, however, discussed in this previous post re. Archbishop Nienstedt.

This previous post reprints an open letter to Nienstedt from the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal - of which I'm the editor.

Following is that part of our letter that responds to Nienstedt's contention that Always Our Children is not a "normative" church document:

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.

Archbishop Nienstedt is yet to respond to this and other concerns raised in our letter to him.



Anonymous said...

I believe kevin57 referred to the pastoral letter as infamous in his first post. I didn't mean to imply anyone else used the word.

I don't find any of the letters from the NCCB or the USCCB infamous. Ignored maybe but not infamous.

kevin57 said...

Actually I was referring to the execrable "Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclinations"

Anonymous said...

Responding to Mark Andrews' first comment about joining Episcopal catholicism rather than changing Roman catholicism: It is tempting, but don't you think injustice should be eliminated in all religious institutions?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Paula,

Before injustice can be eliminated, both justice and injustice ought to be defined. The pastors of the RCC don't find their teaching on sexuality morality unjust, only hard to accept and untried. And, also, that teaching is seen as unchanging and unchangable.

Rather than play irresistable force vs. unmovable object indefinitely, it seems both more honest and more productive to join with one's co-religionists, eh? Not to put words in Michael's mouth, but my understanding of Michael's ecclesiology, in addition to the major points of his theology, is that it is congruent with Episcopalianism and or Old Catholicism, and it is not congruent Roman Catholicism (key phrase here) as the pastors of the RCC understand it. To insist that Archbishop Neidstadt (sic) change is to insist that the Archbishop change something foundational in himself, his ministry and his understanding of the Church. Ain't gonna happen. Isn't your insistence that Neidstadt change the same as the fiction that so-called "reparative therapy" works?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mark.

You are probably right that Archbishop Nienstedt is not going to open his mind to a different point of view on homosexual partnering. Nevertheless, I think it is legitimate to continue to ask him to do so.

Catholic ecclesiology sees the church as fully present in each local diocese, and a courageous bishop could initiate reforms if his conscience demanded it. The politically wise thing would be for the courageous bishop to organize several other US bishops to lead a reform movement with him to make it less likely that Rome would remove them all. They could go and plead the case for the change in the entire church if they judged the matter to be contrary to the message of the Gospel.

Your comparison of a change of mind in the bishop to a change of sexual orientation for gays is curious. Do you really think it is apt?

May I ask you a question? Do you depend on the Roman Catholic institution for spiritual nourishment? I ask because I have heard people defend church teaching who have no experience of being oppressed by it. I wonder if that is the case with you?

If you were suffering some oppression and objected to it, and I defended the oppressor on a theoretical level, not having experienced the oppression myself, wouldn't you discount my defense as rather obtuse? See what I mean?