Fate of the Faithful
Some say he’s a spiritual galvanizer, others a bully. So what does the Twin Cities’ new archbishop really mean for Minnesota Catholics?
(page 1 of 3)THE WELCOMING MASS for a new archbishop is the closest most Catholic Minnesotans will ever come to a coronation. Last June, in white plumy hats and red capes, members of the Knights of Columbus fraternal order stood like centurions outside the lofty granite edifice of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, the highest point in the capital. Ranks of seminarians marched in, while less orderly posses, pushing one cause or another within the church, sang over loudspeakers on the lawn, hoping for the archbishop’s acknowledgement. Priests gossiped in the grass (“Those letters he used to send…,” “He’s really grown since then”). The organ prelude, “Tu es Petrus”—You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church—rumbled out into the humidity.
The pews were packed with thousands of pastors, monks, nuns, Vatican dignitaries, and ordinary believers, many of whom simply wanted a look at the man who would be king: the Reverend John Nienstedt. The Introit began: Now I know that the Lord really has sent his angel. The congregation rose in a shudder, and Nienstedt appeared in the doorway, haloed in the afternoon light. “Are you willing to support Archbishop Nienstedt as he takes up his ministry among us?” asked his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn. We are, the crowd affirmed.
Yet many American Catholics, more than at any point in the past several decades, are at a crossroads, hoping for flexibility in church positions but faced with increasingly rigid leadership. What Nienstedt does after his expected ascent this month to the head of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese may well determine the local church’s long-term direction. Nienstedt will be the ultimate authority figure for some 750,000 Catholics across 12 counties, stretching from the Twin Cities to Albertville in the north and Faribault in the south. Archbishops have the power to assign—and reassign—priests as they see fit and to enforce church rules as Rome sees fit. Their actions frequently reverberate beyond church walls, as when Flynn testified before the Legislature this year on behalf of a higher minimum wage, or when sex abuse cover-ups filled front pages across the country. If he serves until the priestly retirement age of 75, Nienstedt could reign over this region for a lengthy 14 years.
Not surprisingly then, before Nienstedt spent the past year as coadjutor archbishop—or coworker, sharing duties with Flynn—the media scrutinized his character, writings, and any other indication of his intentions. “Much ink has been spilled in the press over speculation about how [I] will differ from the present archbishop,” Nienstedt sermonized at his welcoming mass. “Frankly, I believe such speculation is misplaced.” Indeed, observers seized on the two men’s stylistic differences and extrapolated that Nienstedt was more of a hardliner. (Nienstedt once said, for instance, that to ensure Catholic schools’ viability “we have to tell Catholics to have more babies”—a blunt suggestion the low-key Flynn would be unlikely to make.) The Star Tribune soberly noted that Nienstedt, previously the bishop of New Ulm, “has pushed for an amendment to the state Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman and has taken conservative stances on issues ranging from Terri Schiavo to the causes of homosexuality.” Never mind that Flynn has taken exactly the same positions.
In splitting the few hairs that separate these men, the media may have missed the bigger picture: Both leaders have been committed to reflecting the church’s official position at any given time. Not so long ago, bishops occasionally advocated for flexibility—notably in Nienstedt’s hometown of Detroit. No longer. Certainly not these men. “I don’t believe it’s the role of any bishop to have an agenda,” Nienstedt says. “I’m not conservative, I’m not liberal. I’m here to serve and do what the church asks me to do.” As one longtime observer of local Catholic life puts it, they’re both “company men” and “that’s the state of the overall church now.” So if Nienstedt seems like a hardliner, it can only mean one thing: That’s what Rome desires.
Over the last 25 years, the most remarkable trend in the church has been the rise of traditionalist bishops—leaders uninterested in questioning the church’s most sensitive stands, who, on the contrary, have staked out unfashionable positions to defend church teaching. “There were things John Paul as pope wanted to accomplish and he felt the best way to do that was to appoint like-minded people to bishop posts around the world,” says Robert Kennedy, head of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “And I think [Pope Benedict XVI] is continuing that.” In their vision for the church, right and wrong are clear—as are the consequences for confusing them. “Jesus has given us instructions, and we have to be faithful to them,” Nienstedt has said. “So if someone is out of bounds,” he added, using a sports metaphor, “they may be whistled down.”
If the seeds of this new order were sown during Flynn’s term, then Nienstedt’s tenure may see their full flower. At his welcoming mass last June, Nienstedt preached unity and diversity, repeating that “each in his chosen way” should be gathered into the Christian fold. Speakers of various nationalities read scripture in their native tongues. The skeptical seemed reassured. But since that day, enough controversy has swirled around the archbishop’s office to suggest that unity may come at a very high price.
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There is a precept in the Catholic Church called ecclesia semper reformanda, meaning “the church is always reforming”—a surprise to anyone who believes it has all-too-successfully resisted change. Yet the church of today looks nothing like the church of 1950, which looked nothing like the early church, an institution many scholars believe included women leaders and married priests. And the latest makeover occurred less than 50 years ago.
When Catholic leaders gathered in the early 1960s for the landmark discussions known as the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, or Vatican II, they mandated modernization—not to conform to contemporary mores, but to assert the church’s relevance in a fast-changing world. After all, Joe Catholic could by then zip around the world in a jet, watch the president on TV, and more than ever—given John F. Kennedy’s status as the first Catholic in the Oval Office—hope to become the president. Meanwhile, Catholic worship seemed literally backward—still led exclusively in Latin by priests who faced the altar, not the congregation.
Vatican II changed all that. The service, or liturgy, could be led in the language of the people. The people, or laity, were empowered to participate. Nuns threw off their habits, the laity joined choirs, led Sunday school, and no longer felt they were going to hell if they missed a mass. The liberating spirit of these changes inspired several generations of Catholics to question other church teachings or traditions seemingly incompatible with modern life.
Some now say they went too far. In dispensing with bad theology, maybe some good was lost, too, say critics—baby Jesus thrown out with the bath water. Today’s young seminarians are struggling to lead a church still awash in the sea change instigated by their elders and, perhaps not surprisingly, they’re looking for anchors. “They just want to get in touch with their cultural roots,” says Kennedy of the University of St. Thomas. “They’re not carrying some of the baggage that their parents carried in the ’60s and ’70s—they’re freer to look at the tradition of the church and be excited. They’re pushing back a little bit, saying some of that’s kind of interesting and beautiful.”
The type of priest many Catholics have come to know is being displaced. After Vatican II, the most popular priestly model was the so-called servant-leader, whose accommodating, or pastoral, manner toward the faithful reflected a significant break from the shepherd priest who had all the answers and whose sheep were, well, sheep. Now, some traditionalist young priests, often called John Paul or JP II priests, are returning to the more authoritarian mold of pre-Vatican II.
One local seminarian (who favors the pre-Vatican II Latin mass slowly being reintroduced in traditionalist parishes), has posted images on his blog of the kind of priest he hopes to become: black-and-white pictures of pre-Vatican II priests facing the altar, historic paintings evoking the majesty of old. Adapting his philosophy from a group called Concerned Roman Catholics of America, he says, “I will not allow the Holy Catholic Church to be torn apart and assaulted by the forces of modernism, syncretism, heresy, and the gross immorality of some of its clergy in the name of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II.’ I will not allow our Catholic youth to be robbed of their faith or have their innocence destroyed in the name of ‘tolerance,’ ‘ecumenism,’ ‘diversity,’ or any other politically correct ideology of the day.”
Kennedy warns against extrapolating from such examples. “It’s true that some enclaves around the country seem to want to reconstruct some imaginary version of the [pre-Vatican II] church,” he says. “I don’t know what they’re smoking.” But today’s youth returning to a pre-Vatican II church—“that’s not going to happen.”
Nevertheless, the generational difference is enough to disturb many servant-leader priests. “They don’t admire the young priests,” says Dean Hoge, a sociology professor and expert on priests and seminarians at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “They feel the young men are too concerned with their own status.” In turn, the JP II priests call their elders—sometimes called Vatican II priests—“social-worker priests” or “Protestant priests,” he says, as if they’ve “somehow watered down what it means to be a priest.”
Social workers or not, many Vatican II priests fostered a progressive agenda. The nation’s first archdiocesan Commission on Women was begun in the Twin Cities in 1979 by then-Archbishop John Roach to explore the role of women in the church. Also at that time, the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) formed in St. Paul. With Roach’s blessing, says CPCSM co-founder David McCaffrey, the group introduced a sort of sensitivity training in parishes and eight out of the 11 local Catholic high schools—a curriculum enabling counselors to better serve gay Catholics. “During the peak of our work,” says McCaffrey, “we became almost mainstream.”
By 1999, after conservative parents complained, says McCaffrey, CPCSM was no longer welcome. Last year, the archdiocese frequently ran afoul of gay advocates, as when it forbade a CPCSM-sponsored talk in October by a lesbian and her father to be held at a Minneapolis church. Soon after, Nienstedt clarified the church’s position on homosexuality in the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Spirit. In an earlier column, he had called homosexuality a disorder, explaining that “such inclinations are not sinful in themselves” but acting on them is. This time, he said even those who “actively encourage or promote homosexual acts or such activity within a homosexual lifestyle formally cooperate in a grave evil,” which many read as a literal condemnation of those who’ve supported the loving relationships of their gay children or friends.
This spring, further archdiocesan orders have limited everything from the role of lay preachers during mass to the kinds of nontraditional, laity-led liturgies some parishes have offered since the 1960s. The Commission on Women was recently folded into another archdiocesan office, which some participants see as a diminishment of its importance. “The post-Vatican II sense of collegiality among the bishops, much less among church leaders and lay people, has faded,” says one local observer, “and the sense of hierarchy has ascended.”
“There are some arguments in favor of the more traditional view of the priesthood,” says Hoge. “They have a stronger morale, they’re happier men. They resign a bit less. And the seminaries that espouse that view are a little stronger, so they say, ‘We’re the way of the future, follow us.’ But the laity, in general, prefer the servant-leader model.”
As a new era dawns, several well-known servant-leader priests here, including the Reverend Michael O’Connell of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis—the originator of the popular Basilica Block Party—are moving on or retiring. As a result, some local Catholics conjecture, the archdiocese won’t be as welcoming. “I figure we have about 10 good years left,” says a longtime Basilica parishioner. The local Reverend Mike Tegeder simply predicts bigger and broader clashes, as the spirit of Vatican II won’t easily be exorcised. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he says. “There’s no putting it back.”