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.”
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Tegeder, the priest at the Church of St. Edward in Bloomington, is among the most vocal critics of Nienstedt’s appointment. Ordained in the late 1970s, he is a classic servant-leader priest. He sometimes sports a worn newsboy cap (Nienstedt prefers a crisp black fedora) and occasionally uses the word “damn” in the non-ecclesiastical sense.
Tegeder notes that Nienstedt’s June trip to Rome, where he’ll receive a lambskin stole as affirmation of his appointment, has been heavily advertised among local Catholics—they can even purchase a tour package to traipse along, something more status-conscious East Coast bishops would encourage. (For his part, Nienstedt has said the criticism of his appointment has been “very inhospitable and not at all in keeping with the classic Minnesota attitude of ‘fair play.’”) Yet Tegeder is hardly an inner-city activist or the head of a nonconformist parish: The Church of St. Edward is a large congregation in a leafy suburb. He’s certainly no less traditional than his church’s staff, who on this day—Ash Wednesday—all appropriately sport a cross of ashes on their foreheads.
Tegeder has gathered the staff to discuss their hopes and fears for the future of the archdiocese. This archdiocese is known for its unusually high number of progressive Catholics armed with advanced religious education, and Tegeder’s staff fits the mold. They are all women, and many have degrees in divinity or theology—“all of them basically have the same education as the priests,” says Tegeder. Vatican II renewed the church’s call for Catholics to inform their conscience through study—in addition to consulting their leaders—and these women have taken the call seriously.
Heidi Busse, who organizes the church’s religious instruction classes as its director of faith formation, is an outgoing 35-year-old with a master’s in theology. She’s occasionally preached at St. Edward’s. But starting this month, as directed by the archbishop’s office, lay preaching will largely be banned during mass. Several parishes have regularly featured lay preachers as a way for parishioners to “break open the word,” Busse says—to hear from a perspective closer to their own. Now, lay people must speak at the end of mass, if they are to speak from the pulpit at all.
“I think there’s a breakdown between reality—the real life in the parish—and theory or doctrine or politics,” says Busse. She isn’t called to be a priest, she says, but is a talented speaker. “We all have different gifts, and it’s hard as a woman or lay person to be told your call is not valid.”
LaLonne Murphy, the parish’s director of liturgy and music, has worked in the archdiocese for 30 years and says the increased stress on guidelines, or rubrics, has been pitched to the parishes as necessary to avoid “confusion” among the faithful. “If Heidi preaches, I don’t think there is going to be any confusion that she is Father Mike,” says Murphy. “We are not confused about these things.”
The women would prefer a dialogue between parishioners and leaders. “We don’t want to run wild,” says Busse. “We don’t want to be relativist…it’s just that the conversation would be so helpful for all of us to be more open to serving each other.” Murphy agrees: “People here tend to be more adult and take responsibility for themselves and the world around them. They’re not waiting for someone to tell them what to do. No one needs another mom and dad.”
The sentiment echoes national surveys that show a growing gap between the Catholic laity and their leaders on such issues as contraception, married priests, and church governance. “They’re moving in opposite directions,” says William D’Antonio, a renowned scholar in the sociology of religion at Catholic University and co-author of the 2007 book American Catholics Today. From 1987 to 2005, the authors’ research shows, the “level of Catholics’ commitment to the institutional church” has trended downward. “By 2005,” says D’Antonio, “there isn’t an age group or gender where there is a majority saying that they look to church leaders as the automatic source of authority.” Instead, more Catholics are looking to their own conscience.
The concept has precedence: Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “It is better to die excommunicated” than to disobey one’s conscience. The beloved educator Cardinal John Henry Newman reputedly said, “I shall drink to the pope, if you please—still, to conscience first and to the pope afterwards.” When it comes down to who feels welcome in the church, says Murphy, many of the faithful consult their consciences. “We are not confused when people are not permitted by the institution to join us at the table,” she says, referring to the church’s position on Catholics in same-sex unions. “We are not confused by that. That [church policy] is an abomination.”
Even toward straight people seeking to marry, however, the archdiocese has become less welcoming, claims Tegeder, with some parishes scrutinizing the couple’s commitment to Catholicism when one partner isn’t Catholic. Parishes have also refused to conduct funerals on similar grounds, says Mary Hayden, the church’s director of pastoral care. Murphy is appalled. “Can you imagine Jesus telling somebody they can’t have their funeral someplace? That he won’t stand by them in death? A lot of this law-quoting is about manipulation and fear, telling people they’re going to hell. Fear does not control us. We won’t stand for that kind of bullying.”
What will become of those who feel bullied, the parishioners at the margins? “People are realizing they have different options,” says Tegeder. “Some will want to keep the fight up, others will feel they have to move on.” And still others, says Hayden, will become angry with God.
Since Nienstedt’s welcome mass, many progressives have wondered whether his vision of unity is compatible with theirs. Can he strike a balance between the orthodox ideal of getting everyone on the same page and their hope that diverse perspectives will be embraced? Other Catholics, though, believe he shouldn’t bother accommodating—one man’s hardliner, after all, is another’s true believer. “Bless the Lord! A bishop without a limp spine!” wrote one online commentator upon the news of Nienstedt’s appointment. “Finally, a bishop who knows how to bish!” gushed another.
Several local priests have condemned Tegeder’s views—the Reverend George Welzbacher of the Church of St. John, in St. Paul, calls him a “chronic malcontent” who’s assumed “the role of roadside bomber. Or maybe suicide bomber.” He suggests that those who agree with Tegeder—the insubordinate—have already left the church anyway.
Kennedy says archdiocesan leadership changes so infrequently that new bishops tend to elicit extreme reactions: “Some will say, ‘Thank goodness we got a new sheriff and let me tell you about the guys you need to arrest first,’ and others will say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to change something. How can we prevent that?’”
Even many moderates, however, advocate the occasional archdiocesan housecleaning. “If you don’t sweep and vacuum once a week, things get out of control,” says the Reverend David Smith, recently retired from the University of St. Thomas. Though he notes, “One can raise questions whether they’ve done too much [cleaning]. Sometimes people who call for a housecleaning are pretty restricted about the rooms they want cleaned.”
Those “rooms” may be ideologies, such as gay activism, or parishes with experimental liturgies. “This archdiocese is known worldwide for several parishes that have strayed pretty far from the Catholic faith,” says Janice LaDuke, who blogs about local Catholicism as “Catherine of Alexandria,” the medieval martyr. She says anyone who thinks Nienstedt’s appointment triggered a Catholic culture war here doesn’t know the local church—“This archdiocese has been a battlefield long before now.” And she, for one, welcomes the challenge: “I’ve got my sword handy, my Catechism and Bible at the ready.”
Four weeks before Easter, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis is standing-room-only with the kind of crowd for whom May Day is a major holiday: bearded men in ponytails, white-haired crones leaning on canes carved with animal totems, a lesbian couple rocking their baby. There are enough Subarus in the parking lot to open a dealership. Some worshippers have never been here before. A few are Lutheran, attending in solidarity. Many are in tears.
St. Stephen’s is one of the churches LaDuke would consider a liturgical outlier, and the battle has been taken to its doorstep. “We are in crisis,” the service’s leader announces. “We don’t know where we’re going to be.” But they can’t stay here. After today—after 40 years—this service is being shut down by the archdiocese. Too many rules broken, Archbishop Flynn wrote to them. Too much “confusion about liturgical practices.”
The 9 a.m. service at St. Stephen’s, a major social-service provider in its blighted neighborhood near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, was likely the first in the archdiocese to feature the sort of guitar-strumming, dancing-in-the-aisles aesthetic that makes even liberal Minnesotans blush. Of course, there are no aisles here, no pulpit, and, for a long while, no priest. Just two basketball hoops, a stage, and a makeshift altar. The service has always been held in the parish’s gym.
Their communion vessels are made of the wrong material—ceramic instead of precious metal. Women often lead worship. After the homily, a microphone is set up for parishioners to dialogue about the text. Poetry is often read, as in Unitarian churches. Even Tegeder describes it as “kind of a fast and loose community” and suggests the archdiocese was right to question aspects of the service. But he also believes the current hierarchy would consider it a “marginal” community. How did things come to this? And why now?
In his letter to the parish, Flynn said he sought changes by April, when St. Stephen’s received a new priest, by all accounts a traditionalist. Flynn also noted that St. Stephen’s had been upbraided before; enough changes were not made.
In the bigger picture, St. Stephen’s time may simply be up. Among the phenomena of the Catholic church’s new era is the emergence of liturgical vigilantes, people who visit parishes and note—in blogs or letters to the archbishop—how closely rubrics are followed. Flynn has publicly chastised such busybodies, yet more than one visitor to St. Stephen’s has tattled on the 9 a.m. worshippers. And now the St. Stephen’s folks are divided. Many vow to continue a similar service off-site, outside the archbishop’s purview.
Few, if any, have talked publicly of abandoning Catholicism altogether, not unlike other Catholics under duress. Mary Beckfeld, co-founder of the online journal Progressive Catholic Voice, which launched locally last fall to chronicle alternative viewpoints within the church, is the mother of a gay son and feels she can best affect change on his behalf by staying in the church. “We really love this church,” she says of herself and the newsletter staff. “And I don’t believe I’m living in mortal sin.” McCaffrey, who struggled for years to reconcile his sexuality with Catholicism, says he finally found balance in the inclusive spirit of Vatican II—only to feel it’s been pulled out from under him by the Catholic hierarchy. “That’s the outrage we feel,” he says. “They’re really screwing with our lives.”
Michael Bayly, who edits the Progressive Catholic Voice and directs CPCSM, has long advocated for gays like himself in the church. By baptism, he says, it’s his church, the one he knows and loves—why should he leave? Besides, he says, wherever Catholics are gathered, that’s a Catholic space. If the St. Stephen’s crowd moves underground, they won’t be any less righteous.
“I am writing letters to these asshole bishops!” shouts one parishioner—a nun in a purple tracksuit—during the St. Stephen’s service. “Blessed are the flexible,” cries another worshipper, “for they won’t get bent out of shape.” But such sentiments are unlikely to slow the broader archdiocesan housecleaning. Nienstedt is coming, after all. And efforts are being doubled to make the archdiocese presentable.
In a basement room of St. Mark’s parish in St. Paul, a local gathering of the National Council of Catholic Women is unexpectedly noisy for a coterie of ladies averaging 70 years old. They typically draw 60 people—135 are here today. Lucy Johnson, president of this particular passel, looks worried: Nienstedt is coming.
“I know there are people here who are not happy,” says Johnson. “I just hope people listen before they talk.” Nienstedt has never before spoken directly to Twin Cities women about their role. There are rumors, Johnson says, about his expectations of them, unflattering even to many septuagenarians—that he’d prefer women stay in the kitchen and away from the altar. It doesn’t help that after Nienstedt doffs his fedora he is accidentally introduced to the group as the “co-agitator,” instead of coadjutor, archbishop.
His speech quotes liberally from popes (his Catholic Spirit columns almost always quote popes or doctrinal documents) and addresses the limits of gender roles: “We don’t all have to have the same function. But we must all work together.” And he doesn’t shy from the big questions: Why can’t women be priests? Because at the Last Supper, when Jesus gathered his disciples and called them to lead his legacy, “no women were present,” says Nienstedt. “And the church can’t do what Jesus didn’t do.”
As soon as he finishes, the hands go up: “I wouldn’t know you from Adam’s housecat,” says one woman. “But you’re a controversial figure.”
“I am?” Nienstedt jokes. The woman asks if he really wants to stop women from serving at the altar. “It’s sheer bunk,” he says. Also “bunk” is the idea that priests suddenly want out of the archdiocese. “I don’t believe there’s a rush for the door,” he says. He then becomes reflective, pondering these rumors’ origin. “I tend to be straightforward—perhaps that puts people off,” he says. “My parents didn’t beat around the bush.”
When he leaves, the floor opens to dialogue, yet everyone seems curiously disarmed. “He’s not going to say what will make you feel good,” says one woman. “But if there’s our leader, I’ll get in line.” Another says, “Years ago, things were either right or wrong,” while now the picture is muddled. Nienstedt’s clarity, she says, is bracing.
Kennedy wouldn’t be surprised that Nienstedt won these women over. He believes the fear of Nienstedt is largely just fear of change: Catholics became accustomed to a certain perspective here after Vatican II, he says, and Nienstedt may not be dangerous so much as different. People may even be surprised by him, he says, once they get over the new ground rules. The archdiocese is redefining lay ministry, for instance, but Nienstedt is still enthusiastic about the concept—just as Pope Benedict has surprised critics by advocating for the environment and making hope and love the subjects of his first two policy statements.
This is cold comfort to those who have always felt too different for the hierarchy. But most Catholics might settle for a middle ground. “What we need is enough certainty, enough clear vision that we can commit ourselves to a faith,” says Smith, formerly of the University of St. Thomas, “but with enough flexibility that we can continue” to reconcile that commitment to contemporary knowledge. “It’s always a tension and balance to get that right.”
Progressives like Heidi Busse find hope in another tradition of the church, sensus fidelium, which holds that the Holy Spirit inevitably guides the faithful in the right direction—even if the church, as an institution, takes some errant turns. “We’re a human church on the one hand, but a divine one on the other,” she says. “Sometimes the hierarchy has to catch up to what the faithful has been doing. The faithful really lead.” Just where the church is on that continuum can only be seen—by the earthbound anyway—in hindsight.
Tim Gihring is a senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.