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By Andrea Morisette Grazzini
The most powerful Catholic leader in Minnesota told a mother to either change her mind about her gay son or plan on going to hell. Which helps explain why many would like to tell Archbishop John Nienstedt to do the same.
What the heavenly response is to all this damnation is unknown. Except to a chosen few, if we are to believe them. Nienstedt seems confident God will support his judgments of the mother and countless others who’ve trespassed into his wrath over the years—many, like the mother, in relationship with GLBT people.
Whether Nienstedt has converted anyone in the three decades since his ordination is unclear. What is clear is that the bishop is not praised for being compassionate. Public consensus and Neinstedt’s own stiff communications convey little evidence he is. What all—including the Bishop—agree on, is that his motives extend well beyond his religion.
Politics needs Religion?
The man is on a political mission. He told me as much, himself.
I doubt Nienstedt expected his revelation would get much past our short but respectful conversation last December. Though I shared that my personal and professional values had me very concerned about institutionally propagandized polarization, including by religions. Still, we didn’t know each other until then. I’m sure if we had, the Bishop would never have spoken with me with such candor, if at all.
This was after a Mass in economically distressed North Minneapolis, Minnesota. Where in his sermon the bishop spoke of St. Peter, the “Rock” and founder of the Catholic church, who ominously “informed us that the world as we know it will be consumed in flames, giving way to a new heaven and a new earth.” It ended with Nienstedt’s “call to examine our consciences in regard to our daily attitudes and actions.” He posed rhetorical questions for all to consider: “What am I like when no one is looking? And how have I helped the poor? And “What kind of an example do I give others?”
Hard Questions, No Answers
These parting questions struck me as curious, given what I knew of the man. Still, I resisted the urge to judge. I hoped to take this rare opportunity to hear his views first hand. At a pancake breakfast in the church hall after Mass, I chose questions similar to his to orient our discussion and get a better sense of him.
I went into our chat knowing his prickliness regularly offends many Catholics, which would be worrisome enough. But, also, that the bishop’s actions affect far more people than those in his Church’s pews. It’s no secret Nienstedt has long preached his polarizing politics to everyone both from the pulpit and via his pen, used to scribe columns, faith and media pieces and many letters, including to several public officials and at least two presidents: one who leads a globally prominent American Catholic University, the other the leader of the United States of America.
As we spoke, I wondered aloud how his thoughtful questions could be translated in the real world. Where so many pontificate seemingly reasonable perspectives, but with such polarizing evangelism that little but social purgatory prevails. The bishop said he didn’t know.
His uncertainty starkly contrasted his Mass demeanor, both verbally and visually. Gone were the ceremonial vestments, high-peaked hat and shepherds-hook staff of Vatican-appointed hierarchy. His only remaining vestige of status was a white Roman collar.
Known as the yoke of the Gospel, the collar symbolizes humble followership as much as higher-than-thou leadership. It’s meant to bind pastors in servitude to holier-than-human truths. It denotes their professional vocation as sheep to their shepherd: Jesus. For Catholic clerics it implies a benevolent patriarch—why priests are called “Father.” Most Revered Archbishops, like Nienstedt, are held to an even higher responsibility: to teach and abet pastoral care at levels commensurate their rank and the academic echelons they ascended as Scriptural scholars to achieve it.
Doctrine of Common-Good
All this in mind, I pressed for clarity. “Corporations and government” the prelate responded, “must work for the ‘common good.’” Common good is social science language steeped in the rhetoric of civics—politics. In fact, Nienstedt worked in the political office of Vatican, which helps explain his choice of words—and, of course, much more.
Common good is subjective, if not submissive to varied viewpoints of what it is. So, I asked him: what compels diverse political, business, academic and religious institutions to collaborate for the same common good? The Archbishop, who holds triune titles as director of the Archdiocesan Corporation, religious Scholar and as pastoral Father, again, said he didn’t know.
In fact, Nienstedt had known in a scolding letter sent to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Six months before, he had written: “By common good I would include such considerations as fulfilling the moral and justice to future generation (sic). Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all members of our society, especially families who struggle to live with dignity during difficult economic times. On the other hand, those who receive benefits from the commonwealth must not forget their responsibility to society in return.”
In any case, the bishop and I moved on. We talked of the faith and expectations citizens invest in religious hierarchies, looking to their leaders, as he’d chastised the governor to, to take higher roads and rise to higher callings, in service for and to the common good—of all, especially the poor and in need. “What could we do about all of this unmet need?” I wondered. For a third time, the bishop said he didn’t know.
Trying to bring our conversation back to my original themes, I noted that our own religion has struggled in ways similar to how he’d alluded that government and business have.
This changed the tone. Until then our chat had been thoughtful and amiable. Now the bishop began pushing back on my probing. He aligned his Catholic hierarchy’s difficulties with secular ones. Which, for me, brought to mind similarities between the Church and Penn State University.
This was a month after Coach Jerry Sandusky had been arrested for abusing multiple boys there. Jeff Anderson, the same attorney who has brought hundreds of cases of priest pedophilia against Nienstedt’s Archdiocese over the years, had just announced he was representing Sandusky’s victims, too. “Do you know that the abuse really happened?” Neinstedt challenged me. “I haven’t seen any evidence that can prove it, have you?” he continued.
I knew debating the details of Penn State’s problem wouldn’t be productive. I only learned later that around the same time he had sent the letter to Dayton, Nienstedt’s Archdiocese had sued Jim Keenan, who was sexually assaulted by a priest at our childhood parish. Jim, with his parents and wife by his side, until then known only as John Doe, Victim #72A, revealed his identity to seek the release of the names of priest pedophiles, so the public would know if one were in their parish or community.
The Catholic Church has long succeeded in keeping itself sovereign, above American law, and thus not
culpable for revealing the identities of abusers, even when, as was the case here, the Church has acknowledged their abuse. When Jim refused to negotiate for a financial settlement with the Archdiocese, it turned up the heat.
To respect the Bishop’s mounting agitation I redirected our conversation, asking him how the Church could be a model for government and business. It was then that Archbishop Nienstedt, perhaps caught off guard, proffered a startling but remarkably candid answer. It would be the first and only answer he’d give me: “We need to have less separation between Church and State,” said the Archbishop of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese. Located in our Country, which was founded on the belief that religious freedom means none are required to adhere to Church doctrines even as all are free to practice whatever religion or not, they choose.
Religion and the Fallen Empire
Ancient Rome crossed my mind. Like the US, Rome was founded as a ‘we the people’ republic, governed by democracy with intentionally strict separations between Church and State. Over the years, the Vatican slowly exerted its power and will, throwing money, doctrine and—no doubt—the threat of eternal damnation around to assert its influence. After imbedding both its riches and religion throughout the increasingly corrupt Roman government it helped undermine the foundations of the Empire—which, history reminds us, fell from grace in spectacular fashion while leading a vast global collapse.
Money, doctrine, damnation. The Archbishop hasn’t held back on any, either. Including recently eliciting an additional $650,000 from Catholics to fight gay marriage.
Tax-Exempt Church Costs Citizens
The poverty he spoke so movingly of the day I met him? It remains largely unaddressed by the Church. Meanwhile, the Church enjoys exemption not only from US laws meant to protect children, but also taxes. Taxes needed to fund civil courts where priest sex abuse cases and their related penalties are brought, many of which the Church, singularly and above all, avoids. And, taxes needed to fund the very charity that Neinstedt has threatened ‘taking away’ from the government, even though the government funds represent the largest institutional contributions to Catholic Charities, through government grants awarded to it. And which the Church itself is the smallest funder, accounting for only 4% of the charity for poor families and children.
Which brings me to Peter, the saint Neinstedt called up in his sermon to address families and children attending Mass in impoverished North Minneapolis.
Peter is an ecclesiastic enigma. Known as the first Archbishop of Rome, he is a powerful example of how social pathologies infect the holiest of people. Well before his ascension into the holy echelons, Peter was notoriously self-serving. He was the Apostle who, during Jesus’ darkest hour famously denied the Lord, who he’d promised he never would, standing idly by when he could have helped, as Christ, his heartbroken mother grieving nearby, was brutally crucified.
Peter thought no one was looking. When asked if he knew his would-be Savior, Peter—three times—answered that he didn’t. Peter, the future Archbishop, said “I don’t know.”
Which reminds me of Neinstedt’s questions after his sermon about Peter. And makes me wonder if the Archbishop has asked himself: “What am I like when no one is looking? How have I helped the poor?” And “What kind of an example do I give others?”
What kind of example does the Archbishop give to sons of poor heartbroken mothers? Like the ones struggling to make ends meet in North Minneapolis. Or like Jim Keenan’s mother Marna, who set nearby looking heartbroken while her son endured a very dark hour. And what of the mother who reached out to Neinstedt for support but was damningly denied whose gay son, as Neinstedt knows full well, has long been crucified for simply being who he is?
It’s time Archbishop John Neinstedt start withholding judgments and start leading by example to help the poor
and disenfranchised, as his Church’s Social Doctrine demands. And that does not means setting them up, in the Vatican’s words: “to be manipulated by social, economic or political structures, because every person has the freedom to direct himself towards his ultimate.” Or nitpicking devishly divisive details about gender behaviors. It means he must instead support “the modern cultural, social, economic and political phenomenon of interdependence, which intensifies and makes particularly evident the bonds that unite the human family, accentuates (…) a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity.”
Lest those who would judge
Because no matter how powerful Nienstedt might think he is, even Papal documents dictate in clear language what sins will and won’t be judged with the most scrutiny. And, mothers’ appeals for support of their sons are not proclaimed anywhere amongst the most egregious.
From what I’ve seen, the possibilities the Bishop qualifies for eternal damnation his Holy Bible asserts are, on the other hand, doctrinally supportable. But I’m not God, so what do I know? In fact, who would know? Surely not Bishop Nienstedt.
Only God Knows
Indeed, only God knows. And He’s withholding judgment according to Catholic Scripture, until after the flames that consume us give “way to a new heaven and a new earth.”
Meanwhile, it would seem to behoove The Most Reverend Bishop to practice what he preached to the Governor whose state and Country supports Catholic causes and remember; “those who receive benefits from the commonwealth must not forget their responsibility to society in return.”