Clueless in St. Paul

Yesterday, reading Archbishop John Nienstedt’s defiant statement of his intention to carry on as the Archbishop of St. Paul, my thoughts drifted back to May 1940. I know the limits of analogies between the political sphere and the religious, but in this case, the focus is on leadership, its exercise, and the dangerous way that some leaders misperceive their own situations.

On May 7, a debate began in the House of Commons on the war effort, specifically the recent failures in Norway where a planned occupation of key ports by the British Admiralty was frustrated when the Germans beat them to the punch. An effort to re-take the Norwegian ports failed. The country and its Commons were in a high state of excitement, not least because they knew that the blow on the Western Front could not be long in coming. During the first day of debate, Leo Amery, a respected member of the Conservative Party and a Privy Councilor as well, spoke against the government, invoking the terrible words of Cromwell to the Long Parliament, “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

The next day, it became clear that the debate was becoming a vote of censure on the government, that there would be a division of members and the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, would face a vote of no confidence. In his own remarks, Chamberlain called upon his friends to stand by him. It was an unfortunate comment. Lloyd George, who had led Great Britain through the latter half of the First World War, and was the nation’s leading eminence grise, threw down the gauntlet. “It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister’s friends. It is a far bigger issue. He has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at, and as long as the nation is confident those who are leading it are doing their best….I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.”

In the division that followed, Chamberlain won the vote with a majority of 81. The standards of the British Constitution entitled him to stay in office. But, with fifty members of his own party defecting to the opposition, and the state of the country being what it was, Chamberlain recognized that a national government, uniting all the parties, was needed. The next day, he called the leaders of the Opposition to his office and asked them if they would join such a government. They said that they would consult with their party, but indicated that they suspected the party would refuse to serve in a government led by Mr. Chamberlain, a suspicion that proved correct.

Here is where the analogy becomes precise. The morning of May 10, of course, brought the news that the German blow had struck in the West – in Holland, Belgium and France. That morning, Chamberlain received his long-time colleague and close personal friend, Sir Kingsley Wood. Chamberlain told him that, under the circumstance of the Western Front bursting into flame, he thought he should stay at the helm until the crisis died down. Kingsley Wood, in what must have been an intensely difficult interview, explained that it was more vital than ever that a national government be formed, and that he must resign his seals of office that day. And, so it happened. By midnight, a new national government of all parties had been formed with Winston Churchill at its head.

Our Catholic Church has no equivalent of a parliamentary division to assess the level of support for its leaders, which is a good thing. The office of bishop is instituted by God, not man, and the first responsibility of a bishop is to keep the flock entrusted to him united in faith. But, the exercise of office, in the Church as in government, requires leadership especially in a time of acute crisis. Sometimes, the person at the center of the maelstrom, whose limitations have been demonstrated and finds himself incapable of exercising the leadership required, will, like Chamberlain, see in the crisis a reason to stay. It falls to friends like Sir Kingsley Wood – or closer to our own time, top Senate Republicans who had to tell Nixon it was time to go – to speak for the good of the nation, or of the Church, to say the harsh but necessary thing to the person who has shown himself incapable of leadership, to invite them to depart.

I do not know who in the U.S. Church can or will play the role of Sir Kingsley Wood. Regrettably, the nuncio seems disinclined to insist that Archbishop Nienstedt resign for the good of the Church. The USCCB has no formal or informal role in policing its own in such a grievous matter. And, given the tone of Archbishop Nienstedt’s statement - especially the biblical quote from Chronicles II: “Stop being afraid, and stop being discouraged because of this vast invasion force, because the battle doesn't belong to you, but to God.” – it is difficult to know to whom he would listen. The man conceives himself in the situation of King Jehoshaphat, and apparently considers the rest of us an invasion force.

To be clear: The people who have been calling for Archbishop Nienstedt’s removal have not invaded the Church and they do not call for his resignation because they hate the Church. Quite the contrary. They have called for his resignation because they love the Church. Even the editorial in the Star-Tribune reflected a great respect for the Church in Minnesota, and concern that a damaged Church would harm the entire community. That editorial was not the work of people who hate the Church. The harm to the Church in St. Paul is not the result of an invasion. It is the result of a lack of leadership. The wound is self-inflicted.  

There are other troubling parts to Archbishop Nienstedt’s comments. He writes, “A bishop’s role is more like that of a father of a family than that of a CEO.” This is true, but what the depositions and the affidavits all indicate is that Archbishop Nienstedt is a self-absorbed and negligent father. He writes, “I have created a new leadership team that operates under the philosophy of ‘Victims First,’” which would have been fine if he had said these words and taken these actions circa 2002, not 2014. He writes that he has been  “too trusting of our internal process and not as hands-on as I could have been in matters of priest misconduct,” but the public record, to say nothing of the depositions and affidavits, portray a man who is quite hands-on about things that matter to him, such as waging a campaign against same sex marriage and voicing his displeasure at the way staffers dressed and a host of other things most of us would consider less important than the protection of children.

Archbishop Nienstedt has said he will stay at his post until the Holy Father tells him otherwise. Of course, the pope has plenty of things to worry about and it would have been gracious to him to spare him the necessity of investigating the situation in St. Paul and reaching his own conclusion. Besides, while it is commonly thought that bishops are answerable only to the Holy Father, last year Bishop Charles Scicluna said that a bishop is answerable to God and to the local church. +Scicluna more properly grasps what leadership is about, that a bishop who is called to shepherd his flock must have the trust of the flock, the confidence of the flock, and that if that shepherd loses that confidence, he can no longer be a responsible shepherd.

Archbishop Nienstedt is deceiving himself. Like Chamberlain on the morning of May 10, 1940, he thinks the crisis requires him to stay when to the rest of the world, the precisely opposite conclusion is the obvious one. He finishes his column with these words: “As author Matthew Kelly reminds us, we as Catholics have a great story to tell, but we have let others tell the story for us. We need to get back to telling the story ourselves. God Bless you!” The Catholics of the Archdiocese of St. Paul do have a “great story to tell,” but their archbishop seems clueless to the fact that the chapter he has contributed is the saddest chapter in the book. 

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