Next week, at the annual USCCB Plenary meeting, the bishops will select several new committee chairs. One of those committees, the Committee on Doctrine, is an especially delicate assignment. Even a man with as clear and careful a mind as Cardinal Donald Wuerl has found himself in the midst of controversy.as chair of the Doctrine Committee. Sometimes controversy is unavoidable, to be sure, but it serves the best interests of the Church when such controversies are handled by bishops, like Wuerl, who are known for their thoughtfulness.
In the event, one of the two nominees, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul, Minnesota, has a long track record of indelicacy. Nienstedt first landed on my radar screen when, in 2006, while serving as the Bishop of New Ulm, he wrote a column in his diocesan newspaper urging his flock not to attend the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” Nienstedt wrote of the movie, “The story is about two lonely cowboys herding sheep up on a mountain range. One night after a drinking binge, one man makes a pass at the other and within seconds the latter mounts the former in an act of wanton anal sex.” I must say that I never in all my years expected to read the phrase “wanton anal sex” in my diocesan newspaper. In my experience, diocesan newspapers tend to be read by an older, largely female, demographic. Did they really need to read that phrase?
The episode was not Nienstedt’s first indelicate act as bishop of New Ulm. He denounced the writings of his predecessor who had recently died. Bishop Raymond Lucker had begun working on a book when illness overtook him and he entrusted the completion of the work to a friend. Lucker, who had served as the bishop of New Ulm for twenty-five years, died in 2001, the same year Nienstedt became bishop of New Ulm. When the book was published in 2003, Nienstedt urged Catholics not to read it, said it did not adequately reflect Church Teaching. Nienstedt wrote that the book “challenges the church’s own understanding of herself as being authoritatively charged under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to teach in the name of Jesus on matters of faith and morals.” Nienstedt referred the text to the USCCB Doctrine Committee. The Committee engaged a theologian to review the book, who concluded that while there were some passages that were “ambiguous” and “lacking nuance,” the book did not contain “grave errors.”
I did not read the book and have no intention of doing so. But, it seems odd to me to try to defend the teaching authority of the bishops by throwing one of them under the bus. And, it is simply bad form. When bishops take the helm of a new diocese and they re-arrange all the pastors, or fire the entire chancery staff, or condemn their predecessor as theologically suspect, these acts cause consternation among the faithful. They get whiplash. “It was a really unnecessary and deep insult to a man who had recently died, a man who had given his life to the church,” my colleague Tom Roberts commented at the time.
Since arriving in St. Paul, Neinstedt has certainly not avoided more controversy, most especially in his decision to manufacture and distribute 400,000 DVDs instructing Catholics on why they must oppose same-sex marriage. To be clear, I share the bishops’ concern that marriage is such a foundational institution of our society, we should treat it with great care. And, as a smart legal mind explained to me, marriage is, in legal terms, like throwing on an electric switch: the electricity runs everywhere. Marriage law touches many other legal (and social) issues. For example, the Church not only has the right, the Church is right to insist that it should not be coerced into extending same-sex partner benefits to those in unions which the Church can’t approve. But, in those instances, rather than mount an expensive DVD campaign, why not opt for the Levada Solution, adopted in the mid-1990s, to resolve the issue. Then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, Levada negotiated a solution with the Sam Francisco government allowing employees at Catholic social service agencies that contracted with the government to name anyone they wanted to receive their share of benefits, provided they were legally domiciled together. So, you could name a cousin who was out of work and staying at your place, or an invalid uncle who lived with you. They Church achieved a signature social policy objective, extending health care benefits, without compromising its principles.
That was the mod-1990s but, in fact, the defense of traditional marriage in this culture went out the door with the advent of no-fault divorce. The push for gay marriage is not as grave a threat to what the Church means by marriage as is the tsunami of divorces in the past several decades. The Church should not acquiesce in the assault on traditional marriage to be sure. But, I confess that I am disturbed that we mount these expensive campaigns against gay marriage but do not mount such campaigns to defend programs that aid the poor. In 2010, Archbishop Nienstedt announced a parish re-structuring that shuttered 21 parishes. Is it really more important to spend limited resources fighting gay marriage than it is to keep our parishes open? Our schools?
We might say of Archbishop Nienstedt what Winston Churchill once said of John Foster Dulles: He is the only bull I know who carries his own china closet with him.
I do not have a vote next Monday, which we can all agree is a good thing! But, if I did, I think I would be looking for someone with better judgment and more prudence than Archbishop Nienstedt to lead a committee charged with guarding the precious treasures which are the Church’s doctrines.