St. Thomas theologians, Nienstedt exchange letters on pastoral leadership

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Absent a renewed emphasis in interpersonal outreach, the current pastoral state of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese "is not sustainable," said 12 tenured theology professors of the University of St. Thomas in an open letter to Archbishop John Nienstedt.

The letter, dated Friday and made public Monday, comes in response to the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal in the archdiocese -- what the faculty called "a grave blot" on the archdiocese's history -- that has raised criticisms of how Nienstedt and other church officials handled allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy.

The result has been more than legal troubles for the Twin Cities church, the theologians said -- it's caused "a spiritual crisis."

"The people of God rightly expect bishops to be good stewards of the Lord's household," the professors wrote, pointing to Pope Francis' February address to the Congregation for Bishops, where he stated "The bishop as a witness of Christ, is not isolated, but with the Church."

"Recent events have shown how badly the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese has failed to meet those expectations. We refer not only to the multi-faceted sexual abuse scandal itself but also to the manner in which these scandals have been handled," the professors said.

In a response letter sent Monday afternoon, Nienstedt expressed gratitude for the "thoughtful advice and your willingness to share it," adding, "I am very sorry for anything I or my predecessors have done to cause Catholics to doubt their faith or the sacred trust that is placed in Church leadership."

The faculty letter is the second in less than two months addressing the abuse scandal to come out of the St. Paul-based university, itself caught in the scandal, with a professor accused of abuse (Fr. Michael Keating) and two church leaders (previous Archbishop Harry Flynn and Msgr. Kevin McDonough) resigning from its board. In late July, five female theology professors at St. Thomas wrote that new leadership is needed "for genuine healing to occur," though they did not name specific changes.

While they stopped short of seeking resignations, the dozen professors said that without Nienstedt taking several public steps, "the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable."

"We hope that John Nienstedt can do that, but it's something that if John Nienstedt doesn't do that, at some point somebody else will have to," Massimo Faggioli, an assistant theology professor and one of the letter's signers, told NCR Monday morning.

The theologians proposed three actions for Nienstedt to take: substitute legal talk with a more pastoral tone; reintroduce himself to the people at the parish level; and engage laypeople more in the work of the archdiocese.

Given trust in the church among Catholics and the Twin Cities community "has been badly broken," the professors said interpersonal acts -- such as leading a reconciliation liturgy or meeting with people in parishes -- would go a long way toward spiritual healing, more so than additional administrative maneuvers.

"Announcing the creation of another committee or supervisory body can only go partway towards restoring that trust," the faculty said. "We believe that restoring a trust worthy of your office will only come fully through your personal commitment to developing a more open and immediate relationship with people around the Archdiocese. You need to make a fresh effort to listen to them and to get to know them better -- people from all walks of life, those who are already receptive to you and those who may not be."

Added Faggioili, "It would help to see the leader of the local church who's not afraid of getting questions from his people and answering personally, and not always through lawyers or spokespersons or statements."

In his letter, Nienstedt said he has been celebrating Masses at local parishes or attending community events and has met with abuse survivors and community leaders "to talk and learn about how we can be a part of the healing process."

"I have not publicized these events, but they are happening on a regular basis," he said.

In addition, he noted the archdiocese has scheduled a series of healing Masses, the first taking place Sept. 22 at St. Patrick Church in Inver Grove Heights.

As for a larger lay role, Nienstedt said "the majority of my leadership team are lay people" and cited the August hiring of Judge Timothy O'Malley as the archdiocese's first director of ministerial standards and safe environment.

While Faggioli acknowledged the hire as a first step, he told NCR the faculty particularly had in mind a more visible lay presence during priestly formation and continuing education in an effort to eradicate a "deeply entrenched clericalism" -- what Francis has listed among three temptations facing the church.

In a statement Monday afternoon, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests thanked the professors for their criticism but disagreed with their recommendations, particularly the idea of a penitential Mass.

"Events like this imply that the abuse and cover ups have ended. They have not," said Frank Meuers. 

Sept. 12 letter from University of St. Thomas theologians to Archbishop John Nienstedt

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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