Saturday, May 8, 2010

If I Could Have a Conversation with the Archbishop

By Paula Ruddy

Note: The image of Archbishop John C. Nienstedt that accompanied this article has been removed at the Archbishop's request through Dennis McGrath, Communications Director of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Mr. McGrath did not pass on any comments of the Archbishop on the content of the article.

It would be about the meaning of good citizenship and the Gospel. After all, John C. Nienstedt is our appointed teacher, the person we are to look to for leadership in thinking about the Church’s mission in the world. He is promoting “faithful citizenship.” Shouldn’t he tell us what he means by that?

As I see it, the Archbishop has an agenda. He is concerned about the “culture of marriage” in the U.S. and his strategy is to change the culture through force of law. If the law does not enforce what he believes to be Christian/Catholic ethics, he threatens to disobey it. He urges Christian/Catholic citizens to do an end run around constitutional principles for his campaign. This is so alarming that questions must be asked.

The Questionable Campaign

It started in Manhattan. On November 20, 2009, John Nienstedt signed the Manhattan Declaration. Created by Charles Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George for Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, it is a seven page document defining some policies on which U.S. law should be based. In its last paragraph, the declaration states the signers’ intent to refuse to obey any law that

purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act, nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

The Archbishop brought the Manhattan campaign home to Minnesota. From December 2009 to April 17, 2010, he sponsored a program through the Archdiocesan Office for Marriage, Family and Life entitled “Reclaiming the Culture of Marriage and Life.” I attended the session held at the Cathedral in St Paul in February. Peter Laird, the Archdiocesan Vicar General, talked about a theology of marriage and Teresa Collett, professor of law at St Thomas, talked about the disorders in the culture caused by contraception, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, abortion, and the likely harm that would be caused by the legalization of same-sex civil marriage. Written questions were selectively answered. There was no opportunity for dialogue.

The program was available in several sessions in parishes throughout the archdiocese. Attendees were urged to sign the Manhattan Declaration. People who signed up to get email alerts are urged to sign it also. The Manhattan Declaration is linked on the Archdiocesan website under the “departments” category, “marriage” section.

On April 17, the Archbishop convened a culminating conference also entitled “Reclaiming the Culture of Marriage” for which he invited the Roman Catholic bishop of Oakland, California, Salvatore Cordileone, as the keynote speaker. Cordileone was the “co-creator of California Proposition 8,” the referendum making same-sex marriage illegal in California. The conference took place at the Brady Center at St Thomas. A follow-up report claims that 300 people attended. The follow up also urges attendees who signed up for “faithful citizenship” to get active by calling legislators regarding the defense of marriage.

In an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on April 27, the Archbishop urged the people of Minnesota to force an amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution banning same-sex civil marriage or any legal equivalents. In this piece he says that amending the constitution is the best way to circumvent the court system with its constitutional protections for minorities. He says the courts are a “threat”; he refers to them as “a few narrow elites.” They are “activist,” a pejorative term for judges who take the 14th Amendment equal protection clause seriously as they did in the states allowing gay marriage.

The Questions

In a nutshell, in our constitutional democracy we, the people, have the authority to govern ourselves, we make our own laws. We elect legislators to represent us in making them, we elect the president to run the executive branch in enforcing them, and we have a court system to make sure the enforcement is as correct as human limitations allow. Legislators, executive, and judges all take an oath to uphold the Constitution, one of its most important principles being that a majority of citizens should not be able to deprive a minority of rights. Rights the law affords to some citizens belong to all citizens. First question: Does the Archbishop buy into this system?

In a multicultural state and nation such as ours, there are many codes of ethics. People are free to choose values to live by and there are various ways to conceive of the good life. In such a situation of plural value systems, what is the ethical duty of citizenship in making laws that apply to all? Since law has coercive force, we restrict people’s freedom only when there are good reasons to do so. The laws we make have legitimacy only when people can assent to their reasonableness. We, as law-makers for a diverse group of fellow citizens, should be reluctant to force people to act by one ethical code unless it has almost universal acceptance by its reasonableness. Second question: Does the Archbishop agree with this ethic of moderation in restricting freedom?

The Archbishop in signing the Manhattan Declaration threatens civil disobedience. Since we are our own law-makers, the ethics of citizenship oblige us to support our fellow citizens in obeying the laws we make. It is possible that a law may force a person to act against his or her personal or cultural ethical code or against some universal norm of justice, and then civil disobedience is certainly an option. Third question: Is there a law forcing the Archbishop or his fellow Catholics to do something he finds morally offensive? Is it in the common good to threaten civil disobedience on the off chance that there might be such a law?

Considering the ethical obligation to support our fellow citizens in the laws we make, is it ethical to use civil disobedience as a strategy, not to change the law being broken, but to protest other government action or others’ sinful ways?. The Manhattan Declaration cites the example of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., and his use of civil disobedience. But Dr. King broke dehumanizing segregation laws because the laws themselves were unjust. He did not reduce the solemn duty of obedience to law to a strategy to get media attention for some other protest. If, for example, the Minnesota legislature passes a marriage equality bill, what kind of civil disobedience does the Archbishop envision? Fourth question: Will Archbishop Nienstedt please lead the whole Catholic community in a reasoned discussion of the use of civil disobedience?

Last question: If our culture in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is in decline, as the Archbishop suggests, why not look to the Gospel instead of to civil law to solve the problem? Because of our constitutional democracy, Catholics are free to live our cultural values with the support of our own community. We need intellectual, moral and spiritual leadership to do so. Because the law allows freedom to be irresponsible does not mean we can’t live up to our own standards.

The Archbishop could focus his campaign on communicating with Catholics, for starters, to create the kind of community that manifests the love of humanity that Jesus taught us. Wasn’t the Gospel idea that a community radiating love, joy, and mutual cooperation would be the mustard seed, the leaven, the lamp in the darkness?

The Gospel ethic of love as well as the civic ethic of respect require us to enter into good faith political discourse with other citizens to learn what is in the common good, what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. We can be both faithful Catholic Christians as well as good citizens of our state and nation.

What would YOU converse with Archbishop Nienstedt about if you had the chance? We'd like to hear from as many of our readers as possible. Please send us your ideas, thoughts, and hopes about your "conversation with the Archbishop" to


  1. Archbishop Nienstedt took as his Coate of Arms what is suppose to mean Jesus prayer that all God's people "might be one." If he really believes that, then why does he support ideas and teachings that divide peoples, families and individuals? Why support teachings the encourage the exclusion of people based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression? And why encourage others to do the same?

    That hardly seems like encouraging the Church and people every where to "be one" with an unconditional and all inclusive loving God.

    I would like to mention that Archbishop Nienstedt was present when the new Episcopal Bishop Brian Prior was consecrated and ordained. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and several female clergy were present. Also present were many openly gay and lesbian clergy, as the Episcopal Church of Minnesota celebrated all our diversity including the Native American community sharing sage and many other forms of spirituality.

    During this wonderful Liturgy of consecration, ordination and Holy Eucharist, Archbishop Nienstedt chose not to talk to or associate with any of the ordained female clergy, and would not receive Holy Communion with us.

    I should also like to mention that in years past even Archbishop Harry Flynn attended the lunch that often occurred between former Episcopal Bishop James Jelinek and the other Faith leaders in the area. Archbishop Nienstedt will not and has not attended those lunches since coming to the Archdiocese.

    So much for "may they all be one."

  2. Hi, Philip. Thanks for your observation. It sounds like the Archbishop's seeming to be aloof hurt you in the midst of the Episcopalian ordination, manifesting Christian love and unity It's hard to separate a person's theology from his personal demeanor sometimes. I'd hesitate to jump to a conclusion about what the Archbishop thinks by observing him on the occasion you describe. That's why I would like to hear him talk with us about what he thinks and reason in dialogue with us. That kind of leadership would certainly be a help to us in our journey. I'm glad you have found a spiritual home.

  3. I would ask him, "Why it took the US Bishops so long to begin to vigorously defend the Faith in the public square?"

  4. Hi, Eleutheria. What a wonderful name! It means "freedom," doesn't it? I'm glad you posted your question. I take your post to be a question to the Archbishop in response to our invitation, but did you also mean it as a contradiction of my point of view? I think the Archbishop and all Catholics have duties as citizens to speak up in the public square, to reason from their perspective about what is in the common good. So maybe we agree about that. I wouldn't call it "defending faith," however. I make a distinction between faith and ethics. I wonder if you do too? Let's say faith is a person's experienced relationship with God formed in a particular community's tradition, and ethics are beliefs about what one ought to value and how one ought to behave in relation to other people, also formed in a particular community's tradition. Why would the US Bishops have to defend their faith in the public square? Ethics are no doubt based on faith, but they are subject to reason. It is possible to have deep faith and still be reasonable about how to make political arrangements with fellow citizens of different faiths and no faith at all. Don't you think that is possible or valuable? I'd like to hear your opinion.

  5. Paula, thank you for your own response to my post.

    It is my personal belief that what we believe and what we pray, becomes part of our being and behavior over time. In the case of an Archbishop, if what she or he makes as part of their mission the "oneness" of God's people, then it is perfectly acceptable that she or he be held to practice what they preach.

    What he did, did not hurt me, nor did it disturb me to the point that it destroyed what we all experienced at the Bishop's consecration and ordination. I was not the only former Catholic there who gazed upon what we saw and had the same reaction. As we shared in conversation about what we observed, we responded with a sense of saddness for him. Here he was in the middle of a Liturgy with a Church alive with ritual, diversity and beauty. And he couldn't bring himself to celebrate with us. He is like the guy who comes to the party and is the only person who doesn't share in the festivities. He's just a body or as we observed sticking out like a soar thumb with nothing else to do there, but exist.

    Having been part of the arch conservative side of the church at one point, I know what is there. It is a statement, a bold statement about how they think things should be. Given the kinds of things I have heard him say and read what he writes, I think his response to your thoughts Paula would be pretty predictable.

  6. You may be right, Philip. That would make me sad too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I would thank him for his defense of the faith and tradition of the Catholic Church. I would encourage him to continue the reform of the Church in the Minnesota.