Archbishop John Nienstedt crusades against gay marriage

But increasingly, his flock of Minnesota Catholics isn't following

After finishing seminary school, Nienstedt headed to Rome to complete his theological studies. He skipped pastoral experience and instead spent most of his days buried in books in Pontifical Gregorian University's extensive library, studying in vitro fertilization and embryonic morality.

He didn't display any overwhelming conservatism while in theological studies, and he didn't take any strong public stance in opposition to homosexuality.

But then he returned to the States. And same-sex attraction, which he's lately described as a "disorder," suddenly struck him as the issue to preempt all others.

Michael Bayly and Lucinda Naylor pose next to Naylor's sculpture, created out of 3,000 anti-gay-marriage DVDs sent to Minnesota's Catholics
courtesy of Michael Bayly
Michael Bayly and Lucinda Naylor pose next to Naylor's sculpture, created out of 3,000 anti-gay-marriage DVDs sent to Minnesota's Catholics
Gov. Mark Dayton speaks at the Lobby Day rally, held at the Capitol on March 29
Kate Brickman
Gov. Mark Dayton speaks at the Lobby Day rally, held at the Capitol on March 29

Before continuing, it should be noted that Nienstedt refused all attempts to be interviewed for this story. Jim Accurso, the archdiocese's media relations manager, said that this reporter would be granted an interview with the archbishop — so long as the story did not run in City Pages. After repeated questioning as to why City Pages was a publication non grata, Accurso simply repeated, "I think you know."

As such, here follows a rundown of Nienstedt's strident anti-gay measures, with neither refutation nor explanation from the archdiocese. Stifling silence, rather than logical rebuttal, has become the preferred modus operandi of the anti-gay actors affiliated with the Catholic Church in the Twin Cities.

Nienstedt first showed his willingness to tow the church's anti-gay line while working as a bishop in New Ulm, which happened to coincide with the release of Brokeback Mountain. Nienstedt forbade his fellowship from seeing the film — a unique step among American bishops. Even more odd, he felt the need to explicitly detail the reasons for his decision in the diocesan bulletin.

"He described these scenes of wanton anal sex," says Michael Sean Winters, who covers the American church for the National Catholic Reporter. "I don't know why those little old ladies, who are two-thirds of the people that get the bulletin, had to read that."

Nienstedt took his ascension to St. Paul archbishop in 2007 as a sign that his actions were sanctioned and, indeed, rewarded by the Vatican. His public stance grew commensurately with his new position.

The archbishop began his tenure by writing a piece in the Catholic Spirit claiming that those "who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts ... formally cooperate in a grave evil, and ... are guilty of mortal sin."

Next he inserted into Mass what was colloquially called a "marriage prayer," instructing priests to force parishioners to "proclaim and defend [God's] plan for marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman."

Reports began trickling in of confused parishioners, those with children and friends in same-sex relationships, suddenly unsure of their eternal salvation. In one example, an 80-year-old woman was forced to forgo Christmas Mass to keep her gay son from having to sit through the anti-gay prayer.

Some priests refused to read the prayer in their church, and a few, led by Tegeder, began to vocalize their objections. Nienstedt, however, wouldn't brook dissent, and released a letter commanding the priests to either support his views or remain silent.

"On a major moral issue, such as this amendment, Nienstedt said that we can't express our true conscientious feelings to parishioners when they ask us," Tegeder says. "And that's just reprehensible."

This year, Nienstedt has also taken the extraordinary step of assigning priests and married Catholic couples to carry anti-gay messages to seniors in the archdiocese's Catholic high schools. The couple dispatched to DeLaSalle High School compared same-sex relationships to bestiality.

But none of these anti-gay measures are quite as notable as the archbishop's most public stance, coming about six weeks before the 2010 gubernatorial election. Utilizing an anonymous million-dollar donation, Nienstedt sent 400,000 copies of an anti-gay-marriage DVD to a mailing list of the state's Catholics, whether they wished to receive it or not.

The DVD features a video produced by the Knights of Columbus, detailing the unknowns of "what will happen to marriage ... if judges and politicians are allowed to redefine marriage."

Nienstedt also makes an appearance, claiming that same-sex marriage "is an untested social experiment" that "poses a dangerous risk with potentially far-reaching consequences."

The DVD campaign appears to have been a bust, as the lone anti-gay marriage candidate, Republican Tom Emmer, fell to Gov. Mark Dayton. Lucinda Naylor, the former artist-in-residence at the Basilica of St. Mary — who was summarily fired for speaking out against the DVD — collected 3,000 unwanted copies and turned them into an anti-bigotry sculpture.

"I do believe [the DVD campaign] backfired, because it was my understanding that it was a veiled attempt to get Emmer elected as governor," says Father Bob Pierson, an openly gay priest in the St. Cloud diocese. "I am concerned that many of the Roman Catholic bishops in our country, not just Nienstedt, seem to be very friendly with the GOP.... I believe pretty strongly that the teaching of the church is neither Democratic nor GOP, but by aligning ourselves with one party we can justify ignoring issues on the other side."

Father Michael Anderson at St. Bernard also saw shades of political maneuvering in the DVD campaign, though he wasn't willing to go as far as offering the open discord Tegeder has displayed.

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