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Archbishop John Nienstedt crusades against gay marriage

Archbishop John Nienstedt crusades against gay marriage
Mike Kooiman

Mike Tegeder was 11 years old when he first heard the word "fag."

It happened while he was stocking shelves for Benno Belzer, a local Jewish grocer, in north Minneapolis. A group of bag boys, maybe half a dozen years older, huddled nearby, discussing their plans to bash a fag that weekend.

"They just kept saying they were going to go beat up some of what they called 'fags,'" says Tegeder, now in his mid-50s. "I had no idea what they were talking about. But I just thought, 'Why would you want to beat up somebody just because they're different?'"

Forty years later, Tegeder sits in the anteroom of Minneapolis's St. Frances Cabrini Church. Tegeder — Father Mike, as he's now known — is a priest. He's been one for 34 years, all served in the Twin Cities. His thin-rim glasses and shock-white, shoulder-length hair give him the look of a college professor. His white collar is nowhere to be seen.

He shares stories, stories beyond those bag boys, those fag-beaters. He talks about the gay subculture he saw when he was a student at St. John's, shared between teachers and students alike. He mentions that one of those students had to move to New York to find some acceptance, only to be murdered in a Manhattan bar by another man looking to beat some fags.

But Father Mike won't share the man's name, because that man's family still lives here, and even though they know everything that happened to their boy, the embarrassment still exists. The shame, all these years later, remains.

Because, as Father Mike explains, the family is among the 1.2 million Minnesotans who still call the Roman Catholic Church home. And so the shame — all that sin, all that damnation — is what this family remembers when they think about their son. The shame is what their church taught them.

Which is why Mike's here, talking about it, slamming his finger on the desk and calling out the shame that his church promulgates. Calling out the way his church robs homosexuals of their dignity, the way it stares them down and claims they are "intrinsically disordered."

"The greatest threats to marriage are the economy, joblessness, alcoholism, drug abuse — there are a lot of threats to marriage, but it has very little to do with homosexuals having a committed relationship," says Tegeder, who's also a pastor at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri. "I know committed same-sex people who are doing God's work."

Tegeder knows what the Bible dictates on homosexuality — along with what it dictates about shellfish, and mixed-cloth clothing, and all those other Bronze Age concerns. And he knows there's no single person responsible for the shame his church lifts from these passages.

But there is one person who could single-handedly end it all in the Twin Cities: His Excellency, the Most Reverend Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis John C. Nienstedt.

"Nienstedt is just so rigid about these things," Tegeder continues, growing animated. "But, you know — just let go of it. What are we trying to defend? Marriage? Has the Catholic Church protected marriage? I mean, [Nienstedt] has a priest who impregnated one of his staff members, broke up their marriage, and the guy's still functioning! ... Why don't we take care of our own issues before we start imposing views onto other people who don't have the same religious beliefs?"


It wasn't always this way. Archbishop John Roach and his successor, Harry Flynn, led a notably progressive, inclusive, post-Vatican II archdiocese, one balanced on even-handed discussion. They understood the church's line on certain social issues — reproductive rights, welfare reform — but always kept their doors, and their minds, open.

But in the mid-'80s, with AIDS and "moral relativism" coming to the fore, the church began sidelining priests who'd championed gay parishioners. Pope John Paul II closed rank, and his successor followed suit.

"I'm afraid these men have sex on the brain, and between you and me that's not the best place to have sex," says Leonard Swidler, a prominent Catholic theologian and professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University. "Issues of birth control, marriage, divorce, married priests, female priests, same-sex marriage — it's all sex, sex, sex. They're sex maniacs."

Few fit Swidler's caricature of the current episcopacy more naturally than Nienstedt. Born in Detroit in 1947, Nienstedt took to the church early. His parents were devout Catholics, and it took little time for Nienstedt to find his calling, claiming from an early age that he'd someday become a priest.

Patrick Halfpenny, now a monseigneur in the Detroit archdiocese, first met Nienstedt when they were freshmen at seminary school in Detroit. Bonded by a common affinity for hockey, the two formed a fast friendship, one that has continued 47 years to this day.

 

"From the start, he was a very bright man, with a very good sense of himself," Halfpenny recalls. "We both come from families that were very devout and serious in the practice of their faith — the church is the place we were first nourished."

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.


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.

"In some ways it feels like the society we're living in has a better view of how all of us can get along than the church," Anderson says. "By trying to protect marriage, the church is becoming an enemy of human beings, causing divisiveness.... I think the dangerous thing that Nienstedt did is that he decided to step out politically, and crossed the boundary of being a teacher of the faithful to trying to influence the political background of the state."

But these men appear to be outliers when it comes to diverging from Nienstedt's same-sex views. The few remaining priests who were willing to go on the record shared some blend of sympathy and support for the archbishop.

"We've had this definition of marriage for 3,200 years, so why do we get to change it today?" says Father Robert Fitzpatrick of St. Rose of Lima. "And remember, Nienstedt's also part of the human race, too, and nobody's perfect. I thank God he's got that job and not me."

Nienstedt is, of course, parroting the Vatican's party line, and was recently burnished by Pope Benedict in a March visit to Rome. Still, few bishops have taken such public, vocal stands on the matter — and none have employed the panoply of methods the archbishop has utilized to get out the anti-gay message.

Most of Nienstedt's priests acknowledge changing social mores, yet remain nevertheless enthralled by the church's teachings. But some — despite all evidence to the contrary — believe the church is with the majority on this issue.

"The archbishop's got a good, strong ego. He knows who he is, and who we are — he doesn't appear to me to be wounded, but determined," says Father Frank Fried at Corpus Christi. "I don't think people necessarily in large number, young people even, feel that same-sex marriage is desirable."

Remarkably, some priests saw shades of martyrdom in the archbishop's position — this, despite the fact that Nienstedt is the one in the position of power.

"Why not use the word 'crucified'? He's supposed to be Christ-like, and Christ was crucified," says Father James Wolnik at Holy Childhood. "The archbishop is a prophet of life in a culture of death. Nienstedt's not afraid to have his nose bloodied for the truth.... He has to live this out despite the fact that it means persecution and suffering. And I applaud him. I love him."


Kate Brickman knows what she's up against.

"Minnesota for Marriage is our direct opposition, but we basically equate it with the Catholic Church," she says.

Brickman, the petite brunette spokeswoman for Minnesotans United for All Families, points to the numbers. So far the Archdiocese of St. Paul is the largest fiscal contributor in supporting Minnesota's same-sex marriage ban, donating $650,000 to Minnesota Catholic Conference, the self-described "public policy voice for the Catholic Church in Minnesota," according to the most recent filing. Meanwhile, MCC has donated $350,000 to Minnesota for Marriage. The Diocese of New Ulm and the Diocese of Duluth have both contributed $50,000 to MCC.

Tegeder has said that these were "parishioners' funds," but officials with MCC say the funds come from "investment income." This may be the case, but it is little consolation to the 21 parishes that have either shuttered or merged due to budgetary constraints during Nienstedt's tenure.

"We know what the church is dictating," Brickman says. "And not to refute [them], but we certainly don't think God is on their side."

Brickman is quick to point out that her message and her coalition — the brainchild of OutFront Minnesota and Project 515, two local gay-rights organizations — are not trying to rebut any argument put forth by the Catholic Church. She doesn't want this to devolve into a rote rendition of Religious Right vs. Godless Left. After all, she says, among the 300 coalition members in Minnesotans United, more than one-fourth are faith-based organizations.

"The faith organizations were some of the first to join the coalition," says Grant Stevensen, a local Lutheran pastor tapped as Minnesotans United's faith coordinator. "Our campaign is not against a particular church. [But] I don't think one kind of faith community should be able to say that you people over here, you will live this way, you will worship this way — that's very un-American, don't you think?"

 

One of the most notable signs of support came recently from Peter Rogness, the Lutheran bishop of the St. Paul Synod, who penned an open letter saying, "Allowing for the possibility of lifelong, committed same-gender relationships poses no threat to faithful heterosexual marriage or healthy settings for our children."

Simultaneously, the synod leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which represents approximately 800,000 Minnesotans, voted to support striking down the amendment.

Stevensen says Minnesotans United isn't trying to convince citizens what God would want, or what a 3,000-year-old Levitical script actually means. Rather, his coalition just wants to have a dialogue between neighbors.

"As an American, this is the covenant we made with each other: that we would figure out how to be a people together through discussion," Stevensen says. "If we don't have a conversation, how do we pull off democracy? ... So for goodness's sake — don't stop the discussion by embedding in the Constitution an ending to the conversation."

Thirty-one states have already passed similar anti-gay-marriage bills, with North Carolina the most recent in May. Thus far, every state that's had a measure banning same-sex marriage on its ballots has allowed it to pass.

However, a few aspects of the upcoming vote make Brickman and her colleagues optimistic that Minnesota could be the state that turns the tide. First, where most states have had but a few months to mobilize their forces, Minnesotans United will have had a year and a half to convince voters to strike down the amendment. Likewise, Minnesota's history of progressivism would seem to make passing the amendment an uphill battle. (It also helps that Minnesota's laws dictate that a non-vote on amendments equates to a no vote.)

"Gay marriage is certainly a non-issue for the younger generations, and it's becoming less of an issue for older folks," says Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), who has introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage every year since 2008. "No one voted on my marriage, so why should we vote on anyone else's?"

While Minnesotans United was forthright with its methods and beliefs, both MCC and Minnesota for Marriage refused to answer an assortment of questions pertaining to this story. Some of these questions entailed clarifying statistical mistruths splashed on Minnesota for Marriage's website. Chuck Darrell, Minnesota for Marriage's public relations director, would not explain why his organization claims that 56 percent of Minnesotans support the amendment, despite a Public Policy Polling poll conducted in early June showing only 43 percent of the state's population in favor of the amendment. (While there's been no statewide Catholic polling, a Gallup poll in early May found that, nationwide, 51 percent of Catholics favor legalizing same-sex marriage.)

Minnesota for Marriage also claims that American same-sex households have grown at only an 8 percent clip between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses — that is, at a lower rate than the rest of the national populace. But Minnesota for Marriage conflates non-revised and finalized Census numbers, eliding the fact that same-sex households, between 2000 and 2010, have actually grown at an 80 percent rate.

The numbers, misinformed and misleading, remain on the group's website. When asked to address the statistical fallacies, MCC claimed the line of questioning to be "incendiary" and that they had "no hope that assisting with this story will result in a just and accurate reporting of the facts."

Fortunately, a handful of videos on Minnesota for Marriage's website reveal the group's views. Speaking to a collection of elderly Catholics last October, Jason Adkins, the executive coordinator for Minnesota Catholic Conference and vice chairman for Minnesota for Marriage, spent 30 minutes discussing the church's stance.

"Marriage is under attack. It's under attack in the law, it's under attack in our courts, it's under attack in our culture," he says in the video. "We should recognize that it's not just marriage that's under attack, but civilization is really under attack."

Adkins claims that the church has made the "defense of marriage" a number-one priority.

"Love and commitment are necessary for a marriage, but love and commitment are not sufficient," Adkins says. "I'm in a loving and committed relationship with a lot of people, but I'm not married to all of them."

Specious logic aside, Adkins's main thrust rests on the wellbeing of children. He cites the government's favorable outlook on male-female marriage, and subsequent ability to have children, as a guarantor of its future. (He says nothing about barring the elderly, the infirm, or the infertile from marriage.)

But it's more than that, he explains. It's not simply that the Bible bars homosexual activity. Instead, the church's stance, and his own group's obduracy, is based in one eternal, intractable goal.

 

"This is why the Catholic Church is so hated in our society: because it dares to say 'No' to so many things," Adkins says. "We don't say 'No' for the sake of saying 'No.' We say 'No' so that people in the world can say 'Yes.' 'Yes' to Christ."


Minnesotans United's coalition has representatives from dozens of Christian denominations across the state. But even though Catholicism is the largest single Christian contingency in the United States, only two Catholic organizations have attached their names to the push for marriage equality.

Michael Bayly, a sandy-haired Australian, founded Catholics for Marriage Equality-Minnesota (C4ME-MN) two years ago in response to Nienstedt's DVD campaign, in the hopes of providing a platform within the church for voices opposing Nienstedt's anti-gay ideology.

"[Nienstedt has] this idea that the truth is already complete, that he's got it, that he's the keeper of it, and that you make sure your experiences match this truth," says Bayly. "Such hubris. It makes him and the system they've built into what I consider to be a clerical caste. And it's the antithesis of what Jesus was about."

Bayly's story is prototypically American: foreign national arriving in the U.S. to escape past privations. But Bayly's hardships in Australia weren't economic — they stemmed from a thicket of lies about his sexuality.

Coming out in America was his only option. Fortunately, as he opened up as a gay man, he latched onto the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, a small group tasked with aiding and integrating same-sex Catholics into the church.

Not long after Bayly arrived, however, the St. Paul archdiocese began disowning CPCSM's work. Without its primary patron, CPCSM slowly lost steam, and eventually disbanded a few years ago.

"There's a fear that the bishops utilize: If gays get the right to civil marriage, then the church will be sued if we don't marry them," Bayly says. "That's a crock. The church can choose not to marry divorced people, but you don't see straight couples getting turned away because one of them is divorced."

After CPCSM shuttered, Bayly — who also maintains a national presence on his blog, the Progressive Catholic Voice — took it upon himself to carry the resistance, to pick up the pieces and show the episcopacy that he could mobilize just like it could.

C4ME-MN is still a small operation, and it has been repeatedly disavowed by the archdiocese, which said it was composed of people "masquerading as Catholics." But it's managed to gather hundreds in vigils across the city, with the most prominent happening outside the Cathedral of St. Paul over Lent. Signs citing tolerance, people offering hugs and grins and two-finger signs of peace — all Catholics, all coming out against an episcopacy that, as Bayly says, "is very much a feudal system, [an] absolute monarchy."

"The church isn't going back to the 1960s — it's going back to the 600s," says Tom Murr, a Catholic colleague of Bayly, who says he was banned from sharing his gay son's story in church. "They're moving almost militantly against our LGBT brothers and sisters. If you have problem with gays, blame God, not the people."

C4ME-MN's high-water moment came last fall, when Bayly decided to respond to Nienstedt's DVD campaign with a film of his own.

Released at the Riverview Theater last September, C4ME-MN's 20-minute offering contained a series of five testimonials, ranging from same-sex couples to parents and family members of gay individuals. All were bound by their Catholic faith.

"I didn't want to speak out as Big Gay Senator. People know who I am," says Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), who appears in the film along with his husband, Richard Leyva (the couple wed in California while gay marriage was legal there). "But that DVD, it just had really beautiful vignettes, putting language and context to values people already hold. [And] you contrast the archbishop's threats and edicts with the generosity and warmth and adherence to ideals of justice that are coming from the pews, and it's striking."

The video, as with most things put forth by C4ME-MN, was received with thundering silence by the church's hierarchy. But the premiere drew an audience of nearly 300, and allowed people to connect with like-minded Catholics.

"Look at some of the statements [the church] made at DeLaSalle, where they're comparing gay marriage to bestiality," Bayly says. "It's just so over the top. I think people are hungry for a grounded, reasonable, calm, compassionate Catholic voice. And that's our aim, to be that voice."


C4ME-MN isn't the lone Catholic organization working in the Twin Cities to combat the bishop's recalcitrance. Four years ago, in light of the ballooning sexual abuse scandal, a dozen parishioners formed Concerned Catholics for Church Reform.

 

Paula Ruddy, a 77-year-old member of St. Boniface, noted that CCCR's impetus was to open a dialogue between parishioners and clergy. All they wanted was a chance to discuss the direction their church was taking.

"That our archbishop is leading a campaign to change the Constitution on the issue of equality is very hard to imagine," Ruddy says. "And we want to be able to talk with him, to reason it out. Because he's got to have some very good reasons for doing that, and we haven't heard them yet."

Nienstedt has maintained his distance, unwilling to attend any meeting or discussion. He has written letters to individual members, but has been loath to entertain dissent.

"We used to have consultative bodies under prior archbishops, but Nienstedt has not continued that," says Bob Beutel, a member of CCCR and a parishioner at St. Joan of Arc. "He's told us only that he thought we held positions that were a threat to our eternal salvation."

CCCR has approximately 2,500 members, with about 90 percent coming from the St. Paul Archdiocese. They're mailing and organizing, preparing for the upcoming November vote, their entire focus in 2012.

Meanwhile, Bayly is planning more gatherings, more vigils. He's planning to write more op-eds, and will be trying, against the odds, to finally discuss with Nienstedt why the archbishop carries such a preoccupation, such an obsession, with the idea of same-sex attraction.

"I think this whole issue of homosexuality is the last one the bishops still have any sort of control over, and they see that going," Bayly says. "And that's why they're putting up such a huge fight. Because after that's gone, there's nothing left in the realm of sexuality that people will listen to them about." 

Archbishop John Nienstedt has gone to great lengths to try to pass Minnesota's anti-same-sex marriage amendment
Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis

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