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Like a lot of Catholics, I bristle when Hollywood films present bishops as fat men given over to power. I remember the scenes from all too many so-called “epics” where a bishop adorned in purple silk and dining at the king’s sumptuous table scorns the starving peasants. While this is Hollywood’s version, it does represent a time when some Catholic prelates really were more loyal to the ruling caste than to the Gospel.
What would that scene look like today, with presidents instead of kings and CEOs instead of counts and dukes? While medieval labels like “Robin Hood” no longer apply, the age-old temptation to make deals with the rich and powerful have not gone away. I don’t know if John Nienstedt, the Archbishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, has succumbed to this temptation, but if you substitute “same sex marriage” for “rights to hunt deer in Sherwood Forest” you’d have enough for a movie.
The issue concerns the use of money from anonymous donors to fund the distribution of some 400,000 DVDs promoting a view that the legalization of same-sex marriage is not a civil rights’ issue, but a moral one in which Catholics have no choice but to oppose any political candidate who takes another approach. At stake in Minnesota is a constitutional amendment that would deny the right to marry to any same-sex couple, even those who are not Catholic.
There can be no doubt that Catholic teaching denies the Sacrament of Marriage to same-sex couples and that many currents in contemporary culture undermine the stability of the institution of marriage today. If that was all that Archbishop Nienstedt did, who could complain? The episcopacy is, after all, a “bully pulpit.” But in this incident, as in many other decisions he has made, the archbishop seems to be seated at the table of unnamed donors, whose politics happen to coincide with a partisan agenda. Since there are such appalling financial needs for Catholic schools and social services in the aftermath of the Great Recession, how can the Church instead accept money to fund a decidedly political indoctrination effort– right before an election? And why has the donor gone unnamed?
This is not my question, but the issue posed by Catholics in his own archdiocese. For instance, Lucinda Naylor, Artist-in-Residence for more than a decade at St. Mary’s Basilica decided that Archbishop Nienstedt’s DVDs were simply propaganda and began collecting them as “throw-aways” in order to shape them into sculpture to Church social justice.
Not surprisingly, Naylor has been suspended. But insisting that Catholicism is a religion that welcomes all believers, she made the following plea: “Please help me continue with my vision by donating your DVDs and spreading the word about the project. I want to create a sculpture so big and beautiful that everyone will see the love that is at the heart of the Catholic Church.”
Fr. Michael Tegeder, 62, pastor of St. Edward Parish, Bloomington has had his run-ins with the archbishop. He was threatened with excommunication and interdict for offering a cremation garden at his parish – a much more affordable option than the traditional embalming, wake and cemetery-with-purchased-plot burial. Tegeder fought back, producing canon law and theological proof that cremation is not opposed by church teaching – even if the archbishop thinks he can order otherwise by simple fiat. “You have to know how to defend yourself, because a lot of what we’re being told we have to follow just isn’t true.” In reference to the issue of the DVDs, he added, “This man is leading us in the wrong direction. We have to call it for what it is – it’s bullying behavior. It’s not the work of Jesus Christ.”
I wonder if this is another case of the clerical culture in which a prelate translates questions about his judgment into challenge to this authority. Since the clerical pedophilia scandals, Catholic America has learned that not every bishop exercises good judgment in practical matters. While certainly the teaching authority of a bishop about doctrine is a “bully pulpit,” he may not bully the faithful into on partisan politics favored by unnamed “donors.” Where is Friar Tuck when we need him?