Bishop John Nienstedt was in a tough spot. Someone in his diocese had asked him to comment on a theology book co-edited by his predecessor, the late Raymond Lucker.
Lucker had served as a beloved bishop for 25 years in New Ulm, Minn., before his death in 2001. In the book's introduction, he wrote about "changing formulations of church teaching." Lucker believed Catholics should have a dialogue about the ordination of women and married priests and should review the church's stance on the morality of same-sex unions.
Nienstedt's brand of theology had little room for such dissent. Writing in the diocesan newsletter two and a half years after Lucker's death, he denounced the late bishop's views and warned that questioning church authority places a person "spiritually in peril of losing eternal life."
"It was a really unnecessary and deep insult to a man who had recently died, a man who had given his life to the church," recalled Thomas Roberts, editor in chief of the National Catholic Reporter ["Spokespaper" for American Catholic Dissidents]. "Just months after a person has died and you come into a diocese and declare him theologically suspect?" [How long should you wait, then?]
As members of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are sure to discover in the months and years ahead, Nienstedt is direct. Last month, the 60-year-old Detroit native was named coadjutor archbishop, meaning he will succeed Archbishop Harry Flynn when Flynn retires next year.
Those who knew Nienstedt in New Ulm, where he was named bishop in 2001, describe him in terms ranging from "a good administrator" to "a micromanager," from "a consummate man of the church" to someone who tolerates little dissent when it comes to questions about the church's authority.
Nearly everyone agrees he is intelligent and ambitious. "I can see him appointed a cardinal," said a former lay employee of the Diocese of New Ulm.
Those familiar with the Catholic Church believe Nienstedt's selection by the Vatican is part of a trend toward more conservative leadership. After the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, some believe the church became more tolerant of progressive or liberal approaches to some Catholic orthodoxy.
The pendulum now seems to be swinging the other way, and some see the appointment of archbishops like Nienstedt as part of that.
"Based solely on Bishop Nienstedt's record in New Ulm, I believe there is a contingent of Catholics who are hoping that he will really crack down on dissenting parishes, theologians and priests in this archdiocese. There are some people who believe Archbishop Flynn hasn't been strong enough in that regard," said Janice Lynn LaDuke, a lay member of the archdiocese who writes a blog called "The Recovering Dissident Catholic."
But some priests in the archdiocese already are unhappy with the appointment.
"He's so self-righteous," said the Rev. Michael Tegeder, pastor of the Church of St. Edward in Bloomington ["Spokespriest" of the diocesan "geezer-progressive dissident" priest faction. These are the priests who for forty years have believed that future was married priests, female priests, clown priests and extemporizing priests. It really hurts them to realize that everything they stood for and preached during their entire careers, is being rejected].
"It's what (Popes) John Paul and Benedict want to see - a smaller church, a more militant church, a less-open church, a church of followers. 'Just march in step and we'll lead you to the Promised Land,' " Tegeder said. "This man is a bully, he's a spiritual bully. It's going to be that constant hectoring, and we're going to have so many demoralized people, and we're going to have so many people leaving."
Since the April 24 announcement of his appointment, the archdiocese has said, Nienstedt (pronounced NINE-stet) has been too busy for media interviews. This week, he has been in Rome.
But in an interview published Thursday in the Catholic Spirit, the archdiocese's paper, Nienstedt said he didn't view himself as a "hard-liner."
"I believe what the church believes," he was quoted as saying. "And unfortunately, in this day and age where there is such pluralism and individualism in our society, a person who believes in a creed as we do as Catholics, is somehow considered hard-line or a fanatic - a zealot, if you will - because they believe what they believe, they believe what the church believes."
OUTSPOKEN AND CONSERVATIVE
Biographical information about Nienstedt can be gleaned from his own writings and previous articles. The basics: John Clayton Nienstedt was born in Detroit, has two brothers and three sisters and says he's known since the fourth grade that he wanted to be a priest.
He has held numerous positions in the Catholic Church, spent more than 10 years at the Vatican and was an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He likes to ski (he once wrote about inviting then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to go skiing), and likes hockey.
He's written that he's been "fascinated with Barbara Streisand and her musical (not political) abilities" ever since he saw her in "Funny Girl."
Friends say he's athletic and was a good basketball player as a seminarian.
"If you were under the boards with him, I'd say be very careful. He was a good shot," said Monsignor Aloysius Callaghan, rector of St. Paul's Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas.
Nienstedt has spoken out about a number of issues, and while he has said he tries to avoid political labels like "liberal" or "conservative," most of his views can be described as conservative.
He doesn't need much prompting to express those views, either. For example, at the news conference where he was introduced as the coadjutor archbishop, a reporter asked him about the future of Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
Nienstedt said he needed to study the situation locally, then attacked what he called "the contraceptive mentality in this country." If church members want to keep parochial schools in the archdiocese open, he said, "Go home and tell your children and your grandchildren to have babies."
Elsewhere, he has written that society is "on a slide toward moral corruption," and he's said homosexuality is a disorder, a view not shared by mainstream science or medicine. He's been a leader in the campaign to get the Legislature to prohibit same-sex unions.
In his diocese paper, the Prairie Spirit, he has admonished Catholics to not see the movies "The DaVinci Code" and "Brokeback Mountain." He wrote approvingly of "The Lord of the Rings."
PASTORAL SKILLS A CHALLENGE
Some Catholics in New Ulm and locally believe Nienstedt's views stand in greater relief because he has followed Lucker and now Flynn, both considered to have taken a heavily pastoral approach to leadership.
"His conservative nature is not a problem. It is how you act that out in your life," said Paula Marti, who was editor of the Prairie Wind under Lucker.
"It's that pastoral nature, how you communicate with people and how you build relationships with people," Marti said. "That will be a huge transition for him. It's going to be very challenging for him."
She said members of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis "will be looking for his administrative skills, which I think are top-notch. His pastoral skills will need to be developing."
Some Catholics in New Ulm believe the urban Nienstedt never fully adjusted to their largely rural diocese of 68,000 Catholics. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has 646,000.
"When I first met him, my first impression was, he's not a man who belongs in rural Minnesota," Vernell Wabasha, an American Indian parishioner at St. John's in Morton, Minn., said of Nienstedt. "Bishop Lucker was such a down-to-earth man. He was right with us."
Nienstedt "didn't seem to be on our level," she said.
Lucker had worked to reach out to the American Indian community in the diocese, she said. He'd often drop by the house to visit, and he participated in Indian ceremonies and rituals. Nienstedt "hasn't made the same attempts to reach out," she said.
Nienstedt will be doing double-duty for a time. While serving as coadjutor archbishop, he also will be the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of New Ulm until a new bishop is appointed. Some of the priests in the Diocese of New Ulm declined to be interviewed about him, and some who spoke on the record seemed measured in their comments.
"He does an excellent confirmation," said the Rev. James Devorak, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Montevideo. "His homilies have been very good. He's been quite instrumental in furthering the clustering of parishes into areas. That has gone well. He's shown leadership there. He certainly is decisive."
He was decisive in dealing with Lucker's book, even going so far as to ask the Doctrine Committee of the United States Bishops' Conference to issue a statement on its theology. (The committee had someone review the book, and the review decided that while some passages lacked nuance, there were no major theological problems with the book.) [Probably a mistake. The bureaucracy of the USCCB is not my first choice for an expert on determining orthodoxy in the Catholic Church].
Nienstedt wrote in a September 2003 column that while dissent may be acceptable in a democracy, "We run into problems ... when dissent is applied to a religious creed that is divinely revealed."
And because "truth is revealed by Christ, only he can change it," he wrote in the column. Only the Catholic Church "teaches that truth in its fullness," he said.
"I believe the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church of Jesus Christ," he told the Catholic Spirit in the interview published Thursday. "I wouldn't have given up my life, I wouldn't have given up a family and a wife, if I didn't believe that." PioneerPress