St. Thomas Theologians Call for Change in Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt

Theologians from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., have released a letter to the Archbishop of St. Paul–Minneapolis, John Nienstedt. They urge the archbishop to reintroduce himself to the “people and parishes of the archdiocese,” to "leave the legal talk to lawyers" and make an all-out pastoral offensive to repair the spiritual damage of the ongoing crisis in the archdiocese centered around its handling of sexual abuse claims. The theologians also call for greater lay involvement in the local church governance. They argue that “without such public steps the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable.”

“The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has had a distinguished place in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States,” the theologians write. “The current crisis is a grave blot on that history. Legal action alone will not remove it.

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“The people of God rightly expect bishops to be good stewards of the Lord’s household,” the 12 St. Thomas faculty members write. “As Pope Francis has said, “The bishop, as a witness of Christ, is not isolated, but with the Church . . . The episcopate is not for the bishop himself, but for the Church, for the flock, and for others” (Address to the Congregation for the Bishops, February 27, 2014). Recent events have shown how badly the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese has failed to meet those expectations. We refer not only to the multi-faceted sexual abuse scandal itself but also to the manner in which these scandals have been handled.”

The theologians argue that beyond the victims of the abuse themselves “the harm done … touches the lives of all of us as members of the Church, including our efforts as professional theologians to represent the Catholic faith and the Catholic intellectual tradition in an honest and credible way to our students, their parents, our alumni, and our colleagues and friends.”

They describe the archdiocese as suffering a “spiritual crisis as well as a legal crisis”and urge Archbishop Nienstedt to bolder efforts to promote healing in the aftermath of the ongoing scandals in the archdiocese.

“The resolution of the legal actions now underway will not undo the spiritual damage,” they write. “While we support the rights of the victims of sexual crimes to justice and hope that resolutions of the lawsuits will offer appropriate restitution that leads to their healing, we know that no legal decision will heal the damage done to the Body of Christ. A process of spiritual healing could begin within an appropriate liturgical setting and with you taking the initiative. Consider using the Rite of Reconciliation as a model for how this might be done in various places around the Archdiocese. Think about the example set by Pope St. John Paul II’s millennial apology for the failings of the Church. We believe that the people of the Archdiocese would welcome such gestures towards reconciliation.”

Arguing that communal trust has been broken and “the office of Archbishop itself has been gravely damaged by the facts exposed in the lawsuits,” the St. Thomas faculty members suggest a fresh, “personal commitment” from the archbishop “to developing a more open and immediate relationship with people around the Archdiocese.”

Finally they urge the archbishop to engage more lay people in the work of the archdiocese. “Lay people must be placed in positions of responsibility in priestly formation, in the governance of the Archdiocese, and especially in the management of the scandal,” they write. “The harsh light now being shone on the inner governance of the Archdiocese makes clear that the problems are not merely personal. They are systemic, the product of a long-standing and deeply entrenched clericalism that does not have to be the corollary of the ordained priestly ministry.”

The letter was signed by the following tenured members of the Theology Department of the University of St. Thomas: Cara Anthony, Bernard Brady, Massimo Faggioli, Paul Gavrilyuk, Michael Hollerich, John Martens, Stephen McMichael, Paul Niskanen, David Penchansky, Gerald Schlabach, Ted Ulrich, Paul Wojda 

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