About that Archbishop Nienstedt conversion quote (updated)

It’s time for another update from the “framing religion as politics” beat, care of The Star Tribune, up in Minnesota.

This latest same-sex marriage story is pretty standard fare — Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt keeps talking about doctrine, the newspaper frames everything as political ambition — except for two paragraphs that raise interesting questions. One of the questions is legal, in a church-state sense, and the other concerns a misquote that should be corrected (that is, if theology means anything to the newspaper’s editors). As a bonus, there there is a pitch-perfect example of language that smacks readers in the face with the newsroom’s views on this subject.

First, there is the money question:

Working aggressively behind the scenes, the 65-year-old Nienstedt has emerged as a key financial and political force for passage of the marriage amendment, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot and is the most contentious issue in the state this election season.

He has committed more than $650,000 in church money, stitched together a coalition of leaders from other faiths and exerted all his power within the church to press Minnesota’s million-plus Catholics to back him.

Now, churches and non-profits are allowed to get financially involved in issues in the public square, as opposed to endorsing candidates. I assume the Star Tribune team knows that. It’s one thing to tell members of your voluntary association where the group stands on a matter of doctrine. It’s something else to urge them to support a particular candidate — whether that is an A.M.E. Zion pastor plugging President Barack Obama or a Mormon leader pinning an overt endorsement on Mitt Romney.

What, precisely, is meant by “more than $650,000 in church money” going to this campaign? Did the archbishop literally pull those funds from church accounts or did he seek donations from Catholic donors, charities, etc.? Readers deserve information there, not fog.

Moving on.

But Nienstedt’s central role in the campaign has also brought blistering criticism from the faithful.

“I just see that this is terrible. This is not how Christ would have spent this money,” said Pauline Cahalan, 67, a lifelong Catholic from Roseville. “It’s very concerning to me when someone says you have to think like I tell you to think.”

So this one woman represents “the faithful” on an issue linked to an ancient sacrament of the church? “The faithful” — the implication is all or most Catholics in the region — oppose his actions?

This language is simply too vague. It’s clear, in this age in which American Catholicism is splintered on issues of moral theology, that many would oppose the archbishop and they deserve to be quoted, on the record. But all, or even most, of the “faithful,” active Catholics? Come on, people. Back that claim up with some facts or, at the very least, a poll that digs into the specifics. “Some” of the faithful? Sure. “The faithful” is another matter.

And finally, there is this brief moment in which a Catholic leader is allowed to speak in Catholic, non-religious language. Note that this is a reference to a written statement from the archbishop.

Undeterred by the criticism, Nienstedt has raised the stakes. To a mother who pleaded for acceptance for her gay child, he wrote: “I urge you to reconsider the position that you expressed. … Your eternal salvation may well depend upon a conversation of heart on this topic.”

To clergy, he issued orders that no “open dissension” would be allowed. He wrote one outspoken priest, the Rev. Mike Tegeder, that if he persisted, “I will … remove you from your ministerial assignments.”

What, precisely, is “a conversation of heart” on this issue? That makes no sense, in terms of grammar or theology. Is there any chance that what the archbishop actually wrote was that, on this matter of fidelity to doctrine and sacrament, his woman needed to seek “a conversion of heart”?

According to this Catholic source, quoting what appears to the same Nienstedt letter, that is exactly what the archbishop wrote. Who altered this crucial quote and why? It just doesn’t make any sense.

UPDATE: A website called Truth Wins Out has posted what it says is the original letter from Nienstedt and — while the “conversion” instead of “conversation” logic remains — it appears that this typo was made by the archbishop and/or his staff. Thus, the copy desk merely passed along that language, while it appears that other Catholics who read it have corrected the wording.

I think the editors still should have noticed that the original wording made zero sense and asked about it. However, it is not a journalistic sin to have no one on the copy desk who thinks theologically or thinks “Catholic” on such a matter. It’s sad that no one caught it, but it appears that the mistake was not that of the newspaper.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    That wasn’t the biggest problem with the story. To me it was a study in character assassination because they attributed an evil motivation to him for his zeal on this issue — blind ambition. “Bishops who fought to uphold the definition of marriage in other states have been rewarded with promotions. For an ambitious archbishop, the marriage amendment offers the potential for advancement in the Catholic hierarchy.” A totally unattributed cheap shot, because he wants to get ahead, doncha know, since, after all, all those other bishops who were speaking out on same-sex “marriage” and religious liberty got plum assignments.

    I mean, who wouldn’t want to get San Francisco after being the lead guy on preserving real marriage in this country? And who wouldn’t want to lead a Church in a city with all kinds of crime and poverty after speaking out on religious liberty? And who wouldn’t want to lead the Church in the City of Brotherly Hate — oops, I mean “Love” — which has a huge priestly sex abuse scandal and is so in the red that the bishop has to sell his house?

    So what is Nienstedt after? We never hear. Most logically, it’s Chicago. Cardinal George is waiting for the Pope to accept his resignation and he has cancer, and any bishop who has political ambitions — whether they’re real or made up — knows where the real action is and wants to take over a city with a boatload of clergy who are just out there in droves supporting the Pope (end sarcasm). Seriously, the Chicago clergy are among the most restive in the country and anyone who has to take them on will have a huge and painful job on his hands. Oh, and most likely at some point in the near future, he will also have to lead the other bishops of the state in opposing efforts to redefine marriage in Illinois as well.

    The whole article is set up to do one thing — attribute evil motives for opposing same-sex “marriage” to the Archbishop, painting him as purely ambitious. As I said at the outset — this is a study in character assassination.

    Here is Father John Zuhlsdorf’s take on the issue: http://wdtprs.com/blog/2012/10/archbp-nienstedt-and-the-marriage-amendment-in-minnesota/ It’s a pretty good analysis.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    One other major issue:
    “He said he sees no problem enshrining a religious belief about marriage in the state Constitution.” OK, that would be an interesting belief if he said that. So where’s the proof? Oh, here it is….or not: “Marriage defined as a union between one man and one woman is a reality that predates any government or religious denomination…Marriage is meant for children and children flourish best with a mother and a father.” Can anyone find the “enshrining of a religious belief about marriage” in there? No? Then in my book, it’ s more character assassination.

  • dalea

    Truth Wins Out is the website headed by Wayne Besen, a leading crusader against Reparative Therapy and ExGays. The name for the site is in response to the “Love Won Out” program sponsored by, AIR, Focus on the Family. In the discussion on the letter here:

    http://www.truthwinsout.org/blog/2012/10/30335/

    the first commentator reports receiving the identical letter. Which makes the mystery deepen.

  • Elaine T

    I’ve seen people claim that the statement “Marriage is meant for children and children flourish best with a mother and a father.” is a religous statement. I suspect, given the usual tenor of reporting on the subject, that many employees of news media hold that opinion.

    I think they hear it as religious because of the ‘meant’.

  • Will

    What is frustrating is that the story does not say what it means by the “acceptance” which the distraught mother “pleaded for” and the mean ol’ prelate presumably withheld (but could have granted.) Does she want her son not to be beaten up or harassed in public? For him to be told that he is a child of God and should be treated with live and understanding? To be allowed to attend church services? I don’t know any church where homosexuals are barred at the door. To receive the sacraments? To receive the church’s approval to “marry” another male? Or that he has some kind of right to be told that the particular sin he is addicted to isn’t one?

    I suspect that the confusion is here because the “liberal” orthodoxy, as represented by the “mainstream” press, refuses to acknowledge any distinction between all of those positions.

  • Becky

    “He said he sees no problem enshrining a religious belief about marriage in the state Constitution.”

    Over and over again they tell me that “marriage equality” is not a religious belief, implying that religious belief is irrational and “marriage equality” is the result of a rational process. Tired of it! Especially as they pull out every stop, relying heavily on emotion and sentiment, to advance their cause.

    Teachings about sexuality and the individual relation to family and community are NOTHING BUT religion! Merriam-Webster, religion [probably from religare to tie back, tie up, tie fast] 1: the personal commitment to and serving of God or a god with worshipful devotion, conduct in accord with divine commands esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or declared by authoritative teachers, a way of life recognized as incumbent on true believers, and typically the relating of oneself to an organized body of believers.

    Elaborate a little, “God or a god or a government”, and you’re done.

  • Dave S.

    When I saw the article, I also wondered about Ms. Cahalan, so I googled her and found several articles in which she discusses her support for “women priests.” So this does not appear to be the first issue about which our life long Catholic resisted being told what to think. She appears to be one of the Strib’s go-to non-Catholic Catholics.


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