National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
May 28, 2004

LettersThe church in transit

I have been a member of three very different Roman Catholic churches. Growing up in the ’50s, I was part of a pre-Vatican II church that possessed great clarity in its beliefs but at the same time was very pastoral. The greatest identifying feature of Catholicism was not eating meat on Fridays. The church did not take itself so seriously; one very popular book was I’ll Die Laughing (a book of cartoons about altar boys). Once in a while a “mean priest” would say something cruel or judgmental and an angry person or family would leave the church. When this happened, the “fallen away” Catholics would be gently encouraged to return with the suggestion to pay no attention to the offending priest, who probably really didn’t mean what he said. And it was also the church that supported John Kennedy’s campaign for president, endorsing the notion that the church of Rome would not and should not tell him how to be president.

The Vatican II church was of course a church of excitement, energy and experimentation. It was a church of possibilities. It was most notably a shining light and leader in this country in the fight for civil rights. Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan of Baltimore courageously went to city hall to speak on behalf of open housing legislation in the face of opposition among many Catholics in the community.

The current Catholic church is one of repression. It is a sad church -- you don’t hear much laughter these days. It is circumscribed by a rigid orthodoxy and defensiveness that has taken all the humanity and compassion out of Christianity. Instead of reaching out to others with love, the church reaches out to punish anyone who dares dissent in even the smallest detail. And there are plenty who encourage those with doubts or areas of dissent to leave the church, just as many in this country often say, “America -- love it or leave it.”

Yes, it is a sad church indeed. The only saving grace is that my experience tells me it will not last long. For I find that the church is constantly changing, and it will soon change again. I believe that the fourth Roman Catholic church in my lifetime is about to appear, and while I don’t know what it will be like in many respects, I do know it will be more Christ-like -- more loving, more compassionate, more understanding and, yes, more tolerant.

Baldwin, Md.

NCR’s makeover

Just to let you know that I am very pleased with the new look for NCR. I liked what I saw on the Web site, but I received my new issue in the mail today, and I like the “real thing” even better.

Thanks to all of you who made this decision.

Birmingham, Ala.

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I like the new look. I like it a lot. I read twice as much as I usually do!

Sacramento, Calif.

Untener had Spirit

I read with great interest the letter of Bette Woods in a recent issue of NCR (April 23). She expressed great concern about the praise and commendations that Bishop Ken Untener received in this publication on his death. According to Ms. Woods, Bishop Untener’s vision of the church and Catholic life could only be appreciated by people in their 50s. (I am 55). This all made me think of the important dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus about being born again, which is found in John’s Gospel. At one point, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). It is the Spirit who empowers believers to dream dreams and prophesy in truth and proclaim the Gospel and build up the church. In my Catholic training, I was taught that the Spirit is poured forth upon the whole church to those who wait and watch in faith. Nowhere is there an age limit.

Pacifica, Calif.

New bishop of New Ulm

Regarding “Bishop takes issue with late predecessor” (NCR, May 7):

Shortly after a young priest fresh from postgraduate study in Rome said that Pope John XXIII “didn’t know much,” he said to me, “One of these days you guys will all be dead and we’ll take over.”

Well, now one of us “guys” is dead. Ray Lucker. From what we are being told, a member of the vanguard of the pre-Vatican II Catholic organization has moved into New Ulm, Minn., Bishop John C. Nienstedt. He has taken issue with his dead (thus eliminating any need for dialogue) predecessor, denouncing his theological views, banning his book, Revelation and the Catholic Church: Vatican II and the Twenty-first Century, and, by inference, identifying him as a heretic. He will be “much more direct.”

In short, he has elected to take the mantle of so many modern episcopal appointees in America. Like them, wherever there has been a choice between the church of the people of God or the church of Fabian Bruskewitz and John Meyer, he has chosen the latter.

In one’s rush to avoid a street where the parade is being held, one may fail to see some of the saints as they go marching in, perhaps in their own indirect way.

Elmhurst, Ill.

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The articles “Bishop takes issue with late predecessor” and “Diocese’s new leadership style sparks discontent,” in the same issue, were interesting.

The New Ulm diocese in central Minnesota comprises an area of fertile soil and great agriculture, an earthly Garden of Eden. This peaceful and pastoral setting has had for decades an unsettling Catholic presence, caused by a liberal interpretive, confrontational style toward the Roman magisterium. Now it has befallen the new Bishop John C. Nienstedt to put an end to the liberal interpretations of the late Bishop Raymond Lucker’s “it is not in the Bible and man-made rules can be unmade” rehash of Fr. Martin Luther’s way.

Maybe it’s prophetic for the good Catholics of the great New Ulm diocese to now have a bishop with the first syllable of his last name phonetically meaning “no.”

No, and enough to those past decades of liberal Teilhardian, cosmic amorphism imposed on the Catholic presence in this idyllic diocesan countryside.

Saint Paul, Minn.

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I was surprised to see so many inaccuracies about the New Ulm Diocesan Plan for Parishes in your May 7 issue. Except for a short break in terms, I have been a member of the Diocesan Committee on Parishes since 1996. Here is what I noticed:

1) The ending date given for the Diocesan Plan for Parishes is wrong.

2) “Mission” category is not used in the plan.

3) Saying that the plan has gone through 10 drafts indicates that the reporter’s information is over a year old. (There were so many drafts because there was a lot of consultation.)

4) After more drafts, the plan was finalized and published in fall 2003 -- “finality” was “in sight” eight months ago.

5) No parishes are designated for “closure” as such -- in fact, a parish previously designated for closure can now be an “oratory.”

The basic model for ministry proposed in the plan is one that has been used in the diocese for over 20 years in a cluster of five parishes in Swift County. (See Chapter 3 of Paul Wilkes’ Excellence in Catholic Parishes.)

Please consider doing a story on “Hope for Years to Come: 2003-2008 Diocesan Plan for Parishes” of the Catholic diocese of New Ulm. The presentation of the plan in the article by Robert McClory does a great disservice to a document that is calling people into new ways of being church in a rural diocese.

Sanborn, Minn.

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This letter is written in response to the two articles written by Robert J. McClory in the recent issue of your paper.

I have had the privilege and honor to work closely with both Bishop Raymond Lucker and Bishop John Nienstedt as coordinator of staff in the New Ulm diocese. Even though they knew each other for only a short time, I can attest to the mutual respect that each had for the other. It seems natural that a newly appointed bishop would tend to be more cautious about his administration than a bishop serving a diocese for 25 years. Also, Bishop Nienstedt does have a different view from that of Bishop Lucker about the proper forum for episcopal speculation on theological issues.

The second article, on “leadership style,” contained a number of factual errors, particularly about the Diocesan Plan for Parishes. The plan was finalized in October 2003, has been widely publicized and is already being implemented. The plan -- begun under Bishop Lucker -- was Bishop Nienstedt’s top priority. His commitment to consultation so that people’s concerns and suggestions were heard -- the plan went through 17 drafts -- is evident in the comprehensiveness of the plan. The plan has been well received throughout the diocese.

The most disturbing aspect of this article is that it was written with so many unnamed sources. In truth, five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago, a similar article could have been written about Bishop Lucker, or any bishop for that matter, by simply interviewing people in the diocese who opposed or disliked the bishop’s style or administration. The article comes across as mean-spirited and vindictive. There is a period of adjustment for any new bishop and a diocese. Bishop Nienstedt was installed in August 2001. From my perspective, the diocese and Bishop Nienstedt are still getting to know one another.

Ultimately, it is “by our fruits” that we will be known. May I suggest that NCR check back with the diocese in several years? By then, the diocesan plan will be fully implemented, an academic program for lay ecclesial ministers will be in place, the first diocesan permanent diaconate class will be functioning, the first diocesan annual appeal will be completed, a discipleship formation program for adult parishioners will be underway, students from the on-site diocesan Spanish immersion course will be serving in Hispanic ministry and an evangelization initiative will be in process.

NCR has been very gracious over the years to the New Ulm diocese and to Bishop Lucker. I respectfully suggest to you that in these articles you “missed the mark.”

New Ulm, Minn.

McClory responds:
Since the plan is titled “Hope for Years to Come: 2003-2008,” I assumed it is an ongoing plan, with designations of parishes changing as circumstances require. The “mission” classification is listed in the plan’s mission statement, as is a possible “closed” classification. That there are no missions or closed churches so far is good news for New Ulm, but it’s hard to imagine the situation will remain entirely stable through 2008. The comment that Bishop Nienstedt “has a different view than Bishop Lucker about the proper forum for episcopal speculation on theological issues” is certainly correct. That’s what the burden of the articles was all about.

Mind-blowing poem

I was blown away by Chet Corey’s poem “Footwashing” (NCR, April 9). I had never thought of viewing the washing from how Jesus must have felt during the experience. And when Jesus had finished with the 12 apostles, then continued with his mother, Martha and Mary Magdalen, the thought knocked me over!

Now I can see why foot washing is restricted to men only. If women were present at the Last Supper, what’s to prevent me saying that they, too, were ordained along with the apostles? I am praying for Chet that his poem doesn’t get put on the Index of Forbidden Poems for the implied heresy of women’s ordination.

Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

Read the Constitution, sonny

Richard Hopkins, billing himself as “a 63-year-old American male who has served his time in the military,” in your April 30 edition calls people who protest Bush’s “war actions” anti-American and traitors.

Well, I’m a 76-year-old combat veteran, sonny, and I fought for the right of protesters of any stripe to do their thing, even when I disagree with them. I’d suggest you get a copy of the Constitution and read it. Come to think of it, maybe Bush should read it, too.


Mary doesn’t take sides

I would like to alert the reading public to approach Andrew Greeley’s comments about my work on Mary, the mother of Jesus, with wariness. He distorts my position beyond recognition.

In his review of Charlene Spretnak’s Missing Mary, he quotes me as saying that Mary was “passive” at Cana; noticing the lack of wine, she performed an act of self-emptying by turning to Jesus for help. I did indeed write these words, but this is not my view. It is von Balthasar’s idea, which I fairly describe in a paragraph that begins, “The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar takes this approach.” After describing this position, I then explicitly criticize it.

By contrast, the Cana scene in my book Truly Our Sister presents Mary as intensely active. Using the insights of third-world women, it connects her advocacy at the wedding feast with social justice today. In the Gospel she says, “They have no wine.” Now she says, “no food, no clean water, no health care, no human rights.” Then, her words moved Jesus to act. Now, they move the church to act on behalf of the poor. Now she also says, “They have no wine, no bread, no Eucharist.” Her words move the church to provide ordained priests beyond the cadre of celibate males.

Furthermore, I do not hold, as Greeley claims, that the image of Mary as metaphor for God’s love should be abandoned. Committed to pluralism in spirituality, I argue explicitly that traditional Marian practices are to be respected. But for those who learn in their prayer and practice to address God in female metaphors, including mother, other options lie open to be explored. Relating to Mary as our sister is one.

I love a good argument. But when someone sets up a straw woman in order to demolish her, when someone attributes to a scholar a position contrary to her own and then ridicules her “rigid ideology” for holding it, then the real heart of the issue cannot be discussed. Truth is not served by such misrepresentation.

Here’s an idea. To clear up these and other misunderstandings, I invite Andrew Greeley to a dialogue about Mary conducted under the rules of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative started by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin just before he died. The guiding spirit is to respect the baptismal identity and current goodwill of those with whom we disagree, to try to understand rather than caricature their position and to argue back rigorously but with courtesy. These conversations have already taken place across the country on contentious issues of race, liturgy, sexuality, politics, women in the church. To discuss Mary this way could be very fruitful.

New York

Greeley responds:
If I have misunderstood Elizabeth Johnson’s exegesis of Cana I apologize. There is no need to debate her right to develop her own spirituality of Mary. She has every right to do that. Yet when she dismisses the image of the mother of God (in her article in America for example) because it is a product of patriarchy, she seems to be tone deaf to symbol. Surely God can be both mother and sister. So too can Mary as sacrament of God.

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Love for Mary, the mother of Jesus, is neither a partisan view nor the private preserve of a special group. I agree with Fr. Greeley: Mary never went away or ever was put on a shelf, gathering dust, in the living faith expression of people participating in the building of the kingdom.

People’s view and appreciation of Mary has been on an understandable roller-coaster ride throughout the ages. The development of Mariology reflects this fluctuation too -- from Mary, Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of all grace (so easily misinterpreted by others as making her to be the fourth person of the Trinity), to the sugarcoated sentimentalism of wrinkle-less, Hollywood beauty and lifeless perfection, making her a caricature of true womanhood.

Through it all, I believe there have always been large numbers who saw beyond these exaggerations, neither offended by them nor making them issues for separation, and focused their lives on the example of Mary, the real woman of faith. It is her “Yes,” and faithfulness to that yes, that summed up her life with God, Jesus, Joseph and all others.


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Can liberals love Mary? When I read that title (NCR, April 30) I shook my head. This business of liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right is snowballing us all downhill. Only a fool would be fastened tightly to one side or the other politically, domestically, spiritually. What a loss it would be for any Christian not to have Mary. Her statues were not removed from churches -- Mary’s image and those of saints were removed from the sanctuary, the central place of sacrifice and word. In contemporary architecture very special places are created for Mary’s image. Mary never went to college or learned of the right and the left. She had mystery in her home. She is not just someone for us to use when we need something. She is the mother who stood under the cross. She is the only woman who did not go to anoint the body of Jesus because in her darkest night she believed he would rise as he said. Yes, we can all love Mary.

Olivia, Minn.

Abortion and politics

Eugene Kennedy (NCR, April 23) points out that the Catholic bishops, having used the National Review Board as a means of dealing with the church’s sexual abuse scandal, will now marginalize it and go back to business as usual. On the next page Ono Ekeh describes his being fired for supporting Sen. John Kerry.

It reminds me of one of my favorite stories about John F. Kennedy. Several months before he was killed, Jack spoke to a large group of Catholic nuns in, I think, New York. They were an enthusiastic audience. He was very glad to be there, he said. In his experience, nuns usually voted Democrat and bishops usually voted Republican.

Winsted, Conn.

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The hierarchy in the United States should understand the separation of church and state. To attempt to influence the American presidential race is decidedly un-American. A private meeting is one thing, but public scorn for candidates strikes me as not only un-American but also un-Catholic.

West Grove, Pa.

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The excellent editorial “Politics, piety and the Catholic vote” (NCR, April 30) should be sent to every U.S. bishop so they can “get it.” Right to Life activists have been marching for 30 years and could have been more effective in their mission if they had concentrated more on resolving the root causes of abortion. Every aborted fetus also has a father, and until Right to Life addresses moral responsibilities for both genders and the life of the mother issue, they are fighting an uphill battle.

Media messages are paramount in affecting immoral social behaviors. The Catholic church could be more proactive, as is the Protestant evangelical church, in giving more hands-on direction to our parents and youth.

There are a myriad of reasons why abortions take place, but legislating morality is not the total answer because there will be other options such as the “morning-after” pill, travel elsewhere and illegal abortions. Catholicism is the largest religion in the United States, and many abortions are performed on Catholic women with encouragement and funding from many Catholic men. The bishops need to take a realistic overview of this issue and become more involved on many levels in developing a moral conscience within our own church, which would result in fewer abortions. We would impact our society by our example and efforts far more effectively than any legislation.

West Chester, Pa.

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After reading your editorial concerning bishops who will not grant holy Communion to pro-abortionists or their supporters, I respectfully have a few comments. The Vatican and canon law have made it clear that no one in the state of grave sin can receive holy Communion. If you have a problem with bishops who attempt to follow the church, then that is a problem you alone must face, but to use a national forum, which uses the name Catholic to promote views contrary to Catholic teaching, I believe is wrong.

Lake Charles, La.

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Some cardinals and bishops have spoken out publicly about refusing Communion to John Kerry and other politicians for either their neutral or opposing stand on the abortion issue.

I wonder how Jesus would react in this situation? Was not Jesus always loving, compassionate and all-forgiving?

We do not draw people to our faith by coercion and repression. That’s not how Christ treated sinners or those with opposing views. He never forced anyone to accept him or his teachings.

Perhaps our church prelates should give some thought to Christ’s non-judgmental approach instead of striking out with arbitrary and vengeful spirit.

Warren, Mich.

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The Catholic authorities surely make religion complicated.

Tulsa, Okla.

Pray for tolerance

I am writing this from Ocosingo, Chiapas, Mexico, where tolerance is something prayed for. Reading Dino Pantoni’s letter of April 30 leads me to reflect on some very astute comments of his. I agree totally that the church is not monolithic. There needs to be room for all of us -- not exclusion of some (scapegoating is always a sin). Some of the letters evince an “us-versus-them” mentality. I am embarrassed by the strident tones supporting positions I agree with. I further suspect that you may insert these letters to make us readers reflect on intolerance, because I don’t subscribe to NCR for vehement visions that exclude me.

What we need is dialogue, and that is difficult because we have strong emotions for different aspects and beliefs within the church. But Mr. Pantoni’s letter gives hope. It would seem few conservatives with open minds read NCR. The polemical letters we normally read suggest a nod from “big brother” that he is listening in to our conversations. I agree that “authoritative,” “triumphal” and “arrogant” are not terms I want associated with any aspect of the church, especially where I am involved.

When I see this attitude in the Mass or from our priests, I want to throw the offenders into purgatory and remove all their funding. I have learned not to support intolerance, and certainly not when it is in a position of power. Authority must be earned, not imposed. Please bring us more letters like this one. They are good for the soul.

Fort Collins, Colo.

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004