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Bishop takes issue with late predecessor.

In Brief: One of the fascinations of the local church is how a new bishop will compare with the man he is replacing. Much reporting and analysis has been written about how those appointments have changed in recent years. As a group, the more recently appointed bishops have been described as more conservative, stricter in adherence to church teaching and less accommodating to questions than some of their predecessors. In few places are the generational and style differences as clear as in New Ulm, Minn.

The bishop of New Ulm, Minn., has taken the extraordinary step of denouncing the theological views of his predecessor and urging Catholics not to read a book containing those views "as though it reflects Catholic thinking." Bishop John Nienstedt almost a year ago posted a statement on the diocesan Web site challenging Revelation and the Catholic Church: Vatican H in the Twenty-First Century, which discusses the views of former New Ulm Bishop Raymond Lucker, who died in 2001.

"As a whole," wrote Nienstedt (pronounced nine-stedt), the book, published by Orbis Press in 2003, "challenges the church's own understanding of herself as being authoritatively charged under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to teach in the name of Jesus on matters of faith and morals." He referred the matter to the doctrine committee of the U.S. bishops' conference, asking them "to render a statement on the content of the book."

Nienstedt said in early April that the committee had at last replied by sending him a review of the book "by a systematic theologian" (unnamed) whom the committee had consulted. Nienstedt sent NCR a copy of his commentary on the review, which was published on the New Ulm diocese's Web site.

Msgr. John Strynkowski, who is a staff member of the bishops' doctrine committee, said the review was done at the request of the committee, and neither the identity of the author nor the full review is intended for general publication. He acknowledged that the anonymous reviewer did not have "grave problems" with the book, though he found some passages "ambiguous" or "lacking nuance."

The posthumous dispute is but one example of a style of leadership very different from what New Ulm Catholics had grown accustomed to under the collaborative Lucker. He led the sprawling rural diocese for 25 years, earning a national reputation as a progressive thinker dedicated to the spirit of Vatican II.

Nienstedt told NCR he tends to be "much more direct" than Lucker in his approach. When he arrived in New Ulm from Detroit, said Nienstedt, he bought a copy of the book How to Speak Minnesotan by Howard Mohr, but has not yet mastered the content. Lucker knew "how to do 'Minnesota nice,'" Nienstedt said--that is, to come at issues slowly and indirectly rather than head-on. Nienstedt said he is learning to be subtle and diplomatic.

Priests and laity in the diocese have described Nienstedt as a "top-down micromanager," "a scolder" and someone who seems at times "to enjoy being mean." On the other hand, defenders of the bishop cite his energy, his skill as a speaker, the fact that he has visited all 82 parishes in the diocese, his commitment to pastoral administrators in more than 20 parishes, and his efforts to handle the priest shortage (there are 44 priests currently active). Few of those with whom NCR spoke were willing to be quoted, however, including even those who favored Nienstedt's style.

"The people here are afraid to speak up," said Ann Eissner, a retired nurse who moved to the diocese two years ago. "There's no real dialogue with this bishop. It's like we're going back to the days before Vatican II."

Nienstedt, now 57, was installed as bishop of New Ulm in May 2001, just four months before Lucker's death. He came with an impressive, upwardly mobile resume: holder of a doctorate in theology from Rome (his subject, the moral dimensions of in vitro fertilization); secretary to Detroit Cardinal John Dearden; official with the Vatican Secretary of State office in Rome; professor of moral theology and later rector of the Detroit major seminary; pastor in Royal Oak, Mich.; auxiliary bishop in Detroit; and chaplain of the Detroit chapter of Legatus, an organization for business executives founded by Thomas Monaghan. "With his background," said a New Ulm diocesan employee, "it's obvious he won't be here long; he's just passing through on his way up the ladder."

But while he is here, Nienstedt seems determined to leave his mark. His challenge to the book Revelation and the Church was based, he said in his Web site statement, on Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, which states "that where the pope or bishops speak on matters of faith and morals, even when not speaking ex cathedra [that is, infallibly], the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with 'a religious assent of soul.'" Dissent from this authoritative teaching, added Nienstedt, "places one theologically in opposition to the church and spiritually in peril of losing eternal life."

The critique surprised William McDonough, the book's editor (along with Lucker) and an assistant professor of theology at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. "No one else has questioned the book," he said. "We thought it was respectful, discussable and challenging." Lucker had, in fact, intended to write it himself, but when he became seriously ill, he handed over his talks, papers and tapes, asking McDonough to complete the project. McDonough oversaw the writing of the chapters by a group of 15 authors, many of them theologians at the College of St. Catherine and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Using Lucker's theological approach, they noted how the church's growing understanding of revelation over the centuries has affected its interpretation of dogma, moral theology and church authority.

The heart of the book is Lucker's introduction, in which he wrote about "changing formulations of church teaching," and how consensus of doctrine can come about only "after free discussion" and often at the expense of some factions "kicking and screaming." Lucker also listed 37 matters of "authoritative church teaching" that have undergone substantial change, including the church's approach to religious liberty, the Bible, slavery and the Jews. In addition, it contains Lucker's list of 15 "teachings that could change," including clerical celibacy, artificial birth control, intercommunion, homosexuality and the ordination of women to the diaconate. Lucker's brief commentary accompanies each item.

According to Nienstedt, "What's disturbing about the book is that it suggests the church cannot teach definitively in areas that are not infallibly defined." In fact, he said, the church has an obligation to teach in many areas "so as to avoid doctrinal anarchy."

On the issues Lucker said the church had changed its approach, Nienstedt said some were never matters of faith, such as slavery or the election of bishops. He said he has a special concern about Lucker's list of teachings that could change in the future, which "carries an implication that they should change." "There's just too much emphasis on dissent these days," he said. "It can confuse Catholics about what is essential to the Catholic faith, and people will be spiritually frustrated." Was Lucker therefore in doctrinal error? Nienstedt said he would prefer to say the book's approach is "not prudent."

"Ray Lucker wanted Catholics to think," said a New Ulm pastor. "He supported the church. But when questions came up, he conferred widely and spoke out publicly. He wanted people to realize that the church does change. Otherwise, what has the pope been apologizing about during the past 15 years?"

In his Web site commentary on the book review sent him by the bishop's doctrinal committee, Nienstedt reiterated his original complaint that Lucker "confuses the reader on the necessity of believing what the Catholic church affirms by way of her ordinary magisterium." Eleven of the teachings that Lucker said might be changed in the future are "refuted" by sections in the Catechism of the Church, explained Nienstedt, and the other four are already in conformity with the catechism. The review sent by the bishops' doctrine committee is quoted only in sketchy fashion and does not present substantial objections to the book.

In his commentary, Nienstedt appeared to chide his predecessor for betraying him in the afterlife. Nienstedt said Lucker had "volunteered a promise that he would never interfere with decisions I would have to make on behalf of the diocese. ... The questions raised by his involvement with the writing of this work seem to back away from that expressed priority. For that reason I believe its publication was unfortunate."

Related Web Site

Diocese of New Ulm, Minn. www.dnu.org

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, writes from Chicago.
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Title Annotation:American Catholic
Author:McClory, Robert J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 7, 2004
Words:1455
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