Nienstedt denies communion to GLBT button students

MINNEAPOLIS  — The archbishop of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese denied communion to a group of college students from St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict because they were wearing rainbow-colored buttons in support of gay rights, a member of the group said Tuesday.

Elizabeth Gleich said when students with the rainbow buttons approached Archbishop John Nienstedt at a Sept. 26 evening Mass on the St. John’s campus in Collegeville, he made a sign of the cross over their heads but refused to hand them hosts.

Gleich was wearing a rainbow button but standing in a different line, and said she was served communion. The 20-year-old St. Benedict sophomore from Hastings is a board member of People Representing the Sexual Minority (PRiSM), a school-sanctioned group comprised of both gay and straight students. Gleich is straight.

Nienstedt was traveling and could not be reached for comment, archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath said Tuesday.

McGrath said it’s church policy, from the Vatican downward, to deny communion to people who make a public show of opposing church teaching or try to make political statements at mass.

The Mass was several days after the archdiocese acknowledged a campaign to send several hundred thousand DVDs to Catholic families around Minnesota, spelling out the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. In the DVD, Nienstedt called for a public vote on a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

“We wanted to make a statement to Archbishop Nienstedt, to stand in solidarity with GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) students on our own campus that we don’t agree with what he’s doing,” Gleich said.

She said the students involved acted on their own, not under the auspices of PRiSM, and that their actions were aimed at Nienstedt and not at either college.

“We have found a welcoming community here,” Gleich said. “The last thing we want to do is create something divisive within our community.”

Michael Hemmesch, spokesman for St. John’s, said school officials had no comment. He said Nienstedt was invited by school officials to lead a regular Sunday night Mass, and that it was the first time he did so on the rural campus about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

The Rev. Rene McGraw, a professor of philosophy at St. John’s, said he held a short mass for the small group later the same night in which he served all of them communion. He took issue with the archdiocese’s interpretation of canon law when it comes to who can receive communion.

“My understanding of church law is that one is not to deny communion to anyone unless he or she is a public sinner, and that has traditionally been interpreted very narrowly,” McGraw said. “My instinct was these are people who were in need, I’m supportive of them, therefore I’m happy to say mass for them.”

The story was first reported by The Record, the student newspaper for the two schools. St. John’s is a men’s school and St. Benedict is a women’s school, but the two campuses have a close affiliation and most students take courses at both.

It’s not the first time the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese has tangled with gay activists over communion.

In 2005, before Nienstedt was archbishop, a priest at the St. Paul Cathedral denied communion to about 100 gay Catholic activists and their supporters who wore rainbow-colored sashes to mass on Pentecost Sunday. Then-Archbishop Harry Flynn said the sashes appeared to be a protest against church teaching.

27 Replies to “Nienstedt denies communion to GLBT button students”

  1. It would seem that Father McGraw is mistaken in his opinion of Church Law in saying that, “one is not to deny communion to anyone unless he or she is a public sinner, and that has traditionally been interpreted very narrowly,” The fact is that Archbishop Nienstedt has interpreted cannon law correctly. Canon 915 states, “Those who are excommunicated or interdicted (prohibited by degree, or cut off) after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy communion.” Canon 916 states, “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession…” The Archbishop has stated clearly and often that those who demonstrate opposition to Church teaching by wearing the rainbow sash or other rainbow symbols signifying opposition to the Church’s teaching on marriage will not be allowed to receive communion. It is those who challenge the Archbishop and the Church’s teaching at the communion railing who are wrong. It is also the right of the Archbishop to make that determination within his archdiocese and the responsibility of priests and laity to follow his teaching. God bless Archbishop Nienstedt for his strong support of…

  2. How is wearing a rainbow button evidence of “obstinately persist[ing] in manifest grave sin”?

  3. Kathryn, the Catholic Church considers deliberate heresy, deliberate schism, deliberate incredulity, and scandal (in the Catholic sense of the word — cf CCC 2284) to be grave sins.  In this particular context, the rainbow buttons were explicitly intended to represent rebellion against the proper authority of the bishop, support for civil marriage of homosexuals, and very possibly a theological statement that homosexual acts are not immoral.  This was a deliberate symbol, clearly understood by both sides, and warned against in advance.  That makes the button-wearing, in this particular context, manifest evidence of obstinate persistence in grave sin.

    Now, that does not necessarily imply that the Catholic Church is *correct* about homosexual marriage or homosexual acts themselves.  There are thousands of pages of argument on the subject, many of them spelled out on these pages already.  However, if you *start* from the perspective of the Church and Archbishop Nienstedt, and accept for the sake of argument that the Catholic Church has the truth about homosexuality, then this is really an open-and-shut case.  You’d no more admit to Eucharist someone wearing a rainbow button than you’d admit someone wearing a button with the words, “Keep abortion legal,” or “ELCA = one…

  4. James, thanks for explaining. I’m still not totally clear though. While I think one could argue that it’s not clear these students were deliberately defying the church in ways that would constitute grave sin (e.g. they could merely have been trying to show support for GLBTQ Catholics, etc.) my primary concern is with the qualifers, “obstinate,” and “persist.” Can an action be classified as persistant if it’s only done once?

  5. Kathryn,
    If the students are publicly opposing the archbishop regarding the issue of homosexual “marriage” and other activity, it is the role of the bishop to educate them. Withholding Holy Communion is a prudent gesture (it teaches Catholics the importance and meaning of the Eucharist), not a condemnation or judgment on their souls. Many may be truly ignorant that they are supporting something that is gravely evil (and according to recent studies, Catholics scored among the worst in knowing their faith) or committing gravely sinful acts (sodomy).
    As individuals, the rainbow wearers may or may not be guilty of the qualifiers “obstinate” and “persist” as you mention. As a movement, however, the groups that do these things have certainly persisted, and need to be reminded of proper Church teaching.

  6. That’s actually a very interesting question, and it is certainly the most hotly debated one when it comes up in the (very small!) circle of people who argue about canon law for fun. The position I take, and the one that appears to be consensus, is that, when a legitimate authority (such as the pope or bishop), gives a public admonishment NOT to do something, because to do so would be a grave sin and you’ll be denied communion, THAT is your chance to turn away from your heretical or schismatic views. If you go ahead and take those views public anyway, deliberately defying the warning, then you are *persisting* in those views, and are *obstinate* in the light of the bishop’s warning — even if it’s the first time you’ve actually gone public with your defiance.

    Now, there’s another camp that believes, “No, heresy is, by its nature, a public sin, so it only *becomes* a sin when you take it public, so when you’re going public for the first time, by definition it cannot be ‘obstinate persistence’.” I don’t agree with this, but the Church’s internal conversation is not over.

    At this point in the conversation, some third Catholic usually shows up and reminds us that “Jesus was a lover, not a lawyer,” and they’re right, so we leave the legalisms and pray about it…

  7. At this point in the conversation, some third Catholic usually shows up and reminds us that “Jesus was a lover, not a lawyer,” and they’re right, so we leave the legalisms and pray about it…

    James, this is one I can agree with you on.  

  8. I agree with Mr. Houck, Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Heaney’s interpretation and explanation of the situation, and I thank them for their defense of the Catholic faith and Archbishop Nienstedt for being such a gentle, wise, and courageous shepherd. The media portrays our archbishop as a heartless authoritarian curmudgeon when nothing could be further from the truth.

  9. Oops! When I said “media”, I meant the mass media. I think TommieMedia’s coverage of the Archbishop has been balanced and fair.

  10. I guess I just do not really see how wearing a rainbow is a sign of opposition against church teaching in and of itself. The rainbow is a symbol of the GLBT community as a whole, not of the same-sex marriage issue, so I do not see the problem unless these people were outspoken beforehand about their support of same-sex marriage?

    Also, following the same logic, are murderers and such also not eligible for communion since they have committed grave sin?

    I guess I just think that it should not be a human’s choice whether or not someone is allowed to participate in the Eucharist, God is the only one who should be able to judge that in my opinion.

  11. Murderers and such are *definitely* not eligible for communion. Nor are rapists, perjurers, thieves, adulterers, child molesters, or people who talk in the theater. Of course, if a sinner repents, asks forgiveness from God and the community (which is done through confession), and does reparation, the sin is absolved and communion is open again.

    And, yes, humans themselves are supposed to know when to reserve themselves from receiving communion. Sadly, many don’t. Usually, the minister can’t do anything about it, because he isn’t aware that the guy in front of him (for example) recently cheated his friends out of $100 at cards. But when a bunch of people announce, “We are going to wear a button for the sole purpose of thumbing our nose at Church teaching,” are asked not to do it, or at least not to present themselves for communion, and then do it anyways…

    If the Eucharist were solely between a Christian and God, then it would probably be wrong for another person to step in the middle of that relationship, and it would be best to let God judge. But the Eucharist is, like all sacraments, a community event within the Church. Everyone is involved, and everyone is partly responsible for seeing that Christ is treated with respect and love.

    I’m going off topic…

  12. James- “But when a bunch of people announce, ‘We are going to wear a button for the sole purpose of thumbing our nose at Church teaching. . .”- did they announce this?

  13. “We wanted to make a statement to Archbishop Nienstedt, to stand in solidarity with GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) students on our own campus that we don’t agree with what he’s doing,” Gleich said.

    The last part being “we don’t agree with what he’s doing” which as far as I can tell is abiding by his religion. So, yes, I do think they announced they were planning to thumb their nose at the Church teaching.

  14. I don’t take it that way at all. I think one could actually agree with Church teaching, and not agree with the approach that Archbishop Nienstedt has taken towards it. Disagreeing with his approach, and thumbing one’s nose at Church teaching I think are two very different things.

  15. I think I see where Kathryn is coming from. In reality the protesters were arguing against Archbishop Nienstedt’s method of spreading the official doctrine of the Church. The protesters were upset that Nienstedt mailed DVDs to Catholic families around Minnesota. This, of course, alienated older Catholics who are more familiar with VHS tapes, and caused far more trouble then it was worth.  

  16. Seriously Paul?  All you can think of are the Catholics who prefer VHS tapes?  My family has been accustomed to stone tablets and carrier pigeons as a method of receiving important doctrinal updates.  That’s the way it’s been for several millennia.  How do you think we feel?

  17. Thanks Paul and John for illuminating the issue. I hadn’t even considered those possibilities till you mentioned them!

    But seriously, Nienstedt explicitly called for a vote on a constitutional ammendment, and for people to vote in a particular way. There is a real difference between *what is or isn’t, ought to be, or ought not be* legal, and what the *Church says is or is not morally permissible.* People may think something ought to be legal, and not think that it is morally permissible.

    Some may simply think that sending out a mass-mailing of DVDs is not a very pastoral way of handling a vulnerable minority within the Catholic community, and perhaps even intimidating.

    Or perhaps some may simply think that spending this amount of money campaigning against same-sex marriage, is offensive in light of other issues in the state, e.g., poverty, hunger, homelessness, etc.

    Taking issue with what was done is not the same thing as taking issue with Church teaching.

    I will of course, be sure to communicate this to you both in VHS and stone tablet form in case the internet makes you feel uncomfortable. :)

  18. Mike Blissenbach has decided to permanently stop commenting in these pages, and I miss his long, careful, thoughtful posts already.  Here’s a four-parter, in honor of Mike and all the hours of fine conversation he contributed to TommieMedia.  Here’s to you, Blissenbach!
    Yes, there is a big gap between what Catholics are called to practice in their daily lives and what they are called to impose on all people through the civil law.  For instance, all Catholics must go to Mass every week, but a civil law requiring *all* citizens to go to Mass every Sunday would be unjust.  
    But the gap is not insurmountable.  Church teaching does not apply strictly to one’s personal life and then end at the ballot box.  In fact, “What Christ would want as law.” should be the primary concern of any voting Catholic.  A good civil law can be — *must* be — shaped by sound moral principles in order to be just.  Most laws involve a lot of prudence and individual judgment, so the Church makes no absolute pronouncements in those cases.  It just lays out the moral principles involved and leaves the final decision to the conscience of the informed voter.  Some examples: taxing, budgeting, most wars, immigration policy.  All these have large gray areas, and good Catholics disagree about…

  19. On the other hand, some issues are black-and-white, and the civil law is either right and just or wrong and unjust.  On these issues, the Church teaches that it is obliged to preach, and that the Faithful are obliged to accept the teaching as any other.  No doubt you’ve seen this a hundred times with abortion, and many have argued that the Church did not do enough to follow its teaching obligation during the Holocaust.  Civil recognition of same-sex marriage is treated the same way.  The Church thinks it is acceptable to tolerate homosexual acts within the society, but for the state to formally permit, establish, and promote those acts is not.  

    Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued a formal instruction on this subject in 2003.  It is not persuasive reading to those not already on board with Church teaching, but it is useful because it is pretty explicit about what a loyal Catholic can and cannot do with regards to same-sex unions under the law. The bottom line is, no, a Catholic cannot, on this particular issue, both support conferring the legal rights and status of marriage on same-sex unions *and* claim fealty to the Church’s teachings.

  20. You might disagree with the Church’s entire teaching on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, of course, as I know that you personally do, Kathryn.  And that’s fine.  It’s intellectually honest of you, and I’m sure that  the conversation about it is going to continue.  But this *is* the unambiguous teaching, and that is why the denial of Eucharist was proper and fitting.

    I admit that it is *possible* that the protesters were not protesting Church teaching on homosexual acts, nor the teaching on same-sex unions and the civil law.  It is *possible* they were *only* protesting the perceived pastoral imprudence of the DVD mailing, whether they thought it was heavy-handed or that the money could have been better spent.  In that case, they should have been admitted to communion, because disagreeing with your bishop is not a sin.  (I mean, you’re talking to the guy who called His Excellency Apb. Flynn “a tyrant if ever there was one” in print, after that Board of Trustees kerfuffle in ’07.)  But if that was really all they were mad about, I would have expected them to be a lot clearer about their greviances.

  21. In conclusion, you make a number of very good points, Kathryn.  Although it still appears highly likely that this was handled properly, you prove that what we really need is more facts about the intent of the protesters and exactly how they publicly defined their intentions prior to the Mass in question.

  22. James, thanks for honoring Michael! And the long thoughtful response. To clarify, I certainly wasn’t trying to say that they necessarily agree with Church teaching, I just think we should not assume that they don’t unless they come out and say so. And it might be the case that Church teaching treats same-sex marriage the same way as abortion in regards to whether or not it should be legal, but if so, I think many Catholics do not know that.

  23. Thank you for helping disambiguate my message Kathryn it was 1:52AM. To quote one of the stuent leaders of the event:
    Before Sunday, not many people may have been aware of the Archbishop’s stance on the LGBT community, but now they can hopefully see the community members it can hurt and exclude. Our actions weren’t a direct political statement regarding Archbishop Nienstedt’s DVD he sent out, but it was important we stood up for a minority group who has faced judgment and that we showed support for them.

    The DVD argument might have worked, had she not just denied it. Following the established logic, this was a statement towards Nienstedt’s views (which he shares with the Church) and they were rightfully (in the context of how communion is given) denied.

  24. Brett- I just don’t think that’s clear. They obviously take issue with Nienstedt’s views– but the question remains which views, and why. And answers to those questions are necessary before, I think, we are justified in saying whether or not they were “thumbing their noses at Church teaching” or “rightfully . . . denied” communion. The DVD argument was just a hypothetical possibility raised (as a joke) by Paul as an example of how one might take issue with Nienstedt’s approach, but not necessarily Church teaching.

  25. haha, its been 12 days and you guys are STILL talking about this? maybe you should just do a conference call or something and get this settled… ;-)

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