University of St. Thomas Snubs Archbishop

Deal W. Hudson
November 29, 2007

On October 25, the board of the University of St. Thomas voted to change its bylaws so that the incoming archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis would no longer automatically serve as its ex-officio chairman.

In 2008, Archbishop Harry Flynn will retire. His replacement, coadjutor Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, is well-known to be more conservative than Flynn.

Before the change, the University of St. Thomas bylaws stated the archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis was automatically the board chairman. The vicar general automatically became vice-chairman, but that bylaw was also changed.

The irony is that the University of St. Thomas is the only “Catholic” university in the U.S. directly founded by a bishop (Bishop John Ireland in 1885). The board will now elect both chairman and vice-chairman.

The board’s first elected chairman – notice this – is none other than Archbishop Flynn, who will serve a five-year term, several years into Archbishop Nienstedt’s stay. The present vicar general, Rev. Kevin McDonough, was elected vice-chairman.

That Flynn would accept the chairmanship after the board acted to deny his successor a place on the board is remarkable. One would think he would have rejected the offer to avoid giving the appearance of being complicit in anything embarrassing to Nienstedt.

A spokesman for St. Thomas, Doug Hennes, denied that the action of the board was intended to prevent the new archbishop from having influence at the university. Hennes told the Minnesota Monitor, “One concern has been that the ordinary of large dioceses such as ours typically chair so many boards and have so many demands on their time that it is often difficult to be actively involved as university board chairs.”

He also confirmed that the change in the bylaws began in February, only a few months after Nienstedt, then bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota, was selected by Benedict XVI to replace Flynn. The archdiocese tried to downplay the controversy while asserting the prerogative of Archbishop Nienstedt to serve on the St. Thomas board.

Speaking for the archdiocese, Dennis McGrath commented, “While I can’t speak for Saint Thomas, it sure seems logical that Archbishop Nienstedt, after becoming head of the archdiocese, should be elected to the board.”

The reputation of St. Thomas University in recent years has not been orthodox. A columnist for the Minnesota StarTribune, Katherine Kersten, notes that the one book required for all St. Thomas freshmen to read and discuss is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood’s novel is a feminist screed against Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. Its setting is a United States taken over by Christian fundamentalists who force women to do nothing but serve their husbands and bear children.

The chair of the common text committee, Prof. Amy Muse, explained the choice of The Handmaid’s Tale to the campus newspaper: “We are not looking for a text that will reproduce you, but for a text that will redefine you.”

In other words, Professor Muse and her committee did not want to choose a book that would confirm the Catholic faith of St. Thomas freshmen, but rather a book that would “redefine” them according to feminist ideology.

Kersten connects the choice of The Handmaid’s Tale with the decision of the board to change their bylaws. Nobody on the board raised any objections to the choice of Atwood’s anti-Catholic novel: “But far from raising questions about the professors’ determination to lead St. Thomas boldly back to the 1960s, the trustees seem to be going along.”

Hilary White at notes differences in approach between Nienstedt and Flynn over the issue of homosexuality. Nienstedt opposes the homosexual political movement, while Flynn was named by homosexual political activists as one of the United States’ four most “gay friendly” bishops.

The board, staff, and faculty at St. Thomas may have good reason to think that Nienstedt would not be entirely happy with some of their academic choices. According to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, “If problems should arise concerning the Catholic character, the local bishop is to take the initiatives necessary to resolve the matter, working with the competent university authorities in accordance with established procedures and, if necessary, with the help of the Holy See” (5.2).

Whether he is on the board or not, Archbishop Nienstedt will be the ordinary of the University of St. Thomas. It’s a pity that St. Thomas chose to roll up the welcome mat for the new archbishop rather than roll it out.

And it’s puzzling that Archbishop Flynn went along with it.

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