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Wolves among the Sheep: The Collegeville Affair

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 08, 2010

Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapollis-St. Paul refused communion at a college Mass to students wearing rainbow sashes to protest Catholic teaching on the immorality of homosexual relationships. The incident took place at an evening Mass on September 26th at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, which the Archbishop had been invited to celebrate.

The Archdiocese has been battling public opinion on gay rights. Not only have the last two bishops consistently refused communion to those who protest Church teaching at Mass, but Nienstedt is in the midst of a campaign to mail hundreds of thousands of DVDs to Catholics throughout the diocese presenting the Church’s teaching on same-sex “marriage”.

There are two counter-campaigns as well. Minneapolis artist Lucinda Naylor was the Cathedral’s artist in residence until she began urging people to give their DVDs to her so she can create art which will transform the Archdiocese’s “message of fear into one of hope…from one of division and fear into a piece of art about inclusion and the joyful spirit that moves among us.” And a group called Return the DVD has collected about a thousand copies from disaffected Catholics.

The students, including at least one theology major at the College of St. Benedict, are of course seriously misguided. It is quite likely that they have been deliberately misguided by some of their faculty, as is typical at many Catholic colleges and universities. If so, this continues to be a grave scandal. Also seriously misguided is Lucinda Naylor, but at least the Archdiocese had the courage to suspend Naylor from her Church position, which mitigates the scandal she is giving.

But far worse is the fact that a priest, Fr. Rene McGraw, who is also a philosophy professor at St. John’s, immediately gathered the student gay activists together and said a separate Mass for them so that he could give them 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. My instinct was these are people who were in need, I'm supportive of them, therefore I'm happy to say mass for them.

Fr. McGraw’s reasoning is wholly bogus, and on two counts. First, the organizers are reported to have admited that they were wearing the sash and seeking communion in this instance as a deliberate protest against Catholic teaching on homosexuality. People who are actually engaging in an act of protest against Church teaching as they come forward to receive the Body of Christ create a far clearer reason for refusing them communion than those who, outside and away from the Church, become known as public sinners. In the latter case, there may be some doubt; but the former situation leaves no doubt whatsoever. Here we have people coming forward to receive Communion who are actually advertising that they are not in communion with the Church.

Second, Fr. McGraw had just witnessed the decision that communion should be withheld by the archbishop who was invited to preside at Mass. Though Archbishop Nienstedt does not have direct jurisdiction over Fr. McGraw, one has to ask what signals it sent to the students and other Catholics for a priest to immediately second-guess an archbishop's canonical judgement and, in effect, move promptly to contradict it. This is in itself a scandalous act, and it is extraordinarily scandalous in that the clear message that Fr. McGraw sent was that it is by no means necessary to take Catholic teaching seriously in entering into communion with the Body of Christ or living the Christian Faith. If Fr. McGraw used the occasion to explain Catholic teaching to the students and exhort them to a greater commitment to life in Christ, that is strangely absent from the reports.

What angers me most about this affair is not even Fr. McGraw’s apparently deliberate choice to undermine both ecclesiastical authority and Catholic teaching, but rather the lack of an immediate response to correct Fr. McGraw, to remove him from influence over students if he is unrepentent, and to  provide alternative priestly counsel to the students concerning Church teaching and what it means to be in communion with the Body of Christ. Here we may still hope, I suppose, but unfortunately lack of discipline is endemic to the modern Church, even under bishops who are becoming stronger and clearer in their own teaching and example—and it is always the faithful (in this case, the students) who suffer as a result. The fact that other Eucharistic Ministers at the Archbishop’s Mass felt free to give communion to the protesters who happened to be in their lines is also both disturbing and symptomatic of the wider problem.

The Catholic Church must maintain its corporate identity, not least because it is the only way she can protect precious souls from being scandalized into high-sounding errors and sins which increasingly distance them from God. Bishops who laudably wish to maintain that identity by faithfully adhering to the teachings of Christ in the face of a hedonistic culture must find ways to discipline or remove those subordinates who undermine the force of Catholic doctrine and discipline, including the bishop’s own authority. This is demanded by the charity they owe to the souls under their care.

The university is, admittedly, a very tough nut for the bishops to crack, and so too--most regrettably--are many of the older mainstream religious orders, which are so often badly in need of renewal, as the recent visitation of American seminaries and the current apostolic visitation to American women religious so amply demonstrates. A great many religious and a great many Catholic college professors have long since succumbed to Modernism and secularism. Nonetheless, a way forward must be found. The time must at long last come to an end when Catholic priests and professors can trample the rights of the Faithful by undermining Catholic doctrine, ignoring Canon Law, and/or refusing the obedience due their hierarchical superiors. I challenge Archbishop Nienstedt and every good bishop out there who really does aspire to shepherd his flock in imitation of the Good Shepherd: Figure out how to drive the wolves out of the sheepfold, and then do it.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Defender - Oct. 08, 2010 2:21 AM ET USA

    Since being a "Catholic" college is becoming more and more speculative, why don't the bishops start from scratch: declare all Catholic colleges to refrain from using the word "Catholic" until each bishop approves the use of the word for each and every college and university. Individual bishops don't appear to want to act unless they are part of a larger organization - how about the USCCB? Too bad Rome doesn't take an active part - they don't seem to unless it happens in Europe.

  • Posted by: Obregon - Oct. 08, 2010 1:28 AM ET USA

    I would like to make two points. 1) The Archbishop, since he had the courage to act as a bishop, should also have the courage to dismiss the Eucharistic Ministers who defied him in his presence. That would send a clear message to certain individuals that one can't trump a bishop's legitimate authority. 2)Whoever happens to be the Ordinary of Fr. McGraw should had taken immediate action against him, so every student would understand who is in charge of this church.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 07, 2010 10:56 PM ET USA

    Owing to my unfortunate misunderstanding of the fact that Collegeville is just outside Archbishop Nienstedt's diocese, I made changes to this article late in the evening of October 7th to make my point in a less strictly jurisdictional way.

  • Posted by: 30 year priest - Oct. 07, 2010 9:58 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, my ordinary can be very selective in choosing which orthodox priests to support publicly, and which renegade clergy to ignore to the great scandal of many of the faithful. He goes out of his way to preserve public "peace" at any price, in parishes, in the chancery, and especially in local "Catholic" universities. This also creates a very serious morale problem for priests who are faithful to the Magisterium.

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