Lutheran Catholic Frenemies?

This weekend, the Minneapolis ELCA celebrates the installation of Ann Svennungsen as the new bishop of the largest Lutheran synod in the United States.

The Lutherans are pulling out all the glam for this event at Central Lutheran Church Sunday afternoon: pastors processing in red vestments, the St. Olaf College Choir and the Augsburg College Woodwind Quintet.

Dignitaries include the presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson, and a Lutheran Archbishop from Nigeria.

It will no longer, apparently, include Archbishop John Nienstedt, of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Although his name was on the ELCA press release as an ecumenical guest, he cancelled his appearance on Tuesday. A spokesman for the Archdiocese confirmed the Archbishop had “a change in plans.”

From reading Rose French’s excellent piece in the Star Tribune last fall (Minnesota Bishops, Catholic, Lutheran share common ground), we know Catholic and Lutheran leaders have enjoyed a 35-year dialogue and friendship.

But they are also notably far apart on such issues as the ordination of women, and the marriage amendment on the November ballot which would define marriage as between one man and one woman. The Minneapolis ELCA voted to oppose the amendment, while the Catholic Bishops have made its passage a top political priority.

The Archbishop’s no-show at Svennungsen’s installation brings to mind an earlier chapter in Lutheran-Catholic relations.

In 1998, a tornado tore through St. Peter, Minnesota, destroying the Catholic Church of St. Peter.


(Photo of Catholic Church of St. Peter courtesy of St. Peter Kiwanis)

First Lutheran Church offered the use of its building for the two years it would take their Catholic neighbors to rebuild. First Lutheran administrator Paul Aasen recalled the deep friendship that grew between the two congregations. A sign was even erected out front, “First Lutheran Catholic Church”, that Aasen said elicited some double-takes.

According to Aasen, Father Harry Behan, the Irish priest at St. Peter’s, good-naturedly wished the Lutherans a “happy Reformation Sunday.” Reformation Sunday marks Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church nearly 500 years ago.

Father Behan and First Lutheran Pastor Mark Solyst held separate worship times for their flocks on Sunday mornings, but Maundy Thursday, Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, presented a special challenge. Both congregations were used to an evening service. According to a 2007 history of First Lutheran Church written by Donald Gustafson, “A logical but improbable solution was suggested–a joint Lutheran-Catholic communion!”

Mass with the Lutherans apparently proved too much for Behan’s Bishop, Father John Nienstedt, then Bishop of New Ulm. Behan was reprimanded, and shipped off to serve two small parishes in the southwestern Minnesota. He’s since retired in his native Ireland.

I emailed Behan to ask about Nienstedt’s censure of his ecumenical work with the Lutherans. He wrote back:

“The people of St. Peter, in the aftermath of the tornadoes, prayed together, worked together, shared resources and worship spaces, cared together for those who lost property, their health and even a child, to such an extent that it was ecumenism in action. Many of the barriers between different churches disappeared and we were uplifted and joyful as a result. There are so many great stories from that period that ‘that all may be one’ (Ut unum sint) that we treasure the spiritual progress to this day. This was one of the silver linings in the tragedy that happened. I do not wish to speak about the differences with Bishop John Nienstedt except to say that although ‘That all might be one’ is his motto, he seemed to need to control everything rather than pastorally make the motto happen.”

According to Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso, relations with the Lutherans are “good” and the Archbishop had another unspecified engagement.

  • Jim Accurso, Media and External Relations Manager, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis

    We appreciate the concern that MPR has for relationships among fellow Christians. Unfortunately, several items included in this blog post are weaved together in a way that leads to an incorrect conclusion. While we may not agree on all issues, Catholics are united with our Lutheran brothers and sisters in our dedication to Jesus Christ, and our common interest in making him known and loved. We are truly saddened by attempts to draw divisions among us when what binds us far outweighs what does not.

  • Joe Mitzel

    While it is certainly true that “what binds us far outweighs what does not” Archbishop Nienstedt’s actions frequently emphasize division and distrust. He scolds lay people who disagree with him and punishes clergy who speak out against his policies. A troubling pattern has emerged of a clergyman who acts harshly, only to be followed by representatives who insist he is simply misunderstood or misrepresented by the media. Many in the local Catholic community in Minnesota, like so many non-Catholics, are saddened by how this archbishop has abused his powers and hurt so many people. As a lifelong Catholic I pray for greater wisdom from our shepherds.

  • Glenn

    God bless Archbishop Nienstedt!!!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    This is an unabashed slam on Archbishop Nienstedt.

    The story about what happened in St. Peter is completely unrelated to the happenings in Minneapolis. The reason then-Bishop Nienstedt put a nix on the idea of inter-Communion is because it is something completely forbidden by the Catholic Church and that’s something Father Behan should have known. Communion in the Catholic Church holds a different meaning than communion in the Lutheran Church. For Catholics, it is the Body and Blood of Christ; for Lutherans, not quite so much. It’s the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation and that’s too difficult to discuss here, but it is a key difference, which means we are not in communion with each other. Anyway, having an inter-communion service would have been a lie — it would have declared that the two congregations were actually in communion with each other, when in fact they weren’t and still aren’t.

    The then-Bishop was not being a nasty man, as this story makes him out to be. He was exercising his legitimate authority as bishop in order to be sure that a particular priest was being faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church. In other words, he was only doing his job. If the priest had been doing his job properly, then the run-in with the bishop would not have happened.

  • Tony Yarusso

    Correction to Thomas: Lutherans believe in Real Presence, not consubstantiation. Those aren’t the same thing.

  • Tony Yarusso

    Correction to the OP:

    Reformation Sunday does not “mark Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church nearly 500 years ago.”. Martin Luther never broke with the Catholic church – he attempted to reform it, and they broke with him as a result. Luther never had any intention of leaving the Catholic church. Reformation Sunday marks Luther beginning the dialog about problems present in the church.

  • Tancred

    Let the dead bury the dead…

  • sig arnesen

    Let’s keep trying to build a “Bridge over troubled waters,” for God’s sake…and our own.

  • Dale

    Well, while today’s Lutherans are not necessarily heretics themselves, Luther himself was.

  • sig arnesen

    Heretic:” A person who holds controversial opinions, especially one who publicly dissents from the accepted dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.”.

    Yes, Luther was a heretic and we can be very thankful that he was. And, yes, there are a lot of us who gladly fit that definition to this very day.(in addition to Father Behan)

  • Dale

    How sad that you dissent from Christ.