L’Osservatore Romano: The Message of the Church Never Changes

The following is an interview given by Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St Paul and Minneapolis to L’Osservatore Romano’s Nicola Gori (March 30, 2012).

Considering the recent economic crisis, do you think the Church could suggest ways to humanize the world of finance so that it is more equal and fair?

I believe that this question has been taken on quite well by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Encyclical Letter, Caritas in Veritate, in his Address to the College of Cardinals and the Roman Curia on 22 December and more recently in his address to administrators of the Province of Lazio on 12 January. The Holy Father points out that that financial crisis is basically a crisis of ethics and anthropology, stating: “Insofar as they are instruments, the entire economy and finance, not just certain sectors, must be used in an ethical way so as to create suitable conditions for human development and for the development of peoples” (Caritas in Veritate, n. 65).

Benedict XVI also wrote: “Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finally attuned to the requirements of the common good” (ibid., n. 71). Adding finally that “There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul” (ibid., n. 76). The Holy Father stated: “As this year draws to a close, Europe is undergoing an economic and financial crisis, which is ultimately based on the ethical crisis looming over the Old Continent. Even if such values of solidarity, commitment to one’s neighbor and responsibility towards the poor and suffering are largely uncontroversial, still the motivation is often lacking for individuals and large sectors of society to practice renunciation and make sacrifices. Reception and will do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. In defending personal interest, the will obscures perception, and perception thus weakened is unable to stiffen the will. In this sense, some quite fundamental questions emerge from this crisis: Where is the light that is capable of illuminating our perception not merely with general ideas, but with concrete imperatives? Where is the force that draws the will upwards? These are questions that must be answered by our proclamation of the Gospel, by the New Evangelization, so that message may become evident, so that proclamation may lead to life” (Address to College of Cardinals, 22 December 2011).

“It is important that a renewed humanism be developed, in which the human identity equates with the category of person. The current crisis, in fact, is also rooted in individualism, which obscures people’s relationship dimension and leads them to withdraw in their own small world, concerned primarily with satisfying their own needs and desires, with scant consideration for others. Are not speculation and leases, the increasing difficult integration of young people in the labor market, the loneliness of so many of the elderly, the anonymity which often characterizes life in the neighborhoods of the city and the at times superficial view of situations of marginalization and poverty a consequence of this mindset?” the Holy Father stated in his Address to the Administrators of the Lazio Region on 12 January 2012.

The Church offers the idea of the common good over and against what is often the triumph of individualism and greed. Many financiers see people simply as consumers and a means to an end (money), ignoring their inherent dignity as persons as well as the dignity of their labor. Faith is a key component here. Economic actors and market forces are reflections of decisions made by human persons who, while created in the image of God, are in need not only of the life of grace but also the moral virtues if they are to act in a manner that justly serves the common good. While there is a role for appropriate regulation of financial markets and the economy, what is needed even more so are moral leaders who understand the legitimate goal of profitability while maintaining a sense of social responsibility. The weakening of faith, especially in the Western world, has led to a weakening of the social bonds we have with one another. This gives rise to the temptation to view our neighbor as something to be used for one’s gain.

How is the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis involved in the fight for a culture of life?

The Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis has a department of five full-time persons dedicated to addressing the questions of marriage, family, youth and life. Through their leadership, efforts are directed to encompass the USCCB’s Pastoral plan for pro-life activities which include work in four main areas: Public Information and Education; Pastoral Care; Public Policy Program; Prayer and Worship. The Archdiocese has been involved in a Respect 4 Life Pro-Life curriculum supplement for our Catholic Schools for grades K-8. We honor local Catholics involved in the pro-life effort as a way to inspire and motivate more to the cause with the Champions for Life Awards. We participate in ongoing education for parish volunteers and educational resources for Clergy, as well as Project Rachel, a post abortion outreach and education for those affected by abortion. We have an archdiocesan lifefund, which provides financial assistance for women and families while pregnant or with a child under one year of age. Our Community Caring for Life Groups and Respect Life Committees in the parishes to carry out the Respect Life work outlined by the USCCB’s plan. It includes two workshops a year. The Archdiocesan Youth Advisory Board made up of High School students from the area Catholic High Schools supports for pro-life activities in their schools.

We write a monthly newsletter highlighting Respect Life news and events as well as options for legislative action. We held a Prayer Service for Life on 22 January where more than 3,000 individuals gathered in prayer to end abortion. Communication contacts throughout the diocese promote action on legislative issues requested by the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the USCCB’s office for Pro-Life Activities.

The Association with the Archbishop’s Biomedical Ethics Commission educates and informs lay people and clergy on biomedical ethics through a web presence and as a resource to field and direct specific questions from individuals. We offer programs and information on Respect for Life topics such as: euthanasia, infertility, abortion and post abortion healing, end of life planning through advanced health care directives as well as other topics. The Respect Life outreach works collaboratively with outside Pro-Life Organizations such as crisis pregnancy centers, sidewalk counseling services, pro-life lobbying and pro-life educational resource organizations.

Our Catholic Medical Guild assists doctors in knowing their faith and helping them to serve the Culture of Life in their professional settings. They also support through mentoring young medical students.

I, myself, presided at the end of the Forty Days of Prayer held at a neighboring hospital which, until now, has had the largest abortuary in the City of St Paul. A few weeks after I held the prayer service, the administration of the hospital announced that it was closing the abortuary. This was a remarkable result of the power of prayer.

Through the good services of the Knights of Columbus, tombstones have been erected in parishes and on the campus of the University of St Thomas, commemorating the millions of babies who have died through abortion. Such reminders are constantly raising awareness about the dignity of life in the minds of our people.

Religious freedom is a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. Recently there seem to be some exceptions to this right. Is it for reasons of national security or is it the beginning of a change of heart?

I think it is important to note that the first freedom in the Bill of Rights is the freedom of religion. We are beginning to see the erosion of that freedom and a morphing into a more narrow “freedom of worship”, in that we are free to worship privately where and how we please but not to bring faith or religion into the public square. This is seen in the recent HHS ruling mandating that medical insurance plans include contraceptives, sterilizations, and even drugs to induce abortion, the closing of some Catholic adoption agencies because they refuse to place children with homosexual couples, and the USCCB being denied a grant to help victims of sexual trafficking because of their teaching against abortion. At the same time, we see the current administration arguing before the Supreme Court (and losing unanimously) that religious groups should be subject to discrimination lawsuits when they choose their leaders according to internal religious standards that secular courts might find unfair.

Thus, the reason that lies behind these threats to religious freedom derive, in my opinion, from a secular ideology, perhaps best represented by the mission of Planned Parenthood. In this context, a secular reading of “happiness” in terms of self-interest and self-gratification has become more prominent. For some, religion, itself, has become an impediment to “happiness” and thus must be done away with.

The upcoming Synod on the New Evangelization challenges American Catholics. Has the proclamation of the Gospel changed in a society that is at times hostile and indifferent to its message? If so, how?

I believe that this question goes directly to the heart of what the New Evangelization is all about. Fundamentally, the message of the Church never changes: Jesus is Lord, yesterday, today and tomorrow. However, we need to ask ourselves how we proclaim this truth to a world that is seemingly oblivious and indifferent to the realm of the supernatural. As pointed out above, the American culture is characterized by a heightened individualism, a rampant secularism and a pervasive hedonism that tends to consider the self first, acquaintances second and the stranger last.

Thus, a secular and individualist account of happiness creates new challenges for the proclamation of the Gospel. Modern technology also poses certain advantages and disadvantages to proclaiming the Gospel. The rise of social media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., has been both a positive and challenging reality. The positives include the ability to communicate quickly and being able to connect and interact with hundreds or thousands of people on a regular basis. The challenges are that the information passed on must be brief and can often be incomplete or distorted. In addition, true conviction and faith is now seen by many as quaint, out-of-touch or even dangerous to modern, Western sensibilities. This question makes me think of a G.K. Chesterton quote that would fit as a critique of our current culture: “Tolerance is the virtue of a man with no convictions”. That said, there is still a deep longing in people for the beautiful, the true and the good. The world is not completely closed off to God, but many people just have a lot of layers of busyness of life that need to be peeled away and pruned in order for Him to take root in their hearts.

For the same reasons as noted above, a secular and individualist account of happiness creates new challenges for the proclamation of the Gospel. As our Holy Father Benedict noted in Spes Salvi, a response to the Gospel, whose proclamation provokes a question of faith, is not only informative but performative. First, then, the Church must be reawakened in the United States and Catholics need to learn — for only then will they love — their faith. And then, like the Christians of every age, our proclamation of saving truths will become performative: the world will know that we are Christians by our love.

I believe, then, that the New Evangelization needs to propose the credible witness of contemporary saints who offer an alternative to the cynicism, the broken promises and the isolation of this present society. Individual believers must take it upon themselves to fight heroically, within their own lives, against the tendencies of the day, including the rampant problem of materialism. Such models of sanctity need to speak eloquently and resolutely to the connection between faith and reason. This call must be extended to academics, artists and preachers. The New Evangelization will only be truly effective if the chasm between faith and reason can be repaired.

Unemployment and job insecurity is a major issue at the moment and a contributing factor in family crises. What is the diocese doing to help?

Fortunately, unemployment rates in the United States are not as high as in many countries of Europe. Still, a sluggish economy is hesitant about job creation and, in the contraction of 2009 and 2010, many employees lost their jobs. In the Archdiocese, we have responded not only by a vast network of food shelves and free medical care to assist the unemployed, but many parishes have employment information efforts to match those looking for work and those who are looking for workers.

Catholic Charities also makes a decisive contribution with its four Program Divisions: Housing and Emergency Services; Children’s Services, Family Services; and Advocacy. The Housing and Emergency Services division has 12 locations in the Archdiocese and 20 programs. Children’s Services has two locations and three programs. Family Services has a main location in St Paul with various sites throughout the State and has seven programs. Its annual budget is $39,063,000. All told, nearly 35,000 people were helped last year, regardless of what faith they profess.

In addition, through the Minnesota Catholic Conference, whose Board of Governors consists of all the Catholic Bishops of Minnesota, we continue to monitor efforts and, where appropriate, offer witness at the State Capitol as deliberations continue at the state level to balance seemingly diverse interests in public policy.