How Important Is It to Know If an Archbishop Is Gay?

It always makes me uncomfortable when I read a news story which alleges or reveals the homosexuality of a church leader who has a particularly nasty record on LGBT issues.  Not because I don’t believe that these stories are possibly true.  It’s more because such stories often seem to have a not-so-subtle message of “Aha!  We always knew it! What a hypocrite!”

Archbishop John Nienstedt

Such a story emerged this past week. carried an essay by Tim Gihring with a title which explains the situation: “Does it matter whether Archbishop John Nienstedt is gay?”  Nienstedt is the retired archbishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, who, in addition to having a very strong stand against marriage equality and other LGBT issues, was forced to resign when his gross mishandling of clergy sex abuse cases was revealed.  Rumors have also circulated for a long time that Nienstedt himself is gay, and that he was sexually active in secret.  He has denied these rumors.

Gihring’s article differs somewhat from the usual form these stories take, though.  In the conclusion of his essay, Gihring writes about the “trap” in which Nienstedt seemed to be caught:

“By closing the door to homosexuality, marking its expression as the work of Satan and the most aberrant of sins, Nienstedt had nowhere to go with his own desires. He left himself no way out.”

That, to me, is such a sad set of sentences.  They describe to me a gay man who did not learn to accept himself, and whose lack of self-esteem provided him no opportunity than to act out sexually in unhealthy ways, and to project his own self-hatred onto others.

Gihring’s “trap” in which he believes Niensteedt was caught is bigger than just his denial of homosexuality.  Gihring speculates that Nienstedt made a deal with church officials that if he covered up sexual abuse cases, they would cover up his homosexual liaisons.  Gihring writes:

“For pushing back on gays in the church, among other issues, Nienstedt would be promoted and promoted and promoted again. He would also be protected: Among the revelations in the documents unsealed last month is that the Vatican envoy to the United States quashed an investigation into Nienstedt’s homosexual activity and ordered evidence destroyed.

“The evidence that exists, in the form of corroborated witness accounts, suggests that Nienstedt spent his time in Minnesota, from 2001 to 2015, living a precarious double life: indulging his homosexual tendencies, even as he railed against them. . . .

“. . . .[T]he deal that Nienstedt long ago made for the benefit of his career — to follow the church into conservatism — now seems a kind of ecclesiastical quid pro quo: if he covered for the sins of the church, the church would cover for his. The internal investigation of him, reportedly quashed by the Vatican, had been his idea — he was that confident that his name would be cleared.”

Gehring is skating on thin ice here.  He has made it seem like an agreement was made by the Vatican and Nienstedt.  Unfortunately, his case is built totally on speculation.  If, in fact, the Vatican did quash an investigation of Nienstedt, it is a huge leap of inference to claim that this was connected to any kind of “deal” that was arranged.

I am not defending Nienstedt’s actions, either in his mishandling of sex abuse cases or his possible homosexual liaisons.  But let’s remember that these two different types of actions are qualitatively different.   In the sex abuse cases, his actions did terrible harm to vulnerable people, and to the Church community. If he engaged in promiscuous, casual, or anonymous sexual encounters, any potential harm would have affected only himself and his partners, who presumably were consenting adults.

Neither am I excusing Nienstedt’s terrible record of opposing LGBT equality.  He has spent an inordinate amount of energy and church money to deny LGBT people their civil rights, and as this blog’s archives show, New Ways Ministry has opposed him on all these matters.

In the case of his sexual behavior, the real culprits here are the structures of the church which actually promote such behavior:  clericalism and homophobia. The privilege that clerics receive and the fear and silence that surround any discussion of homosexuality in the church create a toxic atmosphere, even for those who supposedly “benefit” from these structures.

So what’s the answer to the question of Gihring’s title question: “Does it matter whether Archbishop John Nienstedt is gay?”  I think the answer is yes, it does matter because it is an integral part of who he is.  I think, though, that the answer is not just important for the public to know, but, more importantly, for Nienstedt himself to know.  Part of the great tragedy here is that a church system has let a man get to Nienstedt’s place in life without allowing him the freedom and security to know and accept who he is.

If any definitive evidence emerges that Nienstedt is, in fact, gay–and the only solid evidence of that would be his own admission–then I don’t think that would be an occasion to gloat over hypocrisy.  It would be an occasion first to lament the pain that he must have experienced as a terribly closeted gay man. It should also be an occasion to reinvigorate our efforts to end clericalism and homophobia in the church, and all the myriad personal and structural ills they bring.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related posts and articles:

For all Bondings 2.0 posts about Archbishop Nienstedt’s connections with LGBT issues, click here.

Bondings 2.0:  “Minneapolis Archbishop Nienstedt: “I’m not gay…I’m not anti-gay.”

Minnesota Public Radio: Archbishop authorized secret investigation of himself”

Star Tribune: Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt faces new sex claims”

National Catholic Reporter: Report: Minnesota Archbishop Nienstedt under scrutiny for same-sex relationships” “Nienstedt under scrutiny for same-sex relationships, ex-official says”

The Wild Reed: “Has Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Shadow” Finally Caught Up With Him?”

17 replies
  1. lynne1946
    lynne1946 says:

    It is terribly sad, not only for him but for the many others he has caused to suffer simply because of being what he seems to be, a gay man. How much better a world it would be if they all could be free to be who God created them to be, and not to have to bear the burden of such suffering, or the guilt of causing others to suffer.

  2. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    It is now and has always been the case that those who are the most shrill, who rant against and condemn homosexuality are the same people who are terrified of their own sexual desires. If only we could get to the point where it just doesn’t matter. I pray for that.

  3. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    It is ironic that a gay priest has to “make a deal with the devil” to remain “in good standing” within the church structure: he rails against LGBT people, the church turns a blind eye to his possible sexual activity. The damage to individuals is there. But the real damage is that the church asks all of us to enter into this “deal with the devil” where we must absorb the ridiculous systemic discrimination against LGBT people to be “in good standing.” I used to teach in Catholic schools. I sometimes think now that I have time I could go back to the classroom. This would not be possible in the current climate–church officials would take one look at my FB page and label me a LGBT supporter–not allowed. The entire culture is toxic. It is time to deal with this and to get on the right side of it. So much pain and suffering happens when the church twists every which way to double down on their LGBT discrimination.

  4. Anton
    Anton says:

    Well-said. This situation reminds me of the Lutheran bishop who came out at a youth conference of his denomination:
    “Bishop Kanouse publicly explored and shared his struggles with internalized homophobia. When coming out, he said unequivocally, “Being gay is not a sin. My sin was a lifetime of denying that the God who created me, also loves me. It was faithlessness.”
    Fear prevents loving. Our God keeps telling us to “FEAR NOT !!” One of these days we will truly believe that.

  5. Darryl Grant
    Darryl Grant says:

    While it is important to bemoan a structure that gave such self-hatred and abuse, it’s also important to realize that for the Roman Church, sex, even hetero sex, outside the route to procreation was seen as evil, selfish, etc. It led to hetero couples where one partner was HIV positive to not wear condoms according to the church “rules,” ruined the intimacy of hetero couples with the perfidious rhythm method, and other nonsense. But, Frank one important thing to remember about the bishop, if he had unprotected sex, then he endangered far more than those men that he had sex with. Whatever STD’ s etc that he had could spread to his sex partners and from then forward, those that they had sex with, thus contributing to a public health problem.

  6. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    I don’t know whether this archbishop is attracted to men or not, though his extreme reaction to gay and lesbian relationships and marriage equality certainly lead one to believe he has been trying to hide his own personal feelings on the matter.

    Nor do I know if any of the accusations of sexual misbehavior on the part of this archbishop are true. Not all accusations of sexual impropriety against public figures are.

    Nor would I call a self-hating, self-denying homosexual gay.

    But if a bishop is homosexual – actively engaging in sex while attacking his own people – he deserves to be outed. It is long past time when such hypocrisy should be allowed to continue unchallenged.

    The real problem is the doctrine of human sexuality that condemns any kind of mutual sexual behavior between consenting adults, and any kind of sexual behavior by individuals in private, And related to that doctrine is the discipline that forbids clergy and those preparing for ordination to engage in such behavior. Sexual behavior is normal in the human species. Not many humans find lifelong abstention from sexual behavior possible or even desirable. The creation of a façade of a class of sexually abstinent leaders is in its own way perverse. Not only is it destructive for many who feel called to such leadership, but it fosters a culture of secrecy and lies.

  7. Larry
    Larry says:

    I am sorry Frank, but I can’t buy your argument. While I understand the compassion you may feel for this toxic cleric, you look to the Church to change how it handles homosexual clerics and hope the Bishop will see the light himself??!! That is a fantasy. While we wait for those things to happen this man who is in a position of major authority destroys countless lives and pushes hard to deny gays our CIVIL rights but gets to keep his boyfriends on the side! And his hypocrisy is accepted?

    Any anti-gay cleric should be outed as soon as possible. In the end that may be the best for all concerned. The gay community will not have to face another anti-gay cleric and the Bishop will then have to face his own sexuality honestly instead of on the down low which may lead to a healthier mental state for him. And I have the same opinion with regard to any politician or public official in the same situation.

  8. Michael Lopes
    Michael Lopes says:

    Homophobia: fear of Gay people. I don’t really believe in it. I think it’s a fairly rare psychiatric disorder. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who I thought was truly afraid of LGBT people. I think it’s important to name the demon here, and that is HATRED. Hatred for LGBT people, and wishing/doing harm to gay people in often subtle ways.

    • John Hilgeman
      John Hilgeman says:

      Interesting comment, Michael. I know that a number of people disagree with the word “homophobia.” Just this morning I read Don Kilhefner’s comment in the latest issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review. He thinks the term should be “hetero supremacy,” keeping in mind that the “Final Solution” proposed by the Nazis was based not on fear of Jews, but the ideology of “Aryan supremacy.”

      Some other people prefer the word “heterosexism.”

      I’m not sure what term I prefer at this point. However there is good statistical evidence that many of the most anti-LGBT people are actually fighting against their own internal sexual feelings. So for some there is an element of phobia or fear. I think there is a lot of that in the RC hierarchy, because I think there are many closeted self-hating homosexuals in the RC hierarchy ranks.

      But when the leadership of a religion and the leadership of a political party is so organized and adamant in their opposition to LGBT people, and is so doctrinaire in their beliefs – denying reality in the process – there is something more malicious going on – something akin to the ideology of hatred that targeted Jews in much of Western Europe in the centuries before and during the rise of the Nazis to power.

      • Michael Lopes
        Michael Lopes says:

        Hi John, thank you for your comments. The Church is establishing dialogues on Family Life, which is code that ultimately means “no gay marriage.” The Right Wing of the Church in America and Republican/Conservative types are also anti-gay marriage. After so much has been gained in the civil realm, the current environment reflects, in many ways, the Germany of 1930-45.

  9. Bill Freeman
    Bill Freeman says:

    If he engaged in promiscuous, casual, or anonymous sexual encounters, any potential harm would have affected only himself and his partners, who presumably were consenting adults

    I totally disagree. In the same way that some jews were kapos, his senior leadership in the Church has been a continued cause of hatred and discrimination of gay and lesbians. He doesn’t get to have “a private life.” If true, this is beyond hyprocrisy, it’s evil.


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