St. Thomas board changes create conservative stir

A recent decision by the University of St. Thomas to restructure the institution's board of trustees has led to criticism by conservative Catholics and Christian news outlets that the university is moving away from conservative Catholicism.

When Archbishop Harry Flynn retires in 2008, it will be the first time the school will not have a current Archbishop on the board. Catholic activists speculate that that decision is a result of resistance to incoming Archbishop John Nienstedt, known for his much more conservative leanings, and that the rule change is a move to keep him off the board. St. Thomas rejects that notion, and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis appears supportive of the move although they have indicated that Nienstedt should have a place on the board.

Until this year, the position of chairman of the board was held ex officio, or automatically, by the Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis according to the institution's by-laws. The same was true for the vice chairman, a position held ex officio by the Vicar General of the Archdiocese. Instead, the board will now elect both positions. At an election in October, Archbishop Harry Flynn was elected to a five-year term, as was Vicar General Father Kevin McDonough -- two members who would have held those seats without the by-law change.

That decision to remove the automatic presence of members of the Archdiocese has struck a nerve with conservatives.

The Conservative Response

Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten spoke of the changes in a recent column. "For decades, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has led the university's board, automatically serving as chair. The incoming archbishop, John Nienstedt, has a reputation for orthodoxy and might be expected to exert his influence now," she wrote. "On Oct. 25, they effectively bumped the incoming archbishop from the board. They did so by voting to eliminate ex officio members, and then inviting back as individuals those -- such as retiring Archbishop Harry Flynn -- who have not interfered in the past with the institution's leftward tilt."

The Christian news outlet Lifesite.com vigorously criticized the decision in an article titled "Catholic St. Thomas University Votes to Sever Historic Ties with St. Paul Archdiocese." Reporter Hilary White wrote, "The surprise move has alarmed some Catholics who attend St. Thomas, the only Catholic university in the US founded directly by a bishop, who fear that the break with its historic ties to the archdiocese presages the 'complete secularization' of the university, widely known as one of the US' more doctrinally liberal Catholic schools."

The article says outgoing Archbishop Harry Flynn, recently voted to the board, was "named by homosexual political activists as one of the US's four most 'gay friendly' bishops," and that Catholic complaints about his handling of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues are numerous. The article suggests, much like Kersten does, that the move is meant to prevent incoming Archbishop Nienstedt from exerting conservative pressure on the school.

White did not include comment from the Archdiocese or the University of St. Thomas.

Change in Policy or Politely Severing Ties?

St. Thomas disputes the allegations of trying to prevent a conservative Archbishop on the board, saying that they want to free up time for the new Archbishop. "One concern has been that the ordinary (head) 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," said St. Thomas spokester Doug Hennes. "It is for that reason that very few Catholic colleges and universities have their boards chaired by an ordinary."

Plans have been in the works for five years to change the structure of the board after the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities review of the board suggested that the board elect its chairman. Despite that discussion in 2002, Hennes says board actions for implementing the change began in February -- several months before Pope Benedict selected Nienstedt to replace Flynn.

Hennes said the election of Flynn and McDonough will retain strong ties to the Archdiocese for the next five years. As for Nienstedt, Hennes said, "The change is not mean to isolate the new archbishop, the Most Rev. John Nienstedt, from St. Thomas. We expect to have a strong relationship with him. He has attended several events on campus and holds a monthly prayer session with students."

Dennis McGrath, spokester for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, said that the recent characterizations of Flynn by Kersten and Lifesite.com are erroneous at best. "I think this recent rush to define Archbishop Flynn as a 'liberal' or worse is not just inappropriate, it's unwarranted by the facts," said McGrath. "He has always upheld the teachings of the Vatican and the dictates of the Church during his 12 years here. Because of his extremely caring and humane nature and embracing of Christ's own examples of forgiveness, he may sometimes have been misjudged as unwilling to 'put the hammer down' ... but once his thinking or review of these matters crystallized, he has always administered the teachings of the Church and the Vatican."

As for change in board rules, McGrath said the school is still very connected to the Archdiocese. "The inescapable facts are that the Archdiocese will be well represented on the STU board by Archbishop Flynn, Father Kevin McDonough and Father Dease and will continue to have a close working relationship with the University," he said. "This is a trio that would hardly permit the 'de-Catholicization' of Saint Thomas University."

As to Nienstedt's role on the board, McGrath had a slightly different tone. "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."