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Closing begs question: Whose church is it?


Editor’s note: Officials of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese announced June 1 that the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota would be closed (NCR, July 3). The decision capped a long-simmering conflict between the archdiocese and community and lay staff members, over issues of direction and governance.

Their experiences followed a drearily familiar line. She was standing at Starbuck’s pouring cream into her coffee and happened to glance down at a stack of newspapers. He was walking to choir practice and passed a newsstand. She was listening to public radio and heard it -- heard that the University of Minnesota Newman Center was closing. The press got the news well before the community members. Communication by press release -- maybe that says it all.

When you peel away the rhetoric and the finger-pointing, the gulf between the members of the Newman community and the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is a philosophical one embedded in this question: Whose church is it? Newmanites have long believed that it is theirs. The center itself is theirs; the Catholic church is theirs. Over the years, the community functioned as if its belief was true. Members, along with the nonclerical staff, have provided leadership for myriad ongoing Newman activities, from liturgy to social justice initiatives to community-building gatherings, while priests have come and gone. The members are the heart of the center.

In the past, the archdiocese and the priests assigned to the center have been tolerant, and sometimes supportive, of this arrangement.

However, in the last two years that situation changed. Paulist priests were assigned to the center who, to quote one, believed in “the inviolability of the clergy.” Apparently this meant something like papal infallibility: Decisions made by clergy cannot be questioned.

Assign men holding such an exalted vision of themselves as directors of the Newman community and there’s bound to be a conflagration, especially if those priests believe that things have gone seriously awry, and it’s their mission to set them right. Archdiocesan intervention only exacerbated the situation, since its representatives, too, seemed to think collaborative leadership an anathema. As the turmoil dragged on month after month, community members drifted off. After all, they had chosen Newman for its challenging liturgies and vibrant programming, not to become embroiled in internecine feuding. Attendance at Mass (and revenues) dropped off.

So, as if scripted, the archdiocese stepped in, declaring that, because of “budgetary and personnel difficulties,” the center was no longer a viable investment of its resources, and -- most startling of all -- revealed that closing the center had been under consideration for quite some time. Newman members scratched their heads. If this was true, why had no one told them so they could work to address the issues of concern? Had they been pawns in some elaborate game?

They examined the fallout. Staff were leaving -- so vocal opponents of clerical autonomy would no longer plague inviolable priests. Members were now searching out other worship communities, so their strength too would be dissipated. The center property, valuable since it is located across the street from a land-hungry university, could be sold most profitably.

And what about the students, for whom the center was created, and whose involvement in Newman programming was at an all-time high? Well, they were told, when Newman closed they could go to a church six blocks away, also run by the Paulists and also offering student programming. Of course, that church was just that: a church -- without the inviting gathering spaces that the Newman Center offered (unless you call the church basement inviting). And it’s a traditional church, with far different liturgies than the center. As one student put it, “If we wanted to be there, we would be there already. We wanted to be here at Newman.”

So what does this drama say to a concerned community member? For me, it’s “Been there, done that.”

When I discovered the center 13 years ago, I felt at home. It was a place where I could shed the negative feelings I had developed about church as a young woman. Clericalism and dogmatism weren’t thrown in my face. Instead, I found liturgies that challenged me to truly live out my faith in the world. I found justice activists whose works were a model of what it means to be a Christian. Those folks had found their way to the Newman Center because it was a place where they could be supported and work with others of like-mind -- a place not only of good works but a place where structures of oppression were challenged.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the structure closest to them could not be.

Rosemary Ruffenach writes from New Brighton, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998