Paul Thissen was pleased when word came down last fall that he had been nominated for Academy of Holy Angels' Activities Hall of Fame, which recognizes people who "through their citizenship and achievements, have brought honor to themselves, their school and the community."
Thissen's Catholic education, he thought, grounded him in principles of social justice that would later serve him as a lawyer, as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, and as a recently announced candidate for governor.
Thissen, class of 1985, would join two other alumni of the Richfield school to accept the honor at a ceremony in January.
But, last week, three days before the event, the school's president called. Despite Thissen's accomplishments in high school and later at Harvard and the University of Chicago law school, she asked him to withdraw his name from nomination. After he refused, he was told the day before the ceremony that he would be stripped of the award.
The reason: as a DFL state legislator, Thissen has been a consistent supporter of abortion rights, in conflict with church doctrine.
While acknowledging that the primary criteria for the Hall of Fame are a person's record while at the academy, the school said, the nominating committee also considers activities and professional life afterward, and Thissen's legislative actions defied the teachings of the Catholic Church.
"Mr. Thissen had an outstanding activities career at Holy Angels and has had much success beyond," the school's president, Jill Reilly, said in a prepared statement. "That being said, the nominating committee was not aware of Mr. Thissen's voting record in the Minnesota legislature regarding right-to-life issues. As a result of Mr. Thissen's public and professional position to actively support pro-choice issues, with regret, AHA has chosen not to include Mr. Thissen among this year's inductees."
Thissen said he was disappointed and frustrated by the decision.
In a letter to Reilly, he wrote of his record as a proponent of health coverage for children and as an advocate for the poor, people with disabilities and the elderly. All Conference in football, he played basketball and ran track and was president of the student council. Thissen thought of himself as a pretty good Catholic kid back in high school, including work on several service projects in the community that he said embodied the teachings of the church and the school.
"I had imagined that the high school I attended -- the institution that taught me the importance of social justice in Minnesota -- would have valued and been honored by that work," he wrote.
The school declined to address further questions, such as who made it aware of Thissen's record, whether the other inductees were required to state their positions on abortion, or whether criteria other than support of abortion rights might be grounds for rejecting a nomination.
But it did refer to a document from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for Catholics in Political Life, which clearly states that anyone in public life who doesn't work to correct the abortion laws is "guilty of cooperating in evil and sinning against the common good."
Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the archdiocese did not intervene in the Thissen decision, which was "purely a decision by the school."
But the school did "call and check with the letter of the law, if you will," McGrath added. School officials spoke with Vicar General Fr. Lee Piche, who read for them from the Conference of Bishops statement, which says in part that the Catholic community should not give awards or honors to those who defy what it calls its fundamental moral principles. The decision, however, was the school's, McGrath said.
The issue has come up on a national level as well. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Catholic bishops criticized now Vice President Joe Biden and other Catholic candidates and public officials for backing legalized abortion. Some said Biden should not take Holy Communion when attending mass.
But it still feels personal to Thissen, who regularly attends mass and has been a frequent contributor to the school as an alumnus.
"It's not the biggest thing in the world, but the school was and is important to me," Thissen said. "Many of my closest friends, even today, were my friends back then. The recognition meant a lot. When I heard about this, I really was disappointed, not so much because of the award, but because the award was for something that had nothing to with my position on giving women the choice of what to do during a pregnancy."
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636