Monday, April 30, 2012

My tidy little template

Many Catholic bloggers have already commented today on this unusual story:

Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino has moved to quell a backlash against a group of conservative priests in Platteville by warning parishioners they risk formal church censure unless they stop spreading "rumors and gossip."

The action by Morlino, which two Catholic scholars called highly unusual, appears to include the possibility of offenders being prohibited from taking part in church sacraments such as communion, confession and burial.

The warning came in a five-page letter Wednesday from Morlino to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Platteville. The congregation has been roiled by opposition to the traditionalist priests, who began serving the parish in June 2010.

Within months, church donations fell by more than half, and about 40 percent of the church’s 1,200 members signed a petition seeking the priests’ ouster. The church’s 77-year-old school is set to close June 1, a loss many parishioners tie directly to the collapse of donations. [...]

The priests are from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, a group known for traditionalist liturgy and devotion to strict Catholic teaching. They do not allow girls to be altar servers or allow parishioners to assist in distributing communion. Critics say they emphasize doctrine over pastoral care and institute changes in a heavy-handed way.

Morlino has stood by them and did so again in the letter to parishioners, the primary purpose of which was to announce his decision to accept the parish’s recommendation to close the school. The priests have admitted "that they undertook some changes in a way that was abrupt for many people," Morlino wrote, yet he said no one has provided concrete examples of the priests straying from church doctrine.

In the end, "the Catholic faith is being taught according to the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council, and what remains are personal likes and dislikes, along with inflated rumors and gossip, some of which may even rise to the level of calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith and myself," Morlino wrote.

Strong words; the bishop's entire letter can be seen here.

I'm not writing today to comment on this specific situation for the simple reason that I don't know anything about this specific situation. I would be interested in learning about what's going on from people inside the parish, both from supporters of the new priests and from those who have had problems, because to me a balanced look requires input from both sides. But since I don't know, I won't speculate about the inside of this particular scenario.

Why write at all, then? Simple. There was a time when, reading such a story on the Internet or anywhere else, I would have just assumed that the story fit the, to me, usual template: orthodox priests promote orthodoxy, heterodox parishioners get all outraged and cause trouble. The only thing different would be the ending, the bishop's support of the priests--because from my perspective the one thing orthodox priests couldn't ever count on was the bishop standing with them against the angry heterodox parishioners.

That time when I would easily make this story fit my prefabricated template and dismiss any notion that the parishioners could have any legitimate complaints is long gone. It was shattered by an experience I wrote about here. In that instance, parishioners who were quite orthodox, who had been in the parish a long time, and who had very legitimate complaints about a new parish employee were, to put it bluntly, treated like dirt. The message was clear: the pastor was calling the shots, and he didn't have to listen to parishioners. He, too, wasn't violating any Church laws--but, in my opinion, his bad judgment in the hiring situation was made worse by his complete failure to listen to people who knew what they were talking about in an area in which he admittedly had no expertise. Having shut down all communication, he left those parishioners, my family included, with two choices: continue to put up with an intolerable situation, or leave. We left, and found a new parish home that has been a real blessing in our lives.

So I was a bit troubled by the paragraph in the bishop's letter discussing the parish school at St. Mary's in Platteville, because his excellency seems to be saying that the parishioners who left the parish, taking their donations with them, have somehow let down the schoolchildren. Sometimes the only healthy thing to do, from a spiritual perspective, is to leave a parish and attend another one (absent any rigid enforcement of parish boundaries, that is, which is the situation in most of America today as far as I know). This is especially true if one's parish priests or other parish employees have behaved in ways which, while not violating ecclesial law, fail to measure up to the standards of common politeness and human kindness. Again, to be clear, I am most emphatically not saying that this is what is going on at St. Mary's in Platteville, WI. I'm just saying that it does happen, and is not even all that uncommon.

That's why I can't make these stories fit into my tidy little template anymore of "orthodox leaders good, wishy-washy liberal parishioners who jump parishes at the first sign of trouble bad" which used to govern my reaction to stories like these. It's not always that simple. Nor is it always a matter of mere hurt feelings which leads to people seeking other nearby Catholic parishes--sometimes it's a betrayal of trust and an inability to reconcile which puts members of the Body of Christ at such odds with each other. And that's always a sad thing to see.


Father B.J. said...

I find it refreshing to see a Bishop who is coming to the aid of and standing behind his priests (and it's not as if he gives them a pass either - he admits that they made some mistakes - but he still stands with them), rather than throwing them to the wolves (as has happened repeatedly of late, but especially in a notorious situation in a prominent East Coast diocese recently).

Red Cardigan said...

Father B.J., in general I agree. I like it when bishops support their priests. But I also like it when serious lay concerns are listened to by priests and bishops. It seems to me that it ought to be possible for both to happen.

Anonymous said...

2 years is a long time, don't you think? I mean, I don't expect a priest to leave because I don't like his style. Knowing that this is probably more than 2 years in the making, I have a little more understanding at this harsh stance. Mrs O

Red Cardigan said...

Mrs. O, I've been reading some comments on various news articles about this situation. Taking it all with a grain, of course, but more than one person mentioned an incident where a priest in the school said or implied that non-Catholics go to Hell...

It may be more than mere style that parishioners are upset about. Like I said, it would be nice to hear both sides of the story.

Father B.J. said...

The Bishop provides the other side to that story: people have claimed that the priests have taught things that go against "Vatican II" and otherwise against Catholic doctrine; the Bishop says that no one to date has ever provided proof of this.

M.Z. said...

The problem with the school predominantly has to do with one of the order's priests taking the job of principal away from a person who had been offered it for no stated reason. He did this to offer the position to his father. This was viewed as the order attempting to expropriate the school from the parish. This was done within about a month of the order taking over the parish.

As for the rest, the priests made it a point to step on toes and aggravate people who would be their allies. (This is also Morlino's biggest issue.) At no point was there an attempt to build a reservoir of good will. While the reporting is correct that there are liberal agitators, the attempt by the order and Bishop Morlino to largely ascribe what has occurred to them is fallacious. It is easier to believe one is persecuted, get back patted by the Father Zs of the world than to actually accept responsibility that the results have come from one's imprudence.

In contrast, our diocese which neighbors Madison has managed to quietly end the practice of hand holding during the Our Father without protest. Our parish also managed to move from standing to kneeling in the part of mass before communion without wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is amazing what can be done when the parishioners aren't seen as the enemy.

Tony said...

It's not always that simple. Nor is it always a matter of mere hurt feelings which leads to people seeking other nearby Catholic parishes--sometimes it's a betrayal of trust and an inability to reconcile which puts members of the Body of Christ at such odds with each other. And that's always a sad thing to see.

Many times the betrayal has happened over the last 50 or so years, as heterodox priests and "sisters" decided to teach not Catholic doctrine handed down for 2000 years, but whatever the "spirit" of Vatican II whispered in their ear.

These people think they own their church, and control their liturgy through their "liturgy directors" and such, but when a strong priest is assigned, they either have to submit (as required by Canon law) or leave. Fact is, the school is closing because of the pigheadedness of the heterodox and heteropraxic former parishioners.

That having been said, we have a similar situation in the parish I was baptized in (not the one I attend). They recently were blessed with an orthodox young priest who wears a cassock, has eliminated extraordinary ministers, is phasing out "altar girls", and has removed lay people from the sanctuary.

The same sort of thing is happening. People are ticked off, and they are heading for greener pastures. We have been blessed with a couple of them, though they'll need a little orthodox indoctrination before they'll fit in.

However, the only criticism I have of this priest (and those others in your story) is that they don't appear to have gotten the lay of the land, and waited at least a year to make changes that are not mandated by either liturgical or Canon law. They should spend that year educating the people and getting them ready for the changes. Allow them to get used to the new style.

I was traumatized by a bad Vatican II implementation as a child, and though a small part of me celebrates "the liberals getting theirs", pastorally, I don't want that to happen to anybody. I didn't like it, and I don't want them to go through what I did.

kkollwitz said...

"They do not allow girls to be altar servers or allow parishioners to assist in distributing communion."

Uh-oh...I thought that was normal.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Whenever there is a hierarchy, and positions of authority that presume "I'm in charge here, I can do whatever I want, don't cross me," there will be abuses.

This is true of a church, of a condominium board, of a political party, of an Indian reservation, and all kinds of other institutions. Liberals fall for it, so do conservatives. Leadership unwilling to listen, or insisting on moving in a given direction without the consensus or at least passive acceptance of a significant majority of the rank and file, is setting itself up for a scenario like this.

Indeed, this is why Wisconsin's governor is up for recall. He could have been the man setting the agenda, as long as he set an agenda a good 60-75 percent of the citizenry could live with. Ditto for these traditionalist priests. I bet there are many traditionalist priests who handle things with more flair, and more humility, who do just fine, and don't need their bishops to spray imprecations at the parishioners.

Charlotte said...

As someone who lives in Wisconsin, I have heard hushed whispers about this parish. So take what I say next as akin to gossip.

What I have heard is that the priests at this parish would love to make the place almost like an SSPX outpost. Not officially associated with the SSPX, of course, but in terms of practice and belief.

On the other hand, I had heard that this parish was very conservative to begin with, so I find the story confusing.

It's weird. In one place you've got a bishop who has no problem assigning uber-conservative priests to a parish. And then here in Milwaukee there are a handful of conservative priests who have been shuttered and ignored by Listecki, and most certainly on purpose. Some of them are new and young priests.