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.
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.