Sheep safely graze

KickedOut A priest and six laymen at a Roman Catholic church in St. Louis have been excommunicated by Archbishop Raymond Burke and St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion writer Tim Townsend has been doing excellent coverage, even winning an award for one of his earlier stories.

St. Stanislaus Kostka, a Polish parish, has been battling the archdiocese for years, not over doctrine or any of the sexier issues of contention but over polity. Here’s Townsend doing a great job of explaining the situation a few weeks ago:

The dispute between Burke and St. Stanislaus stems from a late 19th-century arrangement that gave the parish board control of the church property. Since he arrived in St. Louis, Burke has demanded that the church conform to the same legal structure as other parishes, where the bishop oversees finances.

St. Stanislaus parishioners, through their six-member lay board of directors, has refused, and neither side has budged for months.

What struck me most about Townsend’s coverage was how well he explored the motivations of the Rev. Marek Bozek, the priest who joined the parish a few weeks ago. Townsend explains how Bozek, a Pole, knew he wanted to be a priest when he was only 9. He began going to Mass every day when he was 10 as a personal protest against Communism:

For Bozek, the particulars of the battle are secondary. In fact, he believes Burke is on solid ground in the dispute.

“Legally, canonically speaking, he’s right,” Bozek said. “The Holy See has said he’s right. Bozek mailed a letter to Burke on Friday. In it the priest said he wanted “to express respect and assure you that you will be indeed considered by me the Archbishop…”

Bozek’s decision to flout his superiors has more to do with a situation he labels “desperate”- that members of St. Stanislaus have not been able to take part in the sacraments in their own church for longer than a year because they lack a priest.

“I can’t imagine my life without the sacraments,” he said. “And these people have gone without them for so long.” . . .

Bozek also knows he may come off as high-minded. “My bishop told me I’m naive and idealistic, and I am,” he said. “I’m 30 and I have the right to be. If there’s a time to be idealistic, it’s now. Jesus was idealistic. He did things that were illegal but right. If we give up on our ideals, what are we left with?”

To help explain his actions, Bozek quotes from part of Canon 1752, the final law in the Catholic church’s law code, which reads in part, “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”

“I think it’s significant that the code ends that way,” he said. “There are many canons, and I am breaking some of them. But to me, in that last canon, the word ‘supreme’ means it precedes all the other ones. To me, it’s about saving the souls of the people of St. Stanislaus.”

Which brings us to this weekend, when Burke announced his decision to excommunicate Father Bozek and the parish board of directors and suppress the church. Just as he did with Bozek, Townsend simply lays the facts out, permitting Archbishop Burke’s position to be explained:
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The offense that triggered the excommunication, according to Burke, is schism. In the Catechism and the Code of Canon law, schism is defined as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

Catholic law says that only a bishop can appoint priests to parishes.

Hiring a priest who “is not in good standing,” Burke wrote in a letter to board members, “is a formal act of schism, by which you have incurred automatically the penalty of excommunication. With this letter … I declare the excommunication to you.”

Townsend’s writing is amazingly thorough and fair. He takes the time to research Canon law, he is trusted to accurately convey religious belief, and he does it all by focusing on hard news.

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  • Chris H.

    “when Burke announced his decision to excommunicate”

    In fact, the Bishop merely communicated to the schimsmatics the fact that by their actions they excommunicated themselves. The Bishop’s own volitions played no part. It was an announcement made, such that there would be no question, and no confusion.

    Just wanted to clear that up.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    You have articulated Burke’s position. Here’s how Townsend wrote it:

    In his St. Louis Review column, Burke wrote that by hiring their own priest, the board members had brought excommunication on themselves, and that his role was simply to “declare” it after making sure the board members “understood the gravity of their act and its most serious consequences.”

  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    And in a column in the Springfield News-Leader fellow local priest Paul McLoughlin puts it this way:

    If a member of the military would tell his superior officer that he was leaving his unit to join another unit, or to carry on his own military action, upon his departure he would be declared AWOL. Bozek took the step to go AWOL from his assignment and from his superior. We do not find that an admirable trait in the military. Why do we find it admirable in the clergy?

    Yes, naturally. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. (Though someone should tell our military, who I believe tend to commend, rather than drum out, soldiers who creatively break orders in order to advance mission objectives, “save souls,” etc.)

    McLoughlin’s military language reflects that of the CNA’s coverage: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=5582 and Bishop Leibrecht’s own column: http://www.news-leader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051206/OPINIONS03/512060339/1006/OPINIONS

    The compelling interest, obviously, is the need for military-style decorum, and only secondarily the parish’s 9 million in (remarkably well-managed!) assets. The souls at St. Stanislaus Kotska don’t enter into such decisions, of course. It’s odd that such a glaring error can have escaped Father Bozek.

  • John

    This sounds almost like a rehash of the old “Trusteeship Controversy” of the early 1800′s. Catholic Parish Councils (boards of trustees, back then) in the United States attempted to administer their parishes independently of local bishops under the theory that since the parishes had been built by the contributions of local parishoners, then the church buildings belonged to the congregations. Ultimately, the courts settled the issue by siding with the bishops for the simple reason that it was the dioceses which held the title deeds to the properties and not the parishes themselves.

    Property issues aside, a parish that does not aknowledge the authority of its bishop– whether in doctrinal, governmental, or financial issues– is, indeed, in schism.

  • lis

    Bozek says he is supporting the Board because those parishioners had nowhere else to go to receive the sacraments for more than a year. The article implies that the parishioners did not receive sacaraments at all during this time. I can’t believe that there is no other parish neary by that they could have attended for Sunday Mass while this situation was being worked out. There’s more to this than Bozek is letting on.

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    I don’t know that I fully agree with your characterization of qulaity of the reporting by Tim Townsend. By your readers’ comments they do not know all the facts of the dispute. Comments at Amy Welborns are helpful as is a STL Catholic blog, Ad Majorum Dei Gloriam (hope I spelled that right). This same week Townsend covered the rebellion of Belleville, IL, diocesan priests (across the river from STL). The paper slipped in a hard-to-find correction that the priests were not making “demands” of the new bishop, which Townsend had written. Either Townsend mischaracterized the priests or the priests (or other sources) fed that to him. After the article was published, I suspect some one realized their mistake and sounding so openly rebellious toward the bishop. From the articles I’ve read, I suspect he’s in tight with his Bville sources. I can’t speak for the STL story, however.

  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    I’ll grant you that, John, but the church doesn’t seem to be moving to excommunicate any of the myriad catholics hereabouts who profess to be in schism with the church on doctrinal issues. It’s difficult not to presume they reserve such summary excommunications for what they see as the big issues: money, polity, chain of command, preferring to keep around the heretical parishioners who are a source of income, and to excommunicate the ones who have assets. Having failed to get those assets in court, now they’re playing hardball.

  • Ken

    The Archdiocesan website shows another local option for Mass in Polish. However, this is the option for people who want to run their own church, i.e. to do what they want, how they want, when they want, with which priest they want. How allowing that to continue might contribute to their spiritual well-being escapes me.

    It is,however, a fair question to ask why them and not any number of doctrinal and moral dissenters.

  • John

    Agreed that there are plenty of better reasons to publicize an excommunication than parish administration. And if this is, indeed, over financial control, then it makes Archbishop Burke look like a petty hypocrite.

    Problem is, Burke never has had that sort of reputation. Just the opposite: he has been known as a staunch defender of sound doctrine regardless of the consequences.

    Which tells me there has to be more to this episode than what Tim Townsend of the Post-Dispatch is telling us.

  • Michael

    It seems to me to be about church discipline. While Burke is a staunch defender of (conservative) doctine, he also has the reputation of being a disciplinarian. You can’t just have rogue churches ignoring the dictates of a belt-tightening archdiocese. That’s why hierarcy exists, he would argue.

    It is the same logic being used by Episcopal diocese wanting to seize the assets of renegade parishes who refuse to pay their commitment to the diocese. How else can a church discipline rogue churches who want to take church issues to a civil court?

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  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    It’s a good point about hierarchy and discipline. I’d just point out that such problems of the church are self-evidently most easily discussed in the same terms you’d use to discuss problems in the chain of command in the military, or in the white house, or in franchise-franchisee relationships. They’re most safely contemplated when we don’t mention Jesus and love and stuff.

    It’s a long way from such scenarios as this to the attitude of the apostles who are presumably at the root of the apostolic succession, who when they were asked to handle the church’s property said words to this effect: “What do I look like, your waiter?” Which sounds to me like they, at least, had been listening to the Lord’s adjuring the sons of thunder as to how the apostles shouldn’t want to be in charge, shouldn’t give a frog’s fat ass about the stuff, the hierarchy, the seating arrangements (that’s a paraphrase).

    So, Ken, your observation, too, is a fair one: “How allowing [a certain amount of self-determination] to continue might contribute to their spiritual well-being escapes me.” But of course, we could easily wonder the same thing about the value of their excommunication, and turn that same line of questioning upon the Lord, to wonder how in the name of mike we’re supposed to run a church if we follow that silly commandment, and the leaders look at authority as a sin.

    The only thing the Bishop has to gain from this gambit is property and money. The souls at that parish have never figured into it, not even in the church’s own rhetoric. Isn’t the simplest answer this, that the church had its day in court and lost, and now it’s turning to a dreadful last resort, which is to invoke its apostolic powers for the purpose of extortion?

  • John