Vatican either affirms or reverses priest’s suspension

In July, we looked at some of the media coverage of a priest who was removed from his parish by Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois. He wasn’t just removed from his parish. Braxton also removed his faculties. There were some problems with the previous story dealing with how those faculties were characterized and what, exactly, were his violations. We knew that he was improvising portions of the mass but we didn’t get specifics.

Anyway, Father William Rowe appealed his suspension. The Vatican returned a decision, which I read about in a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Go Cardinals! Sorry, can’t help it.).  While the Vatican did say that Braxton hadn’t followed proper procedure, they upheld Rowe’s removal from the parish in any case. And they said that he could return to celebrating Mass, but only if he applies for faculties in a different diocese after acknowledging that he was wrong and formally promises to cut it out with the liturgical innovations.

But while I learned that from the story, here was the headline:

 Vatican reverses priest’s suspension

Clearly I’m missing something. Let’s just look at the lede and the meat of the story and see if you can help me out:

An Illinois priest, forced out of his parish by Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton for improvising prayers during Mass, has had his suspension reversed by the Vatican.

The Vatican decided in favor of the Rev. William Rowe on one of three counts, saying Braxton had not followed the proper procedure.

The Vatican’s reversal of Rowe’s suspension means the priest can celebrate Mass outside the Belleville diocese, Rowe said, so long as he has the approval of the bishops’ governing other dioceses where he would say Mass.

Others in the diocese dispute that interpretation of the decree. They point to a letter that accompanied the document in which Monsignor Antonio Neri, an undersecretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, said Rowe could only return to celebrating Mass “when you shall have acknowledged your error and formally promise to dispose yourself to adhere to the rights and rubrics of the sacred liturgy set down by the lawful ecclesiastical authorities.”

Indeed, the Vatican ruled against much of Rowe’s appeal. Rome upheld his removal from the parish by Braxton, and agreed with the bishop’s withdrawal of the priest’s “faculties” — or his license to practice ministry under church law.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out exactly what’s going on. First, let’s point out that “rights and rubrics” should be “rites and rubrics.”

But I think we may need just more explanation of what the three counts were, which two went in Braxton’s favor and which one went in Rowe’s favor. I mean, if “suspension” doesn’t relate to the two counts Braxton won — the removal of the priest from the parish and the withdrawal of the priest’s faculties — what does it relate to?

Is the “reversal” of the suspension related to how Rowe can celebrate the Mass elsewhere if he repents and promises to reform his ways? If so, how is that a reversal?

Either way, shouldn’t the story explain why Braxton being upheld on Rowe’s removal from the parish and the removal of faculties from Rowe means that his decision was reversed?

Yes/No image via Shutterstock.

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  • Fr Theodore

    The use of “others in the diocese” is a very strange choice of words. Who are these “others”? Is it an official spokesman? The bishop? The diocesan receptionist?

    Also, Fr Rowe should have needed permission from a diocesan bishop to serve in their diocese, even if he had not been suspended.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I thought this report was even worse:

    Either way, I can’t figure out what’s going on. If the decree is in English and if the news outlets have it, it would really help if they would publish the whole thing so that people can comment on it intelligently. As it is, it seems like these reporters are groping to make heads or tails of the situation, which only leaves their readers in the dark.

    Plus, I don’t understand why the Congregation for the Clergy would say, “You can’t celebrate Mass in the Diocese of Belleville, but you can go to any other diocese and do it, as long as you have the bishop’s permission — and repent of what you’ve been doing.” That makes absolutely no sense, and it should have turned on some alarm bells somewhere along the way either in Belleville or St. Louis.

  • Julia

    Here’s the letter to Fr Rowe from Rome. Looks like the reporter didn’t read it.
    Technically, Fr Rowe could probably still say Mass in another diocese IF he could find a bishop to incardinate him. That’s not very likely considering his statements and defiance of his current bishop. However none of that appears in the letter or the attached equivalent to a court order. It appears to be the equivalent of the congregation in Rome refusing to agree with Fr Rowe on almost all the requests for action. The only exception was the total suspension because of a technical difficulty with the procedure the bishop used. Now the Bishop can give Fr Rowe the warning that procedure required and again ask the Roman congregation to support that suspension. This is similar to what would happen in our courts if all the rules for an eviction, for example, were not carried. The landlord would just try it again, following the required process.

  • Julia

    Sorry about the confusing wording; I posted too quickly.
    Looks to me like Fr Rowe asked for a number of the bishop’s actions to be overturned.
    The Congregation for Clergy in Rome denied all but one of those requests.
    The one overturned – suspension – was due to the Bishop not having given Fr Rowe a required warning.
    So the suspension was not upheld due to a procedural error by the Bishop and not on the merits.
    The Bishop is free to rectify that oversight and try again to get him suspended.
    The link again:

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Thanks for providing the link, Julia. I find it amazing that the reporters who had this document in front of them ignored some really major issues that the Congregation for the Clergy raised. Because of Father Rowe’s ad libbing, one marriage was declared null and void because he didn’t use the right formula. Other marriages have been declared null and void because one or the other or both of the couple were still married to someone else — civilly divorced, but the Church, according to her law (canon 1060) still presumed that their marriages were valid. Some people have called into question whether or not baptisms he performed were validly administered and even whether or not he got the words of consecration right in order to confect the Eucharist. A couple of years back, there was a lot of fuss in Australia because a priest was suspended for doing the same kind of thing, but we’re not hearing about that here. Instead, it’s “Father Nice Guy versus the big ol’, bad ol’, mean ol’ bishop.” It doesn’t seem to matter to the secular press that this priest caused great spiritual distress to the people involved, especially the “married” couples. It also makes you wonder what he was saying in the confessional. Then again, maybe he wasn’t even hearing confessions, which might be a relief since he probably would have got that wrong, too.

    On the technical end of things: The full suspension of his faculties was not upheld because Bishop Braxton thought that by warning him that he was going to remove Father Rowe from the pastorate that he was, at the same time, warning him about suspending his faculties. Those are two separate processes and he should have given him warning on both issues, so they did not uphold that suspension. At the same time, though, the Congregation stated specifically that he can only celebrate Mass privately. So in essence, they did uphold the suspension. Whether or not the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura will uphold that remains to be seen.

    However, the Congregation specifically sustained the suspension of his faculties to witness marriages and to preach. Given how badly he messed things up, the Congregation isn’t taking any chances.

    As far as Father Rowe’s claim about being able to go to another diocese, there is no such provision stated in the decree. Since it was a Roman Congregation that suspended his faculty of preaching, that suspension is in force universally.

    The Congregation gave Father Rowe a thorough dressing down in this decree. The only thing that Bishop Braxton was called out on was a technicality, so it’s interesting to observe that the media are still on this “Father Nice Guy vs. mean bishop” kick. Bottom line: Father Rowe is very much a suspended priest.