As any regular GetReligion.org reader would know, we go out of our way to note the exceptionally good work that many religion reporters do on this very complex and difficult beat. A quick glance in the archives will also tell you that, more often than not, we are fans of the work of Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
This brings me to Townsend’s latest piece on one of the most complex ongoing stories in American religion right now — the battle for control of the historic St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in St. Louis. Normally you would add the word “Catholic” to that title, but, you see, the status of that term is what the battle is all about.
The battle for control of this parish is unfolding on several levels and Townsend does a great job of explaining the background.
Basically, this is a showdown between St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke and the powers that be in this massive Polish parish. The archbishop tried to establish control by refusing to send another priest to the parish, thus denying the people the sacraments. But the parish, toward the end of 2005, found a priest who was willing to serve at their altar without permission and, thus, thumb his nose — that’s what Townsend writes — at the Catholic hierarchy.
Now, that priest — Father Marek Bozek — is in the middle of a new round of controversy that has divided the parish itself. The bottom line: It turns out that a priest who is willing to monkey with Catholic doctrines about episcopal authority may, in the end, be willing to be more than flexible about other doctrines, too (which is bad news for many Polish Catholics, who tend to be rather traditional at heart). Here is the key section of Townsend’s long and detailed report:
… Bozek has reshaped the church into a community that would be unrecognizable to those 19th-century founders. His vision for a reformed Roman Catholic faith calls for supporting female ordination, allowing priests to get married and accepting gay relationships. Bozek’s stands have attracted hundreds of new St. Stanislaus parishioners who share the priest’s reform-minded vision.
But they have also divided the church, pitting newer members against traditional parishioners unhappy with how far the priest has gone in condemning the Roman Catholic church. There have also been questions about the priest’s trappings. He has negotiated a 143 percent salary hike, moved into a $157,000 Washington Avenue loft and leased a 2008 BMW for $450 per month.
Some parishioners point to another sign that alarmed them: Bozek, while in Poland last year, bought a silver ring custom-made for a bishop there. When he returned, he showed the ring to his parish at a Sunday Mass and spoke about it from the pulpit. Because it’s a bishop’s ring and he is only a priest, Bozek says, he has not worn it. But he won’t say he never will — he does not rule out the possibility of becoming the leader of what he calls an “underground Roman Catholic” movement.
All kinds of people are involved in this story, literally from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon to the Womenpriests network that causes earthquakes in the GetReligion comments pages whenever its name is mentioned.
Like I said, this is a very complicated story. Read it all.
But here is my question. Let’s back up to that crucial paragraph in which Townsend has to describe what Bozek is up to at the parish. The story, you see, is about the priest’s “vision for a reformed Roman Catholic faith” and his “reform-minded vision.”
You see, “reform” is one of those loaded religion beat words. If you look that term up online you see a number of definitions, but you’ll get the drift. To “reform” something means to:
* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system”
* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” …
* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” …
* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country”
* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices. …
I think you get the point. When traditional Catholics read that kind of language, this is what they see. They see a newspaper saying that the liberal priest is trying to reform the abuses and injustices of the Catholic Church. So there.
Why doesn’t the story say that the archbishop is trying to reform the priest and the parish? Who is reforming what? In other words, who is guilty of corruption and abuses?
However, please note that Townsend has tried to attach the word “reform” directly to the views of the priest. This is his vision of reform. It is what he considers reform.
My question is simple: Does this work? Is there a wording that would be fair to both the priest and to the archbishop? Is it any better to say that the parish is attracting Catholics who share Bozek’s “progressive” vision? That share his desire to “innovate,” when it comes to crucial doctrines in Catholic moral theology? Is there a better way to say this, one that is both accurate and fair to partisans on both sides?