Bishop Morlino, Platteville, and the Rights and Responsibilities of Pastors

Bishop Morlino, Platteville, and the Rights and Responsibilities of Pastors May 6, 2012

The pastoral crisis in Platteville, Wisconsin, has entered another round.  The story was first discussed on Vox Nova in November, 2010.  To quickly summarize:  Platteville is a small town in Southwestern Wisconsin, part of the Diocese of Madison.  In 2010, Bishop Morlino replaced the pastor with two Spanish priests from a small, conservative order (perhaps traditionalist is a better term), the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest.   The pastors instituted a number of changes in practice that angered a large number of parishoners:  for instance, eliminating the use of altar girls and lay eucharistic ministers during mass, and eliminating a ministry in which lay people took communion to folks in nursing homes.   Other complaints focused on their dogmatic, inflexible style.   The breadth of dissatisfaction can be seen first in a petition sent to Bishop Morlino that was signed by more than a quarter of the parish, and a 50% drop in donations.

The bishop responded with a letter to the parish in which he sided firmly with the priests.  (The original petition has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever been posted on the web.)  The controversy has been ongoing since then and has recently come to broader attention again.  The bishop has written to the parish (pdf file).  The purpose of the letter was twofold:  first to confirm the decision by the pastors to close the parish school.  Apparently donations to the parish have remained well below their previous levels, and the school is no longer financially viable.  Second, the bishop again firmly sides with the priests in their dispute with their parishoners (and I suspect, former parishoners).  He admits that the priests “undertook some changes in a way that was abrupt for many people” and “this resulted in some misunderstanding, instability and hurt.”  He urges the priests to heal these divisions, but he does not suggest (in the letter) that they undo any of the changes they made or otherwise act differently.   Moreover, he continues to place the majority of the blame on the parishoners, going so far as to accuse them of calumny and rejecting the faith.    He hints very strongly that canonical sanctions may be necessary, and concludes his letter with quotes from a variety of church documents on the authority of bishops and pastors and the canonical penalty of interdict.  (He is not threatening interdict, per se.  As one commentator put it, he appears to be threatening to threaten interdict.) Press reports can be found in every Wisconsin paper:  here is a report from the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.  Bishop Morlino’s curt response to this article, including charging the paper with being anti-Catholic, can be found here.  The blogosphere has, predictably, erupted:  one sort of discussion can be found at PrayTell, another at Fr. Z’s blog.

There are many different ways to view this affair.  But after reflection it seems to me that at its heart  this conflict is about the rights and responsibilities of pastors to their flock.  First, to get one point out of the way:  the priests in Platteville were within their rights to make the changes they did to liturgical practice.  That is not up for question.   Bishop Morlino is also correct in pointing out that the lay Catholic faithful have a responsibility to obey their bishop and their pastors and to work for peace and harmony.

But what are the responsibilities of pastors to their flocks?  This seems to be an important counterpoint and, I suspect, is the foundation of the grievances shared by so many of the parishoners in Platteville.   In his letter, Bishop Morlino briefly and obliquely summarizes his view on this:  he says that he is confident that the pastors “will provide Jesus Christ, the teachings of His Church, and the Sacraments.”  These are necessary, but are they the sum total of pastoral responsibility?   Shouldn’t pastors also have a responsibility to respect their communities and their practices?  To seek input before making radical changes in practice?  To respect the legitimate desires of their parishoners, even when they are not fully in accord with their own preferences?   Priests are called not just to lead, but also to serve.  As the Catechism puts it:

The sacrament of Holy Orders communicates a”sacred power” which is none other than that of Christ.  The exercise of this authority must therefore be measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself least and the servant of all.  “The Lord said clearly that concern for his flock was proof of love for him.”  (CCC 1551)

If abuses are found, then change (even painful change) may be necessary.  But no one has suggested that this was the situation in Platteville:  indeed, the practices mentioned are canonical and definitely within the mainstream in the United States—indeed, they are the norm in most parishes.   Making these changes unilaterally, even for the best of motives (and I do not accuse them of acting with malice) shows a lack of respect for their parishoners and for the community they are called to serve.

Bishop Morlino wrote to the parish: “I think, however, that at the end of the day, the Catholic faith is being taught according to the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council.”  Reading about this imbroligo, I do wonder, however, if the Catholic faith is being lived according to the precepts of the Council.  There is a lengthy passage in  Lumen Gentium that speaks directly to this situation.  It is worth quoting in full:

The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments. They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.

The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God. Nor should they omit to pray for those placed over them, for they keep watch as having to render an account of their souls, so that they may do this with joy and not with grief.  Let the spiritual shepherds recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the laity in the Church. Let them willingly employ their prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties to them in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action. Further, let them encourage lay people so that they may undertake tasks on their own initiative. Attentively in Christ, let them consider with fatherly love the projects, suggestions and desires proposed by the laity.   However, let the shepherds respectfully acknowledge that just freedom which belongs to everyone in this earthly city.

A great many wonderful things are to be hoped for from this familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders: in the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders. The latter, on the other hand, aided by the experience of the laity, can more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfill is mission for the life of the world. (Lumen Gentium, 37)

Is there a way out of this situation, one which brings about the peace that the bishop so earnestly desires?  There is, but I think both sides need to give ground.  If the parishoners have indeed been guilty of “caluminous inciting of hatred of [the] priests, the faith” and the bishop, then apologies are in order.  (Though in their defense:  while not privy to what they have written privately to the bishop, that have been very circumspect in what has been said publicly.)  If possible, the parishoners should consider whether there school can, at this late date, be resurrected.

On the other hand, before this can happen I think that for the good of their parish, the priests need to give ground and restore many of the practices that they abolished when they took responsibility for their parish, in particular, those that have strong symbolic importance (which they may not recognize) such as lay eucharistic ministers and altar girls.  Moreover, they need to develop a leadership style that is more affirming of the dignity and responsibility of the lay faithful.  In the end they still have to make decisions, but they need to do so in a way that unites rather than divides their flock.  Only then will they be able to “more effectively fulfill their mission for the life of the world.”

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