J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
J. Brad Hicks

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What happens if cutting off your nose to spite your face ends up actually being good for your nose?

We have a fairly new Catholic archbishop here in St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond Burke. One of the first things he did upon assuming the office was to act to settle a dispute between the archdiocese and one local Catholic church that's been simmering for roughly a hundred years. You see, virtually every Catholic church building in the world, and every Catholic church building in America, is actually owned by, is titled to, the local diocese. But not the St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church here in St. Louis. A bit over a hundred years ago, the local diocese allowed a group of embattled, hated ethnic minorities, the Poles, to set up their own Polish church. Because nobody in the diocese wanted to associate with the Polacks, the Polish-American community here in St. Louis ended up actually owning their own building. Higher-ranking church officials almost immediately noticed how irregular this was, and stepped in to ask the board of directors to deed the church property over to the diocese, in keeping with traditional Catholic practice. The Poles, feeling deeply suspicious of the motives of ethnic groups that hated them, dug in their heels ... for a hundred years.

Well, Archbishop Burke decided that no matter what past Archbishops have done, he wasn't going to put up with this flouting of church authority. One of his first acts was to order St. Stanislaus Kostka Church's board of directors to deed the church over to the diocese, and gave them a fairly short deadline to comply or risk excommunication. They called his bluff, betting that no Catholic official would have the guts to excommunicate an entire congregation over an administrative issue, not a doctrinal one. So he fired a warning shot by firing their priest, forcing him to retire. They responded by hiring their own Catholic priest, which shocked him to the core. Individual congregations don't do that. Worse, to accept the job, to move between parishes, the priest they hired need permission from his own superiors, which he was denied. He moved anyway, calling their bluff, betting that no Catholic official would get away with excommunicating a church over an administrative issue, not a doctrinal issue.

Burke responded by excommunicating him and the entire board of directors. The new priest and the board decided to go ahead and hold Sunday mass anyway. Roughly 2000 people showed up, far more than St. Stanislaus has drawn in decades. This so shocked Burke, and enraged him, that the other day he went the final step, and evicted the church from the diocese altogether, in essence declaring that any Catholic who so much as attended a rebel congregation and accepted the sacraments from a rebel priest working for a rebel board was, themselves, excommunicate. (See Aisha Sultan, "St. Stanislaus Out of Catholic Church," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan 6, 2006.) In a few hours, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church will open for its second Sunday mass since the excommunication. A great deal may hang on the turnout.

Ever since the current pope, who was Chief Inquisitor at the time, began spearheading a counter-revolution against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, he has been powerfully unpopular here in St. Louis, and in many places in the United States. One of the things I've been seeing a lot for the last 20 years, and more and more as the years go by, is American and European Catholics who describe themselves as "Catholic, but ...." Catholic, but evangelical. Catholic, but Pentacostal. Catholic, but gay or lesbian. Catholic, but not practicing. Catholic, but not observant. Catholic, but also Pagan. Catholic, but not strict. Catholic, but in disagreement with one or more recent doctrinal pronouncements. Catholic, but pro-choice. Catholic, but OK with artificial birth control. In other words, what they all boil down to is one variation or another on, "Catholic, but not willing to accept the authority of the Pope and his designated surrogates." Or, to be blunt, Catholic, but disobedient.

For those of you who've missed the significance of this, they fought a several hundred year war in Europe over this. It was called the Reformation, and Catholic or ex-Catholic theologians so firmly and consistently insisted on the right of each believer, or at least of each local church and priest, to interpret God's word and will for themselves, despite intense opposition from the Vatican and legal opposition from Vatican-obedient civil governments, that vast seas of blood were shed on both sides. To the extent the war was ever concluded, the conclusion was this: you don't get to say that and still call yourself Catholic.

But what else are you going to call someone who is obedient in general to a thousand years of Catholic doctrine, including many specific doctrines that are unique to Catholicism? Who also reveres the Virgin Mary and many other Catholic saints, and celebrates them on their Catholic-designated holy days? Who thoroughly believes in, and seeks, all seven of the Catholic sacraments according to long-held Catholic traditional doctrine and the practices long-prescribed by church law? And who self-identifies as a Catholic? That's what's really going on with all of the hedging of "Catholic, but."

And by giving this prima facie ridiculous and doctrinally indefensible order, Archbishop Burke has just pushed not just an entire large congregation, but vast numbers of their believing-Catholic supporters, into open rebellion against central Catholic authority. Many of them may think that they're standing up for the much-abused desire of many congregations to stay open despite the centralized Church's (not unreasonable, quite defensible) conclusion that many inner cities now have more open Catholic Churches than they have sufficient population to sustain them, that when a city loses more than half of its population, including more than half of its Catholic population, that raw economics dictates that half of its church buildings have to close. The only Polish-Catholic church in the greater metropolitan area has not entirely unreasonable fears that the real reason that the Archbishop wants their property is not to protect the principle of mandatory obedience to Rome but so that he can force them to close (despite a more than adequate congregation and solid finances) as part of a parish consolidation plan, and not coincidentally potentially sell the property to developers for a lot of money. But no matter what they think they're standing up for, the doctrinal principle that they're backed into a corner over is just exactly that, obedience to Rome.

What if they stick to their guns? What if it catches on? What if the real reason that the Catholic Church is in slow decline among established American families, and across Europe, that in the long run Rome won all the battles of the Reformation but lost the war for public opinion? Some scholars have been speculating that the doctrinal gap between American Catholics' personal beliefs and practices and the pronouncements from the Church in Rome has become so wide that it inevitably had to lead to a schism, have been speculating for longer than some of you have been alive that "any day now" we were going to see a second Great Schism and the formation of an American Catholic Church. It never happened because while the Vatican was in a good position to ignore the wishes of American Catholics, and American Catholics (except for a few on the payroll who lacked the good sense to keep their mouths shut in public) were beyond the reach of the Vatican to punish, what happened instead was an informal mutual agreement to ignore each other.

From one perspective, that is, seen from above him, Archbishop Raymond Burke picked a very good time to pick this fight. Anybody who's even passingly familiar with the writings of Pope Benedict XVI from back when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger knows that he was even more obsessive about the doctrine of papal authority and papal infallibility than his predecessor, John Paul II, was. So by asserting the authority of the Catholic hierarchy over the religious lives of their subordinates in the Church, Burke has taken a position that is profoundly unlikely to be overturned by the Holy See. But if the next several masses at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church continue to be crowded and successful, if their priest continues his announced determination to ignore this order rather than fight it and gets away with it, then they will have established a visible example, a precedent, for a Catholic congregation standing up and, in essence, denying the Church the power to excommunicate. They will have established a definition of a Catholic as someone who practices Catholicism and self-identifies as Catholic, rather than as somebody in obedience to the heir of St. Peter. And that could have really interesting long term consequences.
Tags: current events, religion, st louis

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