Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino has moved to quell a backlash against a group of conservative priests in Platteville by warning parishioners they risk formal church censure unless they stop spreading "rumors and gossip."
The action by Morlino, which two Catholic scholars called highly unusual, appears to include the possibility of offenders being prohibited from taking part in church sacraments such as communion, confession and burial.
The warning came in a five-page letter Wednesday from Morlino to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Platteville. The congregation has been roiled by opposition to the traditionalist priests, who began serving the parish in June 2010.
Within months, church donations fell by more than half, and about 40 percent of the church’s 1,200 members signed a petition seeking the priests’ ouster. The church’s 77-year-old school is set to close June 1, a loss many parishioners tie directly to the collapse of donations.
The letter, in which Morlino raises the prospect of invoking the church’s Code of Canon Law against dissenters, has stunned many parishioners.
"There’s almost shock and awe," said Myron Tranel, a member of the church’s finance council. "But mostly, there’s a lot of disappointment that the bishop has decided to deal with it this way."
Others applaud the bishop’s move, saying decisive action was needed because criticism had gotten out of hand.
"This is a warning shot across the bow — you either want to be a Catholic or you don’t," said Gregory Merrick, a member of the church’s pastoral council.
Diocesan spokesman Brent King said Morlino’s main message is that this should be a time of "prayer, serious introspection and forgiveness." The specific texts from the church’s code of law were included precisely so that they may never be needed, King said.
"The bishop’s caution that ‘this cannot continue’ should not be made into anything more than that — a caution," King said.
Standing by the priests
The priests are from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, a group known for traditionalist liturgy and devotion to strict Catholic teaching. They do not allow girls to be altar servers or allow parishioners to assist in distributing communion. Critics say they emphasize doctrine over pastoral care and institute changes in a heavy-handed way.
Morlino has stood by them and did so again in the letter to parishioners, the primary purpose of which was to announce his decision to accept the parish’s recommendation to close the school. The priests have admitted "that they undertook some changes in a way that was abrupt for many people," Morlino wrote, yet he said no one has provided concrete examples of the priests straying from church doctrine.
In the end, "the Catholic faith is being taught according to the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council, and what remains are personal likes and dislikes, along with inflated rumors and gossip, some of which may even rise to the level of calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith and myself," Morlino wrote.
Where there are those who work to "incite hatred," there "may need to be more formal warning and action," Morlino wrote. An addendum cites many church laws, including one in which anyone who publicly incites animosities or hatred toward church authorities "is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties."
‘A very severe penalty’
The term "interdict" carries great weight in Catholicism, said the Rev. Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a Catholic priest. "Interdict is a very severe penalty that effectively prohibits the Catholic sacraments from being celebrated," he said.
The penalty was widely used in the Middle Ages and sometimes employed in the early years of the United States, he said. It has been used sparingly in recent history, he said. "Sanctions and penalties of this kind would only be a last resort — a sort of ‘nuclear option,’ if you will."
Dennis Doyle, a Catholic theologian at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said it is "a very unusual situation for a bishop to invoke the possibility of canonical penalties."
"This is a situation where push has come to shove and the bishop is asserting his authority and letting the people know, as it were, that he ‘owns the buildings and calls the shots,’" Doyle said.
Being interdicted differs from being ex-communicated in that the person under interdict is still considered a church member, Doyle said.
Questions over intent
Terry Busch, a church member who has been vocal in his opposition to the priests, wonders if he’s a target of the bishop’s message.
"There’s nothing I’ve ever said that isn’t true, but it sounds like if you say anything about the priests or the church, they’re coming after you," he said. "Now I don’t know exactly what that means. Do they send you to hell or take you to court?"
King, the diocesan spokesman, said that he would not engage in any "what if" speculation and that parishioners shouldn’t either, as it would only make healing more difficult. "The question of hypothetical penalties, for hypothetical crimes, is not one we will entertain," he said.
Even though the school will indeed close, "our hope is that, very soon, healing can come to the St. Mary’s Parish community, through prayer and forgiveness," King said. "That might sound idealistic, but in Christ, it is very possible."
Meanwhile, parishioners are trying to sort it all out. Rosemary Anderson, a St. Mary’s member who recently started attending services elsewhere, said St. Mary’s parishioners aren’t rebels and aren’t trying to make some grand statement.
"Platteville, Wisconsin, is not the hotbed of revolutionary movement in the world," she said. "We just want our parish community back."
Even if the bishop were to take away her ability to participate at St. Mary’s, "he cannot take away, hurt or lessen my spiritual relationship with God," she said.
Merrick, a parishioner who supports the priests, said the church does not seek blind loyalty and is not eager to come down hard on people, yet basic rules and doctrine must be enforced.
"The church in the last 50 or 60 years has been very reticent to use its weight to corral people into toeing the line," he said. "The reason the bishop had to do this is that there was just a great deal of backbiting and meeting behind the scenes going on."