By Jack Nicas
NOTE: The following article was first published May 7 by the Wall Street Journal.
A Wisconsin bishop's rebuke of Roman Catholics who bristled at the conservative practices of their parish priests has become another example of tension among U.S. Catholics over tradition's role in the church.
The two priests are members of a Spanish group assigned two years ago to Platteville, a farming community 60 miles southwest of Madison. They have attracted new parishioners but driven away many others by banning females as altar servers, enforcing a dress code for Mass (no shorts or short skirts) and emphasizing doctrinal orthodoxy in their sermons.
Declining attendance and a drop-off in donations at St. Mary Catholic Church, the larger of Platteville's two parishes, since the priests' arrival has forced the parish to plan to close its 77-year old school.
Attendance and donations are also down, though slightly, at the city's other Catholic congregation, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Last month, soon after the parish announced it planned to close its school, Bishop Robert Morlino issued a public letter. He wrote that after investigating allegations from parishioners that the priests aren't teaching according to the precepts of the church, he found that the faith is being taught in the proper manner, but "what remains are personal likes and dislikes, along with inflated rumors and gossip, some which may even rise to the level of calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith and myself." The bishop had earlier objected to the some church members' efforts to oust the priests, including seminars on protest-letter writing, leafleting of vehicles and gathering signatures on a petition door-to-door.
In last month's letter, he also asked parishioners to "reflect prayerfully" on texts he attached. Those included the Code of Canon Law, which empowers the bishop to censure parishioners and effectively ban them from receiving sacraments, such as Holy Communion, in a step known as an interdict.
Nicholas Cafardi, an expert on church law and dean emeritus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said the bishop's warning was "rare." Bishop Morlino "is telling them, 'Let's not go down this road,'" he said.
The Platteville conflict is another flare-up in the Catholic Church's internal struggle between traditionalists and those who believe it must do more to adapt to the times. In Washington state recently, local priests bridled at taking part in a referendum drive endorsed by their archbishop to repeal a recent law legalizing same-sex marriage there.
Soon after the Spanish priests arrived, more than 400 of Platteville's roughly 900 Catholic parishioners signed a petition demanding their removal, though some area Catholics embraced them.
The Rev. Faustino Ruiz, one of the two Spanish priests in Platteville, said his more traditionalist beliefs are in line with a return to Catholicism's core values led by Pope Benedict XVI. "The Catholic Church is now in a time of crisis and confusion," he said, "and we have to restore the tradition of the Catholic Church in order to have our identity."
Father Ruiz and the other priest in Platteville are members of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, a group of several dozen traditionalist pastors from Murcia, Spain, that emphasizes traditional Catholic practices and concepts such as the importance of regular confession as a means of salvation.
The Madison diocese, which comprises 132 churches, employs eight of the society's pastors and at least nine consecrated women, who are similar to nuns, in eight churches, said diocese spokesman Brent King. The diocese has welcomed the society's members in part because it needs priests, Mr. King said.
Weekend attendance at St. Mary's is off by a third since 2009, just before the first priests arrived, said the diocese. Weekly donations have also fallen 45% to an average of $6,000.
Even before the priests came, the community's school-age population had been declining. The per-pupil costs of education at the school have nearly doubled in the past five years, said diocese spokesman Brent King, while tuition has gone up only slightly. The church had been making up the difference with donations, which peaked in the 2009-2010 school year at 75% of total school costs.
But last year, as donations began to fall, the parish subsidy to the school fell to 54% of costs. This year, the financial gap became too big.
"Because of the high parish subsidy of the school, and the decrease in parish offertory (whether as a matter of protest or because a family had left), the parish could simply no longer afford to subsidize the school's budget," Mr. King wrote in an email.
Some area Catholics approved of the message brought by the new priests. Gregory Merrick, 62 years old, began driving the 20 miles to St. Mary's when he heard the new priests were traditionalist. Catholicism "is first about the good news that we are saved, but that news is hooked irrevocably to the notion that we're sinners," he said. "Do we as Catholics want to conform to the church, or do we want the church to conform to us? I suggest the latter of those two possibilities is a disaster."
Retired teacher Rosemary Anderson, a former St. Mary's council member, left the church in February. She said the two priests, Father Ruiz and the Rev. John Del Priore, "are very conservative, very much their-way-or-the-highway," and that she believed their sermons emphasize confession and sin while lacking discussion of charity and embracing others.
Father Ruiz called that characterization "unfair" and said he and Father Del Priore preach and practice both salvation and charity.
The Rev. Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said only two U.S. dioceses bar females as altar servers.
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