Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Church Turmoil in Wisconsin

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.


  1. God bless Bishop Morlino and these priests. They are doing the right thing for this parish, and I congratulate them for not backing down in the face of the classic liberal bullying.

    1. "Classic liberal bullying"? What is that exactly? And is it what's really going on here?

      Our Catholic tradition clearly teaches that there is an important and valid role and place for the views and insights of the laity. I think it's tragic that so many of those in positions of church authority have forgotten this. Clerical authority must be balanced by (and open to being shaped by) the authority of the Spirit present and active in and through the people of God, the "sensus fidelium." As Cardinal Newman pointed out, it is the consensus of the faithful that ultimately serves as the voice of the infallible Church.

      Clearly, on issues such as homosexuality and the role of women, we as a church are still journeying toward consensus. I find such a journey to be both a gift and, yes, at times a challenge. But I don't believe we should fear it or refuse to engage in it. Many in positions of authority, however, have done just that. As a result, the Spirit is speaking very forcefully and clearly through the people. I would not label such a gift "classic liberal bullying," and neither would the majority of Catholics.

      A teaching church must first be a listening church. I respectfully contend that it's time for the bishops to start listening with both an open mind and an open heart to the Spirit speaking in and through the experiences and insights of the people.

    2. Ben, is it really 'right' to drive away half the population of a parish so that one bishop and two priests can recreate that parish in their own liturgical preferences? Isn't that selfish, a form of cafeteria Catholicism? Or is selfish remaking of the Church in one's own desires only a problem for the left?

    3. Michael, as usual you sound pretty protestant in your opinions.

      You really don't get that if we followed your thoughts, in thirty years, there would be more than 30,000 "catholic churches."

      That's not what Jesus, who came to deliver the truth, would want.

      You might want to pray for some humility.

      It's not easy for us, either, but I spent half my life as a hedonist. And remnants still cling. But it is the Truth of Jesus Christ that gives me hope for His Divine Mercy.

    4. Amen to what Ben Yanke said. I am a Catholic in Madison, and I think Bishop Morlino has been so good on this. Archbishop Listecki of Milwaukee was at the diocesan center recently to give some talks and he told them Bp Morlino is a leader in the state, and joked that he is poaching vocations from other dioceses. Bp Morlino hasn't gone looking for that but it's actually true; he has a national reputation as a bishop who will back up his priests when they shepherd their parish faithfully. His diocese is benefiting from that from excellent priests and strengthened Catholic identity.

      A large minority of the parishioners at St Mary's signed a petition to "fire" their priest, which is something they had utterly no authority nor grounds for. The priests had done nothing contrary to the Catholic faith, but most astonishingly the parishioners' reasons for this rebellion, tearing their parish apart and shutting down the parish school by withholding donations, were so silly. They wanted altar girls, the use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and they didn't want mention that some people are in danger of going to hell. In other words, some parishioners had some malformed expectations in regards to their parish life and priests. From an informed Catholic perspective, it just could not be any more obvious the priests are faithful and Bishop Morlino acted bravely and rightly.

      For those interested in more sources, background information, Catholic knowledge one needs for understanding the story, and various blog commentary on the St Mary's Platteville situation, I blogged this recently:

  2. The article inaccurately portrays those requesting change as "adapting to the times." It is instead a conservative movement looking to the time of the early church when congregations co-celebrated the mass, men and women participated equally and members chose their presbyters based on their propensity to teach the message of Jesus and their ability to lead. It is a movement that seeks to undo the changes that occurred during the Dark and Medieval Ages. That being said, we give thanks to the Church that exists now and ask that a "synthesis" occur because there are many positive elements within the current Church.