Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison—like a lot of American bishops—has had to face declining numbers of clergy to serve his diocese, and like many American bishops he has looked overseas for ready-made vocations. Bishop Morlino, a former Jesuit who became disaffected with the Society during the years of Pedro Arrupe’s leadership and at age 37 left the Society of Jesus to become a secular priest in the diocese of Kalamazoo, brought in a community of priests from Spain to take over a cluster of parishes in southwestern Wisconsin. This community—the Society of Jesus the Priest (not to be confused with the community of prelates known as the Institute of Jesus Christ Sovereign Priest) regularly celebrates the Catholic Liturgy in both the Tridentine and current Rites, but even in the “new mass” does not permit girls to serve at the altar, laity to serve as ministers of the Eucharist (even to bring the Eucharist to the homebound), insists on the faithful receiving communion on the tongue and kneeling. It is not simply a matter of liturgical back-pedaling but essentially a question of the relationship of priests and laity. The Midwest has long been among the most progressive sections of the Catholic Church in the United States and Wisconsin, in particular, was quick to embrace the changes at Vatican II. I think this openness has had to do with a long tradition of progressive archbishops in Milwaukee but also the combination of Lutheran and Catholic populations—groups similar enough to have been able to learn from one another in matters liturgical and ecumenical. In any event, the laity in the parishes “served” by the priests of the Society of Jesus the Priest have not been happy with the direction things are taking and complained bitterly about these practices being foisted on them but the priests show no openness to listening to the legitimate complaints of their people. Their model of Church is one where “Father” holds all decision making to himself. The Church belongs to the clergy and the laity are granted the privilege of paying for it.
Well, many of these parishioners are not paying for it. One Monsignor in the Diocese of Madison told me that “all hell is breaking loose.” Faithful Catholics are driving fifty and seventy miles to attend Mass elsewhere—some even crossing State lines as they are “fed up” not only with the priests of the Society of Jesus the Priest, but with Bishop Morlino who has shown himself to be utterly unsympathetic to their grievances. (And to think, last Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday with the Gospel speaking to us of the wise and compassionate Shepherd.) Others have begun attending the local Methodist and Lutheran churches. Still others have simply stopped attending Mass. One man was in tears telling me that his 87 year old mother, bedridden from a stroke, had been receiving Holy Communion twice a week from a Eucharistic Minister but now was told that “Father would bring her Communion on first Fridays.” They told “Father” he could stay home. A generous parishioner has offered instead to drive 35 miles to a town where the priest will give him the Eucharist to bring to this homebound woman who says a rosary every day for vocations and a second one for “the Pope and our bishop.”
Collections have fallen drastically as parishioners have deserted the parishes in and around Platteville WI where these priest are “serving.” In Platteville, a parish that had been thriving under its previous pastor, the parish school will close this June because collections are down at least 40%. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Bishop had threatened parishioners who complain with ecclesiastical censures including being refused Holy Communion and Christian burial. What is going on?
I have several reasons for saying this is a sign of the times.
1. There is an increasing number of clergy, both American-born and foreign, who have taken a sharp “turn to the right” in terms of undoing the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council. Moreover the liturgical abuses they propagate are not simply idiosyncratic aberrations but bespeak a view of authority that is entirely “top down” and without accountability to the Church—that is to the people whom they are ordained to serve. There is no dialogue here—it’s Father’s way or the highway.
2. The shortage of vocations to the priesthood has caused bishops both to look overseas for supplemental clergy and to lower the standards—intellectually and psychologically (which means morally) of the candidates they are willing to accept. (Check back and read the blog entry for May 20, 2011.)
3. There has been a drastic shift in our hierarchy with an increasing proportion of bishops who see the Church primarily in institutional terms and do not consider themselves responsible for and to the faithful. This episcopal arrogance is typified by Cardinal Law who, in his days as Archbishop of Boston, considered himself totally unaccountable to anyone and even to the Laws of the State of Massachusetts, in dealing with pedophile priests. Law’s mistake was huge and not only cost him his see but turned the sex-abuse issue into a national crisis as the Cardinal became the poster-boy for protecting sex-abusers. This sort of episcopal arrogance also led to Raymond Burke being relieved of his duties as Archbishop of Saint Louis, though it gained him a red-hatted desk job in Rome. (And doesn’t that say something?) This hierarchical presumption that the Church consists pretty much in men in red dresses nicely accented by the appropriate jewelry has led to Archbishop Lori’s attack on the American nuns. Any view of Church that consists of the community of the Body of Christ is definitely relegated to the dust bin of Vatican II enthusiasm.
4. All of this is an indication that the future of the Second Vatican Council, at least for the American Church, is very much in question. Ecumenism is dead in the water, the liturgical advances are being dismantled in favor of a neo-traditionalism, parish advisory boards and Diocesan finance councils are reduced to being rubber stamps, open and honest discussion whether of diocesan policy or serious theological issues is a thing of the past.
The signs of the times are ominous for those who drank the Vatican II Kool-Aid.