Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisc. has said conflicting parishioners at a Catholic church need to forgive each other and renounce “gossip” and “calumnious” actions, though a diocesan spokesman has said the bishop’s mention of canonical penalties should be taken only as a warning.
“The bishop’s caution that ‘this cannot continue’ should not be made into anything more than that — a caution,” Diocese of Madison spokesman Brent King told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Specific canon laws were included in the bishop’s letter so that they may never be needed, he added.
The bishop mentioned the laws in an April 25 letter to parishioners of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Platteville, Wisc. which focused on reconciling animosities at the parish.
“In charity and in justice, I must caution you most strongly that this cannot continue,” Bishop Morlino said. “I do this now in sincere hopes of avoiding the issuance of canonical warnings in the days ahead.”
“It is only Jesus, and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church which He founded that can be the vessels of stability, understanding, and healing,” he explained.
The priests at St. Mary’s have admitted they made some changes in an “abrupt” way that caused some “instability, misunderstandings, and hurt,” the bishop reported.
Two priests of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest began serving St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Platteville in June 2010. Their order follows a traditional spirit and does not have girl altar servers or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.
Donations to the church fell by more than half in the months after they took over. About 40 percent of the church’s 1,200 members signed a petition asking for the priests’ removal, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.
The church’s school, which has been open for 77 years, will close on June 1. Many parishioners blame the closing on the reduction in donations.
Bishop Morlino said he learned of the recommendation to close the school with “tremendous sadness” but he could not disagree with it.
He said that some parishioners have proposed that he save the parish school by removing the priests to “ransom” the school from the protesters and so return donations to its previous level.
However, he said the protest and the refusal to support the Church’s needs shows a “much greater kind” of deficit.
A Catholic school should flow from a community “as a fruit of its faith, hope and love.” The closure of the school is a “tragedy” but there is more at stake.
“What must be undertaken at this time is fervent prayer and then action for deepening faith, hope, and – most of all – charity,” the bishop said.
The bishop emphasized that the priests are teaching the Catholic faith. Remaining problems, he said, are “personal likes and dislikes” but also “inflated rumors and gossip” and even “calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith, and myself,” the bishop lamented.
“For these likes and dislikes, gossip, and hurt feelings, the Catholic faith is rejected and a school is closed.”
Though he emphasized the need to foster stability, understanding and healing, he also warned that there may need to be “more formal warning and action” for individuals who “work to incite hatred” or who “do not truly seek the good, and who even work actively against it.”
Bishop Morlino’s letter included an addendum with excerpts from canon law, including canons which mentioned penalties for those who incite hatred or contempt against the Church or the local bishop. One canon opposes those who injures “the good reputation of another” while another opposes those who join an association which “plots against the Church.”
Some parishioners were surprised at the mention of canonical penalties.
“There’s almost shock and awe,” church finance council member Myron Tranel told the Wisconsin State Journal. “But mostly, there’s a lot of disappointment that the bishop has decided to deal with it this way.”
Gregory Merrick, a member of the parish’s pastoral council, defended the action.
“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,” he said.
The bishop’s letter invoked St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which told a fractious congregation to put away falsehood and to “not let the sun set on your anger.” St. Paul told the early Christians to “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”
“I ask you to forgive, whatever that takes, and to move forward in faith, in hope, and in love,” Bishop Morlino said.