A priest loses his faculties

We got complaints from a couple of readers about this story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, headlined "Improvising Illinois priest barred from pulpit." It's written by Tim Townsend, someone we frequently praise here at GetReligion:

An Illinois priest forced out of his parish by Belleville's Catholic bishop for improvising prayers during Mass will no longer be able to preach in public as of today.

The Rev. William Rowe said Monday that Bishop Edward Braxton has suspended him and removed his "faculties," or license to practice ministry under church law. The move has been associated in recent years with the punishment of clergy accused of sexually abusing minors.

Rowe, the pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., has not been accused of abuse, but he has clashed with Braxton over altering the liturgical prayers of the Roman Missal — the book of prayers, chants and responses used during Mass.

My own beef with that lede is the unnecessary and tendentious tying in of faculty removal with sexual abuse of minors. I don't like the passive voice used ("has been associated"). Associated by whom? What are the range of offenses that can lead to removal of faculties? Is it just sexual abuse of minors and liturgical improvisation? If not, just don't bother tarnishing an interesting piece on liturgical improvisation.

Anyway, that's not the reason readers complained. One note read:

Here's an on-going story about a Catholic priest who has been defying his bishop about straying from the prescribed language of the Catholic Mass for decades. He's in his 70s and the bishop removed him from his parish. Because the priest is now performing the sacraments at other parishes, the Bishop has lifted his "faculties". [Townsend] says twice that he can no longer preach before he finally explains that for Catholics that's the least of what "faculties" means.

Another note read:

Re: Improvising Illinois priest barred from pulpit

Um, no. He wasn't barred from the pulpit. He's barred from celebrating Mass, which is far more than the pulpit. And as Phil Lawler pointed out, he WAS accused of abuse -- liturgical abuse. Obviously, the secular press doesn't care about that, but Catholics do. And this line, I think, is simply gratuitous: "The move has been associated in recent years with the punishment of clergy accused of sexually abusing minors." Again, are there no canon lawyers to consult who can say what reasons there are to suspend priests?

OK, I guess there is some overlap between that last comment and my beef.

But it is important to understand, when covering something like this, precisely what removal of faculties means and also why it's important. For what it's worth, it's explained better later on in the story:

Last month, St. Mary's parishioners learned that Braxton had officially removed Rowe, their pastor of 18 years. But a separate letter from Braxton recently informed Rowe, 72, that not only would he have to leave the church, but that he could not preach in public anywhere.

Rowe said he could no longer celebrate public Masses or preside at weddings, funerals or baptisms. The only exception, Rowe said, involves a dying person; he can still hear a confession, baptize or anoint that person.

I also would have really appreciated more precision about precisely what the priest in question was doing in a given Mass. We're told this:

According to Catholic liturgical practice, priests are duty bound to the prayers written in the Roman Missal, but Rowe had deviated from the text for decades. He said he did so when the official words didn't connect precisely with the message he was hoping to convey.

But it's hard for me to understand precisely what that means. In which parts of the Mass was the ad-libbing done and what was said?

I do find it interesting how we frame stories when it comes to authority and deviation from authority. Are all people who openly disregard their leaders treated the same, I wonder? Journalists seem to have a soft spot for people flouting authority (I'm one of them) and I wonder if that leads to particular ruts in how we frame stories such as this. I can see how that particular bias shapes my own writing.

Catholic Mass image via Richard Welter / Shutterstock.com

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