A priest and six laymen at a Roman Catholic church in St. Louis have been excommunicated by Archbishop Raymond Burke and St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion writer Tim Townsend has been doing excellent coverage, even winning an award for one of his earlier stories. St. Stanislaus Kostka, a Polish parish, has been battling the archdiocese for years, not over doctrine or any of the sexier issues of contention but over polity. Here's Townsend doing a great job of explaining the situation a few weeks ago:
The dispute between Burke and St. Stanislaus stems from a late 19th-century arrangement that gave the parish board control of the church property. Since he arrived in St. Louis, Burke has demanded that the church conform to the same legal structure as other parishes, where the bishop oversees finances.
St. Stanislaus parishioners, through their six-member lay board of directors, has refused, and neither side has budged for months.
What struck me most about Townsend's coverage was how well he explored the motivations of the Rev. Marek Bozek, the priest who joined the parish a few weeks ago. Townsend explains how Bozek, a Pole, knew he wanted to be a priest when he was only 9. He began going to Mass every day when he was 10 as a personal protest against Communism:
For Bozek, the particulars of the battle are secondary. In fact, he believes Burke is on solid ground in the dispute.
"Legally, canonically speaking, he's right," Bozek said. "The Holy See has said he's right. Bozek mailed a letter to Burke on Friday. In it the priest said he wanted "to express respect and assure you that you will be indeed considered by me the Archbishop..."
Bozek's decision to flout his superiors has more to do with a situation he labels "desperate"- that members of St. Stanislaus have not been able to take part in the sacraments in their own church for longer than a year because they lack a priest.
"I can't imagine my life without the sacraments," he said. "And these people have gone without them for so long." . . .
Bozek also knows he may come off as high-minded. "My bishop told me I'm naive and idealistic, and I am," he said. "I'm 30 and I have the right to be. If there's a time to be idealistic, it's now. Jesus was idealistic. He did things that were illegal but right. If we give up on our ideals, what are we left with?"
To help explain his actions, Bozek quotes from part of Canon 1752, the final law in the Catholic church's law code, which reads in part, "the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one's eyes."
"I think it's significant that the code ends that way," he said. "There are many canons, and I am breaking some of them. But to me, in that last canon, the word 'supreme' means it precedes all the other ones. To me, it's about saving the souls of the people of St. Stanislaus."
Which brings us to this weekend, when Burke announced his decision to excommunicate Father Bozek and the parish board of directors and suppress the church. Just as he did with Bozek, Townsend simply lays the facts out, permitting Archbishop Burke's position to be explained:
The offense that triggered the excommunication, according to Burke, is schism. In the Catechism and the Code of Canon law, schism is defined as "the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."
Catholic law says that only a bishop can appoint priests to parishes.
Hiring a priest who "is not in good standing," Burke wrote in a letter to board members, "is a formal act of schism, by which you have incurred automatically the penalty of excommunication. With this letter ... I declare the excommunication to you."
Townsend's writing is amazingly thorough and fair. He takes the time to research Canon law, he is trusted to accurately convey religious belief, and he does it all by focusing on hard news.