When I moved my family to New Hampshire in the fall of 2001 and we were casting around for a good parish (not as simple as it sounds — Catholic life here in the most secular state in the country hasn’t been done many favors during the reign of Cardinal Law’s former lieutenant, Bishop John McCormack), we entered by accident into a parish run by the schismatic Polish National Catholic Church.
Immediately we grasped that something was wrong. Not only because the Mass, which should have been about to begin (and was beginning, at the church two blocks down that we’d been aiming for), was instead commencing with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but because the place was beautiful. Shamelessly ornate, in fact. Manchester’s own Catholic cathedral, with its stone floor hidden under thin green carpet, sad, spooky sockets where side altars had once been, and despoiled sanctuary evoking what trendy urban planners call "open space," couldn’t hold a (unity) candle to it. During the consecration, bells chimed at the elevation of the host, held stiffly aloft by the priest through a miasma of incense. It was all too good to be in full communion.
Fortunately, these clues and others helped us to discern the true nature of the place before any sacraments were illicitly received. We left, a little wistfully, and resumed our search. (The church we were trying to find that day was soon thereafter closed and sold by the diocese — I hope not for the want of just one more envelope.) But every morning as I drive my kids to school, I pass the Polish church, called Holy Trinity, and every morning I mentally re-affirm my intention, should I ever apostasize, to give the Polish Nationals first crack at my free-agent soul.
I had occasion to think of my favorite schismatics earlier this week when I read that St. Louis archbishop Raymond Burke had officially made a few more, with his declaration that members of the lay governing board of St. Stanislaus Kostka parish had been excommunicated.
At first glance the controversy has something of a palace-intrigue flavor to it, involving medieval-sounding terms like "simony" and "contumacy." The excommunicated persons were found guilty of the canonical crime of schism, for having "taken sacrilegious oaths" to serve as directors of the century-plus-old, mostly Polish parish, which had been suppressed for its refusal to recognize archdiocesan authority over it. The parish, claiming an extra-ordinary measure of autonomy for itself from at least the mid 1980s, had resisted efforts by several of Archbishop Burke’s predecessors to bring it to heel, but then matters escalated in 2004, when the lay board moved to wrest control of parish assets, prompting the archdiocese to remove its priests and, the following year, excommunicate the board members and the itinerant priest they had imported as a pastor-for-hire.
With the parish officially suppressed and, canonically speaking, non-Catholic, the archdiocese’s announcement last week signaled that by joining the lay board afresh (replacing retiring members) Bernice Krauze and Stan Rozanski had incurred latae sentenciae (that is, brought upon themselves by their very act) excommunication. This came right upon the heels of Archbishop Burke’s having formally recommended that the rogue pastor, 33-year-old Rev. Marek Bozek, be laicized.
Secular news stories, backed by statements from the excommunicated duo and other aggrieved parishioners, characterized the conflict as a tug-of-war over property. But probe a little deeper and the story proves to be about more than the question of who ultimately controls the parish checkbook or keeps the keys to the basement; quite predictably, maybe, at root it doesn’t appear to be merely about the Church’s jurisdiction over "St. Stan’s" assets, but its authority to ensure that Catholic doctrine be taught to its parishioners.
In his most recent parish bulletin message, after musing on the familial metaphor of the Church and casting himself as a victim of "spousal abuse" who was acting to protect his children from further (crozier) blows by the rampaging partner, Father Bozek tucks in and gets down to business:
By quiet resignation and indifference of the 99% of the Church’s members, the abuse has been allowed to become accepted as a part of the everyday life of the Roman Catholic family. Just as for centuries the hierarchy had been persecuting scientists and activists disagreeing with its geocentric vision of the universe or with its quiet acceptance of slavery (both coming out of a literal reading of the Bible) — today such persecution is directed toward women who are refused their right to receive all seven sacraments including the sacrament of Holy Orders, toward divorced and remarried people, toward priests who wish to continue their ministry and at the same time pursue the blessings of married life, toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of our family, toward anyone who dares to think and vote contrary to the local bishop’s instruction . . . and toward anyone who is mentioning the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.
It’s really quite an impressive lot to fit in a Sunday bulletin. If only he’d found space to lament the lack of handicapped parking at most Catholic churches, he’d have touched ’em all.
The list of abuses, unfortunately, can continue almost without end. How much longer can or should the mothers and fathers in our Catholic family silently tolerate such abuses, and by their indifference enable the abusers? Should we wait until the only ones who are satisfied with their bishops are their wealthy sponsors and those who prefer the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Latin Mass and all its trappings to the accessibility of Mass in the vernacular language?
(I can’t say for sure, not being a "Trad" myself, but I think that if he’s gunning for beleaguered-minority status, Father Buzek has quite a fight on his hands — from those same "Tridentine-preferers" whom he imagines to be his oppressors!)
Truth be told, the whole thing fills me with sadness. First, at the ordinariness of it all. We orthodox, obedient Catholics know the Church isn’t perfect. We have our own heroes who have been compelled to fight the righteous fight — homeschoolers forced through hoops to get their kids confirmed; victims of clerical malfeasance, sexual and financial; good (but often naïve) priests, nuns, or lay catechists ostracized or ground down by liberal chancery bureaucrats — even if it means taking on pastor or bishop.
But St. Stan’s list of gripes is so dully conventional; all the usual suspects are on it. The St. Stan’s Gang, in final analysis, are just garden-variety dissenters. Even the Polish National Catholic Church, for all its doctrinal and moral heresies, seems to have had its founding in more meaty (if still illicit) ecclesial gripes, and in that old familiar schism-maker, nationalism. And by all appearances it’s trying to manifest traditional Catholic teaching and practice — after its own flawed-but-game interpretation. But Father Bozek and his merry Board have simply heaved off the Barque of Peter all those sexual teachings they find too difficult or too mean, and presumed to sail away with it. How disappointingly unoriginal.
Yet there is a deeper sense of sadness that we can feel for St. Stanislaus Kostka, the PNCC, and for all those who separate themselves from Catholic communion. Still more when we observe the blitheness, and the posturing that combines equal parts defiance, self-righteousness, and vincible ignorance, with which the most recent ex-communicants — like most dissenters who have the misfortune to run afoul of the American Church’s sporadic local crackdowns — received the news that they’ve been cast into the outer darkness.
"It doesn’t worry me," said Rozanski. "I’m doing business with God. I don’t need a man to determine my destiny, whether it’s an archbishop or not."
With the very essence of Catholicity predicated on the belief that salvation is mediated via the mysterious cooperation between God and man — from the Fiat to the Incarnation to the Passion, and in the human-divine institutional Church with its matter-spirit sacraments and alter Christus clergy — such a statement is quite simply calling green grass gray. It’s an awful summation of the whole tragic mess that excommunication is.
Yet on this day when we remember the awfulest event in the history of the universe — and, in spite of it, call this Friday good — we can hope and pray with no vain confidence that these events may meet, as that one did, a joyous ending. For if excommunication is a cutting-off from the Body, it is even more significantly a call to return to it. As we fast today and meditate on the anticipated Resurrection, let us pray that our severed members may yet be redeemed, and with us rejoice.
Todd M. Aglialoro is the editor for Sophia Institute Press and a columnist and blogger for www.InsideCatholic.com.