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Monday, January 10, 2005

Turbulent Catholic congregationalism.

Also in the Globe this morning: an article about a Polish Roman Catholic parish in St. Louis that overwhelmingly rejected the archbishop's demand that the congregation revise its bylaws to allow him to exercise more control over the parish and its assets. Alan Scher Zagier reports that Archbishop Raymond L. Burke "has ordered the transfer of $9.5 million in church assets to the archdiocese to comply with canon law." The parish, however, has owned its properties outright for more than 100 years — and decided to tighten control over its assets instead:

St. Stanislaus members have controlled the church, which was founded by Polish and Irish immigrants in what was once a bustling ethnic enclave near downtown St. Louis, since 1891, the year Archbishop Peter Richard Kendrick deeded the property to a civil corporation made up of parishioners.

But lay leaders have tightened control of the church through a series of amendments to its bylaws, recently taking away the authority of the archdiocese-supported pastor to spend church money.

("Mo. Parish Rejects Church Takeover," Alan Scher Zagier, Boston Globe 1.10.05)

The battle between the parish and the archbishop isn't new — the Globe has reported several times before on the dispute, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has run numerous stories. In a December 26 Globe story, Zagier reported that the archbishop had written to the parish last March: "It is simply not right that a parish that calls itself Catholic and be so recognized by a Church authority, and at the same time, be under the exclusive direction of a civil corporation." That bit of canon law notwithstanding, the parishioners' fears about the archbishop's motives don't seem all that hard to understand:

Burke addressed the St. Stanislaus faithful at a special meeting in March soon after he announced his plans. Rather than soothe the crowd of several hundred parishioners, his appearance roiled them: The archbishop was heckled, jeered, and booed.

"They want all of our property. They want all of our money," said board member Roger Krasnicki, echoing a suggestion by some St. Stanislaus members that the archdiocese needs the money to help pay off legal settlements in clergy sex abuse claims. "It's a take-it-or-leave-it deal with them."

("In St. Louis, a Battle Over Polish Congregation's Future," Alan Scher Zagier, Boston Globe 12.26.04)

Although I'm disposed to find congregational polity and the strong empowerment of the laity great ways to check clerical authoritarianism — which is probably the major reason I'm a Unitarian — I'm also aware that other forms of church polity offer important checks against parochialism. I have no way of knowing which trend needs to be checked in this case, although my sympathies go to the parish.

What caught my attention about this story, however, wasn't a desire to toot congregationalism's horn. What startled me was that I had thought the vestiges of 19th-century American Catholic congregationalism — when laypeople exercised much more control over their parishes — had largely disappeared. I had assumed that lay-empowerment groups like Voice of the Faithful represent a partial resurgence of a kind of Catholic congregationalism, and that the Massachusetts parishes that have decided to occupy their churches around the clock after being closed by the Archdiocese represent an ad hoc congregationalism. But it had simply never occurred to me that there might be parishes in the Roman Catholic church in the U.S. that had such a long tradition of autonomy. That's fascinating.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 10 January 2005 at 5:26 PM

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January 11, 2005 11:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

(((congregational polity and the strong empowerment of the laity great ways to check clerical authoritarianism which is probably the major reason I'm a Unitarian )))

That's an unusual but very good reason to be a Unitarian.


Pierre Angulaire:

January 11, 2005 01:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

And I think exceedingly rare. In the early part of the 19th century, there were a number of parishes (usuallly German by ethnicity) where the land and other assets were controlled by the parishioners, but by now there are probably not more than one or two in the entire country.


January 11, 2005 08:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

This is a trend in Catholic parishes in many places, not just America and its "congregational" culture. A few years ago Catholics from a Catalan town demonstrated to keep their priest against the bishop's intention to remove him and take him to another parish. Likewise last summer a whole parish in a small village in Castille collected a sum of money so that their priest could fly to South America and marry a woman whom he had met through the Internet. And of course they wanted to have him back as their (married) priest. Just two recent examples of Catholics making their own decisions in a culturally Catholic country.

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