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If you believe some news accounts, it is all a grab for money and power. The subheading of the Washington Post ‘s story on the excommunication of a priest and six lay people in St. Louis reads, “Archbishop Demands Control of Catholic Parish’s Assets, Property.” Greedy, grasping, autocratic archbishop. Just what you would expect from that corrupt and authoritarian Catholic Church. Other stories read, “Defiant Priest Risks Job to Serve Parishioners.” Brave, heroic priest.

In fact, for a number of years, predating the arrival of Archbishop Raymond Burke, St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, which primarily serves Polish Catholics, has been involved in a reprise of the “trusteeship controversy” of the 19th century. Burke’s predecessors had tried to regularize the relationship of the parish with the archdiocese and the Holy See.

With the backing of Rome, Burke tried to work patiently with the six members of the parish board of directors, but things were brought to a head when they hired a priest from a neighboring diocese who accepted the position against the explicit directions of his own bishop. Burke has now formally declared that the priest and the six lay leaders are in schism from the Catholic Church. In the Church’s canon law, the sin of schism carries the automatic consequence of excommunication.

Several factors are to be kept in mind. Excommunication — separating oneself from full communion with the Church — is something that is done by the person who is excommunicate. The Church simply declares what it is that the person has done, and when, as in this case, the offense is public, the declaration is public. A formal declaration of excommunication is a last resort, undertaken with the greatest reluctance.

In a culture attuned to Protestant voluntarism and in thrall to the idea of “inclusiveness,” the very idea of excommunication is deeply offensive. As reflected in the news reports, it is thought that what must really be at stake is power or money, or both. What is most importantly at stake, however, is the very definition of what it means to be Catholic. A parish is Catholic if it is in full communion with a bishop who is in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. Such a parish is part of the “local Church,” meaning the diocese, of which the bishop is the pastor. Every priest and parish pastor participates in the ministry of the bishop who, in turn, participates in the college of bishops, the successors to the apostles, with and under the Bishop of Rome. In sum, the Church is guilty as charged: the Church is — always has been and always will be — hierarchical, which many think is a very bad thing to be.

The upshot is that St. Stanislaus Kostka and its hired priest are in schism. Protestations to the contrary, it is not a Catholic parish. I do not know all the details of the troubles between the parish and the archdiocese. I do know that Archbishop Raymond Burke is a man of great patience, pastoral sensitivity, and clarity of purpose. If you have friends who are inclined to jeer the power-hungry archbishop and cheer the heroically defiant priest and parish, you might suggest that they read Archbishop Burke’s very careful statement about what has happened and why. It can be found at St. Louis Archdiocese .

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