"Church Autonomy" 4

Next post will be about Mark Chopko’s important 2005 article: “Freedom to be a Church: Confronting Challenges to the Right of Church Autonomy.”

But first, we back away from the Supreme Count, the Constitution and the national issues and consider a very local issue: the controversy at Mater Dolorosa in Springfield, where the parishioners have been picketing the Bishop’s residence (see article in Springfield Republican of Aug. 18).

In the midst of this Punch and Judy exchange between embattled Diocesan officials and equally determined parishioners, this quote from Mark Dupont, spokesman for Bishop McDonnell, stood out:

“We don’t believe this unlawful occupation and the disharmony they have created within the community has earned them the right to make any demands. Certainly, once they have relinquished this vigil we are more than willing to consider any requests they have made through the parish.”

Here in embryo, is the chancery’s position: that the parishioners are unlawful; that they promote disharmony; that they have no right to make demands; that only if they are willing to work “through the parish” will they be heard.

The last phrase is the same as expecting the parishioners to work through “parish leadership”, which the chancery has been advocating ever since the dispute over the closing began.

Here it's useful to have a Magic Catholic Decoder Ring, which I happen to own. For the truth is that “parish leadership” and working “through the parish” are code. Ostensibly “parish” would seem to be a collective noun. On the contrary, to the chancery these phrases mean working with and through only one man. Namely, the pastor, Fr. Alex.

We know this because for long stretches of time the parishioners, led by Peter Stasz and Victor Anop, asked for a copy of the engineering report which recommended closure of the church because of safety issues. The answer from the chancery, after much stonewalling, was that it was not necessary to let the parishioners see the report because it had already been disclosed to “parish leadership”. By which they meant Fr. Alex.

When the issue finally came to a head because of questions raised by local news media (and, not coincidentally because the church became occupied by rebellious parishioners) Elliot St. finally broke down and gave a copy of the report to the parishioners.

The latest statement by Mr. Dupont shows once again the hypocrisy of the official Diocesan position. The claim is made that the parishioners need to quit the occupation in order to start working “through the parish.” Is it not clear that this change in the dynamics would all but ensure that Fr. Alex could control the ebb and flow of dialog and subsequent action? And that the distinction is being drawn between the rights of the parishioners apart from the pastor? And that apart from the pastor, the parishioners in fact have no rights?

In this case the change in the dynamics hoped for by the chancery would very likely entail the swift end of the occupation and the appearance of a rather large yellow bulldozer at the church doorstep.

When legitimate demands of parishioners are seen as unlawful; when these demands are said to promote disharmony; when they are told they have no right to make demands; when they can only work “through the parish” (the pastor) or through the “parish leadership” (the pastor); all of these conditions can be summed up in two words, “church autonomy”.

The local arena for this oppressive “church autonomy” is not civil vs. church, but rather clergy vs. people.

To make this point in a not quite local but not quite national setting, look at the way that the clergy in Boston treat Peter Borre

I'm sure that many of the clergy in Boston feel that Peter promotes disharmony, unlawful behavior, and is guilty of refusing to work "through the parish leadership" as well. In all likelihood the clergy in Boston, for the most part, would like Peter Borre to take a long walk off a short pier into Boston Harbor.

And yet there is a simple explanation for their attitude.  Peter understands that "church autonomy",  as practiced by this generation of bishops, is a fraud. Not only that, but he has the audacity to spread the word.