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Archbishop excommunicates parish
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Archbishop excommunicates parish
By Dave Havir

BIG SANDY, Texas--In the Dec. 20 issue of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) a front-page story appeared that caught my attention. The main headline: "A Catholic Parish Pays High Price for Independence."

  • The story is interesting on its own merit. But the story also reinforced an awakening I had about 10 years ago.

  • The problems found in church organizations among the Church of God movement are found in most church organizations that claim to be Christian.

Ten years ago I went through a metamorphosis.

  • First, I went from believing for 27 years that my church was the "one true church" to believing for about six months that my church had made mistakes that were unique.

Although I was sincere, my viewpoint was myopic. (By the way, my personal experience influences me to believe that many of my friends among the Church of God who are still myopic are also sincere.)

  • Next I learned that the problems in my old one true church (and the hundreds of self-proclaimed successors) are similar problems found in Christian church organizations around the world.

Power struggle

The WSJ article, written by Suzanne Sataline, described a problem among the St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish Roman Catholic Church (St. Stans) in St. Louis.

The article mentions how the problem in this particular parish reflects a growing problem in the Catholic Church.

As is a custom of the WSJ, there were two smaller headlines that followed the main headline. The purpose of these two smaller headlines is to give a quick synopsis of what's in the article.

The two smaller headlines read:

  • "Dispute With Archbishop Over Property, Control Leads to Excommunication."

  • "Power Struggles Across the U.S."

Why was there a dispute over property in this Roman Catholic parish?

According to Ms. Sataline's article: "St. Stans is one of the few churches in the country that holds the deed to its own land. In general, dioceses assert ownership of parish property under church, or canon, law."

Later in the article she wrote: "Unlike most parishes nationwide, St. [Stans] kept the deed to its property and is incorporated with a lay board of directors."

How long has the dispute been occurring?

She wrote: "The parish, founded by immigrant Poles in the 1890s, has warred for nearly two years with St. Louis Archbishop Raymond L. Burke."

Parish excommunicated

The dispute came to a head when some were excommunicated. Who were excommunicated?

She wrote: "The parish has a long history of operating independently. But the archbishop ordered the church to disband its board and place its property into a trust he would control. On Dec. 16, the archbishop announced the excommunication of St. [Stans'] six-member board."

What was the reason for the excommunication?

Here was the reason given: The board created "a schism within the church by hiring its own priest."

The priest was also excommunicated.

Ms. Sataline quoted the reaction of William Bialczek, the board's chairman.

"Morally, everyone in our congregation knows they didn't do anything wrong. It's all about property and money."

Ms. Sataline further described the perspective of the board president by saying: "He [Mr. Bialczek] argues that the archbishop's effort to gain control of St. Stans['] board was really the first step toward closing and liquidating the parish."

Money issue?

The article spent quite a bit of time describing how the sex-abuse cases in the Catholic Church have affected the Catholic Church in general.

Ms. Sataline wrote: "Catholic dioceses across the country have been closing and consolidating parishes. The archdiocese of St. Louis, which has spent nearly $9 million on sex-abuse claims and legal costs, closed more than two dozen churches this year. Now parishioners from Boston to California are fighting back to prevent the dioceses from tapping the parishes as a source of cash. At stake are real estate, bank accounts and religious artwork valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars--not to mention a hierarchy's frayed relationship with its flock."

The article described how the general problems in the Catholic Church have affected the St. Louis area.

Ms. Sataline wrote: "Since 1990, the St. Louis diocese has closed about 60 parishes, including 25 this year, and listed 19 churches for sale. To date, the diocese has spent $6.6 million on abuse settlements and counseling, and $2.3 million on legal fees, says the diocese's attorney, Bernie Huger."

Governance issue?

The article quoted Msgr. John Shamleffer, the diocese canon lawyer, as saying the effort to bring St. Stans in line has never been about money.

"We don't need their money," he says. "It's about who has governance over the parish."

Brief history

Ms. Sataline mentioned the timeline of the conflict.

  • Archbishop Burke arrived in St. Louis in January 2004.

  • In a letter dated March 19, 2004, he asked that St. Stans' congregants comply with "the norm of church law" by relinquishing administration of all property and moneys.

"It is simply not right that a parish call itself Catholic and be so recognized by Church authority, and, at the same time, be under the exclusive direction of a civil corporation," he wrote.

If the board refuses to conform, he warned, "I will have no choice but to declare that Saint Stanislaus is no longer a Roman Catholic Parish."

  • In October 2004, dozens of parishioners accused board members of acting illegally and labeled them arrogant for ignoring the archbishop's demands. Fifty to 75 of these critics left for another church. (The article mentioned that the present church has 450 people.)

  • On Nov. 11, 2004, the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy sided with the archbishop, concluding that the parish was not complying with canon law.

  • St. Stans' leaders asked that the board be comprised of parishioners.

The archbishop refused.

The archbishop said he would allow the pastor and six parishioners of his choice to serve as the board if he, the sole corporation member, had the final word.

The directors turned him down.

  • The board scheduled a vote in January 2005, asking the parish if it should cede the property and money to the archbishop. If the parishioners did not agree, the archbishop warned, "I will consider your refusal to be a final decision not to maintain a Roman Catholic parish."

Defying him, a majority of parishioners voted not to relinquish the assets.

  • On Feb. 10, 2005, the archbishop placed the six board members under interdict, a milder punishment than excommunication.

The archbishop said he imposed the punishment "with the fervent and constant hope and prayer that you will be led to repentance and reparation."

  • In November a Polish priest from the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese signed a contract to become St. Stans' pastor.

  • In July the board agreed to hire a full-time priest.

  • On Friday, Dec. 16, Archbishop Burke wrote that board members committed the "ecclesiastical crime of schism" and "automatically incur the penalty of excommunication." The same went for the new priest.

Ms. Sataline describes Mr. Bialczek saying that, if St. Stans gets drummed out of the Catholic Church, it will become independent.

"When this priest comes here and we start having Mass and communion, I'll have it from him," he says. "He's still a man of God."

Final thoughts

I suppose this article will help church leaders feel justified in taking action against those who do not want to follow the authority of the hierarchy.

But maybe this article will also help those who have been disfellowshipped to realize that there is life after excommunication.

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