I wrote an article for Our Sunday Visitor on the dispute between St. Stanislaus Church in St. Louis and Archbishop Raymond Burke. It was not posted to the OSV site and interest has been expressed in seeing it placed on the web, so here it is. It was published under the title of "Polish parish control at center of canonical dispute."
When Archbishop Peter Kenrick allowed a lay board of directors to run the property of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in St. Louis in 1891, he most likely did not envision an attempt many years later to overthrow the authority of one of his successors.
But that, according to the archdiocese, is what has happened. In the late summer of 2003, then-Archbishop Justin Rigali met with the current board asking them to come into full compliance with Church law. They refused. The archbishop was then transferred to Philadelphia, leaving the issue with his successor.
That happened to be Archbishop Raymond Burke, “one of the most formidable canon lawyers in America,” according to Ed Peters, a canon and civil lawyer.
The archbishop met with the board of the Polish parish in February of 2004 to discuss the situation and was resisted. But he agreed to meet with the parish members.
That meeting, which included detractors of the archbishop from when he was bishop of La Crosse, Wis., went badly with parishioners shouting insults at him.
Richard Bach, a spokesman for the lay board, accused Archbishop Burke of being on a “control” trip.
Bach claims the archbishop would close the parish and sell the property in order to get at the $1.25 million the parish has in capital reserves and the $8 million he said the church and property are valued at. The reason? Because, he claimed, the archdiocese wants the money to settle future sexual abuse claims.
Archdiocesan spokesman Jamie Allman disputed that, saying the property is not that valuable and the archdiocese has been able to keep up on its settlements. But above all, said Allman, the archbishop has promised on several occasions that he has no intention of closing the church or parish as long as there is a viable ministry there.
In August, Archbishop Burke moved the administrator, associate and the apostolate to Poles from St. Stanislaus to St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Parish. The archbishop expressed his grave displeasure with how the board was treating Father Philip Bene.
One of the conflicts had to do with a bar the board was running in the old school after the 10:00 a.m. Sunday Mass. The board applied for a liquor license from the city, and when Father Bene objected, the city said they could not listen to him because the board owns and runs the buildings.
His removal prompted an appeal to the Congregation for the Clergy by Roger Krasnicki, a board member, asking to have their priest back. The Congregation rejected the request and gave the board a sharp rebuke. “Through careful and premeditated revisions of the By-Laws of the civil corporation,” wrote the Congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Csaba Ternyak, “you have attempted to make the role of the pastor impotent, attempted to wrest control from the local Ordinary, and attempted to transform St. Stanislaus Parish into an entity which has no resemblance to a parish as envisioned by either the tradition or current law of the Roman Catholic Church.”
According to those revised bylaws, the board makes all the decisions on what happens with the parish, including all of the finances, with the exception of appointing the pastor. Additionally, the archbishop no longer has the ability to appoint or remove directors from office.
But those revisions were illegal, according to the archdiocese and a group of Polish immigrants who formerly belonged to the parish. The original bylaws stated no changes could be made to them without approval from the archbishop, approval which has never been obtained.
In January, the parish voted on the question of whether or not to hand over the assets and property to the archdiocese. It was voted down 299-5, but was boycotted by the immigrant group. The archdiocese stated, though, that they asked the wrong question. That same month, the archbishop warned the board members that they faced a possible interdict for their refusal to comply.
On Feb. 10, Archbishop Burke made good on that threat and issued interdicts against the board members, a decision the board decided not to appeal.
An interdict is not a minor form of excommunication, according to Peters.“An interdict does not imply that the offender has broken communion with the Church [which excommunication does]. Archbishop Burke has been careful to say that the actions of these people threaten their bond of communion, but at this point so far, it is not broken.”
An interdict, according to canon law, is supposed to be medicinal. That happens, according to Peters, “by driving home the seriousness of what they are doing, and showing how their actions have consequences far beyond the immediate conflict as they see it. Because this is precisely a medicinal penalty, it can be lifted as soon as they repent of their actions.”
Peters called the board’s decision not to appeal the interdicts “odd.”
“If they had appealed, the penalty would have to be suspended,” he said. “It’s an easy and obvious means to lessen tensions, and the parish leadership refuses to use it.”
This dispute displays in a clear way the hierarchical nature of the Church, said Franciscan Father John Coughlin, a civil and canon lawyer at Notre Dame Law School. A “juridic person” in canon law is always subject to someone higher up in the hierarchy. So a parish, which is a juridic person, always operates in reference to the bishop and cannot operate by itself, he said.
Of course, bishops have always had this kind of authority dating back to the Church’s very beginning, when people would lay money at the feet of apostles (Acts 4:32-5:11).
Bach said several bishops and cardinals in the U.S. and Europe believe Archbishop Burke is overstepping his bounds, but he declined to name them. He also said they have received support against the archbishop from Justice Anne Burke, the former head of the Lay Review Board for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But Burke denied she ever made such a statement to them.
Right now, Allman acknowledged, there is a stalemate. Bach said they received a letter from retired Archbishop Szczepan Wesoly, a former Vatican official, offering to mediate the dispute. But that, observers say, is a long shot.
For more information, see http://www.archstl.org/parishes/documents/st-stanislaus/.