You don’t see this everyday. Bishop Robert Morlino of the Catholic Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin has warned parishioners that they may be subject to the penalty of interdict if they continue protesting the behavior of two parish priests. An interdict is a rare canonical punishment that would exclude the parishioners from sacraments like marriage and communion.

The priests, from a Spanish order, have been serving at a parish in Platteville, a farming community. They are, in Catholic terms, “traditionalist.” According to the Wall Street Journal, they have, among other things,  banned female altar servers, forbidden shorts and other casual clothing at Mass, and stressed “doctrinal orthodoxy in their sermons.” These activities did not go over well with more liberal parishioners, hundreds of whom signed a petition to Bishop Morlino demanding the priests’ removal. The parishioners complained that the priests were acting inconsistently with Church teaching, particularly the reforms of Vatican II.

In a letter to the parish, Bishop Morlino admitted that some of the priests’ actions had been hurtful; he encouraged parishioners to forgive the priests and the priests to be more sensitive in future. But there was no evidence that the priests had contravened Church doctrine, including the teachings of Vatican II, he wrote. In the end, the complaints reflected mere “personal likes and dislikes, along with inflated rumors and gossip, some of which may even rise to the level of calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith, and myself.” These complaints could not be the basis for “firing” the priests — indeed, under canon law, a parish has no authority to “fire” its pastors.

Canon law does, however, give a bishop authority to discipline refractory parishioners, and Bishop Morlino suggested he might do so if the complaints don’t stop. He attached to his letter a list of relevant texts on which he asked parishioners “to reflect prayerfully.” Among these were canons providing for “penal sanctions, ” including Canon 1373, which provides that a person who “publicly incites . . . animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary [e.g., a bishop] because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.” The parishioners would still be Catholics; an interdict would not change that. Of course, some parishioners may decide to leave the Church on their own. As it is, donations since the priests began serving the parish have dried up, so much so that the parish school has had to close.

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