Vote may have exiled 6 on board at church.

By Tim Townsend, Of the Post-Dispatch, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2005. 

The board of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church might have been excommunicated after allowing parishioners to vote Sunday on whether to hire their own priest.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke had warned in a letter recently that the six men would be excommunicated automatically if the vote occurred.

Board member Robert Zabielski said he did not believe he was excommunicated. "We've done nothing to break with the church," he said.

Burke was out of the country Monday and unavailable for comment. Monsignor Vernon E. Gardin, the archdiocese's vicar general, said through a spokesman, "There's nothing we can comment on in terms of the actual status of excommunication."

Charles M. Wilson, a canon lawyer, said after reading the letter he believed that by proceeding with Sunday's vote, the board members have been excommunicated. Wilson is executive director of the Catholic legal support group, the St. Joseph Foundation.

Excommunication is "very rare in the last century," said R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. "It's always been more about renegade priests. It's the exception rather than the rule in conflicts between bishops and the laity."

Burke removed the parish's priests a year ago in a dispute about who has financial authority over the parish north of downtown. The dispute between Burke and St. Stanislaus dates to a late 19th-century arrangement that originally gave the parish board control of the church property. Over the past 18 months, Burke has demanded that the church conform to the same legal structure as the rest of the diocese's parishes. In July, he permanently moved the official Polish apostolate from St. Stanislaus to St. Agatha parish.

On Sunday, parishioners voted 260 to 76 in favor of the question: "Should the board of directors seek continued religious guidance from clergy who may or may not report to the archdiocese of St. Louis?"

In his letter to the board, Burke warned that the vote would put church members in danger of "breaking their communion with the Roman Catholic church through schism, which is a most grave crime against our holy religion."

Because of the gravity of such a crime, Burke continued, "the person who commits it incurs automatically, that is by the act itself, the penalty of excommunication."

"It's clear that Archbishop Burke considers the vote itself as the schismatic act," Wilson said.

In the letter, Burke said he was so concerned "for the salvation of your soul" that he asked the board to meet with him next week when he returns from World Youth Day in Germany.

Zabielski said that the archbishop "did not understand the referendum we were going to vote on."

Indeed, the wording of the ballot question was changed after Burke wrote his letter to the board. Language indicating the prospective St. Stanislaus pastor could be "a married catholic priest, or an ordained catholic priest whose ordination is recognized by Rome, but possibly not in favor with Rome or the Pope at this time," was stripped from the final ballot because of some parishioners' requests, said Zabielski.

Board member William Bialczak said he hoped Burke's offer to meet was about more than just the vote authorizing the search for a priest. "I'm sure he's worried about the vote Sunday, but I hope he's going to be there to negotiate."

There are two ways for an excommunication to be issued, said Sister Sharon E. Euart, president of the Canon Law Society of America. The first, as is the case in Burke's letter to the St. Stanislaus board, is automatic excommunication, known as latae sententiae. The procurement of an abortion, for instance, according to Canon 1398, results in a latae sententiae excommunication, said Euart. The other is when the penalty is inflicted by a bishop in a formal process, called ferendae sententiae.

Though Burke's letter said the excommunication would be automatic, Wilson said canon law requires the archbishop to issue an "official declaration of excommunication."

In February, Burke imposed the lesser canonical penalty of interdict on the six board members. The interdict meant the board members had fallen out of communion with the church and would be denied the sacraments.

The sacraments are the seven liturgical rites - baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders (or ordination to ministry) - through which Catholics believe they experience God's grace.

Denial of sacraments is also the main penalty involved in excommunication ("ex" for outside and "communion"), Euart said. Because it is a more serious penalty, it can be more difficult to have repealed.

"Sometimes the Holy See needs to be involved for the penalty to be lifted," Euart said. Local bishops can lift interdict penalties.

Burke has said interdict was used to show the board members their errors in the hope that they would repent. "It's called a medicinal penalty because it's meant to bring people around, to wake them up to what they're doing and the seriousness of it," he said in an interview earlier this year.

None of the St. Stanislaus board - Joseph Rudawski, John Baras, Edward Florek, Stanley Novak, Zabielski or Bialczak - has repented.

Reporter:  Tim Townsend
Phone: 314-340-822

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