Rare clerical revolt hits U.S. Catholic diocese

March 19, 2008

Priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville, Illinois are staging a rare rebellion — demanding that their bishop, Edward Braxton, resign because of a lack of “collaborative and consultative leadership” since his installation in June, 2005.

Bishop Edward Braxton and his coat of armsBecause of the bishop’s lack of cooperation, consultation, accountability and transparency, it is the judgment of a great number of the presbyterate that he has lost his moral authority to lead and govern our diocese,” 46 priests — representing about 60 percent of those regularly assigned to parish work in the diocese — said in a statement issued on March 12. He should resign, they added, “for his own good, for the good of the diocese and for the good of the presbyterate.”

The priests said the problems they’ve had with their bishop were only exacerbated by a revelation earlier this year that he had used restricted funds to buy conference room furniture, vestments and other items for use in the diocesan cathedral.

Braxton issued a public apology for that in January, saying it was a misunderstanding and that he had replenished the funds from private donations. At the time he said there had been “confusion, mistrust misunderstanding, loss of confidence and even anger” and he promised a serious effort going forward on issues involving the stewardship of diocesan resources.

Papal nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi, 18 July 2006/Yuri GripasThe priests are not the bishop’s only critics. In February, 2008, the U.S. regional superior of a women’s religious order called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ told the U.S. papal nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, that there was “grave distress among people in the diocese.”

Sister Jan Renz — whose order has a center in the diocese — said in her letter: “The climate of secrecy that surrounds committee meetings and actions within the diocese must end. Outside skilled facilitation appears absolutely necessary if there is to be a movement toward healing,” according to a report published in the Belleville News-Democrat newspaper.

This is highly, highly unusual,” remarked Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who once edited that order’s magazine America and is now a senior fellow at the Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. He told Reuters that in general there has been a feeling that bishops appointed before the papacy of the late John Paul II were closer to their priests than those who came later. He also said he does not buy the idea that the newer bishops act more like chief financial officers than pastors of a flock. They have to be both, he said, or face the financial ruin of what’s been entrusted to them.

Another priest and long-time observer of U.S. Catholicism, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that while tensions between priests and bishops have increased in recent years, the Belleville situation mostly involves the personality of the bishop involved.

Braxton, whose diocese covers 128 parishes in southern Illinois, has not publicly responded to the call for his resignation.

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