A recent Vatican Decree in relation to an Australian priest has set a precedent of support for priests prepared to uphold Catholic teachings in their parishes, even in the face of some opposition or unpopularity. It also empowers bishops to back such priests, despite pressures from Church functionaries to silence or remove priests unwilling to water down the Catholic faith.
For fear of opposition, many priests now think twice before addressing sensitive moral questions in their homilies or challenging the plans of liturgy groups or parish school teachers, when they are out of line with Church doctrine or practice.
The present Vatican Decree may help remedy this situation.
Issued in July by the Congregation for Clergy, the Decree upheld the appeal of Fr John Speekman against his removal as parish priest of Morwell in the Sale Diocese last year. It called for his reinstatement, dismissing allegations against his competence as groundless.
The details of the Decree represent a telling case study of what can happen to a priest who is serious about his canonical duty to foster orthodoxy in his parish.
The Vatican Congregation found that Father Speekman, following his appointment as parish priest in Morwell in 2000, "encountered numerous irregularities in pastoral and sacramental practice" which included:
(1) the distribution of Communion to all patients in a hospital located in the parish, whether they were Catholic or non-Catholic;
(2) the habit on the part of parish lectors of independently changing the language of Scriptural readings to include "gender-inclusive" language;
(3) the reception of Communion by persons in irregular marriages;
(4) the use of altar servers who were not Catholic; and
(5) various other liturgical abuses.
Over the next three years, Father Speekman "gradually corrected these abuses, but not without resistance". This resistance was particularly evident from "members of the parish staff as well as teachers at the parochial school".
Things came to a head at a meeting of the parish Sacramental Team, when there was "a particularly vocal disagreement" between Father Speekman and the school Principal.
Clash of ideologies
A formal complaint was subsequently filed against Father Speekman with the Bishop of Sale who set up an investigation. Some participants at the meeting alleged Father Speekman's conduct had been "unprofessional" and "bullying". However, Father Speekman and another participant described the meeting more "as a clash of ideologies."
Father Speekman told the investigation: "At the risk of stating the obvious I will point out that it is my duty to teach the faith in its entirety, not just the bits and pieces the teachers or the parishioners find palatable. I do not see myself as giving the Church's 'point of view,' nor do I see myself as giving my 'point of view' about Church teaching. When the teachers questioned my declaration of Church teaching they were giving their points of view. They were bullying and harassing the Canonical Administrator" [himself as parish priest].
The Vatican agreed with Fr Speekman: "The 'verbal aggression' was really ideological differences - the confrontation that happens when an orthodox priest with clear directions and goals for the reform of the pastoral problem areas under his authority meets a primary school Principal firmly committed to the status quo and to having her agenda prevail."
The Bishop, meanwhile, following the investigation, moved to terminate Father Speekman's authority over the parish school and later wrote to him indicating that he had initiated the process for his removal as parish priest. He asked for his resignation within 15 days.
Father Speekman refused to resign, arguing there were no grounds for this. The Bishop then proceeded with his removal, at which point Father Speekman filed a petition for recourse against the Bishop's Decree by letter to the Congregation for the Clergy.
In upholding Father Speekman's appeal, the Congregation revealed that "since receiving the recourse from Father Speekman", it had "received more than 12 personal letters from parishioners ... indicating their desire for Father Speekman to remain in the Parish", as well as a petition to the same effect from the President of the Parish Council "signed by 330 of the 450 practising Catholics in the Parish". Not one letter was received supporting the decision to remove Father Speekman.
The Vatican decree commented: "The allegations against Father Speekman do not concern his ministry per se, but his relationship with a small number of employees of the Parish." The meeting which "commenced the series of events leading to Father Speekman's removal", it said, "was the consequence of a divergence in fundamental questions of Christian life and discipline of the Church". This concerned "areas that are entirely in the competence of the Pastor (Canons 528; 776)".
It concluded: "The letters from the parishioners as well as the testimony of the Bishop and the priests that he consulted in the removal process indicate that Father Speekman is an orthodox priest, faithful to the Magisterium and dedicated to the Parish. A minority of the parishioners, with help from the teachers and employees of the Diocese, has convinced the Most Reverend Ordinary to remove Father Speekman because they disagree with his Catholic leadership."
The evidence, said the Vatican, indicated "simply a disagreement with a small minority of employees who disagree with Church teachings." Any "confusion or disturbance ... which the Most Reverend Ordinary has ascertained might well be attributed more to the actions of the Most Reverend Ordinary than to those of Father Speekman".
Fr Speekman's appeal was therefore upheld as there were no "valid causes or arguments" for his removal.
Meanwhile, Bishop Jeremiah Coffey of Sale has appealed to Rome for the Decree to be overturned and told AD2000 he did not wish to comment on the matter at this stage.