Defending Catholic Rights: 1984-1994

Author: Charles Wilson


Charles M. Wilson

If you believed that all was well in the Church, I doubt that you would be reading Christifidelis.

Moreover, it is quite likely that you have a pretty good idea of just what it is that is NOT right in the Church and understand that a serious internal crisis has existed for at least the last thirty years. In a nutshell, at the root of this crisis is the disturbing reality that many ecclesiastical decisions effecting our spiritual lives are being made by people whose understanding of Catholicism is profoundly different from ours.

If I were to talk about what is wrong and the most likely causes of the fix we are now in, this issue would be the size of an unabridged dictionary. Instead, I will devote most of this article to what the St. Joseph Foundation has tried to DO about our predicament over the past ten years and what we would like to do in the immediate future.

The Origin Of The Foundation

At the risk of boring our long-time readers with a story they have heard before, perhaps I ought to give a very brief account of our early history for the benefit of those who haven't.

On September 16, 1981, a story appeared in the <San Antonio Express-News> about an "International Marian Symposium" that was scheduled to be held in San Antonio in early December in commemoration of the 450th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Guadalupe, Mexico in 1531. The problem was that the list of speakers was to include Frs. Andrew Greeley, Gustavo Guitierrez and Raymond Brown plus Sisters Agnes Cunningham and Sandra Schneiders. A few San Antonio Catholics who read the story were concerned that the speakers chosen for the event would present a distorted account of the message of Guadalupe and decided to try and do something about it. Fortunately, for reasons unrelated to the subject of this article, it was announced on October 31 that the symposium would not take place. By that time, however, those who were concerned about the now-aborted symposium, and other trends in the Church as well, had gathered a bit of momentum and formed a small organization called Fidelity Forum of Texas. They decided to hold their own "International Marian Symposium" under the auspices of the Wanderer Forum Foundation. This forum was held in May, 1982 and was attended by some 400 Catholics from throughout the United States and Canada.

For the next two years I worked with the Wanderer Forum Foundation to establish local affiliates from coast to coast and assisted these groups in hosting what might be called "mini-Wanderer Forums." This was interesting and useful work but I found myself being besieged by calls for help from faithful Catholics who were suffering the kind of abuses we all know about and had no solutions for them. At about the same time the 1983 Code of Canon Law came into force and seemed to hold out some hope.

There were rights which, at least in theory, always existed but were now explicitly defined in the new Code and, according to canon 221, #2 could be legitimately vindicated and defended "before a competent ecclesiastical court in accord with the norm of law." In the minds of some of us here in San Antonio, this gave rise to the idea of an apostolate that would provide beleaguered, faithful Catholics with professional counsel and practical assistance in defending their rights in the Church.

The concept assumed a separate legal identity when the Articles of Incorporation of the St. Joseph Foundation were filed in the Office of the Secretary of State of Texas on October 2, 1984.

Starting And Growing

Launching a new, untried apostolate on nothing but faith was, to put it mildly, frightening. The only tangible asset we had was our newsletter, <Fidelitatis>, which we had published for two years under the banner Fidelity Forum of Texas and later the Wanderer Forum Foundation, with its mailing list of approximately 2,000. The headline on the November, 1984 issue was, "A New Milestone in Catholic Action" and, to reflect what the headline said, we changed the name of the newsletter to Christifidelis. This also explains why you are now reading Vol. 12, No. 5 instead of Vol. 10, No. 5.

Our first trial was to keep the new Foundation afloat financially and the only way to do it was to attract contributions since none of our officers or board members had much money. Trying to explain to potential donors what our new and unique organization was trying to do when we weren't sure ourselves how we were going to make our vision a reality was not easy. St. Joseph surely heard and answered our prayers because enough kind and generous Catholics, including many who are still with us, responded to our appeals. In 1985, our first full year of operation from an office fashioned out of the Wilsons' utility room, we took in and spent just under $50,000, about a third of what it will take to run the Foundation in 1994. As our income and volume of work grew, we moved three times to larger quarters and we now have a staff of two full-time and two part-time employees.

With just enough income to pay our bills and stave off financial panic, we could spend most of our time figuring out just what services we were going to offer and how we were going to acquire the knowledge and skills to operate on a professional level. It was fortuitous that the Code of Canon Law had so many new statutes on rights and their vindication, because that meant that the canon lawyers were not much better prepared than we were to start accepting cases. Everyone was sailing in uncharted canonical waters and all of us were, so to speak, in the same boat. Individual canonists as well as the Canon Law Society of America have addressed the problems and progress has been made, but the St. Joseph Foundation was—and, to the best of my knowledge, still is—the only organization which has as its sole purpose the protection of the rights of faithful Catholics.

If one is going to help people protect their rights, one should be a canon lawyer or at least have studied canon law and related disciplines on the graduate level. Although one doesn't have to be a priest or a vowed religious to become a canon lawyer, most in this country are. This meant that virtually all the canon lawyers in the United States had their hands full with other duties and, even though a few had the time and were favorably inclined to help us, it must be remembered that there is no separation of powers in the Church.

Therefore, none was willing to take the risk of running afoul of his bishop or superior by openly helping us, although a handful of courageous souls did so privately.

The best solution would have been for me to become a canon lawyer, but the only institutions in North America offering pontifical degrees in canon law are the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and St. Paul's University in Ottawa, Canada. The cost and length of the course of studies made that option impractical, so I pursued graduate studies in San Antonio and received a Master of Theological Studies degree, with an academic concentration in canon law, in 1991. The title of my thesis was, "The Rights of the Laity." Granted, this did not make me a canon lawyer but it was a considerable help, especially in view of the fact most of our cases do not result in canonical litigation and are, in substance, more pastoral than canonical. Besides, with the passage of time, we made contact with degreed canon lawyers who provided us with desperately needed expertise and assistance.

Not the least of these are our Vice President for Canonical Affairs, Duane Galles, and our valued friend and counselor, Count Capponi, of Florence, Italy.

How Many Cases Have You Handled And What Is Your Won/Lost Rate?

This is the most frequent question asked of the Foundation and, thanks to our computerized case tracking and management systems, the first part it is easy to answer. Since we announced our readiness to accept cases on the Feast of St. Joseph, 1986, we have processed a total of 345, 68 of which are still open as of October 6, 1994.

As I hope you will understand, the second part of the question is more difficult, principally because of the subjective character of the information we must evaluate. I will do my best to give a forthright answer and I think the best way to begin is by describing what happens when someone contacts the Foundation for assistance.

We received an average of at least 500 requests for information, advice or assistance per year since 1986 and the number is growing. In 1993, we had some 1,100 and I am sure the total for 1994 will be higher. Over half of these are by telephone and most of the rest are by mail, plus a few faxes. If it appears that the complaint is well founded, we ask the "client" to: (1) Pray for divine assistance in drawing the distinction between what they don't like and what's wrong. (2) Then pray for assistance in distinguishing the difference between the rightness of their position and the good of the Church, for it may be that the best solution is to bear with the situation in Christ. (3) Once they decide to proceed, send us a written description of the situation, including a chronology, names of the key people involved and whatever supporting documents which may be available. Upon the completion of (1),(2) and (3), the Foundation will prepare an opinion as to the soundness of the case and whether there are any informal or formal remedies available.

Then, if the client wishes, we will advise and assist them in the pursuit of such remedies. It is only at this point that we assign a case number and open a file.

As for the disposition of the 277 of the cases considered as closed, 90 cannot be categorized because we heard nothing more from the clients and assumed that they lost interest or the problem disappeared on its own. Most of this number originated before 1992, when we opened a file for every inquiry rather than waiting, as we do now, for the completion of the three steps described above.

This leaves 187 which we can consider as definitively concluded, one way or the other and, of these, just 23 were resolved by formal canonical processes; 18 by administrative recourse (10 "wins" and 8 "losses"), 3 by tribunal (3 "wins" and 0 "losses") and 2 by denunciation. The outcome of the latter is unknown because such matters are handled by the Church with the utmost discretion and the complaining witness is not informed of the disposition. Thus, our "won-lost" record in formal processes is 13-8-2.

Trying my best to evaluate objectively the remaining 164 cases, I would say that slightly over half could be regarded as more or less favorable and slightly less than half as more or less unfavorable. But oddly enough, as far as we can determine, almost 90% of our clients feel better for having pursued the case, even when the outcome was unfavorable. The typical comment is something like: "We may have lost this battle but we gave it our best. Maybe there will be benefits that aren't apparent right now or someone else may profit by our experience."

Handling cases is, of course, the very essence of our work. Everything else we do, including the publication of Christifidelis, serves this end.

How Do We View The Results Of The Past Ten Years?

My answer has to be, in sum, "positively" and I hope that the report on the outcome of our cases will cause most of our readers to agree.

This is not to say that we haven't had our share of frustrations and disappointments, some of them very bitter as in the altar girl matter.

The continuing sings of crisis such as liturgical anarchy, woefully inadequate or erroneous catechetical, "New Age" (or even worse) adult education programs, the control of parish life by cliques of "cafeteria Catholics," the total abandonment of their fundamental identity by Catholic institution and a host of other problems have not been noticeably effected by the Foundation's work. Some people have expressed the thought that this is an indication that we are not doing our job. But I would strongly disagree with such a conclusion because, from the beginning, our intention was to help individuals protect their rights to true teaching and true worship. Eventually, if we do our work well, we might contribute to the reduction or solution of these broader problems, which have their origins in a basic loss of faith and do not lend themselves to canonical processes. We can surely help alleviate the symptoms but, in the last analysis, the present crisis in the Church is spiritual and must be dealt with primarily by spiritual means.

However one sees the Foundation's record, one thing is certain. There was no other organization doing what we do in 1984 and there is none in 1994.

Our Plans For The Future

Put simply, our plan for the immediate future is to keep doing exactly what we are doing, but do it better. Eventually, it would be my greatest joy if I (or my successor) could say, "Catholics can now obtain justice within the structure of the Church and our work is done. Therefore, the St. Joseph Foundation has ceased operations and will be dissolved." Until that day should come, whether or not I am here to see it, our apostolate, if it is pleasing to God and with your spiritual and temporal assistance, will continue.