I still remember when I learned the word “interdict.”

It was in high school world history class (this still pretty much meant European / Western history in the 1970s) in the public school down in Franklin, Minnesota. Pope Innocent III put the entire kingdom of England under interdict for five years in 1208, our text said, which meant for the entire populace no sacraments or rites such as Christian burial.

“Wow, that’s kinda harsh,” the sixteen-year-old thought to himself.

I recall also thinking to myself that it’s kinda cool that we Catholics were still part of this church extending back to the Middle Ages, we still had a pope today, but the Methodists and Lutherans in my class couldn’t claim that. (In this world, which looks rather small in retrospect, Lutherans and Methodists were The Other.)

I suppose our history text must have said that it was because King John refused to accept the pope’s appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, but I admit that I had to check Wikipedia just now to jog my memory.

And now I see that Innocent III also placed the Kingdom of France under interdict, but only for eight months so that’s no big deal. And the Kingdom of Norway, for four years. Busy pope. If you got it, use it, I guess.

Oh, and in 1955 white parishioners near New Orleans were put under interdict for refusing entry to a black priest. It’s a good, progressive cause, racial equality. I expect the more liberal readers of Pray Tell welcome such use of interdict, yes?

I never thought I’d get to use my newfound word in today’s Catholic Church.

But Bishop Morlino, over in neighboring Wisconsin, has provided.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the bishop has threatened parishioners in Platteville, Wisconsin with interdict if they don’t put a stop to their opposition to the conservative priests he appointed to their parish. Just as in 1208, the issue is accepting a controversial appointment.

It all started in Platteville in June 2010, not even two years ago, when Madison Bishop Robert Morlino installed three priests at St. Mary’s from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, a traditional Catholic society founded in Spain. They do not allow girls to be altar servers or allow parishioners to distribute communion. The parish website lists a daily Tridentine (pre-Vatican II) Latin Mass as well as a daily Vatican II Mass.

It didn’t take long for it all to blow up. Donations plummeted, and about 40 percent of the church’s 1,200 parishioners signed a petition seeking the ouster of the priests. The parish school was in danger of closing at midyear, then frantic fundraising made it possible to complete the school year, but now the bishop has accepted that the school will close when this year ends.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the “mutual enrichment” between old and new which Pope Benedict envisioned when he issued the “motu proprio” in 2007 allowing any priest, any time, without bishop’s permission, to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. Pope Benedict wrote at the time to the world’s bishops:

The fear was expressed in discussions about the awaited Motu Proprio, that the possibility of a wider use of the 1962 Missal would lead to disarray or even divisions within parish communities. This fear also strikes me as quite unfounded.

It looks as if the Bishop of Madison is on solid grounds canonically. Priests have every right to use only male servers, to disallow lay eucharistic ministers, to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. Canon law is clear that parish councils are merely advisory, and authority remains vested in the priest. Bishops appoint priests, and parishioners have no right to remove them.

The pastoral disaster in Platteville brings to a point what the implementation and non-implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council have and have not accomplished. At the level of admonition we have ringing conciliar statements about collegiality, ordained ministry as service, church as people of God, the important role of the laity in the Church, and so forth. At the level of legal reform, to large extent, power remains firmly in the hands of the clerical authorities – pastor, bishop, curial official, pope.

The clergy may and even should act with pastoral sensitivity, but they are not legally required to do so.

At the level of pastoral sensitivity, there is much to talk about in Platteville, wide range for differing opinions. The priests themselves have admitted that they have made some mistakes and moved too quickly with their reforms.

But the parishioners have no right to remove their priests, no matter how insensitive the priests are. The law is clear on this point, and so is the bishop. As he wrote in his letter to the parish, “There can be no ‘firing’ of priests by the parish community in the Diocese of Madison.” And there you have it.

Pope Innocent appointed Stephen Langton, and Bishop Morlino appointed the priests of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest.

I’m trying to conceptualize how an interdict might look in pastoral practice.

“Dear friends, we regret to inform you that our wedding celebration has been postponed during this time our parish is under interdict.”

Or at the end of an obituary: “Funeral services will be held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Platteville as soon as the interdict is lifted.”

I predict it won’t come to that. Watch this space.

Pray for everyone involved.

awr