Vol. 2, No. 1
to other articles
in this issue:
A Civil Religious Affair
Covering the Bible Belt I: Montgomery Wars:
Religion and Alabama Politics
Covering the Bible Belt II: A Freethinker's
Covering the Bible Belt III: Liaisons Religieuses
God in the Press Box
No National Conspiracy
Religion on the Small Screen
by Anthony Burke SmithThe Catholic Bishop of Rochesters excommunication of a popular
priest in February was the culmination of an intense conflict that had engaged the entire
city for the better part of a year. The national media portrayed it as the latest struggle
of progressive Catholics against conservative Church authorities. But at ground zero, the
central issue was the welfare of inner-city Rochester.
Rev. James Callan, a gifted priest, over a 20 year period had turned his moribund
downtown parish, Corpus Christi, into a dynamic faith community, raising membership from a
few hundred in 1977 to over 3,000 by 1998. In the process, Corpus Christi became home to
an impressive range of social justice programs, including a health care center, a halfway
house for former prisoners, a home for recovering addicts, a hospice, and a day-care
But what got Callan into trouble with church officials were practices that went far
beyond the norm in Roman Catholicism: blessing homosexual unions, allowing non-Catholics
to receive Communion during Mass, and having his pastoral associate, Mary Ramerman, wear
priest-like vestments and help officiate in the celebration of the Eucharist.
In mid-August Callan announced that he was being dismissed from Corpus Christi. The New
York Times, the Washington Post, Newsday, Time, and
National Public Radio covered Callans final Mass in early September. Times
religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr wrote that Corpus Christi had "emerged as the focus
of a wider debate in church circles" between liberals and Rome. Similarly, the Posts
Hanna Rosin asserted that "the parishioners of Corpus Christi have made their church
the most extreme outpost of the struggle between the more liberal American Catholics and
the Roman Catholic Church."
The fact that Callans boss, Bishop Matthew Clark, had a reputation of being a
liberal himself-active in Jewish-Catholic relations and ministry to gays-complicated the
story. But the Times, the Post, and other national media merely
construed this fact as "ironic" in an otherwise straight story of liberal priest
vs. conservative institutional church.
As far as the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle was concerned, however, the
conflict at Corpus Christi jeopardized a significant social resource for urban Rochester.
The paper kept a steady bead on the story for months, giving it continuous front-page
status as the struggle involving Callan, the Corpus Christi parishioners, and the bishop
widened through the fall and into the winter. By the end of February, it had published
dozens of articles, including some 14 on the front page, many by staff writer Doug
In keeping with a pervasive journalistic trope that highlights the social services of
religious institutions, the Rochester paper described the parish as "a haven for
liberal Catholics" that had "won national awards for its many ministries to the
poor, dying, and imprisoned." Nor was it only the newspaper that regarded this as a
critical public issue. Called to the altar at Callans last mass, Mayor William A.
Johnson, Jr., a Baptist, said, "This is not Corpus Callan or Corpus Clark," and
encouraged parishioners to focus on "what youre going to do next week, next
month and next year." Not-withstanding his stated desire to remain neutral in the
ecclesiastical conflict, Johnson also publicly told the priest, "Wherever they send
you, Jim, give em hell."
In January, after dissenters had formed their own community, the Democrat and
Chronicle reported that the parish was struggling to regroup from a dramatic decline
in attendance and 50 percent drop in weekly donations. Attentive to the good works
performed by the church, the paper implicitly raised doubts about the future of the social
ministries that had made Corpus Christi such an impressive contributor to the citys
In addition to its news coverage, the Democrat and Chronicle devoted
significant editorial space to the Callan affair. Two days after first reporting the
priests announcement of his removal, an editorial asserted that the "important
social outreach efforts of the parish should not slow because of turmoil over parish
leadership." A second editorial in October, entitled "A healing choice,"
wished Callans replacement, Rev. Daniel T. McMullin, well in his new job of
pastoring "the caring parish." Columnist Charles Wilson, while admitting that
"Father Callans falling-out is none of my business," wrote, "let us
pray [the Corpus Christi parishioners] concentrate future efforts on strengthening the
ministries he started, not waging a war with the diocese that they cant win."
Another columnist, Mark Hare, wrote two pieces on Corpus Christi, both hoping that the
conflict between Callan and the bishop would not ruin the parish.
Within a week of the announcement of Callans removal, the paper printed op-eds by
Clark justifying his actions and Callan defending his ministry. The opinion page returned
to the issue before Callans last Mass, giving space to conservative and liberal
Catholic voices and to a member of a local Unitarian Universalist church who praised
Callans efforts. The paper also published dozens of letters from readers-presumably
only the tip of the iceberg-that showed how deeply this controversy had touched the
community at large. The cumulative effect of all this commentary was to transform a
Catholic imbroglio into a larger civic discussion of religions impact on the local
Concerned as it was for the health of the city, the Democrat and Chronicles
coverage wound up revealing the stridency of Callan and his advocates and the slow
leaching away of parish support for the priest. For if the heavy hand of church authority
was laid upon the liberals at Corpus Christi, they too played tough.
Back in August, Callan announced to his parishioners that he was being
"fired" by the Vatican for his progressive ministries. Indeed, some of
Callans early public pronouncements assumed an uncharacteristically pro-vocative
tone for a priest. "Were not going to let some old cleric in Rome who
doesnt know anything about us tell us what to do," he declared. Complaining
about his new parish assignment, he said, "I am being sent to St. Purgatorys in
the Boonies, but I accept my punishment." He also promised to "continue with the
same spirit that I have in the past and hopefully with an even stronger and less
compromising spirit." That Callan would ultimately help set up a new church-and get
excommunicated for his pains-could hardly have come as a surprise.
A number of Corpus Christi parishioners remained equally steadfast. One member of the
pastoral team stated, "We wont change regardless of a change in
leadership." For her part, Ramerman continued her controversial practice of wearing a
half-stole during Mass.
Throughout the fall, the Democrat and Chronicle reported on the continuing
troubles at Corpus Christi. In response to what he sensed was intransigence, Clark
increasingly asserted his authority. His transition team at the parish fired Ramerman; the
new pastor then dismissed six additional staff members. As if ongoing battles with the
bishop werent enough, the paper also reported that fissures among parishioners
emerged between hardliners who viewed the new parish staff appointed by the bishop with
suspicion and those who felt the community needed to move beyond the ordeal.
Tony Liotti was a Corpus Christi parishioner who, in a September Democrat and
Chronicle opinion piece, wrote that the "removal of Father Jim is not just
punishment for him; it punishes all of us for what we believe." By October, Liotti
was lamenting the parish divisions: "there is a group that gets all the attention,
that wont compromise. We believe in the same values, but the approach must be
different. We must work together. It is time to move on." Indeed, the Corpus Christi
members who ultimately remained with the parish bore out, with a twist, Hanna Rosins
observation that "Catholics are famous for remaining stubbornly loyal...most
dissenters choose to try and reform the church from within, and hope Rome catches up with
The turmoil at the church received intense local coverage because it endangered an
important social resource for urban Rochester. But for all the important good work the Democrat
and Chronicle attributed to Callan and Corpus Christi, there were other, more
specifically religious elements at work in the story.
Clark and the parish moderates revealed how the particularly Catholic context of Corpus
Christi cannot be neatly separated from the social outreach that the local paper found so
compelling. It was, after all, the Rochester dioceses commitments to the parish
church over the years, in addition to Callans considerable talents, that made Corpus
Christi an important presence in downtown Rochester. But in addition to being a center for
social outreach, Corpus Christi remained a parish integrally part of the larger
institutional Church. And that meant that the bishop had to be concerned with the limits
of Callans dissent. If there is a lesson here for outsiders, it is that socially
active churches may have purposes and allegiances beyond community welfare that complicate
their role as social service providers.