Spring 1999, Vol. 2, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 1


Quick Links
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 Testimony

Covering the Bible Belt III:  Liaisons Religieuses

God in the Press Box

No National Conspiracy

Religion on the Small Screen

Epic Respectability

Excommunication in Rochester

by Anthony Burke Smith

The Catholic Bishop of Rochester’s 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 center.

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 Callan’s 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 Post’s 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 Callan’s 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 Mandelaro.

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 Callan’s 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 you’re 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 city’s welfare.

In addition to its news coverage, the Democrat and Chronicle devoted significant editorial space to the Callan affair. Two days after first reporting the priest’s 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 Callan’s replacement, Rev. Daniel T. McMullin, well in his new job of pastoring "the caring parish." Columnist Charles Wilson, while admitting that "Father Callan’s 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 can’t 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 Callan’s removal, the paper printed op-eds by Clark justifying his actions and Callan defending his ministry. The opinion page returned to the issue before Callan’s last Mass, giving space to conservative and liberal Catholic voices and to a member of a local Unitarian Universalist church who praised Callan’s 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 religion’s impact on the local urban landscape.

Concerned as it was for the health of the city, the Democrat and Chronicle’s 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 Callan’s early public pronouncements assumed an uncharacteristically pro-vocative tone for a priest. "We’re not going to let some old cleric in Rome who doesn’t 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. Purgatory’s 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 won’t 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 weren’t 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 won’t 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 Rosin’s 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 them."

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 diocese’s commitments to the parish church over the years, in addition to Callan’s 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 Callan’s 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.