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Baker, Ore., bishop warns parishioners against leaving Catholic church

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In a parish bulletin message over the weekend, Baker, Ore., Bishop Liam Cary cautioned Catholics of the diocese to remain steadfast to the church "in light of recent events here in Central Oregon," telling them that the "basic issues that divided us in the 1500s" still divide Catholics and Protestants today.

A clear allusion to the highly public departure of a diocesan priest to join a small breakaway denomination, Cary's letter to parishioners said, "The faithful transmission of the Gospel has always been betrayed by the unfaithful behavior of Catholic Christians."

Reacting to the statement, Fr. James Radloff, who last month announced he was seeking incardination into the Evangelical Catholic Church and would help form an ECC congregation in Bend -- said Sunday he had "already heard from non-Catholic pastors in Central Oregon" about the statement.

The bishop's letter also "seemed less than pastoral to all the Catholic mothers trying to celebrate this weekend with the non-Catholic members of their families," Radloff wrote in an email.

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ECC Bishop James Wilkowski wrote a response on the ECC website Saturday, which was edited slightly on Monday, in which he:

  • Said his church "shall not, in any way shape or form, attempt to engage in 'pew stealing' -- that is the overt attempt to steal members from another church";
  • Said: "We all knew that this was coming," characterizing Cary's action as consistent with that of "Archbishop [Jerome E.] Listecki and his Chancery Staff" in the Milwaukee archdiocese "over the creation of Holy Name of Jesus Evangelical Catholic Church" in Ashippun, Wis.;
  • Said that in the Baker diocese and Milwaukee archdiocese, "it all came down to one thing and one thing only. Their loss of laity and their wallets";
  • Said: "Rome continues with their historic premise that one's personal connection with Christ Resurrected and one's personal salvation can only be acquired within the scope of the Roman Catholic Church. Cary is asserting that anyone from any faith community outside of the 'graces' of Rome is spirituality and sacramentally ineligible for welcoming into the Kingdom of God."

A 12-year member of Radloff's former parish, St. Francis of Assisi in Bend, Rod Wimer and his wife left the parish in the wake of the controversy there.

"Cary is commenting on the Protestant Reformation, one of the great 'schisms' in Western Christianity," Wimer posted on his Facebook page early Sunday. "This is ironic since his unjust and abusive actions over the past year have resulted in a schism in his own diocese with the formation of Holy Communion Evangelical Catholic Church. I pray that someday Rome will hold him accountable for the grave harm he has caused to ecclesiastical communion throughout Central Oregon."

In his letter, Cary wrote: "In the face of longstanding corruption in the Catholic Church, sincere and well-meaning Protestants in the 1500s chose to 'go away' and establish new churches reformed to meet the needs and dictates of the times. In their eyes the Catholic Church could no longer offer authentic witness to the Gospel of 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism.'

"But breaking the ancient Catholic unity did not suffice to fashion Protestant unity," he added. "Divisions multiplied and hardened among the baptismal heirs of the Lord who willed all to be one. From that day to this Peter's question has come to the fore in every succeeding generation: 'Lord, to whom shall we go?' By what divinely-revealed authority did Martin Luther, John Calvin, King Henry VIII, and countless others step out of Catholic unity to establish a church of their own making? To whom shall we go when their claims differ so markedly from one another?"

When divisions "surface publicly," he concluded, "Catholics still need to take their bearing from St. Peter: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.' "

The pastor of Bend's Nativity Lutheran Church responded to Cary's letter in an email Monday: "The Bishop's words are well crafted and should not surprise careful readers."

"Indeed, from the bishop's perspective, the RC ecclesial structure does speak directly for Christ, and as such, salvation outside of submission to 'faithful' table fellowship of the RC church (in this case, the Baker Diocese) is doubtful," wrote the Rev. Chris Kramer, adding: "Bishop Cary writes in close harmony with the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and much of revered church tradition."

Agreeing with Cary that "the protestant reformation precipitated a long descent into multiple ecclesial schisms," Kramer wrote that the bishop "distorts history however, to intimate that these divisions began in the 1500s with Northern European Protestants. Bishop Cary fails to mention the divisions and tensions recorded (at the beginning of the Christian story) in scripture between Peter and Paul" and others, "as well as the schism of the Orthodox 1000 years ago."

Kramer said he believes "that our confessed notion of 'one,' holy, catholic and apostolic church must be held a bit loosely if we are honest or aware fully of the diverse, adaptive, and creative work of the Holy Spirit."

He said he views "the question of congregational voice in ecclesial structure" as key to tensions in the Baker diocese.

"Americans generally believe that they are entitled to personal choice, voice and vote in all matters of life," he wrote. "They do not comfortably abide 'taxation without representation.' Unfortunately for American Catholics, their church does not equally share this egalitarian, democratic view."

In an email Sunday, Kramer said his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "has frequently served as a veritable refugee camp for estranged Roman Catholics -- as we welcome divorcees, married clergy, non-heterosexual individuals, host an 'open' eucharist, uphold the radical social gospel required in following Jesus, and maintain deep liturgical ritual practice. My pastor's heart is troubled by all those who leave the RC church yet find no faith community to support them."

[Dan Morris-Young is an NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

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