Saturday, 15 January 2022

Separation of the Spouses: A canon lawyer's opinion

This is an obscure topic, but one that I see every few years on social media.  It illustrates what I often say, which is that canon law is not rocket science or brain surgery but is one of the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" disciplines.  People who have no formal training in canon law and who then have not applied that knowledge and gained further training and expertise by serving in the Catholic Church's courts (tribunals) are really out of their depths on this.

At this point I've encountered about a dozen or so people -- in person and online -- who claim that their spouse failed to get the permission of the bishop for a divorce before or when the spouse left, and that as such the departing spouse is guilty of grave sin and/or is excommunicated.  There is at least one website that keeps promoting this idea, that a bishop's permission is necessary to file for divorce.  These people often cite Church laws which are no longer in effect regarding civil separations.  In particular, they refer to a certain Article from the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), now in legal desuetude, that said that Catholics were not to seek a separation from civil courts -- a civil separation "from bed and board," not a divorce -- without consulting Catholic Church authorities first.  According to Article 126, Catholics joined in marriage "...are not to go to civil tribunals to obtain a separation from bed and board without consulting ecclesiastical authorities.  He who attempts this should know he incurs a grave charge {offence} upon himself and is to be punished according to the Bishop's judgment" (" inconsulta auctoritate ecclesiastica, tribunalia civilia adeant ad obtinendam separationem a thoro et mensa. Quod si quis attentaverit, sciat se gravem reatum incurrere et pro Episcopi judicio puniendum esse").  [The word "reatum" is used -- an offense or charge -- but not "peccatum" -- sin.]
It did not specify what the punishment should be, but left it up to the bishop, if the situation ever even made it to his desk.  Therefore, in addition to all other vitiating or obsolescing factors, lacking a specific punishment like an interdict or excommunication, the notion of punishment in this regard no longer holds any canonical weight or force.
In some legal systems, "separation from bed and board" is called a "divorce from bed and board" -- but this is not the same as a divorce in the general sense that we are familiar with in the common law legal system of the United States of the civil effects being ended between the parties (the primary civil effect being that one's spouse is no longer first in line to inherit one's assets if one dies).  This provision of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore was suitable for the times, and still has hortatory value, given that many Catholic spouses today seem to simply give up on a marriage -- at about the same rate as the general non-Catholic population.  
But, similar to so many other provisions of Baltimore III, some of great importance and others now deemed trivial -- like the "absolute obligation" of each parish pastor to establish a parochial school as well as the obligation of Catholic parents to send their children there (and the schools were to be free or of minimal tuition), and the requirement that priests' suit jackets were to reach at least to their knees -- it is no longer binding.  Arguments about what provisions would still exist despite the 1917 and 1983 Codes are not relevant.
This is where the concept of the "ius vigens" comes in:  the current laws now in effect, which supplant older laws -- though often in reality the current laws are simply an updated expression or partial modification of older laws.  At any rate, the phrase "is not to go to civil courts for a {therefore obviously civil} separation without consulting ecclesiastical authorities," has in some people's minds become, "must have bishop's permission to divorce."  Clearly, this is incorrect and a complete misreading of the original provision of Article 126, which is now in legal desuetude anyway.  It was written at a time when even the canonical form of marriage had yet to be universally established (Ne Temere, 1908).
Mostly they seem to want their former spouses punished by the Church, and especially to be refused Holy Communion.  They regard the departing spouse's actions as sinful, and therefore the spouse -- unrepentant in their eyes -- should be denied the Eucharist.  There are, of course, people who approach the Eucharist unworthily.  Many people who are poorly catechized approach the altar having committed sins "with or without full knowledge," as expressed in the exquisite prayer of the Maronite Catholic liturgy.  Worthy reception of Holy Communion is an issue in our times, but canon lawyers are not hovering at the back of the parish church waiting to apprehend people who unjustly leave their spouses.
If a person's marriage has unraveled and the couple themselves, plus their respective families of origin, their other relatives and friends, their marriage counselors, their parish priests and fellow parishioners have been unable to get things back on track, a bunch of canon lawyers and even (or especially?) their own bishop are probably not going to be able to intervene and rectify matters for them, where everyone else has failed, and enact the kind of justice that some of these people seem to want. 
This is my best attempt at this, and even I walk a tightrope on this topic as a Rome-trained canon lawyer who has served as both a first and second instance tribunal judge as well as a first and second instance defender of the bond over the last 13 years.
The key difference is that of civil divorce versus civil separation.  It is even incorrect to say "civil divorce" in this context, because there is no "ecclesiastical divorce" (pace the people who say an "annulment" is merely this kind of divorce -- that topic is for another day).  Divorce is a process of secular laws in countries with the common law legal system (though it certainly exists in countries with the civil law legal system -- there are numerous articles online regarding the differences between the common law and civil law legal systems and their respective origins).

The Code of Canon Law is silent on the topic of divorce.  If you conduct a word-search of the Code, you will not find the word divorce in any variant in any language.

Catholic matrimonial cases (matrimonial "causes" -- causas matrimoniales) belong to Catholic tribunals, but divorce is not a matrimonial case.  Divorce is divorce:  it is the antithesis of a matrimonial case.  In addition to a canonical separation, the matrimonial cases are these, as listed in the Code:  cases of invalidity or nullity of marriage on formal grounds, the cases of invalidity or nullity due to absence or defect of canonical form, the Pauline or Petrine/favor of the faith cases, ligamen/prior bond cases, radical sanation (sanatio-in-radice) cases, cases of dissolution due to non-consummation of a sacramental marriage (ratum sed non consummatum), with additional cases of invalidity of a marriage due to failure to obtain delegation or a dispensation when required, and cases of simple convalidation.  There are the additional factors of other impediments (consanguinity, Holy Orders, crime, impotence, and the others mentioned in canons 1083 - 1094).  But all this is to say that "divorce" is not a "matrimonial case."
Divorce is called by the Catechism of the Catholic Church "immoral" and "an offense against the dignity of marriage," and "a grave offense against the natural law," but it also "can be tolerated" if there is no other way to ensure certain legal rights in the civil forum -- and that is typically the case in the United States (see the Catechism, #2382 - 2386), given what our secular laws are like.

Obviously, the vast majority of married people who split up in the US (Catholics included) seek a divorce from the secular courts, not a civil separation.

If it truly is a case of a Catholic seeking to obtain a canonical decree of separation (rather than a civil separation or even a divorce from a secular court), there is debate among some canonists whether a canonical separation can be employed or if it is even applicable outside of the Holy See's Concordat nations.  But in either case, Concordat nation or not, the operative word in the current law in effect (the "ius vigens" of the 1983 Code of Canon Law) is that the bishop "can" decree the canonical separation of the spouses, not "must."  It is optional -- and indeed a party is to go to the civil forum from the start if a civil separation is being sought in countries where ecclesiastical decisions have no civil effects, like in the US. This in itself would seem to indicate that the procedure of canonical separation of the spouses truly is only for Concordat nations (and perhaps the Philippines, which to the best of my knowledge is the last country on earth -- except for Vatican City State -- where divorce remains illegal).  Indeed the lack of familiarity among canonists in common law countries is in part due to the fact that the canons on separation are not applicable outside of Concordat areas -- it's not as if somehow the bishops of these places and their tribunals were ignorant or failing to follow the law:  the Apostolic Signatura certainly lets tribunals know when they are failing to follow or uphold canon law, even though there is not much they can do to directly effect any changes or improvements.  For example, a number of tribunals in the US have received comments from the Signatura after submitting their annual mandatory report that, "it is noted that at your tribunal there were no appeals lodged by the defender of the bond in some years," or "it has been noted that no negative sentences have been issued in the last ten years" (and I personally recall one nullity case where "Error of Person" was used as a caput nullitatis -- the Signatura certainly wanted a full explanation of that...!).

Even so, only the innocent spouse can request from the bishop a decree of separation -- only the innocent spouse can become the separating spouse -- and it cannot mean that the person would then go on to seek a divorce from a civil/secular court.  The canons on the separation of the spouses are primarily oriented toward a situation of adultery, and this is clear from how they are written.  These canons never can be used to hound a spouse who has decided to leave common life for one reason or another ("unhappiness" or wanting to "find themselves" or other reasons not related to adultery) by saying, "you never got permission from the bishop." 
Given that only the innocent spouse can become the separating spouse [canons 1152 - 1155] -- it must be for reasons mentioned in these canons, namely, adulterous conduct:  for example, the other spouse repeatedly bringing his or her paramour home and parading this person in front of the children, and/or infecting the innocent spouse with a venereal disease, etc. 

In cases of abuse or violence, a spouse can depart freely anyway -- the Church will not ask anyone to live in a domestic situation where they are in danger.

But let us look at what the law says. 

The first set of laws is about the circumstances which can justify petitioning for a canonical separation while the matrimonial bond remains (canons 1151 to 1155).

The second set of laws is about the procedure for a canonical separation (canons 1692 - 1696).


Can. 1151:  Spouses have the obligation and the right to maintain their common conjugal life, unless a lawful reason excuses them. [The "lawful reason" listed below in these canons is that of adultery.  The "unlawful" reasons to exit common life would perhaps be general unhappiness or wanting to "find oneself" or other reasons -- however, there are no laws which deal with such things:  it is merely a matter of a spouse "unlawfully" leaving common life, for which there is no formal remedy in canon law.  If a spouse does not live up to the obligation to maintain common life because he or she simply wishes to leave, even for trivial reasons, there is nothing that canon law can do.  In such cases, a spouse who wishes to remain faithful to his or her commitment to marriage is in a difficult situation, but not one that can be fixed by canon law.]

Can. 1152 §1:  It is earnestly recommended that a spouse, motivated by christian charity and solicitous for the good of the family, should not refuse to pardon an adulterous partner and should not sunder the conjugal life. Nevertheless, if that spouse has not either expressly or tacitly condoned the other's fault, he or she has the right to sever the common conjugal life, provided he or she has not consented to the adultery, nor been the cause of it, nor also committed adultery. [Again, this is about a truly innocent spouse whose husband or wife has committed adultery.]

§2:  Tacit condonation occurs if the innocent spouse, after becoming aware of the adultery, has willingly engaged in a marital relationship [conjugal relations] with the other spouse; it [condonation or resuming conjugal relations despite the adultery] is presumed, however, if the innocent spouse has maintained the common conjugal life for six months, and has not had recourse to ecclesiastical or to civil authority.

§3:  Within six months of having spontaneously terminated the common conjugal life, the innocent spouse is to bring a case for separation to the competent ecclesiastical authority. Having examined all the circumstances, this authority is to consider whether the innocent spouse can be brought to condone the fault and not prolong the separation permanently. [An innocent spouse whose husband or wife committed adultery and has ceased conjugal relations, and cannot pardon the offending spouse and/or resume conjugal relations, is to petition for an ecclesiastical separation -- HOWEVER, the procedures of the next set of canons on separation -- cc. 1692 - 1696 -- apply here; see below.]

Can. 1153 §1:  A spouse who occasions grave danger of soul or body to the other or to the children, or otherwise makes the common life unduly difficult, provides the other spouse with a reason to leave, either by a decree of the local Ordinary or, if there is danger in delay, even on his or her own authority. [In cases where one spouse endangers the souls or bodies of the other spouse and/or the children, or makes common life "unduly difficult" -- these are the other "lawful reasons" for leaving common life under the same roof, but these reasons, no matter how lawful, do not constitute a right to file for divorce.  Again, the Code of Canon Law is silent on divorce.  It is the Catechism which describes divorce.]

§2:  In all cases [in all actual cases of canonical separation decreed by ecclesiastical authority], when the reason for separation ceases, the common conjugal life is to be restored, unless otherwise provided by ecclesiastical authority. [This presumes that ecclesiastical authority has in fact been asked to intervene by the innocent spouse and an actual case of canonical separation of the spouses exists, and the relevant church authority has issued a determination regarding the separation of the spouses, and in that determination has expressed certain provisions, whatever they might be.  But if an actual canonical case of spousal separation does not exist -- that is, if the innocent spouse did not petition for a separation or if he or she did submit a petition but did not receive permission to separate -- then this canon is moot.]

Can. 1154:  When a separation of spouses has taken place [again, this is regarding an actual canonical case of separation of the spouses which was petitioned for by an innocent spouse and where the separation was decreed by proper ecclesiastical authority], provision is always, and in good time, to be made for the due maintenance and upbringing of the children.

Can. 1155:  The innocent spouse may laudably readmit the other spouse to the conjugal life, in which case he or she renounces the right to separation.

Here is the second set of separation canons, which have to do with procedures.


Can.  1692 §1:  Unless other provision is legitimately made in particular places, a decree of the diocesan bishop or a judicial sentence can [not "must"] decide the personal separation of baptized spouses according to the norm of the following canons.

§2:  Where an ecclesiastical decision has no civil effects [e.g., in the United States] or if a civil sentence is not contrary to divine law [e.g., if the civil sentence of a separation from a civil/secular court would claim that matrimony is not a sacrament among the baptized], the bishop of the diocese of the residence of the spouses, after having weighed the special circumstances, can [not "must"] grant permission to approach the civil forum [FOR A CIVIL SEPARATION -- as we are still talking about civil separation and not about divorce, and certainly not "permission for divorce"].

§3:  If a case concerns only the merely civil effects of marriage, the [ecclesiastical] judge, after having observed the prescript of §2, is to try to defer the case to the civil forum from the start [again, this means in the United States, and for a CIVIL SEPARATION, not a divorce -- the civil effects of a civil separation from a civil/secular court would be those pertaining to inheritance, financial support or insurance and pension, etc.].

Can.  1693 §1:  Unless a party or the promoter of justice requests the ordinary contentious process, the oral contentious process is to be used [FOR ACTUAL CASES OF CANONICAL SEPARATION].  §2. If the ordinary contentious process has been used and an appeal is proposed, the tribunal of second grade, observing what is required, is to proceed according to the norm of ⇒ can. 1682, §2.

Can.  1694:  The prescripts of ⇒ can. 1673 are to be observed in what pertains to the competence of the tribunal.

Can.  1695:  Before accepting the case [THE CANONICAL SEPARATION CASE] and whenever there is hope of a favorable outcome, the judge [who has to be petitioned by one of the parties -- indeed by the innocent spouse only -- as the ecclesiastical judge can't just jump in on his own] is to use pastoral means to reconcile the spouses and persuade them to restore conjugal living [that is, before a petition for a canonical separation is accepted, and obviously long before any thought of one or both of the parties about a divorce, the judge is to see if the innocent spouse is willing to forego petitioning for a canonical separation and continue with or resume common life].  [And one more time, only the innocent spouse can petition for this -- only the innocent spouse can become the separating spouse].

Can.  1696:  Cases concerning the separation of spouses also pertain to the public good; therefore the promoter of justice must always take part in them according to the norm of ⇒ can. 1433.  [This presumes, once again, that there is an actual canonical case -- that is, a petition from an innocent spouse for separation, which has been accepted by the bishop personally or via his diocesan tribunal -- and only then does a promoter of justice become involved.]
The moral of the story is that non-canonists should not attempt to offer canonical opinions or assertions when even seasoned canonists hesitate to do so.  And Catholics should not accept canon law advice or opinions from non-canonists.  
After repeated contact and (admittedly futile) conversations with some of the people who kept insisting that their spouse failed to get the bishop's permission for divorce, and consequently should be excommunicated or otherwise punished, in some cases it began to be clear why the person's husband or wife departed common life.
Among the incorrect statements and opinions out there on the internet by non-canonists, once in a while a real howler turns up just to lighten the mood -- as below.  "Divorce a grave sin -- needs bishops permission," is one of my favorites.  
I wonder what other grave sins would I need the bishop's permission for...


Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Father Zuhlsdorf: ad multos annos


(From the Palazzo Sant'Apollinare looking over the Piazza Cinque Lune toward the Italian Senate, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, and Sant'Andrea della Valle, with the corner of Fr. Z.'s old residence on the far left.)


I moved to Rome for canon law studies in 2004. 

I learned early on in my time there that living in Rome, and pursing ecclesiastical studies, one should not be surprised if eventually one was “adopted” by Saint Philip Neri, the second Apostle of Rome.  It did not happen to everyone, but there were signs that Saint Philip had taken a person under his wing, as it were.  This was not always to be welcomed, however, as having this particular saint in one’s life often meant the hard (though sometimes funny) way to sanctification:  one could find oneself in many of the strange situations of Philip’s penitents (one of them was ordered to skip all the way home to offset the sin of pride) and followers (a young man who desired martyrdom was required to take care of a cardinal’s non-housebroken Pomeranian for a year).  In my case, I discovered that my university’s library was not in the Palazzo Sant’Apollinare, where our classes were held, but rather at San Girolamo della Carita’, the residence perhaps most associated with Philip in Rome.  Also, the parish that I wound up attending at the end of my time in Rome had Philip’s confessor, Father Persiano Rosa, buried under the sanctuary.  I frequently felt (and still do...) that I was the “victim” of some of Philip’s holy practical jokes.

In Father Zuhlsdorf’s case, he was ordained on May 26th, the feast day of Saint Philip.  And much of his priesthood over the years has borne the mark of Saint Philip Neri.

The university I attended was connected – architecturally though not in other ways – to one of Rome’s residences for clergy.

I had read Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s column in The Wanderer newspaper for years.  During my first year in Rome, several times I saw a priest walk past my school who I thought must be an American, and after a while I wondered if it might be Fr. Z. – he looked vaguely familiar.  It took a couple of times, but I simply assumed it was he.  I was convinced of it when he posted his first image on his blog at the end of 2005 from the window of his room, which was a view of the dome of St. Peter’s that was quite nearly the same view from my school’s roof.  I realized that he lived next door to my school, and on the top floor of the residence for clergy.  I also learned at some point afterwards that he was a priest of the Diocese of Velletri–Segni.

On Sundays and often during the week, I attended the FSSP apostolate in Rome at San Gregorio dei Muratori.  That is the chapel the FSSP had before they were granted the parish of Santissima Trinita’ dei Pellegrini in June of 2008.

I also went now and then to Mass at the handful of other churches around Rome which likewise celebrated the TLM, but Fr. Z. was never in attendance.  Once in a rare while he would step into the back of San Gregorio to take a photo or two, but by the time Mass was over he was gone.  Thus, while getting to know the Catholic traditionalist community in Rome rather well – it was almost entirely Anglophone at that time and perhaps still is to some extent – Fr. Z. did not join in with our socializing, which was usually at a restaurant after Mass, or at my house (a villa at the end of one of the metro lines – I had enough space to accommodate everyone, unlike most of the trads who lived in small apartments or who lived in towns outside of Rome where the rents were cheaper).  I later realized how wise he was to keep a certain distance from them.

Over the next year or so at least twice I happened to be at Fiumicino airport when Fr. Z. was also flying out of Rome.  I greeted him to thank him for his blog, telling him I was a student in the building next to his, and that I had also seen him duck into San Gregorio.  On both occasions he graciously gave me an extra guest pass for the Delta SkyMiles lounge where I would have my connecting flight.

I was aware that in addition to his column in The Wanderer, “What Does The Prayer Really Say?”, he had worked for the Ecclesia Dei commission in the past.  Such work in or for the Roman Curia usually is by set terms.  Sometimes the term is extended and sometimes it is not.  It is quite random, and seldom of reflection of a person’s work or other merits.  It is simply how the Roman Curia works (or doesn’t – calling to mind JPII’s response to someone who asked him how many people work at the Vatican:  “About half…”).  I was also aware that like some people who stay on in Rome, perhaps in particular those who complete the pontifical licentiate degree, he was working toward a doctorate, in his case at the Augustinianum.  A doctoral dissertation often is slow work, done in fits and starts, with long dry stretches, and the outcome is never guaranteed.  I met a number of priests who had had some kind of position in Rome – teaching, or in an office of the Curia, or some affiliated entity, or a chaplaincy of one kind or another – and a few of them just stayed on after their job ended or after their studies concluded, as independent scholars.  Some were not needed back in their home diocese or religious community.  Some were not wanted back in their home diocese or community.  I happen to know another priest of the Diocese of Velletri–Segni.  He is not from Velletri but was ordained there, and has for about two decades lived outside of his diocese, in a collegio (residence for clergy or seminarians) in Rome which belongs to one of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and is assigned as a hospital chaplain to a group of hospitals in Rome (believe me, if you are in a Roman hospital, you will never be so happy to see a Catholic priest, no matter who it might be).  This priest is like a lost character from I Promessi Sposi.  I am quite sure his bishop is not anxious to have him back.

The Diocese of Velletri–Segni is one of the venerable suburbicarian dioceses which has both a small number of faithful – only a fraction of whom practice – and at the same time if not an abundance then at least an adequate number of priests.  The town of Velletri has about 50,000 residents; Segni about 10,000.   Another 60,000 people are scattered in the smaller towns and villages of the diocese.  So, approximately 120,000 people.  The majority of the population is nominally Catholic, but well under a quarter of them are practicing (some statistics indicate that actual practice is in the single digits).

The Diocese of Rome itself has numerous priests (though few priestly vocations), mostly because of the priests who spend time there for studies or who are sent to serve in one of the many Church-related entities in the city.  Rome is surrounded by seven dioceses (historically there were six until Ostia was split off), and they too have significant numbers of priests. 

While still a seminarian, in 1989, the year after Ecclesia Dei was established, Fr. Z. went to work for the commission, and stayed on till 1997.  Fr. Z., after his ordination in 1991, also served in Velletri as the rector of one of their historic churches.  When that ended, he continued his studies at the Augustinianum, along with writing for The Wanderer his famous column, “What Does the Prayer Really Say?”, and for other publications.

Although he was an early adopter of the internet for Catholic topics and discussions (the old forums on CompuServe in the 1990s), for the last fifteen years he has pioneered internet ministry, posting on the blog that has done more to bring people to the Faith than all of his critics combined ever have.

The first two years of the blog were written while living in Rome, and the last 13 years living in the United States.  I helped organize a “blognic” in Rome in early 2008.  Little did anyone realize that that would be Fr. Z.’s farewell to living in Rome.  With his bishop’s permission, Fr. Z. was moving back to the US, in part due to the high Euro and weak dollar, which made living in the Eurozone a difficulty in those years.  The bishop of Velletri–Segni did not have any immediate need of an American priest in his diocese, and understood that Fr. Z. would not mind being back in his own country.

For some time he had spent summers at a cottage in rural Wisconsin which was put at his disposal by a devout Catholic businessman.  Any sensible person who can leaves Rome in the summer.  Father took up year-round residence at the cottage from 2008 onward.  However, after a few years, that property was sold, and thus Fr. Z. moved to the clergy residence in Madison.  He routinely helped out at parishes around the diocese, particularly at Saint Mary's in Pine Bluff. 

I graduated with a canon law degree in 2009 and moved back to the US.  Fr. Z. and I stayed in touch over the next few years, and when I moved to New York in 2012, it was nice to see Father whenever he came to New York City for a visit, to accompany him on his jaunts to the museums, or to hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants.  These were typically group outings, and usually some of Fr. Z.’s friends in New York or local clergy were with us.  Father most often would stay at a rectory in Manhattan, in very simple and slightly cramped quarters, but a good place from which to get about the city.

An older Catholic couple who are in the Knights of Malta and who sometimes travel for business or go on pilgrimage like to have Fr. Z. go with them when he can as their chaplain and tour guide.  They have a lot of extra frequent-flyer miles, and Fr. Z. is, as most of his readers know, immensely knowledgeable about the history, art, and architecture of many countries in the world.  On several occasions, I myself asked him to go to a conference I was attending, and was happy to cover the cost of his registration and other expenses (at that time I traveled more, and so I also had some extra miles to chip in).  I was glad I did, as the traditional Mass was not generally available at the conferences.  We all sometimes joked about how Father could buy a hot dog from the stand in front of the Metropolitan Museum and photograph it in a way that made it look like it was from the cover of a gourmet magazine.  But his travels and other excursions were mostly on a shoe-string – engaging, interesting, but hardly luxurious.

Like me, Fr. Z. completed a pontifical licentiate, though in theology, not canon law.  And like me, found that once one moves away from one’s graduate school, finishing a doctorate can be quite difficult.  One can remain enrolled for years and the cost is minimal at the Roman pontifical schools.  I do not know if he will ever complete his doctorate.  In the academic world, it is usually one of the worst things anyone can do to ask, “how’s your doctorate coming along?” – so I don’t.

When not helping out on weekends at local parishes, Fr. Z. found himself over the years becoming one of the best-known of Catholic priests, particularly in traditional circles.  He often served as the priest of last resort for the discouraged if not outright desperate faithful.  Many people have written to him and still write to him about their situations.  He is a shepherd to many souls.  And in addition to his online ministry, to a certain extent we can even credit to him the improved translations of the Mass texts in English (starting in the 1990s his Wanderer column patiently and expertly pointed out the failures, gaffes, and suspiciously watered-down “dynamic equivalence” butcherings translations of the ancient Latin prayers of the Mass).  

He is blunt, and can give as good as he gets with people who try to sideline him.  But he has lived his priesthood well.  I say this as someone who has seen priests live their priesthood in many different ways, from the few who have lived it in heroic sacrifice, to those engaged in criminal activity (the latter also mercifully few), to everything in between.  Thanks be to God for those who simply day in and day out offer Mass and pray the Office and try to be of help to people as best they can.

And as for the cura animarum, while he might not have an official care-of-souls assignment, he genuinely cares about souls.  He also has a life – it’s not all just church.  He likes astronomy and music and movies and art and space exploration and birds and ham radio and sports and different cuisines.  He is a good cook, having trained as a chef in his twenties.  He is also that rarest of things, particularly rare among clergy:  a Christian gentleman.

Fr. Z. is also genuinely fun to spend time with.  Smart, perceptive, a good listener, with a great sense of humor and wide interests, he is excellent company.  He is normal as well – also somewhat rare among clergy – psychologically balanced and emotionally healthy.  What you see on the blog is pretty much what you get in person:  someone who has nothing to hide, and yet is a fairly private person.  And this is a good thing.  Like most priests, he has had his share of suffering in his ministry.  It is not easy to serve the Catholic Church.  I used to be shocked when a priest would leave the priesthood.  But not any longer, after having worked in the Catholic Church myself.  I’m grateful for the ones who have stayed, but do not blame the ones who bailed out.

Priests in parishes are supported by the contributions of the faithful.  It is where their salary comes from.  The money doesn’t materialize from other sources:  it comes from the parishioners, from us.  In Fr. Z.’s case, there are many devoted Catholics who have read his blog for information about the faith, for edification and enlightenment, for consolation or catechesis, and who offer what they can.  It’s not all that different.

He had permission for the exorcisms last fall, and for two months after the election added prayers that the process would be freed of any evil influences.  For those reading this who think that such things are not real, I feel sorry for you.

It was only when a person with no particular link to the Diocese of Madison (or anything else in the Church) contacted the bishop – after having for years engaged in the stalking and doxxing of Fr. Z. – and leveraged a most inauspicious moment in our nation’s recent history, that the bishop took what I cannot help but see as unwarranted and excessive action against an innocent priest.

All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord, knowing that the Lord scourges every son he accepts.  And Saint Philip Neri has surely been at Father Zuhlsdorf's side all along, as he now marks 30 years in the Lord’s service as a presbyter with a truly unique ministry.  A new chapter opens up before him, and I eagerly await his future adventures in travels, kitchen wizardry, pilgrimages, museums, and hot dogs.

Ad multos annos.



(A young admirer of Fr. Z.'s tries to replicate the 'gourmet' hot dog photo in front of the Metropolitan Museum.)