The power of the pulpit

Father Mark White

By Brandon Martin

Perhaps the greatest role of a priest is to communicate. They communicate to each other and they communicate to their audience. They communicate scripture, they communicate life and they communicate how to respond when the two collide.

To perfectly communicate, you need a sender, a receiver and a message; however, sometimes the communication runs into a disruption and the message shifts from its original intent.

 

The Sender

Father Mark White was removed from his position at St. Joseph in Martinsville and St. Francis of Assisi in Rocky Mount following a series of blog posts about the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse among clergy members.

White sees his blog as an extension to all the ways he already communicates with parishioners.

“The on-line social media provide another means of reaching each other, forming a part of the larger ‘social network’ that a Catholic parish is,” he said. “During the virus, of course, the on-line means of communication have become much more important.”

According to White, the Catholic Church already successfully implements the usage of online platforms “but I think in my case we confront the problem of allowing free speech, including criticism, as part of the on-line Catholic communication network.”

He said that the Church hierarchy has struggled with “tolerating free speech on some Catholic websites run by lay people,” but that he may be the only parish priest with a “condemned” blog.

“There has to be room in the Catholic Church for debate, even sometimes angry debate, about lack of accountability to the public trust,” White said. “I remain hopeful that the bishop will recognize his mistake and take a different approach.

White said that he believes efforts to silence him have backfired, alienating “hundreds of people” and bringing “a lot of discredit on our church.”

“From the beginning, I have been willing to have a straightforward discussion and try to find a compromise we could both live with,” he added. “I still believe we could reach that point. But the habits of authoritarian secrecy die very hard, apparently.”

 

The Message

In his January 31, 2019 post, “The Opaque ‘Transparency’ of the Richmond Diocese,” White discussed his frustration with attempting to find clarity during a mandatory meeting for priests with the bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.

The post begins with White challenging the audience to distinguish between a “hard-hearted scheming bishop” and a “princely, zealous, loving bishop” while he walks them through his meeting. After being promised that the bishop would provide “pastoral resources to assist in responding to questions and concerns relating to the release of a list of the names of priests who have served in our diocese and have a credible and substantiated accusation of sexual abuse of a minor,” White said the bishop only sent staff in his stead. In an addendum, White notes that the bishop’s brother had passed away.

After walking the audience through a list of unanswered questions from the meeting, White finishes the post with “This is ‘transparent?’ If so, what does opaque look like?”

In another post by White entitled “Pope Francis a Heretic?” he immediately dismisses claims hinted in the title but he does write “Not of the pope’s heresy, but of his dangerous incompetence as a teacher and shepherd of souls.”

White then discussed two separate occasions–the Amoris Laetitia controversy in 2016 and the Pope signing a declaration with an imam–where he believes the Pope has “shown himself incompetent to govern the Church.”

A third post, “The College of Lying Cowards” has pointed criticism of the actions of Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

White contends in the post that “Wouldn’t a true Christian gentleman, in Donald Wuerl’s place, think to himself: I need to see justice done here. I have a duty to this poor soul. May God help me to do right by him,” in the case of alleged sexual abuse by Theodore McCarrick–Wuerl’s predecessor as Archbishop of Washington.

“Instead, Wuerl obsequiously sent the whole thing to Rome and washed his hands of it,” White continued in the post. “In the Vatican, they masterminded the McCarrick cover-up. And Wuerl has hidden behind the supposed virtue of filial obedience to the pope ever since…Sixteen years in, and this is the priest you have, my dear ones! Let’s keep loving God and His Christ together, one day at a time. Jesus reigns. The One to Whom we must answer, when everything is said and done, is He.”

 

The Disruption

After previous attempts to get White to stop blogging or risk suspension, Bishop Barry Knestout published a letter in March 2020, directed towards the parishioners at St. Joseph and St. Francis of Assisi concerning some of White’s blog posts.

In the letter, Knestout invokes “The Code of Canon Law,” establishing his role in the hierarchy of the Church. He said White had “worked against the unity of the Church,” adding that White had “promoted disrespect for the Holy Father, the Church hierarchy, his bishop, and has demonstrated a will adverse to obedience of the bishop of his diocese, which he took an oath to uphold at his ordination.”

Further in the letter, Knestout mentions the three blog posts mentioned previously, as being particularly problematic. Following Knestout’s letter, the situation only continued to escalate from there.

About a month after the letter, Knestout announced that White would be transferred to prison ministry but White did not leave. Later, Knestout announced that he was suspending White’s permission to operate his ministry in the diocese and the priest was sent a trespassing warning.

White refused to leave, pending the outcome of an appeal to the Vatican. On June 17, 2020, White’s canon lawyer received a letter from the Vatican, dismissing the case on a questionable technicality. White said that he received a letter from Knestout on the same day, ordering his silence as a condition for a return to the priestly ministry.

“I wrote back to the bishop, pointing out the injustice of the Vatican’s decision, asking that he consider the merits of the case, and offering means of compromise about this blog for the fifth time,” White said. “The bishop summarily rejected my petitions, so I formally appealed the bishop’s silencing order, summarily rejected, and then wrote to the Vatican myself.”

 

The Receiver

The parishioners who White attempted to reach through his blog posts have seemingly come out on his side in the public debate.

Kaitlyn Long, a 22-year-old parishioner at Saint Francis of Assisi, said she was “deeply concerned about the abuse of power and disregard of Canon law that Bishop Barry Knestout has exhibited.”

Long said White’s actions had not led to any “escalation” and that the priest had remained “gracious and respectful to both the institution of the Church, as well as to Bishop Barry Knestout himself.”

“To imply that parishioners, such as myself, are discontented solely by the writings of Father Mark White is offensive,” Long said. “Many faithful Catholics know how to read. Claiming the writings of Father Mark White have caused more division and feelings of discontent/disunity than the actions of church leaders themselves is arrogant and dismissive of the very real hurt that many faithful Catholics have experienced.”

Donna McGarry, another parishioner under White, likewise pushed back against claims by Knestout that White had contributed to disunity in the Church.

“Even given our varied experiences and outlooks, we have never been in discord about the way our pastor Father Mark White expects us to live our faith,” she wrote. “He is adamant that we take advantage of the Sacraments. He speaks to us weekly–or more if he can–about the importance of attending Mass. He shows us by example how to care for the poor, welcome the refugee, stand up for the oppressed, and to respect the dignity of every single human life.”

For McGarry, the problem did not lie with White’s blog. Instead, she said the removal of their “true shepherd,” in White, was the true issue.

“The peace and harmony the bishop spoke of in his letter was never in danger in Martinsville,” she said. “That is, until Richmond decided to get involved. Parishioners of St. Joseph had no problem with Father Mark’s blog. The large majority didn’t even know it existed! That is, until Richmond decided to get involved.”

 

The Aftermath

Following the whole ordeal, White said that he isn’t sure what the future holds for him, as a priest.

“I hope that someone in the Vatican will actually address the issues involved in this situation,” he said. “I certainly want to continue ministering as a priest. I have no intention of leaving the priesthood by my own choice. I hope the bishop and I can have an honest conversation about what it means to represent the Church as a public official of the institution, when you know that serious institutional problems have gone unaddressed.”

He said that he never taught heresy. “To the contrary, I tried to identify problems the Church has as a human institution, problems that stand in open contradiction to our stated principles.”

White said some of his fellow priests now believe “things that they know better than to believe. Priests get along by having the attitude, ‘bishop always knows best.’ But in this case, it’s pretty clear that the bishop has made some serious mistakes. It has changed our diocese from an arena of free discussion into a kind of reign of terror.”

As he enters this difficult part of his life, White said he still relies on God and his parishioners.

“By the grace of God, I still have the faith,” he said. “I believe in God’s plan, and that His grace will heal even this seriously messed-up situation. The loving kindness and encouragement of the parishioners has kept me healthy, sane, and confident about what I believe in.”

 

 

 

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