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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

From the Editor's Desk

The power of one

Judge for yourself whether Fr. Marek Bozek (see story) is worthy of praise or criticism in his head-on collision with St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke in a case of obedience versus conscience. Fr. Bozek’s decision to serve an interdicted Catholic parish trying to retain control of its own funds or, more recently, his support for women’s ordination, has him in final jeopardy. What seems noteworthy is the power of one person to hold up business as usual and bring public scrutiny to the otherwise uncontested exercise of authority.

Jeannette Cooperman’s profile of Fr. Bozek details the issues on which his canonical status now hangs. It also tells the personal story of how Fr. Bozek came to believe that people should question authority and challenge policy when they believe fairness and human dignity are at stake. From his childhood in Poland, where he took part in the Solidarity movement’s defeat of communism, to the tangled odyssey that brought him to Missouri and eventually to the priesthood, Fr. Bozek has consistently shown a stubborn determination to do what he thought was right, then wait for the ax to fall. Along the way, he has drawn others into a lively discussion of whether the church can ever be changed from the bottom up. Does public pressure or pastoral grievance count when bishops assert control or apply precedent? Should the invitation to the laity to “full, conscious, active participation” in the life of their church apply to administrative practice, money, the assignment of pastors or even the selection of bishops? When bishops hold out against financial transparency or balk at full disclosure in abuse cases, will change ever come except by challenges from below and within, when conscience trumps institutional loyalty? Is reform ever possible when large institutions are left to decide what they will concede, who they will let in to the inner councils of power?

History reveals other cases where people we now praise for their courage and prophetic vision were at the time steeped in controversy and official criticism. Consider Dorothy Day, whose candor was equal only to her love for the church, being told by bishops that she should not use the word Catholic in her Worker movement. She embarrassed many in church authority for questioning the church’s support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, for her pacifism during World War II, her social activism in race and labor relations.

Hindsight reveals our profiles in courage, individuals who found themselves in circumstances that raised their role to crucial significance -- the deciding vote, the last defender, the one awkward holdout whose action or refusal to act, whose voice or whose silence emerged as decisive, a tipping point that pointed the way to change. The power of one may be myth or cliché, but when controversy puts any one individual, however small, in the spotlight, we should stop and pay attention. Our own sense of personal empowerment is at issue. Do any of us count?

In a long and lonely struggle that may cost him his priesthood, Fr. Bozek is, perhaps, like a loose thread in the fabric of church authority. Cutting him off may forestall the threat of that fabric unraveling, but only for now. The questions his case raises will not go away.

For him, the issue is clear: “People make a difference. Things can change that seem unchangeable.”

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-- Sr. Rita Larivee, SSA

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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