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Shadow Over Springfield: The Failures of a Warrior Bishop

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., has recently been in the news for staging a public exorcism on the day Gov. Pat Quinn signed marriage equality into law in Illinois. Bishop Paprocki's actions raise a few questions: What is the state of his diocese? If it is in decline, then why?
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Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., has recently been much in the news for his staging of a public exorcism on Nov. 20, 2013, the day Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a bill recognizing marriage equality in Illinois. Bishop Paprocki's actions raise a few questions: What is the state of his diocese? Is it in good health, or is it in decline? And if it is in decline, then why?

There are few happier moments in the faith life of a typical Catholic girl or boy than the reception of First Holy Communion or Confirmation. I still recall my own First Communion, 50 years ago. I approached the altar solemnly, seriously, wearing an immaculate white shirt and necktie. I was awestruck by the doctrine of the real presence, and I remain awestruck to this day. But then afterwards, at the party my parents hosted, I proceeded to run with my cousins through a muddy backyard, ruining the fine set of clothes my mother had so sweetly dressed me in. Even so, my parents were pleased, since this is the great intergenerational transmission of the faith that Catholic families have practiced from time immemorial.

But there is a shadow hanging over the Diocese of Springfield. Ever fewer children are enjoying the Catholic rites of initiation that were such a wondrous part of my own youth. And this precipitous decline has been hastened by the arrival in Springfield of Thomas Paprocki, one of America's fiercest culture-warrior bishops.

First, let's consider some numbers. Paprocki was installed as bishop in June 2010. The number of infant baptisms in 2009, the last year before Paprocki's installation, was 1,899; in 2012, the last year for which numbers are available, that total fell to 1,658, a decline of 12.7 percent. The number of children who received First Holy Communion in 2009 was 2,056; for 2012 it was 1,859, a decline of 9.6 percent. In 2009, 2,290 young people were confirmed. In 2012 it was 2,101. The number of children and adolescents being catechized in the faith is also in decline. In 2009 there were 1,915 high-school students and 8,087 elementary-school students in catechetical instruction. In 2012 the numbers were 1,472 and 7,524, respectively. (The numbers I utilize here are drawn from the Official Catholic Directory, known informally as the Kenedy Directory, for the relevant years.)

To be sure, Springfield was experiencing decline in its sacramental life even before Paprocki became bishop. Under the rule of George J. Lucas, Paprocki's immediate predecessor and another of America's prominent culture-warrior bishops, infant baptisms declined from 2,384 in 2000 (Lucas' first full year as bishop) to 1,899 in 2009, while first communicants fell from 2,763 to 2,056 in the same period.

These declines are not attributable to a general decline in population, since the area covered by the Springfield Diocese has actually added some 50,000 people in the relevant period. Clearly, the transmission belt by which the faith is conveyed from one generation to the next is broken.

The Catholic Church of Springfield is in clear need of revitalization. And that revitalization must begin with the sacraments. For some time now, the Catholic Church has spoken of the "new evangelization." You would expect and hope, given this institutional commitment to outreach, to see the numbers improve.

If we were grading Paprocki on this scale, we might generously give him a D. And we might ask whether his methods have served to attract or repel the Catholic faithful.

Let's look at his homily for midnight mass at Christmas 2010, Paprocki's first Christmas in Springfield. How did he open his homily for midnight mass? With talk of shepherds in the field, a great light shining, Baby Jesus asleep in the manger? No. Nothing so mundane. Did he begin with the mystery of the Incarnation or the miracle of salvation? No, nothing so obvious or predictable.

Paprocki commenced his homily by telling the story of the Battle of Vienna and the defeat of the Turkish armies invading Europe in 1683. He vividly recounted the martial exploits of the Polish King Jan Sobieski and recalled the execution of the Ottoman commander, Kara Mustafa Pasha. Only then did he welcome church-goers by wishing them a merry Christmas. Only on page 6 of the published text, long after Paprocki discussed Sept. 11 and airport security, did he finally mention the Incarnation, in a single paragraph. When he was accused in the local press of "Islamophobia [and] xenophobia," Paprocki did not back off.

It was also around this time that Paprocki came to national attention when he convened a two-day long conference on exorcism. There are only a handful of exorcists in the United States; thus Paprocki explained his motivation for organizing the conference. But with so much evil loose in the world, he suggested, every diocese should have its own resources on exorcism.

And what counts as evil, exactly, for Bishop Paprocki? He made clear in 2012 that one grave intrinsic evil he intended to confront was the Democratic Party platform. Voting for politicians who promote actions or behaviors that are "intrinsically evil," Paprocki declared, imperiled Catholics' salvation, and the Democratic platform endorsed positions that were "intrinsically evil."

The Republican Party, on the other hand, did not endorse intrinsic evil, so he indicated that Catholics were morally free to vote for the GOP. Assuring his audience that he did not mean to tell them how to vote, he warned them that a vote for evil made one complicit in evil. This got the attention of the Los Angeles Times, which editorially encouraged the IRS to investigate the diocese's tax-exempt status in light of Paprocki's politicking.

Undaunted by seeing the Republicans go down in defeat, Paprocki immediately launched into a new political campaign -- he would urge the Catholics of his diocese to oppose same-sex marriage. On Jan. 3, 2013, he directed all the priests of his diocese to read a letter to their congregations in which marriage equality was described as "fraudulent." Same-sex marriage, he insisted, was nothing less than a "grave assault upon ... marriage." Society must be protected from the "harmful idea" that "what essentially makes a marriage is romantic-emotional union."

The struggle to enact marriage equality in Illinois lasted into the summer and fall. Then quickly, unexpectedly, the votes fell into place, the legislature passed the marriage equality bill, and Illinois, in November 2013, became the 16th state to ratify same-sex marriage. Several legislators cited Pope Francis' evident open-mindedness on gays -- "Who am I to judge?" the pope famously asked -- in announcing their decision to support the bill.

This was too much for Bishop Paprocki. He now decided to put his background and interest in exorcism to work. And so he staged his now-infamous exorcism. He announced that his intention was one of confronting the "diabolical influences of the devil" that gave rise to same-sex marriage. If you look closely, Paprocki assured his audience, you can find abundant signs of the devil's handiwork in the campaign for marriage equality. Those who enter "civil same-sex marriage," he went on, are "culpable of serious sin," and the politicians who vote for marriage equality are "complicit as co-operators in facilitating this grave sin."

Assuredly, this performance, which would have been worthy of 19th-century grand opera, does not conform to the new evangelization. I have argued before that the scientific understanding of human sexuality provides firm support for marriage equality. I won't reiterate those arguments here.

Rather, I would like to encourage Catholics to persevere, keep the faith, and introduce the next generation to joyful message of the Gospel. The church is larger than any single individual, and finally what matters is the soul's relationship to God.