Mandatory Conciliarism: The Sad Case of Monsignor Manns

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On February 9, 1969, parishioners of St. Anthony’s Church in Baltimore picketed their own church, carrying homemade signs declaring: “We want Monsignor Manns, Send Martel far way,” and collecting signatures to petition Cardinal Shehan to halt the forced resignation of Manns, who was their pastor. A week earlier, the cardinal sent Monsignor Manns a personal letter explaining the reasons why he was requesting his resignation, including the monsignor’s clash with his associate Father Martel, and the cardinal gave him ten days to respond. The Friday night before the Sunday morning protest, Monsignor Manns informed the women of the sodality about his imminent removal, and they asked him what they could do for him. A handful of women then quickly organized the small protest. At the early Sunday morning Masses at 6:00 and 7:00AM, Monsignor Manns informed the congregation that he was being replaced. After Mass, members of the sodality collected signatures in support of their pastor.

This Photo from The February 10, 1969 edition of The Baltimore Sun shows St. Anthony of Padua Parishioners Picketing the Removal of Msgr. Manns

This Photo from The February 10, 1969 edition of The Baltimore Sun shows St. Anthony of Padua Parishioners Picketing the Removal of Msgr. Manns

The situation escalated after the 7:00 AM Mass when Father Martel approached Mrs. LeVeta Sakievich and attempted to seize her petition. When she refused, he pushed her to the ground, after which she was taken to the hospital to be treated for her injuries. Later, she pressed assault charges against Father Martel. Cardinal Shehan was informed about the unfolding situation, and he telephoned the monsignor. He instructed Monsignor Manns to stop the protests, and that any encouragement of the protests would be an “act of rebellion” under canon law. He also dispatched Auxiliary Bishop T. Austin Murphy to St. Anthony’s to ensure that the picketing and collection of signatures had ended. The women agreed to stop their protest, but they had already collected several hundred signatures in support of their pastor.

Five days later, Monsignor Manns met with the cardinal. The ten day period had expired, but the cardinal agreed to extend the deadline, allowing for a few more days for the monsignor to contemplate his decision. The cardinal had by that time received forty letters and fifteen telegrams in support of the pastor, but he was undeterred in his request for his resignation. By the end of the week, Monsignor Manns submitted his resignation, and it was made effective immediately, with the requirement that the beloved priest leave his former parish by March 1.

The official press release of the archdiocese, as published in The Catholic Review, read:

“[I]t became painfully clear that the monsignor found it impossible to carry out the Archdiocesan policy in keeping with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, particularly in the areas of liturgical renewal in the parish, lay responsibility and the proper role of associate pastors in the parish. Monsignor Manns has served the Archdiocese well in various capacities for over forty years. It is regrettable that his resignation was attended by so much distasteful publicity.”

Even Monsignor Manns’ detractors agreed that he was an effective administrator. In his twelve years as pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, he built a new rectory and convent, remodeled and built an addition to the elementary school, and increased the parish membership from 7,500 to 12,000. The parish boasted twelve Masses every Sunday. Today, the parish school is closed, and the school building is up for sale. The parish has merged with a neighboring parish, and only two Sunday masses are scheduled, which are reduced to only one Sunday Mass during the summer months.

Father Martel has left active ministry.

The decline of St. Anthony’s Church is symptomatic of the Catholic Church in the United States in the past fifty years. The shifting demographics of Baltimore augmented the decay of the parish, as a largely white and Catholic population fled the city in the 1970s.  The numerous changes inspired by the Second Vatican Council played a significant role, but an immense generation gap was also responsible for the decline. This divide is particularly apparent in the chasm separating young priests from older priests. A Catholic revolution in the priesthood was afoot in the 1960s even without the impetus of the council.

The forced removal of older and more traditional priests was much more pervasive than the single case of Monsignor Manns. The senate of priests was created in 1967 as the representative body for Baltimore’s clergy, with four priests elected from each of the three peer groups based on age, but the agenda of the senate was driven by younger priests. The following year, the senate drew up a list of a dozen pastors who did not accept all the implications of the Second Vatican Council, in particular liturgical changes and lay involvement. According the The Premier See, Cardinal Shehan requested that these pastors resign based on the senate’s recommendation. When the senate agreed to make seventy the mandatory age for retirement and sixty-five the optional age, twenty percent of pastors in Baltimore were forced to retire between 1967 and 1969, representing a titanic shift in the leadership of the archdiocese. Cardinal Shehan, when reflecting on retired priests in his memoir, recalled that there were only three officially retired priests in 1965. The number had grown to forty by 1970. The old priests were out — especially those who expressed reservations about the changes occurring — and the young and more progressive priests were in.

At a press conference in the midst of the controversy, Monsignor P. Francis Murphy, the cardinal’s secretary, speculated that Monsignor Manns’ resignation was the first one that he could remember which did not occur at the same time as changes to priestly assignments throughout the whole archdiocese. That is, previous resignations coincided with other assignment announcements, thus saving face for the priest involved. Yet, Monsignor Manns’ transgressions were considered so egregious that he was only given ten days to respond to his requested resignation, and when it was submitted, it was effective immediately. One year prior, fifty-five archdiocesan priests from Baltimore signed the Statement of Dissent composed by Father Charles Curran, and the list of priests was printed in The Baltimore Sun. Without informing the cardinal, these priests publicly voiced their opposition to Humanae Vitae, yet none of them were forced to resign from their positions. Reflecting on this disparity, the 1960s marked a new era for the Catholic Church. Priests have always run afoul of the hierarchy, but perhaps for the first time, priests who upheld the traditional teachings of Catholicism were running into opposition from above and forced from their positions whereas priests who openly challenged church teachings were tolerated.

Monsignor Manns, unlike many older priests, fought back. He had a storied career, serving as secretary to Archbishop Curley, vice chancellor, chief judge of the marriage tribunal, and archdiocesan consulter. At a meeting of older priests with the cardinal, Monsignor Manns was given a standing ovation by his peers when he related his side of the story, and for the 1971 election for the senate of priests, he was elected to represent his peer group.

Monsignor Manns’ election to the very body that sought to remove older and more traditional priests was a personal vindication, but it was not enough. This period was a sad chapter in the American Catholic Church. Men who battled adversity their whole lives—anti-Catholicism, two world wars, and the Great Depression—were pushed out by the Church that they had served their whole life. Worse yet, they had to watch on the sidelines as they saw the parishes they built go down in flames.

One sometimes hears of “wreckovation” in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. While this most often refers to the destruction of sacred architecture, as churches constructed for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass were renovated and turned into anthropocentric “worship spaces,” there were untold lives and vocations that also came under the wrecking ball. Monsignor Manns’ story is just one among many. How different might the Church have been if these priests had been allowed to remain?

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