Olson v. Fisher-More College

The newly-minted bishop of Forth Worth, his excellency Michael Olson, has written to President King of Fisher-More college purporting to revoke the college’s permission to celebrate the usus antiquior. Rorate cæli has the lead report, including the original materials 1; useful commentary is available from the Remnant, Father Z, and DAC. 2

Bp. Olson’s letter reads as follows:

Thankyou for your visit today. I am writing you to state formally what I told you during our meeting. These norms take effect immediately.
1. You do not have permission to have the public celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass at the Chapel of Fisher More College. This includes Sundays and weekdays. The weekly celebration of the Extraordinary Form is available to the faithful every Sunday at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Forth Worth.
2. You may only have the celebration of the Mass in the Ordinary Form by priests who explicitly have faculties for such celebration granted by me as the Bishop of Fort Worth.
3. Failure to comply with the above-stated norms will result in my withdrawal of permission to celebrate the Eucharist in your chapel along with withdrawal of permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel.
I make these norms out of my pastoral solicitude and care for students of Fisher-More College as well as for your own soul. I urge you to comply with them. 3

Whether a bishop retains the authority to ban the celebration of the usus antiquior in these (or any) circumstances following the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum is questionable, but I will assume without deciding that Olson is within his rights. 4 The decision was, nevertheless, unwise.

As Father Z notes, there is much that we do not know. There is, however, some contextual information that we do know, at least through hearsay. We are told (as I had already guessed) that there are difficulties at Fisher-More that “center on Mr. King taking an increasingly severe stand regarding the Council and the changes that have occurred in the Church in the past 50 years.” 5 We are told of King’s “draconian” rule, and that “the level of excoriation for the Church and Her leaders has reached a state that even many good, traditional Catholics are scandalized by the rhetoric,” causing “[m]any students—very solid, traditional Catholic students—[to leave] the university as it seems to be heading towards such extremism the students fear scandal if they continue their studies” 6. It is suggested that there are irregularities with the priests who had been saying Mass at Fisher-More, some of whom may have lacked faculties or been under suspension. 7 Taylor Marshall, who until recently worked at Fisher-More, offered a lengthy public post on Facebook affirming such concerns and adding color and context. 8

Nevertheless, what we don’t know about this situation that is relevant could not fill a thimble. The excess of a remedy is measured in relation to the gravity of the problem (one thinks of Justice Stewart’s line from Robinson v. California that “[e]ven one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold”) and it is inconceivable that any problem could justify this remedy. All of the reported concerns suggest that there are problems at Fisher-More that merit episcopal concern and even intervention. Yet the remedy of suppressing the usus antiquior bears no rational relation to any of them—or to any that I can imagine.

If the problem is with the priests who have been celebrating, or what those priests have been saying, then one would expect that the remedy would address the priests, not the form of the Mass. Can any of us imagine a bishop forbidding the celebration of the ordinary form in a given parish, still less over nothing less flimsy than a question of whether priests who had recently celebrated there had questionable faculties or opinions? It is certainly possible that a proper remedy would have the effect of obliging the celebration of Mass in the ordinary form, because if the remedy is that Mass may be celebrated only by Fathers Smith and Jones, and neither Smith nor Jones know the usus antiquior, the result will be that Mass is celebrated only in the ordinary form. But that is not what Olson did. I therefore concur in Patrick Archbold’s assessment: “[T]his serious action with minimal justification directed at something so ancient and sacred, reverberates far beyond the confines of campus. This is reminiscent of other recent actions directed against the TLM with minimal justification and will likely be seen as very chilling by traditionalists within the Church, increasing that very dangerous sense of isolation.” 9

But if Olson’s remedy is problematic, his fundamental error is his failure to explain his action. When bishops and priests take action with which I disagree for reasons that seem to me valid but unpersuasive, I am inclined to defer to their judgment, even when I would come out the other way as an original matter. 10 Bishops are not middle-managers but “vicars and ambassadors of Christ, [who] govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power.” 11 I therefore review their decisions under a highly deferential standard that assures only that the decision is not arbitrary and capricious, upholding it “as long as (1) it is possible to offer a reasoned explanation, based on the evidence, for a particular outcome, (2) the decision is based on a reasonable explanation of relevant [factors], or (3) the [bishop] has based [his] decision on a consideration of the relevant factors that encompass the important aspects of the problem.” 12 But Olson’s letter does not explain what caused him to act, nor the connection between the problem and the remedy, and “[w]ithout a clear statement of the … rationale” for a decision, it is difficult at best to “evaluate whether [it] was proper….” 13 To be sure, disapproval of a decision is not certain “when there is an absence of reasoning in the record to support it,” 14 for, in my view, the remedy need only be rationally-related to the problem, and it may sometimes happen that the relationship of the remedy to the animating facts may be clear on the face of the facts. But Olson does not give us even that much; he makes no effort at all to explain what facts concerned him or caused him to take action. The letter is a naked exercise of power. The benefit of the doubt is purchased at the cost of the tendering of reasons, and Olson offers none.

All of this, taken in part or sum, arouses suspicion. Olson’s actions are excessive and strange, and because he cannot be so naïve as to suppose that they would not be subject to review, his refusal to explain them in the letter—the documentary basis for any review—looks like a deliberate attempt to insulate them from scrutiny. That was poorly-judged and infelicitous. If the suppression of the usus antiquior “was absolutely necessary and the only way Bishop Olson thought he could solve the problems at Fisher-More, he should have explained why his action in that regard was uniquely necessary. He should also explained under what authority he, as a bishop, managed to undo a papal act liberalizing the availability of the TLM. Bishop Olson has now caused some degree of scandal among the faithful, who feel their rights trampled upon.” 15 His failure to explain himself can only stoke those suspicions and resentments.

Notes:

  1. See Adfreo, Bishop Bans Fisher More College from offering Traditional Latin Mass to students, March 3, 2014, http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2014/03/Rorate-Exclusive.html (this and all other URLs cited herein last visited March 4, 2014)
  2. See Brian Mershon, “It is what it is”—Fort Worth Diocese Clarifies Bishop Olson’s Ban on Traditional Latin Mass at Fisher More College, The Remnant, March 4, 2014, http://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/323-it-is-what-it-is-fort-worth-diocese-clarifies-bishop-olson-s-ban-on-traditional-latin-mass-at-fisher-more-college; Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, Fr. Z’s first reaction to Bp. Olson banning Extraordinary Form at Fort Worth’s Fisher More College, WDTPRS, March 3, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/03/fr-zs-first-reaction-to-bp-olson-banning-extraordinary-form-at-fort-worths-fisher-more-college ; TantamErgo, Fisher-More denied ability to offer TLM, A Blog for Dallas-Area Catholics, http://veneremurcernui.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/fisher-more-denied-ability-to-offer-tlm.
  3. Transcribed from the scanned copy of the letter supplied by Rorate. The meeting to which the letter refers was, according to King, perfunctory: It “was very short and provided no further details other than the contents of the letter. ‘There wasn’t much discussion,’ [King] said. ‘There was no discussion about the college at all.’” Mershon, supra.
  4. As Father Z is apt to say, all it took to enthuse bishops to follow the requirements of Ecclesia Dei was the superseding enactment of Summorum Pontificum. At any rate, for analyses on the canonical issues, refer to the materials cited by the Zuhlsdorf and Adfero posts cited in notes 1 and 2 above.
  5. TantamErgo, supra.
  6. Id.
  7. Zuhlsdorf, supra.
  8. Because Facebook is not a stable medium, I take the liberty of reproducing the relevant part of his post here:

    . . . .
    … I resigned as Chancellor of the College at the beginning of June of 2013 … for the sake of conscience. I felt it would be a danger to my soul to remain at Fisher More College.

    I resigned when moral, theological, and financial discrepancies came to light regarding the presidency of Michael King. I was an ex officio member of the Board so I knew what others did not. From May to early June of 2013, five of the eight College Board Members also resigned for two reasons:

    1) Mr. King refused to disassociate himself from the public statements of faculty member Dr. Dudley that claimed in his Year of Faith lecture that Catholic professors have the duty to teach young people that Vatican 2 is not a valid Council (he also endorsed other “resistance” positions regarding the Novus Ordo, John Paul II, etc.)

    2) Mr. King, after selling the original FMC campus to Texas Christian University for millions of dollars, had imprudently entered into a real estate deal that financially crippled Fisher More College.

    Much of the politicization around the “Latin Mass and FMC” is Mr. King’s careful attempt to distract attention away from his financial misdealing at FMC. The college is currently teetering on bankruptcy and this latest entanglement with the bishop will lead to a public statement: “Fisher More closed down because the new bishop of Fort Worth persecuted the Latin Mass!” when in reality the College is failing because Mr. King entered into a dubious real estate deal that washed out college’s endowment AND all the proceeds from the sale of the original campus.

    How did a College sell its extremely valuable campus to TCU for several millions dollars in 2012 only to announce at Christmas 2013 that it might be closing without an immediate fund raising campaign through Rorate Caeli?

    . . . .

    FMC hosted a public repudiation of Vatican 2 and the Ordinary Form of the Mass in April of 2013 that was so offensive that my wife and I walked out of it before its conclusion. That did not do much to heal the breach with the local diocese or presbyterate and it contributed to the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) discontinuing their support and presence at FMC. The current FMC website advertises that the FSSP provides a chaplain, but this is not true.

    At the same time, Michael King estranged himself from the diocese of Fort Worth by not allowing the Ordinary Form (as stipulated by the previous ordinary Bishop Vann of Fort Worth). He also contracted an irregular/suspended priest without faculties, and hired “trad resistance” faculty while there was no bishop in Fort Worth to check these developments. Mr. King was able to create a community in his image (he affectionately referred to himself the “father” of this community) during the episcopal inter-regnum of the diocese of Fort Worth.

    Clearly, a bishop’s intervention was inevitable. The current controversy really has nothing to do with the Latin Mass per se. The Latin Mass is at the center because Michael King is politicizing the Latin Mass in his favor, knowing that “bishops vs the Latin Mass” is red meat for some traditionalist blogs.

    Bishop Olson says in the letter that he is doing this for Michael King’s “soul.” The bishop understands that this is a personal intervention – and not an attack on Fisher More College or its students or the Latin Mass.

    It’s a serious pastoral problem. Mr. King no doubt leaked Bp Olson’s letter via one of his few supporters to build sympathy before the inevitable financial collapse that will expose his mishandling of Fisher More College. Mr. King, more than anything, would like to blame the inevitable collapse of FMC (within only weeks or months) on the bishop’s “persecution of the Latin Mass.”

    . . . .

    A reminder may be pertinent at this juncture that the instruction Universæ Ecclesiæ warns that “[t]he faithful who ask for the celebration of the forma extraordinaria must not in any way support or belong to groups which show themselves to be against the validity or legitimacy of the Holy Mass or the Sacraments celebrated in the forma ordinaria or against the Roman Pontiff as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church.” N.b. this is a threshold requirment; its application to a continuing community is unclear.

  9. Archbold, Bishop Bans Fisher More College from offering TLM to students, Creative Minority Report, March 3, 2014, http://www.creativeminorityreport.com/2014/03/bishop-bans-fisher-more-college-from.html.
  10. See, e.g., Simon Dodd, Straight Talk on Altar Girls, Motu Proprio, http://simondodd.org/blog/?p=180.
  11. LG27.
  12. Tompkins v. Cent. Laborers’ Pension Fund, 712 F.3d 995, 999 (7th Cir.2013) (quoting Hess v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 274 F.3d 456 (7th Cir. 2004)).
  13. United States v. Debenedetto, 7th. Cir., March 3, 2014 (quoting United States v. Hawk, 434 F.3d 959, 962 (7th Cir. 2006)).
  14. Williams v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 509 F.3d 317, 321 (7th Cir.2007).
  15. TantamErgo, supra note 2; accord Patrick Archbold, A Few Additional Comments on The FMC TLM Situation, Creative Minority Report, March 3, 2014, http://www.creativeminorityreport.com/2014/03/a-few-additional-comments-on-fmc-tlm.html.