After recent controversies involving apparently independent Catholic priests engaged on social media, experts have said Church law expects priests to be transparently and demonstrably subject to ecclesiastical authorities — and for good reason.

“Every Catholic has to belong somewhere, and that is doubly true for Catholic priests,” Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, OP, told The Pillar this week. Pietrzyk, who has a doctorate in canon law, is chair of the pastoral studies department at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California.

“The Church’s law has wanted for centuries and centuries to avoid the phenomenon of wandering priests — priests who have no supervision, nobody to watch over them,” Pietrzyk told The Pillar.

The priest said the phenomenon in which priests are free to teach online without supervision or accountability speaks to a broader concern about social media use and the Church.

“It is a huge problem that the U.S. bishops have essentially ceded their roles as the primary teachers of the Church to certain figures on social media, including those who teach and preach contrary to the faith. And the fact that they allow those figures to have an outsize influence, and therefore basically cede their roles as the proper teachers of the faith, I think is one of the greatest scandals and greatest difficulties in the Church today.”

Pietrzyk spoke to The Pillar after the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, announced last month that popular priest Fr. John Zuhlsdorf would leave the diocese.

Zuhlsdorf, a well-known blogger and social media personality, has been at the center of controversy over his livestreamed exorcism rites, which were reportedly directed at allegations of voter fraud in the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

When the rites gained attention, Madison’s Bishop Donald Hying clarified that the priest had permission to conduct “the rite of the sacramental of exorcism” only “for the intention of alleviation from the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic,” and not “in relation to partisan political activity.”

Shortly thereafter, the priest and the diocese announced a “mutual decision” for the priest to leave the diocese.

Pietrzyk told The Pillar he hopes the issue of functionally autonomous priests will be addressed by the U.S. bishops, and by the appropriate Vatican congregations. 

Full story at Pillar.