Say the black. Do the red. Or else.


The expression “Say the black; do the red” is used at Fr. Z.’s blog WDTPRS to refer to the liturgical texts of the Church. The text in black is the words that the priest is to say; the text in red is a description of what he is to do.

Recently, there was an unfortunate conflict between Fr. Rowe and his local ordinary, Bishop Braxton, in the diocese of Belleville, Illinois. As far as we know, the problem was that Father Rowe changes some of the wording of the Mass.

Rowe said he routinely made small changes to make what he was saying “more understandable and more meaningful to parishioners.” (

After 47 years as a priest, and at least two decades of straying from the Roman Catholic Missal by ad libbing parts of the Mass, the Rev. Bill Rowe of St. Mary Church has resigned under pressure from the bishop. Why? Because he doesn’t agree that a priest should be restricted to the exact words of the Missal, including new changes in the Mass that were intended to more closely interpret earlier Latin versions. The changes were ordered by the Vatican and took effect in late November.

Rowe, 72, said he was called to a meeting in October at the Belleville home of Bishop Edward Braxton. Rowe said that Braxton told him he could not change even small parts of what a Catholic priest is supposed to say during the portions of the Mass that are controlled by the Missal. Rowe said Braxton told him to “think about it” for three days and then write him a letter. Rowe said he sent the letter on Oct. 12 stating he could not accept what Braxton wanted but did not want to resign or retire. He said he did not receive a response from Braxton until a few days ago, accepting his resignation. (

We do not know of any accusation against this priest, other than this one issue. The Bishop has repeatedly corrected him, asking him to say the words of the Mass just as they are written in the liturgical texts. The conflict has persisted for a number of years. As a result of this disagreement, Fr. Rowe recently resigned.

Some persons have opined that there might be some additional problem, of which we are unaware. Perhaps. But this article is not so much about the conflict between Fr. Rowe and Bishop Braxton. It is about the reaction to Fr. Rowe’s resignation over at Fr. Z.’s blog, particularly in the comments section of several different posts.

Rowe, who has served for 17 years in Mount Carmel without accepting his priest’s salary, relying, he said, on an Air Force pension and Social Security, said that he is unsure of what he may do when his career as head of a parish ends. “Maybe I’ll run a soup kitchen,” he said. (

It is a sad day for the faithful of the Church whenever any priest resigns or is removed from his priestly ministry. This loss affects the faithful; their response should be sorrow, regret, sadness, and prayer for that priest and his parish. Our love of God and our love of neighbor should be our guide to all our actions, especially concerning a priest who served God and neighbor, and who has not been accused of any grave sin.

But not so with the Pharisees over at Fr. Z.’s blog. Instead the response was a barrage of uncharitable comments. When one compares the severity of these comments with the limited nature of the priest’s offense, the disparity is disconcerting.

First, let’s consider the picture of Fr. Rowe published on, which shows him wearing a blue clerical shirt. Three priests commented on the color of Fr. Rowe’s shirt:

Fr. Erik Richtsteig commented: “Blue clerical shirt; never a good sign.”
Fr. Z. added: “[You said it.]”

These are two Catholic priests mocking and denigrating a fellow Catholic priest because of the color of his shirt. This type of behavior is sinful and inexcusable. Every priest deserves to be treated with respect, especially a priest who is not accused of grave sin, and who has served the Church for 47 years. It is a public scandal for priests to treat Fr. Rowe with such disdain and condescension, over the color of his shirt.

Would Christ approve of priests mocking their fellow priest for the color of his shirt? Certainly not! It is as if, when the Apostles were arguing about which of them was the greatest, the basis for the claim were the color of their clothing. It was wrong for one Apostle to claim to be greater than the others. It is absurd and even more sinful to claim that one priest is greater than the other lesser due to the color of their clothing.

Fr. Z. and Fr. Erik Richtsteig sinned publicly by making these comments about the color of Fr. Rowe’s shirt.

I said that there were three priests who commented on Fr. Rowe’s shirt color.

frjim4321 comments: “Indeed a blue clerical shirt is far worse than a normal shirt.” This comment appears to be sarcastic, since in the remainder of the post, he supports Fr. Rowe: “On the subject of the post, I have done a bit of concelebrating lately and have yet to hear an EP read verbatim from the book. More to the point, I don’t think it’s an issue for the people in the pews. The vast majority have come to participate fully and consciously and do not see ‘following along in the book’ as part of a healthy liturgical spirituality.”

Fr. Jim ridicules the idea that shirt color would be so bad as to deserve the comments made by the other two priests. As for Fr. Rowe’s departure from the exact wording of the liturgical texts, Fr. Jim makes a good point — the exacting adherence to written liturgical text and form is not what makes the Mass a true worship of God. Fr. Rowe did not cause scandal or harm to the faithful by varying the wording of the prayers. His use of extemporaneous prayer within the Mass is at worst a small fault, but at best it is an example that the Church should adopt. Certainly, it is not a grave sin.

The idea that priest and faithful must follow the exact form of the Mass, word for word, motion for motion, as if the exterior form were of the utmost importance is one of the clearest modern examples of the type of Pharisaism condemned by Christ. But there is a certain type of conservative Catholic who cares nothing for what Christ taught. All that matters is exterior form. There is no emphasis on the Mass as a way to worship God with one’s whole heart and mind, soul and strength. Any priest who follows the exact form is treated as if he were a Saint. And any priest who deviates from the exact form is openly reviled, derided, and condemned — as if he had committed schism and heresy.

And on the point of schism and heresy, some conservative Catholics treat the heretical and schismatic group SSPX as if only a minor disagreement separates them from the Church. But if any of their fellow faithful Catholics disagree about the form of the Mass, or fail to regard the Latin Mass as if it were a god to be worshipped, he is treated as an apostate.

In fact, the SSPX is an heretical and schismatic group, whose leaders and formal members remain automatically excommunicated. In addition, some SSPX leaders and members are guilty of the sin of malice, not only toward the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him, but also malice toward the Church Herself. No one could have such a severe malice and still be in a state of grace.

Fr. Z. himself does not behave this way toward the SSPX, but he fails to realize the severity of the harm that the SSPX and its ‘non-member supporters’ among Catholics have done to the Church. He also fails to realize that the SSPX leaders and members are guilty of formal heresy and therefore excommunicated. Is it heresy to reject the teachings of Vatican II?

But I digress. Back to the subject of the refusal by Fr. Rowe to say exactly those words and only those words in the liturgical text. Many of the comments at Fr. Z.’s blog constitute the grave sin of reviling and possibly also the sin of derision. Saint Thomas says that reviling is a mortal sin. From a theological point of view, I’m not convinced that all acts of reviling are objectively grave. But some of the contemptuous malicious comments about Fr. Rowe at Fr. Z.’s blog do rise to the level of objective grave sin.

[To be continued in PART II]

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

This entry was posted in discipline, ethics, Mass. Bookmark the permalink.