Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Revolution in the Ranks

They all took vows of obedience but now, across the world, Roman Catholic priests are refusing to silently accept what they see as a dysfunctional organizational model that no longer responds to the needs of the modern day faithful...or, for that matter, their own needs. From Austria to America to Australia, priests are organizing, signing pledges to work for change in the Church they vowed to serve, supporting each other, and not retreating meekly when ordered to remain silent in the face of institutional injustice.

Back in June of this year, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, a group of Austrian Roman Catholic priests stunned their hierarchs by signing on to Die Pfarrer-Initiative ("Priests' Initiative"), an appeal for clerical disobedience and an attempt to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century. The priests vowed the following:

1. WE WILL include a petition for church reform in every liturgy.

2. WE WILL not deny Communion to faithful of good will, especially remarried people, members of other Christian churches, and in some cases those who have officially left the Catholic Church.*

3. WE WILL avoid as much as possible celebrating multiple times on Sundays and feast days, and avoid scheduling priests travelling around or priests unknown to the community. A locally-planned Liturgy of the Word is preferable to providing guest performances.

4. WE WILL use the term “Priestless Eucharistic Celebration” for a Liturgy of the Word with distribution of Communion. This is how the Sunday Mass obligation is fulfilled when priests are in short supply.

5. WE WILL ignore the prohibition on preaching by competently trained laity, including female religion teachers. In difficult times, the Word of God must be proclaimed.

6. WE WILL advocate that every parish have a presiding leader – man or woman, married or unmarried, full-time or part time. Rather than consolidating parishes, we call for a new image of the priest.

7. WE WILL take every opportunity to speak up publicly for the admission of women and married people to the priesthood. These would be welcome colleagues in ministry.

We express solidarity with colleagues no longer permitted to exercise their ministry because they have married, and also with those in ministry who live in permanent relationships. Both groups live in accordance with their conscience – as we do with our protest. We see in them, as we do in our bishops and the pope, our brothers. **

* Here we refer to those who officially leave the Church; some to avoid Church Tax as a means of protest
** The German word used here is "Mitbruder" instead of "Bruder" (=brother) which is sometimes used just for clerics and excludes the laity.

In its September 2011 newsletter, the group reported having 338 priest members and a further 69 priest supporters as well as over 1,000 lay supporters. Approximately 6% of all Austrian priests have signed the Initiative.

And the Initiative has gone international. For example, 17 priests (10% of the archdiocesan priests) from the Archdiocese of Rouen, in France, have now signed the Pfarrer-Initiative, and that number is expected to grow. Fr. Paul Flament, one of the signatories who runs the social organization Fraternité Banlieues, explained to Paris-Normandie that "we want a Church that listens to the needs and expectations of the men and women of today, a Church in solidarity with the poor and the excluded." And he added that "the Church has to change. We are completely in agreement with the our Austrian brothers' call for the ordination of women and married men."

The Rouen priests emphasized that they were not complaining about their archbishop. "Monsignor Descubes is an open man, very sensitive to social action and current reality." In fact, they see the protest as helping the local hierarchs. "We're tired of being trampled on by the Roman authorities who take refuge in religion and refuse to listen to today's world. We are coming to the aid of our bishops." The Archbishop of Rouen declined to speak to the press, calling the protest an "internal affair".

Part of what made the Pfarrer-Initiative, which actually began in 2006, send such shockwaves through the Austrian Church was its leader, Msgr. Helmut Schüller (photo). You would expect such a movement to come from a disgruntled Vatican II era priest working on the margins of the Church. It's a whole different story when the leader is a prominent priest in his 50s whose resumé includes a stint as president of Caritas (1991-1995) and another as vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Vienna (1995-1999) under Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Msgr. Schüller was also ombudsman for the Archdiocesan office for dealing with victims of sexual abuse for a time and he remains spiritual advisor to the Katholischen Akademikerverbands, the Catholic Academic Association. He is presently pastor of St. Stephan in Probstdorf and a chaplain at the University of Vienna.

The Pfarrer-Initiative enjoys substantial popular support in Austria. According to a poll by Oekonsult, 71.7% of Austrians said the “priests initiative” was both “fair and reasonable”, while 64.7% said they would sign a “call for insubordination”. Eighty-six percent were of the opinion celibacy created more problems than it had advantages and 84% said the refusal of the Catholic Church to reform is likely to further alienate believers.

The revolution spreads

Earlier this month, Msgr. Schüller also addressed the first annual general meeting of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, which was founded last year. While ACP does not support the tactics of Pfarrer-Initiative which they view as too divisive, a spokesman for the group, Fr. Tony Flannery, avered that the Austrian priests "are basically taking a similar stance to ourselves – and in that we would support them." ACP is urging the priests to stick together. "If they stand together – and there are 400 of them – what can [Cardinal Schönborn] do? He can hardly sack all 400 of them. So it is all a question of whether they have the strength at this stage to all hang together. But if they become divided and disunited they will be easily dealt with. I am just hoping that they will hang together on this one,” Fr. Flannery said.

ACP, which currently has 600 member priests, one-eighth of the priests of Ireland, also addressed several church reform issues at its AGM. Writing about the AGM in The Mayo News this week, Fr. Kevin Hegarty shared some of his speech to the group:

"...a new church would open its doors to married priests and women priests. It would benefit from secular insights on, for example, democracy and human intimacy.

It would accept the validity of homosexuality as a human experience rather than seeing it as a distortion. It would, in sum, develop a healthy and holistic theology of sexuality.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, this is not happening. The hope of change, engendered by the Vatican Council, proved shortlived. It was choked by the Roman Curia.

For over 30 years the church has retreated from reform. It has returned to the incense-filled ghettoes of the past in defence of its traditional, hierarchical structures.

Its procedures are archaic, cumbersome and precious. It is suspicious of lay involvement. Only those who are seen to conform to its narrow views are admitted to the temple of authority. So bishops are chosen on the basis of being in favour of compulsory celibacy, docility to papal teaching and above all against contraception and the ordination of women. It is fearful of the feminine. Mysogyny is dressed up in theological abstractions. The current imposition of the new Roman missal, with its conservative theology and its sexist language is a symbol both of Vatican arrogance and its distance from the pulse of modern life..."

And, Fr. Hegarty concluded, the challenge is to keep the door open in a changing world.

A refusal to be silenced

On this side of the Atlantic, the revolt centers around the question of women's ordination. At the heart of this revolt is Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest better known for his campaign to shut down the School of the Americas. In August 2008, Fr. Bourgeois participated in and delivered the homily at the ordination ceremony of Rev. Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a member of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. As a result of this action, he was technically excommunicated latae setentiae.

Earlier this year, Maryknoll gave Fr. Bourgeois 15 days to recant or be expelled from the order. Fr. Bourgeois refused and has yet to be dismissed as negotiations are ongoing. Meanwhile, 200 priests signed a Clergy for Conscience statement supporting Fr. Bourgeois. Fr. Bourgeois says that by demanding that he recant, his superiors are asking him to lie. In a letter to his Superior General, Fr. Bourgeois says: "What you are requiring of me is not possible without betraying my conscience. In essence, you are telling me to lie and say I do not believe that God calls both men and women to the priesthood. This I cannot do, therefore I will not recant." Instead, he has hired a canon lawyer to fight the possible dismissal.

And he has not given up public advocacy for women's ordination. He plans to join women priests and members of the Women's Ordination Conference on a panel next month at the Call to Action annual meeting in Milwaukee but, before that, there's a trip to the Vatican to deliver a petition signed by over 15,000 people supporting women priests. Those who want to keep up with the play-by-play on this case should check out the Knollwood Blog. In the latest move, 127 former Maryknollers have added their voices in support of Fr. Bourgeois.

A new priests' group, inspired by the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, is also being formed. Currently led by Fr. David Cooper of Milwaukee, the new group has two objectives: to reach out in fraternal support to brother priests and to create a collegial voice so priests can speak in a united way. "When you look around today, you see everybody has a national association or conference," Fr. Cooper told the National Catholic Reporter. "The bishops have a conference. There's an association of Catholic women, Catholic musicians, Catholic theologians, Catholic canon lawyers. Everybody but us."

The new U.S. group also draws its inspiration from the What If We Just Said Wait? website set up by Fr. Michael Ryan of Seattle to protest the new English translation of the Roman Missal which many priests have found objectionable for various reasons. The new group used the site to survey priests about what they would want the main objective of a new association to be and the most common response was "full implementation of the vision and teachings of the Second Vatican Council with special emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, the status and participation of all the baptized, and the task of establishing a church where all believers will be treated as equals."

Down under, a bishop down

On the other side of the globe, in the Diocese of Toowoomba, Australia, a bishop who was concerned about the shortage of priests in his region and merely suggested in a pastoral letter that the Church should consider opening the priesthood to women and married men, was forced by the Vatican in May to submit an early resignation. In a 2006 letter, after projecting the future priest shortage, Msgr. William Morris had written:

"...Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of the Eucharist for the identity, continuity and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated. Several responses have been discussed internationally, nationally and locally:

* ordaining married, single or widowed men who are chosen and endorsed by their local parish community;

* welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry;

* ordaining women, married or single;..."

The priests under Bishop Morris did not take their leader's dismissal lying down. Eight of them drafted a letter on his behalf arguing that he had not been treated fairly or respectfully, and affirming his performance in office. "The far greater majority of priests and lay people of the diocese have found the pastoral leadership of Bishop Morris to be constructive, informed and life-giving," the priests said.

Msgr. Morris also received support from the National Council of Priests of Australia which issued a statement saying: "We are embarrassed about the shabby treatment meted out to an outstanding Pastor of this diocese who has faithfully ministered in the Church in Queensland and throughout Australia since his priestly ordination in 1969."

And the statement went on: "We are concerned about an element within the Church whose restorationist ideology wants to repress freedom of expression within the Roman Catholic Church and who deny the legitimate magisterial authority of the local Bishop within the Church. Jesus rightly condemned the righteous scribes and Pharisees of his time for adhering to their interpretation of the Mosaic law at the expense of God's ultimate commandment of love."

Last month, another Australian priest, Fr. Greg Reynolds, who was given a choice last year by the Archdiocese of Melbourne to be silent about women's ordination or resign, chose to leave the Roman Catholic church which he had served as a priest for 32 years and start his own congregation. "Services will celebrate the Eucharist in a Catholic way," says Fr. Reynolds, "but in a way that's more inclusive of women and gays."

Back in November 2010, Fr. Reynolds delivered a homily in the three parishes in which he served, a homily which he then mailed to Archbishop Dennis Hart and made available to the press. "I am convinced in my heart that it is God's will that we should have women priests," Fr. Reynolds told his flock, "I believe certain women are being called by God to the ministerial priesthood, and our official church is obstructing the work of the Holy Spirit. I feel I can no longer sit back and remain silent."


  1. This is a wonderful summary, RG. Chock full of good information presented so clearly and helpfully.

    Thank you for this valuable piece.

  2. Thanks, Bill. I've written about several of these cases individually (as well as others that I didn't include for lack of space). The phenomenon of priests who leave over the celibacy question and either a) write "tell all" books or b) start their own independent Catholic congregations or c) simply refuse to stop acting as priests even after being suspended and the laity follow them because they're no longer buying the argument that salvation is only available through the "official" RC Church -- that would be a whole article in itself. And I was reflecting that this article doesn't even include the "silent revolution" -- the thousands of priests who knowingly give the sacraments to people who are technically excommunicated because they don't believe, for example, that someone should be denied communion just because that person is divorced and remarried, or is living in a stable and loving relationship with a partner because marriage is not an option for them, etc...