Saturday, April 7, 2012

Silencing the Revolution in the Ranks

In a post last October titled Revolution in the Ranks, we reported on the various efforts by groups of priests in different countries to draw attention to the areas in which the Catholic Church needs to be reformed such as giving a greater voice to the laity, making celibacy optional, ordaining women, and allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. The most prominent group is Austria's Pfarrer-Initiative led by Msgr. Helmut Schüller, a former vicar-general under Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

This week, Catholics were astounded to hear Pope Benedict XVI use his homily during the annual Chrism Mass to call out these priests for their "disobedience". Said the Pontiff:

"Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women's ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord. Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?"

Taking a defensive posture, His Holiness then proceeded to raise and try to theologically shoot down every possible objection to his position, an exercise which may or may not have been persuasive depending on whether one views the current Roman Catholic hierarchy as being more like the apostles or more like the Temple leaders whom Jesus opposed because they had distorted His Father's message, sinking it under a slew of man-made rules.

The Women

Proponents of women's ordination took the Pope to task for issuing such a divisive message. The Women's Ordination Conference issued a press statement saying:

"The Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) is discouraged that the Pope would use this sacred time in our religious tradition to attack his fellow priests, who in good conscience, support women's full inclusion in the Roman Catholic Church. It is not these priests who are disobedient, it is the hierarchy who has lost touch with the people of God."

Roman Catholic Womenpriests, the group responsible for many of the ordinations added:

"This Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI, in another heavy-handed move, denounced all priests who have questioned church teachings on celibacy and the ordination of women but he surely cannot denounce the millions of Catholics who no longer believe that such practices are what Jesus would want. The Catholic people through the sensus fidelium have already accepted women priests."

Regardless of the Pope's views, the movement for women's ordination -- both formal and informal -- continues unabated. In the United States this month, two more women -- Miriam T. Picconi and Wanda Y. Russell -- will be ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan in Ormond Beach, Florida. Also this Easter, Martha Heizer, an Austrian theologian and co-founder of Wir Sind Kirche ("We Are Church"), has told Der Standard that she will be risking excommunication as usual by celebrating the Eucharist during a Mass in her home.


Msgr. Schüller took the Pope's criticism in stride. He described the Pope's remarks as "relatively cautious" and told the Associated Press he considers them a call to reflection, noting that the Pope didn't forbid what the dissident priests were doing or advocating. "We are listening with interest to this message," Schüller said. "I cannot see it as a very sharp wording." At the same time, he took issue with the Pope's position on women's ordination and argued that John Paul II's views on the subject cannot be considered to be the last word. He said that other members of the clergy have been much more harsh than the Pope, calling for his suspension.

But Schüller's rosy spin on the subject hides a harsher reality. The German online Catholic news source, Kath Net, reports that, while Cardinal Schönborn had not been given a heads-up that the Pope would be addressing the Pfarrer-Initiative, Vatican "inside sources" have said that he and other Austrian bishops have received a letter from the Vatican urging them to deal with it. Msgr. Schüller continues to express his willingness to dialogue with both Schönborn and the Pope.


The harshest treatment, however, has been reserved for a couple of Irish Redemptorist priests. Fr. Tony Flannery, the founder of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests, has had his monthly column in the Redemptorist magazine, Reality, discontinued under orders from the Vatican. He has also been forbidden to write for the IACP website or do any media work. The magazine's publisher, Fr. Gerard Moloney, has also been ordered not to write about certain issues. Fr. Flannery is known for his opposition to the Church's mandatory celibacy rule and its ban on artificial contraception and for his support of women's ordination.

While Flannery, who has been under investigation by the Vatican for his views, has been silent about the silencing, the head of the Redemptorist order in Limerick, Fr. Adrian Egan, while indicating that he was not speaking for the order, came out today in defense of his colleague, saying he was "flabbergasted, shocked, and amazed" by the Vatican's actions.

"I'm speaking on my own behalf and not for the Redemptorist order. I see nothing to be gained from silencing Tony. It doesn't sit well in today's culture and it doesn't benefit anyone. He (Tony) is articulating what he is hearing on the coal-face from ordinary people....He certainly has my support and I'd be surprised if he doesn't have the support of the vast majority of his colleagues and of the congregation.... [The Vatican's stance] isn't just a challenge to Tony, really. It's a challenge to anyone who wants to preach the good news and to do it in a way that is true to the spirit of the Gospel."

1 comment:

  1. Peter Johnstone, Melbourne, AustraliaApril 10, 2012 at 2:33 AM

    Thank you for this very helpful summary of thoughtful responses to the Pope's statement, his very defensive reaction to the articulation of the real issues facing the Church.