Friday, July 19, 2013

A Study in Contrasts: The Pfarrer Initiative and the Association of US Catholic Priests

Fr. Helmut Schüller, the founder of Austria's Pfarrer Initiative, a movement by that country's Roman Catholic priests calling for church reform, is now touring the United States in a series of speaking engagements dubbed The Catholic Tipping Point. Prior to the tour, Fr. Schüller addressed the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) meeting in their second general assembly in Seattle in June via Skype. AUSCP held a similar teleconference via Skype with Fr. Tony Flannery of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests. The American priests' group drew its initial inspiration from these two European priests' groups...but that's where the similarity ends.

Whereas Fr. Schüller has been so courageous in his call for reform and for increased lay involvement in the church that two American archbishops, Msgr. Charles Chaput in Philadelphia and Cardinal Sean O'Malley in Boston, have denied him permission to speak in any Catholic parish in their jurisdictions, the AUSCP showed considerable caution in the resolutions passed by the 140 delegates who gathered in Seattle last month.

According to the Pray Tell Blog, AUSCP approved resolutions:

  • favoring exercise of authority in a collegial manner through consensus decision-making processes with councils and boards;
  • supporting Pope Francis in the reform of the Church to restore credibility, with participation of laity and clergy in the selection of bishop;
  • endorsing Cardinal Bernadin’s Common Ground Initiative to promote inclusive dialogue and collaboration;
  • supporting the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate;
  • encouraging the reintroduction of general absolution;
  • supporting the Labor Priests Project of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and establishing its own Priest-Labor-Union-Friendly Caucus.

However, the group voted down resolutions:

  • asking the US bishops to work to resolve the problem of precipitous decline in number of active priests;
  • making the selection of bishops more transparent, with selection generally from the local presbyterate and proceedings not done in secret.
  • seeking permission to use the 1974 Sacramentary;
  • asking the US bishops to appoint a liaison to AUSCP and include an AUSCP delegate as auditor at its November meeting;
  • supporting a plan for evangelization including diagnosis of why Catholics leave;
  • calling for study and open discussion of women and married men in the priesthood;
  • promoting sufficient time for presbyterate to determine its own interim leader when a bishop reaches age of resignation/retirement.

Resolutions on selecting a Priest of the Month and one opposing the annual collection for the Archdiocese for Military Services were withdrawn. The full text of all proposed resolutions -- passed, rejected, and withdrawn -- are available here.

AUSCP's rejection of the resolution on the optional use of the 1974 Sacramentary is particularly ironic given that at its first meeting in 2012, the group called on the bishops to address the problems in the new translation, which most of them dislike. Obviously, there has been no movement from the bishops to do anything about the new translation and priests' individual responses have ranged from a weary acceptance of the inevitable to quiet refusal to use the worst parts of the new liturgy.

While the AUSCP's support for the admission of women to the permanent diaconate is laudable, it's disappointing that they could not bring themselves to even call for studying and discussion of opening the priesthood to women and married men -- especially given the fact that most Catholic priests support this. Contrast this stance with the Pfarrer Initiative's "Call to Disobedience" which says that signatories "will take every opportunity to speak up publicly for the admission of women and married people to the priesthood." As an interim step, the signatories also commit themselves to allowing non-ordained persons, both men and women, to preach and lead liturgies in the absence of a priest.

In explaining the vote against discussing the expansion of the priesthood, Fr. Dave Cooper, the head of AUSCP said that the group's objective was to dialogue with the bishops and "find bridges to do that.” Had the group adopted the resolution on ordaining women priests, he said, "it would have become an obstacle, a barrier, rather than a bridge." Cooper called the rejection of the resolution an act of wisdom rather than of lack of courage. "Wisdom" perhaps, but more likely the "wisdom" of self-protection since the Austrian priests have not had the experience of having one of their own de-frocked over the women's ordination issue, as happened to Fr. Roy Bourgeois in the United States.

And, of course, the entire Pfarrer-Initiative began, and is informed by, the Austrian priests' concern about the growing priest shortage in their country and the various means of addressing it, including parish mergers which Fr. Schüller's group vigorously opposes. When Fr. Schüller spoke against the Archdiocese of Boston's restructuring plan this week, which he likened to "downsizing a corporation", the Archdiocese was quick to defend its program.

In contrast, AUSCP declined to pass even a mildly worded resolution calling on the organization to express to the bishops "its pastoral concern about the precipitous decline of active priests available to serve the People of God. We ask our Bishops, as Shepherds of God’s people, to employ the power and the authority of their office and work to resolve the significant pastoral and sacramental challenges resulting from an expanding Church and a declining priesthood."

And, unlike the Pfarrer Initiative, the AUSCP doesn't even begin to address broader church reform issues such as communion for divorced and re-married Catholics, whereas the Austrian priests have publicly stated that they "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" (the latter category refers mainly to those who have formally left the Church to avoid having to pay Austria's church tax).

Even AUSCP's goals are stated in a vague and circumspect way and the emphasis seems to be more on providing spiritual and emotional support to the priests themselves than being a prophetic voice in the Church at large:

1.Establish a recognized forum through which priests can relate to one another.

2.Be an advocate for the spiritual, physical, and psychological needs of priests.

3.Foster a priestly dialogue with the women religious, the laity, the bishops, and their national organizations.

4.Be a prophetic voice of hope.

5.Continue to celebrate and implement the visionary concepts of Vatican Council II.

The Irish Association of Catholic Priests, in contrast, spells out a number of very specific church and societal reform goals in their Constitution:

2. Purpose of the association: To promote the aims and objectives, as laid out below:

Providing a voice for Irish Catholic priests at a time when that voice is largely silent and needs to be expressed.

Giving an opportunity for Irish priests to engage proactively with the crucial debates taking place in Irish society

Full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council, with special emphasis on:
* the primacy of the individual conscience.
* the status and active participation of all the baptised.
the task of establishing a Church where all believers will be treated as equal.

A redesigning of Ministry in the Church, in order to incorporate the gifts, wisdom and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female.

A re-structuring of the governing system of the Church, basing it on service rather than on power, and encouraging at every level a culture of consultation and transparency, particularly in the appointment of Church leaders.

A culture in which the local bishop and the priests relate to each other in a spirit of trust, support and generosity.

A re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching and practice that recognizes the profound mystery of human sexuality and the experience and wisdom of God’s people.

Promotion of peace, justice and the protection of God’s creation locally, nationally and globally.

Recognition that Church and State are separate and that while the Church must preach the message of the Gospel and try to live it authentically, the State has the task of enacting laws for all its citizens.

Liturgical celebrations that use rituals and language that are easily understood, inclusive and accessible to all.

Strengthening relationships with our fellow Christians and other faiths.

Full acceptance that the Spirit speaks through all people, including those of faiths other than Christian and those of no religious faith, so that the breath of the Spirit will flow more freely.

To put things in perspective, it's important to realize that the American priests' association is the youngest of the three. And numbers count too. When we first wrote about the various priest associations in 2011, we estimated that 6% of Austrian priests had signed on to the Pfarrer Initiative and that number has expanded. Eight percent of Irish priests belonged to that country's ACP. Fewer than 3% of American priests (approximately 985, according to its web site) belong to AUSCP. We can only hope that as it becomes more established and its membership grows, AUSCP will adopt the bolder positions of its European counterparts and become a strong voice for Catholic church reform.

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