Troublesome Priests – Awakening Change in the Church

| by Martin Pendergast | Date Unknown | Concience |

Helmut Schuller

Though some would deny it, the Catholic church does change, and so do priests. In recent decades, the winds have changed from a more progressive Catholicism to today’s conservatism, and many priests seem to have reoriented themselves accordingly. Do those who were immersed in the Second Vatican Council’s teachings during seminary years so easily forget everything they once embraced? In the interests of ecclesiastical careerism, do they become sudden enthusiasts for the “hermeneutic of continuity,” Pope Bene­diet XVI’s call to reclaim the past, thereby turning their backs on the Council’s impetus for reform? Do these clerics transfer previous enthusiasms to uncritical promotion of the best (and the worst) of the conservative-leaning new movements such as Comunione e Libera­zione? Or does a strain of the catholic remain within Catholic priests, uncultivated because the times lead them to believe they are alone in wanting the church to grow in new directions?

At the same time winds of change have sprung up, with priests across all continents initiating projects of reform and renewal within the Catholic church.  The media has often reported these initiatives either as strident rebellion or groans of the depressed, doomed to lead nowhere. Where this urge for transformation might lead is still unclear.  Is it a global fight between those who would preserve and those who would overwrite Vatican II?  Many of these priests’ initiatives are in early stages of development, so what follows can only be a snapshot of what many clergy see as a longer-term project.

In Austria, Ireland, England and Wales, and the United States, common themes emerge in the various clergy associations, even if the starting points vary according to local contexts. The Austrian Pfarrer Initiative was one of the first to challenge current Catholic conservatism. Representing more than 500 clergy, it is fronted by the former Vicar-General of the Vienna archdiocese, Helmut Schuller. Previously president of Caritas Austria and very much an “institution man,” the emergence of Schuller as a reformist surprised many. He has stood firm on the Austrian priests’ 2011 Appeal to Disobedience, which notes that “the Roman refusal to take up long needed reforms and the inaction of the bishops not only permits but demands that we follow our conscience and act independently.”

The Austrian appeal contains themes that are prevalent in other Catholic agendas for change: new models of church leadership in the face of decreasing and aging clergy numbers; optional celibacy; admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion; advocating reappraisals of the church’s gender discrimination and sexual theologies, including admittance of women to ordained ministries; and honoring same-sex relationships.

These are some of the areas in which clergy are frustrated with what they see as false obedience to unjust ecclesiastical regulations,  forcing them to believe one thing, yet do another. Awakening from this imposed pathology, they affirm that now is the time to speak pastoral truth to hierarchical power. The Austrians, along with many priests in Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy, recognize, however, that “disobedience” can be seen as an offensive word. The Pfarrer Initiative explains, “We do not mean general disobedience for opposition’s sake, but the graduated obedience where we first owe obedience to God, then to our conscience, and lastly also to church order.” In their “Plea for a Credible Church,” the group says, “Because silence is taken to be acquiescence, and because we want to be true to our responsibility as priests and pastors, we have to express this five point protest. It is a ‘protest’ in the literal sense—a ‘witness for’ (pro teste) church reform, for people whose pastors we want to be and for our Church.”

When priests advocate for change, their model of church sometimes appears to rely on old paradigms, in which the higher and lower clergy are providers to a dependent laity. In its early days, the Austrian initiative kept tightly to its clerical identity, without much collaboration with We Are Church, the well-established grassroots lay movement founded in Austria in 1995. Even so, when We Are Church called for the 2012-2013 Year of Faith to be also a Year of Dialogue for the Church, the group expressed solidarity with the Pfarrer Initiative following Benedict XVI’s criticism of the Austrian priests’ movement on Holy Thursday of this year.

Still, some radical Catholics could criticize these various initiatives as being clergy-centric. Are these priests, willing to confront existing challenges regarding clerical celibacy, women priests and more appropriate sexual theologies, simply motivated by a subconscious desire to preserve the institution from total irrelevance?

Few of these groups have spoken of empowering the People of God to a degree that would make their own role less significant or even redundant. Those who do raise these thorny questions are a relatively small sector.

The Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) grew out of a different context and eventually embraced a wider reform agenda. Irish priests were frustrated at being scapegoated in the country’s sexual abuse crisis. Given the traditionally central role of the priest in Ireland, the association carried a significant clerical hallmark in its early declarations. The officially recognized National Conference of Priests of Ireland, founded in 1975, wound up in 2007, having made little impact either on priests or the Irish bishops. On the other hand, Irish clergy knew from their informal grapevines about the extent of the abuse and the cover-up that would eventually expose the actions of many bishops. They were also faced with an  increasingly vocal and theologically educated laity expressing disgust and, at times, contempt for the clergy.

More recently, the ACP has broadened its vision, recognizing that root-and-branch reform must involve the whole church. In May of this year, more than 1,000 people attended a gathering, “Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church.” Moving from confrontation to a desire for dialogue, the ACP appears to have been cold-shouldered by many of the Irish bishops, who miss the importance of conversation within the church. A laywoman speaking at the May meeting said, “The absence of dialogue is in some instances a form of violence, and brings our Church into disrepute.” The ACP’S objectives and the papers given by clergy and laity at the May assembly strongly resemble those of their German speaking colleagues.

Other English-speaking clergy groups have been united by a rejection of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which many see as imposed and unwieldy, as well as by the spate of theologians disciplined by the Vatican. The Association of United States Catholic Priests (AUSCP), with over 800 members in 117 dioceses, judging by the Resolutions passed at its 2012 Assembly, also shows signs of moving beyond narrow clerical interests to endorse broader church reform agendas, such as expressing support for Sisters Margaret Farley and Elizabeth Johnson, theologians who have each had a book censured by the Vatican.

In England and Wales, with the independently-minded National Conference of Priests in abeyance since 2010, a small group of diocesan and religious priests wrote a letter to the Catholic weekly, the Tablet, urging reform. From the outset, this was different from the narrower focus of the Austrian or Irish clergy’s original statements, in that it called for greater co-responsibility and dialogue within the church, including the bishops.

The rise of these reform-minded groups may not only be a reflection of priests’ looking outward to the fate of the church, but also their more personal need for support. In an environment where numbers of the ordained are falling and the age profile is increasing, and with priests today so much under media scrutiny, there is nowhere to turn for emotional support other than to an in-group. The same motivation that made priests band together in Austria or Ireland is probably what keeps the majority, already affiliated for support and thus able to meet more personal needs, unlikely to endorse radical critiques from its fringes.

In order to understand these coexisting progressive and conservative currents within the church, it is important to situate the Vatican II experience within the counter-culture of the 1960s and its significant backlash against all forms of excessive institutionalization. If the Council had not happened, something very similar might well have emerged organically. In church terms, it spawned a range of lay initiatives, the most radical being the notion of the Basic Ecclesial Community, or groups of laypersons who live their faith together. This creative energy has not necessarily been undermined or destroyed with the appointment of more conservative bishops, or the dominance of more “acceptable” movements such as Opus Dei, Comunione e Liberazione and the Neo-Catechumenate.

A new layer has emerged recently. Sociologist Paul Hawken has called the contemporary culture of networking a new consciousness, luring many people of faith into a post-ecclesiastical space. Some retain tentative links with a local church; some attend for feast days or for baptisms, marriages and funerals; but otherwise they drift rather vaguely, seeking an alternative community that embraces today’s bigger personal and planetary issues. Perhaps more obvious in the US and Australia than in Europe, this space consists largely of people in the second half of life. Sadly, the polarization may have gone so far that there is little common ground for dialogue between these post-ecclesiastical Christians and formal church structures.

The shrinking common ground within the Catholic church may be due in part to priests’ vision of a static church that is the cornerstone of their own identity. After all, the church nurtures not only their spirit but also their worldly needs, tying loyalty to the leadership with significant considerations such as pensions. But different understandings of church emerged from Vatican II, and these competing viewpoints have threatened the clerical establishment. In reaction, the hierarchy has closed ranks and become more antagonistic to the outgroups, which we have seen in the stepping up of official condemnations of everything from women’s ordination to same-sex marriage. Examples abound of the institutional church sticking to a playbook that may have once been relevant rather than recognizing the rules have changed. The Vatican’s upholding of the German church’s sanctions on those who refuse to pay a century-old church tax is one recent example.

The Vatileaks scandal suggested that there might be division even within the inner circle of the papacy, and that feuding factions inside the Vatican could eventually implode. Nevertheless, it is likely that change will only come with a new leadership, one that has the determination to transform the church and the power to make it happen, along with a delicate touch that will not destroy those people who will not change. The other possible source of top-level change within the church is some dramatic event—such as unsolvable financial problems—breaking the organization.

Clergy initiatives are, in part, a numbers game. There has undoubtedly been much private discussion, but once some are prepared to go public, there is a sense that a new value-set will impel others to join in and still feel safe. At heart, many clergy still quietly embrace the values of Vatican II. In Ireland and Austria, dramatic events—such as protests by the faithful and their withholding of financial support for the church, as well as abuse scandals—have activated this dormant seed, and with it, priests who may have been willing to toe the line up to that point.

Today’s priesthood benefits from a greater focus on the effects of inequality on the church community. The wisdom of women’s groups and LGBTQ Catholics, their parents and families, has influenced many priests who now wish to dissociate themselves from injustice and untruth that may be just as fervently espoused by some of their peers.

Every Catholic is now faced by the same urgent question: how can we rescue a grace-giving sense of power out of those demonic clutches that have allowed abuse, corruption and dishonesty to prevail in some parts of the church? Communities, big or small, can change when they are awakened to this pressing reality, and then when the relationships between all levels of the church are nurtured and used for the common good. These lessons have been learned in the community-organizing movements of people like Saul Alinsky or Paolo Freire.

Relational power starts with establishing citizens’ status in civic schemes, or in the case of the church, recognizing the ability of the faithful to teach and to lead as well as to follow. Cultivating new ways of relating within the church will help transform people of faith into vibrant communities seeking justice and celebrating God’s grace in human history. Signs are that some of the clergy initiatives are beginning to reach priests with the message that they are not alone in wanting change, and the fact that some Catholics are seeing each other across the traditional lay/ordained divide is cause for hope.

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6 Responses to Troublesome Priests – Awakening Change in the Church

  1. Shirley Adler says:

    We so much need priests and bishops like you who continue to go against the goad of conservatism by keeping Vatican Council ll going. We lay people need to journey with you in this constant renewal. We all have pained so much in bringing about renewal and also expeienced the joys of the efforts much of the time. My prayer to the Holy Spirit is that we all continue to listen to our call of renewal. My prayers for all of you–all of us.

  2. Annette Staubs says:

    Wow! This is a wonderful essay. I am grateful for the information it gives about priest reform groups and for the insights into the problem of clericalism versus the priesthood of the people. There are so many different reform groups. I wonder, if we developed one umbrella organization, whether that would help us move forward better. Or would that set us up for a schism? I don’t know. I pray that we are approachng a critical mass of reform.

  3. Rosemary says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more that there is a need to develop one large umbrella organization with some specific agenda items that we all agree on. On Jan 9th I published the following article on this very subject:

    I hope for this from the priests groups as well – that they will unite around the world and that they will join their voices will the laity to become a cohesive and powerful voice for Vatican II!

  4. William T. Keane says:

    While I support the main themes of this article which are all about the need for chamge in the structures and government of the Church, I think that there are several ussues involved which might better be dealt with separately.
    Clericalism, which sees the clergy and hierarchy as ontologically superior castes to the laity,is probably the first that needs to be addressed. Otherwise you provide a veto by the clergy on all decisions. If that is removed, even if the Pope maintains a veto on doctrinal issues, the whole process changes.
    Decentralization of church administration would follow. This would restore collegiality as envisioned by Vatican II and would also involve the whole body of the faithful in the selection of bishops, with the possibility of some oversight by the NCCB or by the Pope of the ultimate choice. The election of Popes would also be by a more representative body, possibly chosen by national pastoral councils for limited periods.
    Other issues would be dealt with by a similar body as they arose, with the more urgent having priority.I would rank the decline in priestly vocations as one of these. It might or might not address priestly celibacy and the ordination of women as part of this issue.
    I would also rank divorce and remarriage and birth control as very urgent and less controversial than issues concerning homosexuality. While there might be some discussion on abortion, I cannot conceive any change in the Church’s position on the issue.
    I realize that this article is about the need for change. I just wanted to clarify what kind of change we have in mind.

  5. Marsha Miller says:

    At this point I am one of those in the second half of life who grew up in Vatican II and loved the small groups of that time when the very bricks in the church breathed and new ideas and a new community flowed. I cannot go back to feeling inferior to some man with a title. All must earn my respect. I know look to other places for community and spirituality. My God and spiritual growth remain very important to me . However the Roman Catholic Church no longer feeds my soul. It just makes me sad. It to is about politics and the accompanying power, money and often squashed sexuality. Not a healthy place to me.

  6. W.T. Keane says:

    Marsha: I sympathize with your distress with where the Church has regressed in the last two decades but the regression has been by the hierarchy and the new clergy, not the Church which is you and me. The last two months give signs for hope, for a return to the attitides and vakues of Vatican II. The restoration will not be instantaneous but gradual…after all this is still the Catholic Church! It takes longer to clean up a mess than to create it.
    We have a new Pope, a new hope and we still need to pray but with confidence in the Holy Spirit. In the meantime we can work in our own parish and diocese to bring about these changes.

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