Austrian priest: Dissent aids healthy church
September 5th, 2012
By Sarah MacDonald
DUBLIN – The leader of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative said the dissident group’s call to disobedience reflects the lack of accountability among those who exercise power and authority in the Catholic Church.
Msgr. Helmut Schuller told Catholic News Service that reform and substantive structural change are “essential for the future of the church” in Europe and the wider world.
The Priests’ Initiative, which now represents 500 clergy in Austria, wants the Vatican to revive the “Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis” project initiated by Pope Paul VI following the Second Vatican Council. The project, which sought to establish a common fundamental code or church constitution similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights for church members, was shelved by Pope John Paul II in 1981.
“We are talking about providing basic rights for the people of God and a structure of participation in decision-making and feedback between the top, center and base of the church. We also want to establish a system of control for those who hold power and authority in the church,” said Msgr. Schuller, former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna and former director of Caritas Austria.
The Priests’ Initiative was founded in 2006 and made international headlines in June 2011 when it issued its “Appeal to Disobedience” over its agenda, which includes making clerical celibacy optional, allowing divorced and remarried Catholics who did not receive an annulment to receive Communion, and advocating a softer line on homosexual partnerships.
Msgr. Schuller, 60, told CNS that the group is engaged with the question of celibacy because of the lack of priests and concern over its future implications.
“The No. 1 issue for the church in Austria is the future of parish communities. They need a new model of leadership,” he said.
The second central issue for the group is the church’s structures, which “must respect the rights of its members” and the operation of the institutional church’s offices of authority. On the position of women, he suggested there is “a contradiction in respect of the church’s message that men and women are equal before God but not in church.”
Calling on the Austrian hierarchy to engage in dialogue with the Priests’ Initiative, he rejected suggestions that the group is intent on schism. Though earlier this year Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schonborn publicly urged the group to recant its call to disobedience, Msgr. Schuller said the group is standing firm on the matter.
He said the real danger to the unity of the church is in the way the bishops and the pope continue to separate themselves from the views of the majority of the laity.
“It is no longer enough to say ‘no’ or to tell people that they have to be obedient or say something is not allowed,” he said.
Msgr. Schuller said he would like the Vatican to give the group a chance to respond to the questions Pope Benedict XVI raised in his homily at this year’s chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, when the pope suggested that renewal will emerge through obedience and a focus on Jesus.
“He asked questions such as can disobedience be a way of reforming the church; is it the right thing? We want to answer these questions,” Msgr. Schuller said.
In May the leadership of the Priests’ Initiative wrote to the pope, requesting an opportunity to meet and discuss these issues, but so far there has been no response from Rome.
“We are waiting,” he said.
The group’s membership is growing, and its Austrian members network with other groups internationally. Cardinal Schonborn has been credited with circumventing an escalation of the standoff in Austria, and so far there has been no censure of members, though the cardinal has said Priests’ Initiative members can no longer be appointed as deans in his diocese, and the Congregation for Clergy has warned the Austrian hierarchy that no member can hold diocesan leadership roles.
Msgr. Schuller said the group is angered by the amount of time and effort the Vatican has dedicated to accommodating the demands of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, a group he said represents a “tiny minority.”
“It is ridiculous. We are conveying the views and desires of the vast majority of Catholics, but the way Rome is acting you would think the SSPX speak for the majority. It is an inversion of reality,” he told CNS.
The lack of will to give the group space to dialogue with the Austrian hierarchy or Vatican officials means the group believes it must continue to “move forward without such discussions,” Msgr. Schuller said.
“We are calling on parish communities to make their own decisions as they face the possibility of running out of priests,” he said. “We are suggesting that they shouldn’t ask what will happen, but should decide for themselves what they want to be in the future. Then they can ask the bishops how they can help them.
“At the moment there is a very strong dependency on the bishops and their decisions,” he said. “But there is no decision-making happening in the center of the church, and time is running out.”
From September 7, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.