After kicking off his 15-city Catholic Tipping Point tour, Austrian reformist priest Fr. Helmut Schüller stopped in Cleveland last week. The U.S. tour, sponsored by 10 progressive U.S. Catholic organizations including Cleveland-based FutureChurch, appeals to reform minded Catholics.
In 2006, Schüller and a group of fellow clergy members founded the Austrian Priests’ Initiativeas a way to publicize their concerns about the shrinking priesthood, the merging of parishes, and the pressures being placed on fewer and fewer parish priests.
Since inaugurating what he terms the Call to Disobedience in 2011, Schüller has been clear that the Austrian Priests’ Initiative does not believe in disobedience for the sake of contradiction, but rather, to promote a “graduated obedience,” first to God, then to conscience and, finally, to church order.
He told a crowd of 400 at the Independence Middle School in Cleveland that the only way to restore the Church to the people, where it rightfully belongs, is to invoke the letter and spirit of Vatican Council II, and permit lay Catholics to “become citizens of the Church again.” He recommended that polarizing issues like optional priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, and welcoming lesbian and gay couples to the sacraments, should be discussed openly within the Church, not swept under the rug. His message for Catholic women, in particular, is to continue speaking out forcefully for their rights, refusing to be cowered into silence.
His Call to Disobedience, advocates, among other things, that:
1. Women and married people be admitted into the priesthood
2. Greater lay leadership be permitted within dioceses
3. Church governance be changed into a model that allows more transparency, less insularity, and less authoritarianism.
At least 425 of Austria’s 3,800 priests have endorsed the “Call,” and the Austrian Priests’ Initiative estimates that 70 percent of Austrian Catholics agree with their platform. Thousands of priests and laity in Germany, France, Ireland, England, Switzerland, Australia and the United States agree as well.
A recent study from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils disclosed that for every 100 priests who retire, only 30 are available to replace them. Schüller maintains that his gravest concern is that the priest shortage is depriving baptized Catholics of access to the Eucharist, which is the “spiritual center of our communities. Moreover, the very essence of a parish — interaction – is being lost, a most discouraging result, especially for young priests who are burning out at an alarming rate.
Asked why he doesn’t leave the Church and join a denomination closer to his views, Schüller replied,
“This is my Church. We should not give in and go to the Protestant churches.”
Protestant churches across the country, however, have and will continue to roll out the red carpet for him after Catholic bishops have forbidden his tour’s entry onto church property, even warning priests against meeting with him. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, for example, has ordered his priests not to dine with Schüller in their rectories when the tour comes to his archdiocese.
How did Schüller respond to being barred from speaking on Catholic church property in Manhattan? “So we met at a Protestant church instead (Judson Memorial Church, a historic community in Greenwich Village with affiliations to the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church). I guess you could call that a new form of ecumenicalism.”
Bravo to Fr. Schüller and his Catholic Tipping Point tour for reminding critical thinking Catholics worldwide of the Second Vatican Council teaching that the Church is always in need of reform, even if traditionalist Catholics continue to insist there’s no need to change.