Troublesome priests?

Troublesome priests?
Obedient to ‘revisionist’ trends, do those who were immersed in the Second Vatican Council’s teachings during seminary years now forget everything they once embraced? In the interests of ecclesiastical careerism, do they become sudden enthusiasts for the so-called ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, turning their backs on the Council’s impetus for reform? Do they transfer previous enthusiasms to uncritical promotion of the best (and the worst) of the ‘new movements’?
In recent years, priests across all continents have been galvanised to initiate 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, leading nowhere. Is this a global conspiracy on the part of disgruntled priests to undermine the Church’s restorationist thrust? Or are more complex driving forces at play? 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 & 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 Vienna archdiocese’s former Vicar- General, Helmut Schüller. Previously President of Caritas Austria and very much an ‘institution man’, the emergence of Schüller as a reform activist surprised many. He has stood firm on the 2011 Austrian priests’ 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 is reflected in others’ agendas: new models of Church leadership in the face of decreasing and ageing 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 honouring same-sex relationships.
Clergy are frustrated with what they see as false obedience to unjust ecclesiastical regulations, forcing them to say 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, and many priests in Germany, Switzerland, and Northern Italy, recognise 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, they say: “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.”
Some radical Catholics could criticise these various initiatives as still highly clerical. Are their challenges regarding clerical celibacy, women priests, and more appropriate sexual theologies, simply a subconscious desire to preserve the institution from total irrelevance? Few of these groups spoke of empowering the people of God to a degree that would make their own role less significant or even redundant. Those who do raise the thorny questions are a relatively small sector.
The model of Church sometimes appears to rely on old paradigms, where the higher and lower clergy are providers to a dependent laity: “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, centre 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 Mgr. Schüller in a recent CNS interview (30 August 2012). In its early days, the Austrian initiative kept tightly to its clerical identity, without much collaboration with We Are Church, the grassroots lay movement founded in Austria in 1995. Even so, We Are Church, calling for the 2012-2013 Year of Faith to be also a Year of Dialogue for the Church, expressed solidarity with the Pfarrer Initiative, following Benedict XVI’s criticism of the latter on Maundy Thursday, 2012.
The Irish Association of Catholic Priests started from another experience, eventually embracing 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, it carried a significant clerical hall-mark in its early declarations. The officially recognised National Conference of Priests of Ireland wound up in 2007, having made little impact either on fellow-priests or the Irish hierarchy. On the other hand, Irish clergy knew from their informal grapevines about the extent of the abuse and the cover-up, taking the lid off 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, recognising that root and branch reform must involve the whole Church. In May 2012, over 1000 people attended a gathering, “Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church.” Moving from confrontation to a desire for dialogue, the ACP appeared to have been cold- shouldered by many of the Irish Bishops. A lay-woman, 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.
Rejection of an imposed, unwieldy English translation of the Roman Missal and the disciplining of theologians, unites other English-speaking clergy groups. 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.
In England & Wales, with its 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 (2 June 2012) urging reform. From the outset, this was different from the narrower focus of the Austrian or Irish clergy’s original statements, in calling for greater co-responsibility and dialogue within the Church, including the bishops.
Insights from the human sciences can make sense of the processes which have led to these expanding, witnessing protests. A key aspect may well be that the rise of these clerical groups reflects priests’ need for support. In an environment where numbers of the ordained are falling, age-profile increasing, and priests today so much under media scrutiny, there is nowhere to turn for emotional support other than to an in-group. The majority, being affiliated for support and meeting more personal needs, are therefore unlikely to endorse radical critiques from its fringes.
It is important to situate the Vatican 2 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 bottom-up initiatives, the most radical being the notion of the Basic Ecclesial Community. 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, Communione e Liberazione, and the Neo-Catechumenate.
The contemporary culture of networking, about which the sociologist, Paul Hawken, writes (Blessed Unrest, Penguin, 2007), is 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 USA 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.
Henri Tajfel’s groundbreaking Human Groups and Social Categories (CUP, 1981) explores how an individual‘s self-concept is derived from membership of a group which has social value and emotional significance for them. Self-identity is to some extent dependent on social identity. Membership of a particular group creates an in-group bias and individuals tend to develop an in/out group attitude which includes seeing others as inferior to one’s own group.
A lot of stereotyping goes on in this process and this may be used to reinforce beliefs that one group is superior to another. This tends to provide the basis for justifying behaviour in relation to the out-group. Implicit in all this is the sense of self-esteem derived from membership of the group. This is where the relationship between social and depth psychology comes into play. This identity, and the power it brings, has been threatened by the different understanding of Church which emerged from Vatican 2. In order to maintain its identity the in-group closes ranks and becomes more antagonistic to the out-groups. Their personal values are so tied up in who they are that opposition threatens their identity and their meaning. This is all about the emotional significance of the threat; the higher one’s status in the in-group the more the emotional investment, and subsequent paralysis of action.
Change in groups involves new insights, providing new patterns of motivation. Organisational change often fails because people hang on to self-belief about what the organisation is for and therefore how members should behave, rather than being open to the contrary evidence before them. In this environment, the Vatican could become increasingly oppressive, and the excommunication of those refusing to pay German church taxes is one recent example.
With the Vati-leak scandal, there is much talk of feuding factions inside the Vatican which could implode. Nevertheless, it is likely that change will only come with new leadership which has the determination to see it through and the power to make it happen whilst at the same time not destroying those people who will not change. The other possible source of change is some dramatic event – such as unsolvable financial problems
breaking the organisation.
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. Many clergy have a deep-rooted vision of Vatican 2, and in Ireland and Austria dramatic events like the protests of the people and withholding financial support, as well as abuse scandals, have called them to action.
Insights from human sciences and the effects of inequality, voiced by women’s groups or LGBTQ Catholics, their parents and families, have influenced many priests who now wish to dissociate themselves from injustice and untruth. The stereotyping process, with priests seen collectively as a group to be abhorred by many, and with senior clergy justifying malpractice at various levels of church life, has led many priests to take action.
In all of this, how can we rescue a grace-giving sense of power out of those demonic clutches which have allowed abuse, corruption, and dishonesty to prevail in some parts of the Church? Communities, big or small, can change when consciousness of reality is awakened, relational power is nurtured and used for the common good. These lessons have been learned in the community-organising movements of people like Saul Alinsky or Paolo Freire. Relational power is not only about establishing citizens’ status in civic schemes, but can 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 learn this.
Martin Pendergast

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  1. Brendan Peters says:

    An insightful and timely piece, Martin. Much to ponder on here. Many thanks!

  2. Jerry Slevin says:

    Thank you, Martin, for the fulsome update and analysis.
    You may want to note that next Thursday, October 18, Fr. Hans Kung will be addressing a large gathering of German Catholic reformers at Paulskirche in Frankfurt.
    Fr. Kung, as you know, is, along with the pope, who was his former colleague as well as a long time friend, a theologian who influenced Vatican Council II’s thinking and decisions.
    Fr. Kung has just called for, in a recent Guardian interview, a revolution from below in the Church.
    An informed and astute observer, Fr. Kung compared the current Vatican autocratic approach to the totalitarian experience in World War II Germany.
    Ireland, in many ways, is becoming a leader in this revolution. As a son of Donegal parents who regaled me as a toddler with Easter Rebellion stories, I am pleased that so many of the Irish are finally rising to help save our Church once again, as it did earlier in the so-called Dark Ages. Godspeed!

  3. Fr. Bob Cushing says:

    Thank you, Martin, for this well-rounded summary of what is happening with many of our presbyteral communities around the globe. Speaking for the AUSCP contingent, we are discovering our own voice slowly, finding that we must establish a vigorous solidarity with our brother priests first because the present dominant model of ministry in our great disfunctional family has worn us thin. We are very aware of our need for the support of the non-ordained baptized and our need to network with them before we can develop as an association. So we are moving slowly, we pray like an awakening giant, gathering momentum and numbers so that we may find a way to speak with our brothers who are bishops here at home as well as abroad. Vatican II lives! So let us continue the dialogue that leads to active reform.
    -Bob Cushing, AUSCP Board member

  4. Jack Barry says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful overview of this expanding phenomenon. A Parish Initiative in Switzerland has just announced itself with 341 signers and 186 sympathizers as of Oct 11, 2012.
    Its initial position statement resembles that of the Austrian Pastors’ Initiative “Appeal to Disobedience”, to which the Pope and Cdl. Schonborn objected during Holy Week. Some commonality can be seen with the Objectives of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests. The Swiss initiative began in April in consultation with Helmut Schuler, leader of the Austrian Pastors’ Initiative.
    Rough translation of its site in German indicates support of Communion for all baptized Christians, Communion for divorced-remarried, trained lay male and female homilists, and parish manageability, among other things.
    Although these groups are national in initial focus, dissemination is clearly an objective. The German-speaking theologians’ initiative of 2011 is offered in 15 languages and the Austrian Appeal to Disobedience in 10.

  5. Martin Murray says:

    “Some radical Catholics could criticise these various initiatives as still highly clerical. Are their challenges regarding clerical celibacy, women priests, and more appropriate sexual theologies, simply a subconscious desire to preserve the institution from total irrelevance? Few of these groups spoke of empowering the people of God to a degree that would make their own role less significant or even redundant. Those who do raise the thorny questions are a relatively small sector.”
    Or as someone put it in the Regency gathering, before we consider who we open the priesthood up to, we need to ask “What is the Priesthood?” Some might consider this a question too far. It might well be be a frightening question, but it is a key one for both clergy and laity brave enough to consider reform. For it implies the surrendering of power and the sharing of responsibility. Do clergy really want to relinquish power? Do laity really want the bother of taking on real responsibility? Our answers to these questions may well determine the shape and relevance of the church of the 21st century.

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