Helmut Schüller's Call to Disobedience

An Austrian priest challenges the Vatican to far-reaching reform – and he may well have the majority of the clergy behind him

News | Laurence Doering | December 2011 / January 2012

Photo: Kian Lovett

The small, single-nave church slowly empties, as parishioners pile out into the wintry, bright Sunday morning. Like most weeks, the 12th century Romanesque church of Probstdorf, a farming village a 45 minute drive east from Vienna, had been almost full. "I’ve come from the neighbouring village," says a woman in her mid-40s. "I don’t like our conservative priest. Here, Helmut Schüller approaches people, and I can always take something away with me." But beyond a tacit sense of pride and support, there is little in the peaceful congregation to suggest that its priest has openly challenged the Archbishop of Vienna, and ultimately the Pope.

In June, the Pfarrer-Initiative ("Priests’ Initiative") headed by Helmut Schüller issued a "Call to Disobedience" announcing that its members would defy Catholic doctrine in their practice of the liturgy, for instance by allowing qualified laity to give sermons and communion. At least until the Church advances reforms, including the admission of women and married men to the clergy.

But it is Schüller’s razor-sharp wit, paired with a sense of urgency bordering on impatience that make his ideas stick: "Given the egalitarian message of the Bible, the Church should be leading the debate on gender equality in society, not lagging behind." It is calls like this one from a panel discussion on the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation’s ORF2 on 8 Nov. that account for Schüller’s growing support, as well as the increasing wariness of Vienna’s archbishop, Christoph Schönborn.

The rebellious priest is no stranger to the archbishop. In the early 1990s, Schüller was the president of the Austrian branch of Caritas, the global charity of the Catholic Church, where he was celebrated for his managerial skill. Hence when Schönborn was installed as Archbishop of Vienna in 1995, he made Schüller his highest ranking deputy, the Vicar General. But just four years later Schönborn dismissed him due to "profound differences in opinion," as ORF reported at the time. Schüller was placing "too much importance on structural questions," at the expense of spirituality, the bishop reasoned. Schüller was exiled to Probstdorf where he remained under the control of the Vienna diocese, the district administered by the city’s bishop.

But the standoff seems only to have whetted Schüller’s appetite for these so-called structural questions: In 2006, he founded the Pfarrer-Initiative to address the increasing shortage of priests that was forcing parishes to close and be incorporated into larger units. Hence the current "Call to Disobedience" aims to make priesthood more accessible, and advocates a greater role for laity: Parishes should also have an non-ordained leader, and qualified laity, such as teachers of religious education, should also be allowed to hold sermons and give communion. "Rather than consolidating parishes, we call for a new image of the priest," the declaration reads.

It is this demand for returning priestly authority to parish communities that seems the most threatening to Church leaders. Indeed, Austria’s bishops have launched the Church’s classic counter-attack against critics of the status quo. Essentially, they have accused the Pfarrer-Initiative of heresy. Archbishop Schönborn, who presides over the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, said at a press conference in early November that communion services held by laity constituted "an open break with a central truth of our Catholic faith."

"I don’t think so," Schüller tells me as we speak over Colombian coffee at Fair Trade’s Vienna offices in the 3rd District; he is a board member of the Austrian branch of the labelling association that guarantees a fair price for producers. Wearing a black suit and shirt and no "dog collar", Schüller is friendly, but distant, focused on the matter at hand. Although he is being courted by the media – most recently holding a live Q&A blog on the website of the daily Die Presse – he is not the least bit fawning. Despite his rhetorical brilliance, this is not a populist.

Schüller thinks that Church leaders have an overly priest-centric view of Christianity that they are reluctant to give up.

"They want to be accepted as the intermediaries between God and the people," he demurs. Yet "Jesus was a layman," Schüller points out. "And he made no effort to install a clerical class…he encouraged people to confront God on their own." Hence communion is enacted by a parish community and a leader together. While according to current Church doctrine, Schüller admits, this leader has to be an ordained priest, there is no reason that it should stay that way. "There needs to be a revival of the importance of the parish for the celebration of communion."

Does he think that the Church leaders feel threatened by his movement? "Although they aren’t happy about it, they know that we are articulating something that the majority expects."

Schüller’s confidence is based on a telephone survey commissioned by the ORF and published in early November. The survey of 500 priests, representing every diocese in the country yet chosen at random, showed that 31% endorsed all of the Pfarrer-Initiative’s demands, and another 41% supported some of them. Only 28% rejected the initiative outright.

As such, 72% of respondents had a generally positive attitude towards the "Call for Disobedience". Moreover, a clear majority agreed with its central demands: 72% of all respondents agreed that men and women who are trained to preach should be allowed to do so during communion. Further, 71% of respondents believed that "married colleagues in the ministry are an enrichment," and 55% agreed that the ordination of women "conforms to the gospel."

Active support for the Pfarrer-Initiative, while lower, is still remarkable: by early November, 299 priests and 62 deacons – priests in training – had joined the group, accepting that their names would be published on the initiative’s website. This amounts to 8.6% of all the priests in Austria, whom ORF numbers at about 3500.

Yet Archbishop Schönborn remains unyielding. At the Bishops’ Conference press briefing he said that opinion polls could not absolve priests of their "responsibility for the fundamental unity of the Church." While shying away from stating disciplinary consequences, Schönborn said that bishops would talk to the priests within their diocese about "what it means to be a priest." Above all, the archbishop warned that "disobedience is a term of combat that is untenable."

This paternalistic response is a far cry from the national debate that the Pfarrer-Initiave hoped the bishops would launch. Yet Schüller still believes that taking active steps of disobedience was the right approach. "The term ‘disobedience’ is now four months old, but the concerns are 40 years old," he says impatiently, and starts rattling off previous reform conferences in Austria that remained without result. Taking action, therefore, was "important to provoke, to highlight…that there needs to be progress."

Above all, Schüller harks back to the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, when bishops worldwide were called to a conference in Rome that sought to render the Church’s teachings and organisation relevant to the contemporary world. While it resulted in 16 detailed statements of principle, Schüller maintains the Council’s practical application has stalled. "Next year, it will have been 50 years that we have been working on these concerns."

Schönborn, however, says Austria’s bishops aren’t responsible; only Rome can decide about such far-reaching reforms for the entire Church. Yet Schüller counters that "Schönborn and all the other bishops also have a role in Rome: They are members of the Synod of Bishops that leads the worldwide Church together with the pope." As such, they could lobby for worldwide reforms, or request a trial run in Austria or Europe, as this provision exists in Church law.

If Austria’s bishops took up the baton for reforms in Rome, Schüller believes they would be sure to gain support from other bishops around the world.

"I know that in Latin America these concerns are even more intense, because the shortage of priests is even greater there." Schüller has received letters of support from across Europe and Latin America, and is building an international alliance. The "Call to Disobedience" has been translated into nine languages.

Schüller feels that history is on his side: As Asia and Africa develop economically, they will increasingly face the same demands for women’s rights and greater participation of the laity.

Thus, almost 500 years after Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, and 50 years after the Second Vatican Council, a growing number of Catholic priests seems ready for reform.

Are their leaders ready too?

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