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Dissident Austrian priest's U.S. speaking tour begins

Father Helmut Schüller, whose “Call to Disobedience” attracted the support of many of his fellow Austrian priests, has begun a speaking tour of 15 U.S. cities in an attempt to build a network of support for church reform. He spoke tonight in a Protestant church in Manhattan, Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square. Earlier in the day, I listened in as a group of advocates for church reform asked him over lunch in Brooklyn about his plans for the Catholic Tipping Point tour.

Schüller was queried about his own “tipping point” – how he came to the decision to disobey the church hierarchy and advocate an agenda that includes having women and married priests to reduce the priest shortage; reforming church governance and emphasizing the role of the laity. 

He traced his tipping point to the mid-1990s, when he became vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna. At the time, he requested that he also be appointed a pastor. He’d served in various administrative posts, such as directing Caritas in Austria, but had always wanted to be a pastor, he said.

From that vantage, he said, he saw the future of a church without enough priests – a future of downsizing and merging parishes. So he began to advocate reforms, and gathered other priests to the cause. “We are the ones who can do it because we are part of the hierarchy” and not dismissed as easily as the laity, he said.

As vicar general, Schuller also had to pick up the pieces of the clergy sex abuse scandal revolving around Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who succeeded Groër in 1995, appointed Schüller vicar general. In 1999, Schüller was removed from the post.

He said the “Call to Disobedience” that the Austrian Priests’ Initiative issued in 2011 was “a very provocative step,” and acknowledged that a good number of Austrian priests who agree with him on reform were put off by the idea of being deliberately disobedient. “Did you get anything for your obedience?” he said he responded.  “Any piece of church reform?” (Some 430 Austrian priests and deacons are members of the initiative, about 15 percent, according to the group.)

What he has proposed may be provocative, he said, but was a necessary response to “the totalitarian character of these structures” of the church. (The response from U.S. church authorities to his speaking tour has been chilly.)

One purpose of his trip is to build another kind of structure – a network of reform-minded priests interacting with laity. On Monday night, he met with 10 New York priests. His trip was taken in part to prepare for an October 10-11 meeting in Austria of organizations of dissident priests from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland and the United States, he said.

It is important “to get the system nervous, and they are very nervous,” Schüller said.

In the meantime, he expressed hope in Pope Francis. “My hope is the gestures become someday systematic changes.”

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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He is not the first to take on the Empire. Usually the hierarchy manages to minimize the reformers. But the climate may be ripe. Even people who attend church know the church is in trouble. More importantly all those neocons who pushed the outrageous change in the liturgy, realize now that they are losing people every day. Sister Sara Butler, former progressive turned Empire praiser, gave a speech in Dunwoodie NY lamenting that Pentecostals are attracting former Catholics. So the JP II crowd knows they have failed and know their approach has to change. Maybe renewal priests who know the problems but have been fearful will find courage.  The enormous amount of Indian Priests here remains a scandal while India is in the news as an oppresor of the poor. But Empire money attracted them here. Same with Africa. Especially NIgeria. And the clergy who are getting ordained here leave a lot to be desired. 

We are not talking anarachy. We are talking renewal led by the gospel. Jesus was not obedient to the Scribes and Pharisees. Yet The RCC Empire has ruled by obedience not the Spirit. 

We will see where movements like this leads.

In Philly, he will be hosted by Chestnut Hill College  (Sisters of St Joseph). The archdiocese asked them not to host Father, but Chestnut Hill said that, while, it respects the Archdiocese' decision, it will host Fr Schuller as part of its mission to encourage dialogue on important issues.   (The Archdiocese is a little bummed; it said hosting the event on a college campus undermines church unity). 




Is characterizing a priest as "dissident" sort of pejorative? 

The Second Vatican Council envisioned and stipulated that the Church is all of us, the community of believers.  This means that there should be dialogue within the church-------two-way communication---- between the laity and the hierarchy.  It seems that the Catholic Church must either shrink to become the church of the chosen few, or ways must be found to alleviate the shortage of priests.  How else to relieve the priest shortage except to have married priests and and women priests?  The nuns seem to be more true to Christ's teachings than the bishops.  Is there any reason why women should not be deacons immediately? 

It isn't only doctrinal issues that some bishops and other clerics do not wish discussed.  When our diocese of Rockville Centre replaced the weekly diocesan newspaper (a narrow house organ) with a magazine printed ten times yearly, they said it was done for economy.  Maybe our leaders do not wish the faithful to learn even the administrative details of diocesan life: which parishes spend x amount of cash on renovations; which parishes collect x amount of money for Peter's Pence; how many Pence the diocese sent to whoever next gets the bundle, etc.; which parishes have to pair up on religious education staff.

Even the priestly assignments showed up on the diocesan website a month late, after local media had announced several.



Bill Mazella,

Catholics have been joining Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches in huge numbers for 50 years.  The numbers in Latin America probably exceed the raw numbers who left the Church during the first 100 years of the Reformation.  Pentecostalism offers them a transcendent spirituality based upon the crucified Christ, the bodily Resurrection and the active agency of the Holy Spirit in the daily lives of believers.  They put limits on demythologizing the scriptures and are generally conservative in their theology.  They are adamantly against abortion, same-sex marriage, and strongly believe in the nuclear family.  In other words, they would not be attracted to "progressive" (your word) theology or spirituality.  I've been to several web sites of small charismatic churches where they plainly say in their mission statement ("What We Believe") that they subscribe to the Nicene Creed.  Alas, they don't have the Real Presence, are susceptible to "Blessing Plan" theology and are without unifying, apostolic leadership.  

I don't think it's pejorative to refer to Helmut as a dissident.  His "Call to Disobedience" invites the term.  

There's nothing shameful about sitting apart (dis sedere) -- "disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief."  (Merriam-Webster)

Where would Jesus sit?  On the Moses seat?  On a cathedra?  Who's more like Jesus, Helmut or the bishops who seek to silence him?


Frank, the "apostolic leadership" of the last 35+ years has been anything but "unifying". The  "leadership" of the Roman Catholic during this era has been to try to return the church to the past, and has resulted in the greatest outflow of cradle Catholics in the church  since the Reformation, The more Rome pushed the barque in reverse, the faster people jumped ship. 

There is never a call to disobedience. Nowhere in scripture or tradition is such a call. To me it is a call to negative energy and I do not need (more of) that in my life.

It should be framed as a call to obedience. Obedience having its etymology in "to listen". If in his listening to God, he, or a community discern that certain practices should change, he is obliged to articlute that and authenticate through dialogue and further listening.

The pope, bishops (the magisterium) believe that they too are listening. Together, we are all listening and obeying. That should be the starting point. 

Included in that is humility. The humility to say, I may not be hearing it right (from everyone).

Speaking for myself, I am hearing negativity and bad medicine (to use a native phrase) in his choice of words.

"Dissenter" is a perjorative term only to people who think the Church hierarchy is beyond criticism.

Unless my perception is off, I do not see RC clergy in the U.S. publicly coming out in support of Pastor Schuller.  Vocational careers are at stake.  Church pensions are at stake --- especially for the Vatican II-types at or close to retirement.  Let's not overlook, too, the so-called "JPII priests" who revere "tradition", "orthodoxy", and "obedience to authority"; these fellas have been in the ascendancy since the 1980s. 

And forget the bishops!

If there's any way to promote renewal, it'll be largely if not solely via the churchgoing laity.  As long as folks continue to toss their shekels into weekly collection plates, some of that money will be turned over to the local hierarch, who will in turn send money to the Vatican.  This behavior is known as "enabling", i.e., subsidizing continued ecclesial and ecclesiastical dysfunction. 

I tip my hat to Schuller and clerics like him.  In the end, however, it must fall on the shoulders of the U.S. laity to force our hierarchs to behave like *true* bishops by not shirking their rightful authority in liturgy and local church governance.  Any institutional or organizational discomfort notwithstanding, the solution really is that simple. 

Money talks; the hierarchs know it.

Laity must make its absence talk louder.

It's time to put up or shut up.

With respect, Joe McMahon, none of the issues over which we are at such loggerheads are doctrinal.  We had a baptism at Mass this past Sunday and as usual in our parish all the congregants were invited to respond to the baptismal questions asked of the parents and godparents on behalf of the infant.  Those questions are none of them concerned with the issues to which Father Schuller speaks. I for one could respond I do with the same enthusiasm I felt when I answered those same questions as an adult convert 50 years ago.  I do not in any way vitiate the rich tradition of theological scholarship that distinguishes us as a church by pointing this out.  But who can be a priest, artificial birth control, women's rights or lack of same - none of that comes into the Nicean creed to which we say Amen.  The rest is largely a matter of discussion with a very few additional dogmas.  Disobedience to what is a good question to ask at the moment.

Beverly Swerling Martin (Not WF - my husband - whatever it says on the comment)!


People who join Pentecostal, Charismatic and Fundamentalist churches do not share the theological outlook, spirituality or sexual ethics of, say, the readership of the National Catholic Reporter (no insult intended) or theologians like Richard McBrien. The majority of Catholics who join other Christian churches are going to conservative ones. These people don't join these churches because they don't like the magesterium (although many develop anti-papist sentiments once in these churches).  They gravitate toward them because they have a profound hunger for the transcendent God who revealed Himself in Jesus. They don't want to hear that Jesus is one revelation of God or is a symbol of God -- they believe unequivocally that He is God. They believe in the bodily resurrection of this Jesus (and let's stop insulting people who believe in the bodily resurrection by implying that they are simpletons who merely believe in a resuscitated corpse).  They find no comfort in hearing that Christ merely became "alive" in the minds of His disciples.  They unabashedly praise God's unsurpassable majesty and glory.  They're keenly aware of supernatural realities. While some are guilty of biblicism and fideism others embrace a thoughtful exegesis that nonetheless doesn't feel compelled to explain away miracles or to assert that the scriptures are completely devoid of historicity.  And while the rank and file of these conservative churches sometimes displays anti-Catholic sentiment, their leadership often expresses praise of Catholic leaders. Billy Graham called JPII "one of the greatest moral and spiritual leaders of the [20th] century."  Kathryn Kuhlmann (yes, a controversial figure) was effusive in her praise of Paul VI.

Year after year, the commentors in Commonweal have almost universally blamed the hierarchy for all the woes of the Church. Don't you think that just once that self-identifying progressive Catholics could examine where they may have fallen short in sharing the richness of the Gospel?  Might that not be a more effective place to start?  Peace.


Many thanks, Beverly, for the clarification.  I also attended a baptism the past Sunday and did not hear any credal statement against the ordination of women.  In some issues, some of the "top clerics" try to move a debatable point into the realm of Major Doctrinal Belief, Nicene Creed, or de fide definita, and by making that move, they tell other believers to "shut up."


Schüller's call to disobedience is an "Aufruf zum Ungehorsam," which pretty clearly is "a call to disobedience." Thus saith my dictionary. Not the word I would have chosen. But "dissent" is translated as "abweichen." Does that make a difference? My German isn't good enough to know. I would think that denying or questioning, say, the Resurrection or the Incarnation would make one a true dissenter. Raising the question of whether Rome always has the right answers to all conundrums, and that some ought to be open to discussion, at least, strikes me as somewhat less than true dissent, and once again that there are those in Rome who have a somewhat less than firm belief in what they proclaim, and thus hurry to cut off discussion before it starts (or before Rome has had a chance to claim the new doctrine as its own, e.g., religious liberty). 

George D:

I think it's unjust to accuse Helmut of "bad medicine."  Who is being hurt by his words?  Those who agree that women are unclean and therefore unqualified to be ordained or to be married to the ordained?



Liberal Catholics, by opposing the anti-women and anti-intellectual prejudices of the hierarchy and its toadies ARE "sharing the richness of the Gospel".  (And of the epistles:  In Christ there is no male nor female; no Jew nor Greek; etc.)  A shame the "Catholics" who pretend to be traditional have forgotten/discarded those old teachings.

Frank, I am a "progressive" Catholic, currently among those who no longer sit in a Roman Catholic pew on Sunday. I do not know who Kathryn Kuhlmann is (I will google her name shortly) and disagree that John Paul II was a "great" moral and spiritual teacher. He said and did some positive things. He said and did many negative things as well (that contributed to the outflow of millions), especially in his gathering of all power to his own office, demanding absolute obedience of all, and appointing bishops who for the most part were not men notable for qualities of moral and spiritual leadership. In addition, as a woman I came to feel that the church's teachings on women are not only "misguided" but sometimes lead to literal harm. John Paul II was a leading promulgator of these church's teachings. After many years I gave up on the "leadership" and decided to no longer enable a culture and structure that created a clericalism that permitted tens of thousands of children to be sexually abused. 


The tens of millions who have left the Roman Catholic church during the last several decades are not a monolithic group as you seem to imply.  I did not join a Pentecostal or evangelical or fundamentalist church but an Episcopal church. The more conservative churches appeal to some, primarily because of the warmth and welcome and sense of community many find there, along with a path to a "personal relationship" with Jesus. Many believe that this kind of relationship is not possible in the Catholic church,  which seems to try to keep laity at a distance from Jesus, insisting that there must be  a clerical caste that are necessary intermediaries between laity and God. Some decide that these intermediaries can be dispensed with, and others see the hierarchy and the "teachings of the magisterium" as an obstacle in the path to God.


But the majority of the former Catholics in the US and Europe have not joined any other church denomination - they are  identified as "nones" or as "spiritual but not religious". Of those who do join another christian church, a majority do choose the conservative Protestant churches, but the Episcopal church has also welcomed many former Catholics, including, in the last few years, several dozen Roman Catholic priests.  Most who leave the RCC believe in God, most also believe in what Jesus taught, but not in the institution and its "leadership".  They pray, they often find spiritual companionship in some way - small groups usually, outside the institutional structure. This widespread failure in trust in the "apostolic leadership" and in the need for a clerical class as intermediaries between the laity and God may be a short-term phenomenon in the church's long history, or it may signal a permanent and long term change, or at least an evolution toward a less hierarchical and authoritarian church, I don't know. But it is clear to most that the "leadership" of the church at the top since the late 1960s (Humanae Vitae) has been a very divisive force in the Roman Catholic church, rather than a unifying one. 


Thanks for your response. There has also been significant attrition in the Episcopal Church over the last five decades.  And some ex-Episcopalians / Anglicans make the journey to the RCC.  


I know many Catholics who have a "personal relationship" with Christ and are happy in their faith walk as Catholics.  Of course, they're summarily dismissed by some here as "anti-intellectual" or "toadies."  

To be sure, there are problems in the "institutional", "hierarchical", "traditional" Church.  But I don't see an antidote in the "progressive" wing of the Church.  What I see, at least in many of the comments on Commonweal, America and NCR, is an abiding lack of charity toward the hierarchy and "conservative" Catholics.  How can people be so right in their ecclesiology if their comments are incessantly marked by anger, snark, sarcasm, etc.? (I'm not saying this about your comments above.) Where is the Fruit of the Holy Spirit -- "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23)?  When these hallmarks are evident in a believer's life we say that they have put on the character and mind of Christ.  When criticisms against the Church are delivered in a charitable voice then they merit consideration.  

I cited above some conservative Protestants who admired recent popes but supplied no reference for Benedict. Let me instead provide a comment from Mario Vargas Llosa, an atheist and a Noble Prize winner for literature, concerning Benedict XVI:

The Peruvian author observed that the Holy Father’s “profound and unique reflections were based on his enormous theological, philosophical, historical and literary knowledge, acquired in the dozen classic and modern languages he commanded.” 

While they were “always conceived within Christian orthodoxy,” the Pope’s “books and encyclicals often went beyond the strictly dogmatic and contained novel and bold reflections on the moral, cultural and existential problems of our times,” Vargas Llosa reflected.



Frank G. --

My response was ony about the meaning of the word "dissenter" and who finds the term to be derogatory.  Your reply to me concerned why people were leaving the Church for pentacostal and other Protestant bodies.  I mentioned none of those topics, and you make no connection with what I did say.

Your response is a perfect example of the sort of pseudo-counter arguments offered much too often by  Conservatives -- when they don't or can't deny something a liberal has said, they change the subject loudly as if what they are saying is germane.  

Frank --

I apologize for my response a 4:48.  Somehow I missed Anne Chapman's earlier post, and thought you were responding to me.  Youd didn't deseve my response.  (But some conservatives would qualify!)


"What I see, at least in many of the comments on Commonweal, America and NCR, is an abiding lack of charity toward the hierarchy and "conservative" Catholics.  How can people be so right in their ecclesiology if their comments are incessantly marked by anger, snark, sarcasm, etc.?"


I think you're overestimating the influence of Commonweal, America, and NCR.  

Q:  What do you think their combined circulations amount to?  

A:  Under 80,000.  With 75,000,000 million Catholics in the USA, about one in a million reads them.  Of that tiny number, how many care enough about what they read to comment or write letters to the editors?  (Easy to count the few commenters here on Commonweal's blog.)

As to anger and snark and sarcasm, etc.?  I hope you'll point out a comment or article on one of the publications you dislike that comes CLOSE to the vitriol with which Z, EWTN, the "life" sites, etc., nourish their gulls.

A former editor of the St. Louis diocesan paper wrote an op-ed in the Post-Dispatch the other day about homophobia.  He managed to bring into it the idea of marrying pets. Do the commenters you accuse of the capital sin of anger do that?

Gerelyn ==

Yes, it is fairly typical for the super conservatives to not only disagree but to volunteer complaints about views that liberals do not espouse.  Talk about escalating disagreements!  I go to the ESTN New Advent site everday to check out what conservatives are up to. I read enough of the articles to recognize the pattern in too many writers there -- accuse your opponents of thoughts they've never entertained, much less expressed.

One good thing about the site, besides an occasional informative article, is that it often presents articles on science.  They're better than the liberal sites on that score.  Wonder why the difference.  How much about scientific matters does CWL cover?

"Where is the Fruit of the Holy Spirit -- "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-2Frank Gibbons, Jesus called Herod a Fox. The hierarchy has manipulated the people of God for centuries. The distaste for the antics of the hierarchy is not a 21s century phenomenon. Boniface VIII noted that the people felt this way about the hierarchy "from antiquity." People are not killed for this opinion nowadays as happened in the past. The embrace of the anointing of Jeus is the essence of our faith. Not apostolic succession.

"Pope Francis "is not a conservative or a progressive. He wants a poor church and (a church) of the poor," and he is keenly aware that a large part of the world lives in extreme poverty, the cardinal said.  From America magazine. 

The words quoted are from Cardinal Casper.  Francis is truly something. With his leadership we may not need people like Schuller. The pope is giving  us some true lessons and direction in the true mission of Jesus. This is truly a revolution.  Stay tuned.

On Pope Francis, I think you are correct Bill.  He has so far been amazing, and I (and I think most Catholics) truly look forward to seeing how he will tackle the problems the Church faces today.

Frank, you comments and remarks are interesting, but I'm not sure the opinion of a Peruvian author about Benedict's writings are relevant to the issue. You have claimed that those who join Pentecostal/evangelical/fundamentalist churches lack the "unifying apostolic leadership." I posted to voice my personal opinion (but one shared by many) that the leadership has been more divisive than unifying in recent decades.  Nothing Billy Graham or Protestant nobel prize winners for literature say about various recent posts has anything at all to do with whether or not the leadership of the RCC over the last 40 or so years has been either unifying or divisive.   Their opinions of popes are irrelevant to the issue - the church has lost tens of millions and it really doesn't matter where they went - they're gone. T

The actions of the "leadership" over a period of decades have not been the sole reason so many have left, but they have been among the most important reasons in the decisions of many (not all) to leave the Roman Catholic church. The divide within the church is often, as you and others have noted in this thread, so severe as to produce high levels of vitriol in "communications" between progressive and conservative Catholics. Perhaps you see this situation as the result of "unifying leadership". If so, one must wonder what would happen with "divisive" leadership.  Could it be much worse?

I do wish there were an "edit" feature. I meant to say "recent popes" rather than "recent posts" in regard to the opinions of Billy Graham and other Protestant leaders and writers.

There is something seriously ludicrous about a coalition of Catholic organizations having to hold a discussion about a strictly internal Catholic matter in a Protestant church in Manhattan and a Unitarian Universalist church in Massachusetts because the leaders of their own church will not permit them to use facilities that their own donations built and maintain. They are not planning to revisit the Nicene Creed and revise several of its tenets. They want to talk about practical matters of church governance that affect lay Catholics directly, like the closing of so many parishes because current Vatican policies are not producing enough priests, and possible alternatives to those policies. The answer they are given is the same as always, "Shut up or go away!" Sadly, totalitarian is the exactly right word.

When people resort to authority, and sometimes to outright force, to close down a discussion, it is a pretty sure sign that they have lost the argument.

Ann O:  here's a great addition to your daily walk with dyspepsia:


Today, you can learn to get your knickers in a total twist about this:  Open lesbian still teaching at Pleasanton parish  (I have yet to meet or know a "closed" lesbian, but am prepared to be enlightened.)



I wish there were more threads on page 1. I would have commented on this, but now that it's been moved to a remote location (namely, page 2 of dotC), it's not worth the bother. In fact I am guessing that no one will be reading this.

Is it an editorial decision to keep few threads on page 1, so that there are fewer active discussions at any one time, and so that comments don't keep going on and on into the hundreds?

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