Father Schuller's big adventure

Father Helmut Schuller addresses a group of reform-minded Catholics in Dedham's First Church on July 17, 2013
Father Helmut Schuller is the founder of the Austrian Priests Initiative, a group of priests that is trying to open up the Church in line with their understanding of Vatican II, which I happen to share. They want priests and laity to share in the power of bishops. They support ordination for women and for married people.
Schuller is in the US on a 15-day tour, called "The Catholic Tipping Point," to share his views with Americans. The tour is being underwritten by a number of Catholic reform groups: Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action, Dignity USA and FutureChurch, among others. He is best known for a 2011 document, "The Call to Disobedience," which I have not been able to find yet on the web. In his talk, however, Schuller stressed the need for Catholics to base their actions first in the gospel, then on conscience, and only then on Church teaching. As you might imagine, this does not sit well with Catholic bishops, who see themselves as the sole arbiters of what is or is not Catholic teaching.
Today, I answered a Facebook call from the National Catholic Reporter for comments on Schuller's Boston-area talk, which occurred yesterday in Dedham. Here is what I shared with NCR's Kate Simmons.
Hi Kate,
Thanks for your request to share my experiences about Fr. Helmut Schüller's talk last night.
My wife and I attended the talk, held in sweltering weather at the First Church in Dedham Mass, just south of Boston. The church was about 90% full, worship space and balconies included, with many listeners choosing to stay outside where it was a slight breeze kept them cooler. As seems to be the rule in this kind of assembly, most in attendance were well north of fifty years old. A show of hands late in the evening confirmed this, with only a handful of people indicating their relative youth. Gray hair, canes and hearing aids were predominant, and many in the crowd used fans to cool themselves.
Schuller, founder of the Austrian Priests Initiative (API), received a standing ovation as he entered the space. After introductions of the leaders of Voice of the Faithful, Dignity USA and Call to Action, Schuller spoke for about half an hour before fielding questions from those attendees.
 The sound system did a poor job of conveying Schuller's Austrian accent, so some of his message was not audible to me, sitting in the balcony. There were frequent shouts of "Speak in to the mike!" as people struggled to hear clearly.
Schuller stood for what many in the mostly attentive and appreciative audience wanted to hear. The Church needs to open ordination to women and to married people. Bishops must share their power with priests and laity. His basis for this was Vatican II's revised understanding of the dignity of the People of God. He also called upon the need for the Church to be Eucharistic -- in terms of the importance of the sacrament as promoting "communio" -- communion between members of the Body of Christ. When bishops close or consolidate parishes, they disrupt this communio. When they tell parishioners to just go to the parish in the next town, they act as though Eucharist is a commodity -- to be obtained at the nearest "shop." Eucharist, Schuller said, is not just an object for adoration, but an activity. For the Church to withhold the Eucharist from Catholics -- by closing churches and refusing to consider options to beef up the priesthood -- it was acting against the interests and needs of Catholics.
To applause, Schuller underlined the importance of women in the Church, who do "90% of the work." Prompted by an audience member asking about Mary Magdalene -- known as "the Apostle to the Apostles," pointing to her as a model for the possibility of women becoming priests -- he reminded the audience that for a "few moments" on Easter Sunday -- between the time she witnessed the Resurrected Christ and reported his appearance to the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the Church. I found this to be the most powerful moment of the evening.
Schuller hit many other right notes in his speech-- the need for transparency and the need for priests to monitor their brothers for illicit activities. He hinted at one item that surprised me: a secret, two-tiered pose that priests are obligated to take . I private, they might counsel their flocks to act in ways that violated the letter of Church law. This was tolerated as long as these same priests gave lip service to Church law in public. This sounded like an explosive topic, but Schuller did not elaborate. He may also have disappointed some with his tame prescriptions for getting women into the priesthood. Asked about the validity of the ordination of women who had been ordained, he skirted the issue, stating that his group's position was to push the hierarchy to open the priesthood to women and married people. Whether the audience expected something more radical or more clever, the energy level in the room palpably sagged at that moment. Schuller similarly dodged a question about how he reconciled his views with Vatican statements about the priesthood, notably John Paul II's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
Asked about the API, he said that it was comprised of 430 (not sure if that is priests and/or deacons) and represented 15% of Austrian priests. 70-80% of Austrian priests, he said, were in sympathy with his group, but were afraid to make their views known. Asked whether he and his group had been sanctioned for their views, he cited cultural differences in Austria that tended to favor continued dialog over confrontation. He said that there had been no sanctions against the group, except that a member of the API was not allowed to head a deanery.
Overall, I was disappointed by the talk and ended up leaving as it was ending. There was little in the way of red meat that this sympathetic audience might crave. Schuller gave no plan for how to get a recalcitrant church hierarchy to share power, open dialog or change its views on women's ordination or any other issue. The venue (and his not-quite-complete command of English) made it hard for him to formulate and express nuanced or complex views or action plans. His immediate mission -- to gather red ribbons worn by some attendees and gather them up as he crossed the nation, then deliver them to Cardinal Tim Dolan in New York -- seemed naive bordering on pointless. If Tim Dolan ever bothered to meet with Schuller, would he be impressed with a couple thousand ribbons from a bunch of disaffected Catholics? Not likely.
I remain sympathetic to Schuller point of view and hopeful that some miracle will open the church to dialog and transparency. But left to the efforts of Schuller and those in attendance last might (myself and my wife included) it seemed apparent that all the hierarchy needs to do is to circle the wagons and starve us out until we die, lose interest, or go elsewhere.
Best Regards ,

I know I come across as a constant critic and a grouch, but that pose hides a hopeful heart. Yet I don't see how the Church can change in any significant way, at least not in the short term. The hierarchy has all the power, including the power to silence and to punish. The remaining faithful are becoming more and more conservative, less and less tolerant of liberals and apostates, as they see those who disagree with them. The youth are hardly flocking to the Church. Many parents with small children are interested only in a fairy-tale Catholicism, getting their kids the sacraments and leaving hot button issues alone.

I wish Father Schuller well, but have serious doubts that he will inspire an revolt among American priests, even those in sync with his views. The initial indications are not good. None of Schuller's speaking engagements is in a Catholic Church or school.

But, stranger things have happened. Pray for a strong driving wind and an empty upper room filled with the confused and hopeless.