Acts Of Disobedience?

Electronic red megaphone on stand.

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In last week’s post (Quo Vadis?) I mentioned in passing the concerted effort by Austrian priests to bring about reforms in the Church  (in Austria?) by making a number of acts of disobedience. At least that’s how their action has been described (see also reports here and here): Appeal to Disobedience (download). The challenge is twofold: (i) they will perform a number of actions (seven in number, they call them “signs”) such as giving Communion to non-Catholics, and to support the ordination of women and married priests, all of which actions are contrary to the hierarchy’s stand; and (ii) the priests who sign to this effort will effectively be challenging the authority of the Church, thus aiming to provoke a reaction, better still, a change. The adherents to this initiative (circa 370 signatories, mainly priests) represent 15% of the Austrian clergy, but this action is significant nonetheless. We must remember that this is Cardinal Schönborn’s Church.

The Cardinal has already expressed views over a year ago that haven’t so far been challenged by the Vatican. The way Schönborn will handle this action will tell us more about his position in the Church. He has already expressed his “shock”, pointing out that acts of disobedience go against the Church’s unity. I’ll have more to say about this below, but first back to the call to disobedience.

The seven actions/signs are the following:

1. WE WILL include a petition for church reform in every liturgy.
2. WE WILL not deny Communion to faithful of good will, especially remarried people, members of other Christian churches, and in some cases those who have officially left the Catholic Church.
3. WE WILL avoid as much as possible celebrating multiple times on Sundays and feast days, and avoid scheduling priests travelling around or priests unknown to the community. A locally-planned Liturgy of the Word is preferable to providing guest performances.
4. WE WILL use the term “Priestless Eucharistic Celebration” for a Liturgy of the Word with distribution of Communion. This is how the Sunday Mass obligation is fulfilled when priests are in short supply.
5. WE WILL ignore the prohibition of preaching by competently trained laity, including female religion teachers. In difficult times, the Word of God must be proclaimed.
6. WE WILL advocate that every parish has a presiding leader – man or woman, married or unmarried, full-time or part time. Rather than consolidating parishes, we call for a new image of the priest.
7. WE WILL take every opportunity to speak up publicly for the admission of women and married people to the priesthood. These would be welcome colleagues in ministry.

On the face of it, there will be those who will call such a concerted effort a case of open rebellion. It challenges directly the Church’s authority, at least at diocesan level, and in terms of the theology proposed, the Magisterium of the Church. As usual, we are faced with the same worn-out model of Church: the hierarchical model. It is this model of Church which is being challenged. With it are challenged the patriarchal and clerical worldviews that together underpin the present structure of the Roman Catholic Church, or at least as it is viewed by the Vatican. Like civil disobedience, disobedience to Church authorities comes at a price. The priests state clearly that they are acting according to their conscience, and I would say that their action is undoubtedly a prophetic one. It is undeniably a brave act because of the consequences that such actions have. Will the hierarchy move in to discipline this 300+ group of priests and deacons?

A quick read through the list of actions make the whole affair look like an industrial dispute, with the union issuing directives such as work-to-rule or strike action. It is a moot point whether in 2011 priests can group themselves into something akin to a union to demand certain things of those who rule the Church. Even if the reply is “Yes” it would still mean that the prevailing model of Church is that of a hierarchical, structured institution. Not that I’m blaming the Austrian priests for making these demands. I know what it means to have to celebrate several masses on Sundays, as well as to travel to neighbouring parishes to supply for the priest there due to his absence for some reason or other. I acknowledge the feeling of dread that comes over me when certain priests are sent to replace me in my absence, knowing full well that these priests will make a hash of things and possibly alienate people. I am acutely aware of the humiliation caused when a priest refuses to give Communion to persons who come up to receive the sacrament because their position does not fully conform to the Church’s rules. Gays were not specifically mentioned in the seven-point appeal but we know all too well that oftentimes our brothers and sisters have been made to feel unwelcome at the Eucharist.

If one were to look more closely at what the signs are all about, one will notice that these signs point to other models of being church, foremost among them being that of church as community, where the participation of all members is maximised. In the spirit of Vatican II, one can also detect the model of church as pilgrim, walking towards the truth. As a pilgrim church, there would be a greater understanding of how to relate to other Christian churches, as well as to those members within our own church who for various reasons, do not wholly fit the norm. The servant model of leadership also has a big part to play. How does the action of these Austrian priests help to foster a different understanding of leadership? Among the signs mentioned there is the unhappily-worded “Priestless Eucharistic Celebration” as well as the possibility for non-ordained persons to deliver a homily. These two points raise the possibility of greater lay involvement in the sacraments, or at least in the Church’s liturgical life (as givers, rather than simply as receivers).

Can it really be said that such priests, through their actions, are leading their parishes away from the Church, and thus threatening the unity of the same? Well, we have to ask ourselves, do these priests, or any other priests (whether as individuals or as groups) have any real chance of getting their message across in other less drastic ways? It’s not like they’ve gone about ordaining women-priests, or married priests, just to mention one of the points in their list. Yet we all know that, thanks to the soviet-styled decision taken by Pope John Paul II (see Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) we are not even allowed to raise the issue in any manner whatsoever. More recently (June 2010) a Vatican document declared (or reminded us) that the ordination of women to ministry is a grave crime against the faith. What planet do these Vatican officials inhabit? It must be a very distant one, if takes as a yardstick the various reactions from members of the clerical elite to the clergy sexual abuse scandals.

What I’m trying to say here is that when one realises how detached the Vatican clique has become, and that their siege mentality makes them react in the most heavy-handed of ways, it comes as little surprise that the Austrian priests acted the way they did: one has to bang and shout to get the attention of deaf persons.

At the same time it must be pointed out that their action, as well as the content of their demands, point to a different way of being church. Yes, it is a challenge, but to a particular model of Church that is well past its sell-by date.

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4 comments for “Acts Of Disobedience?

  1. August 8, 2011 at 7:46 am

    When I first read of this, I also thought that in part, it sounded rather like industrial action, but that ignores the context. There would be no need for priests to work these crazy hours, if only we could get beyond the Vatican’s bizarre insistence on an exclusively celibate, heterosexual male clergy. 

    The real point of the Vatican rules, is that they are all about maintaining and extending power. The whole of church history has seen a steady increase in papal power and control, with damaging results for all of us – as seen most dramatically in the sexual abuse scandals, and in the number of people who have simply walked away, who call themselves “ex-Catholics”, or describe themselves as “Catholic, but not Roman”.

    The expectation by the papacy of Catholic blind obedience, and the willingness of rule-book Catholics to simply fall in with this expectation, has enabled this appalling power grab. In this context, we need to remember that blind obedience is not in fact Catholic orthodoxy – even canon law says that there are times when we are obliged to call out the leaders of the church for their failings. 

    There are times, and this is one of them, when disobedience is not disloyalty, but a moral obligation. The Austrian priests’s stand is a courageous and important one – but it is not alone. It is just one more sign of a growing resistance to the culture of clericalism which, as you have written before is so damaging to the church.

    It could just be that the centuries long movement to concentrate Church power in a privileged oligarchy is finally starting to reverse. The second Reformation has begun.


    • Bart
      August 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm

      I agree that one may be moved by one’s conscience to disobey – the same applies to civil disobedience. Unfortunately, the Church doesn’t like it when it’s teaching on conscience is used against it. The problem is that the leadership is so imbued with the notion of Church as a hierarchy that it interprets any dissent, any complaint, or whatever as acts of disloyalty or disobedience or what have you. There are no fora for discussion, even less where changes can be proposed. Had there been such fora, there wouldn’t be need for such drastic action to be taken.

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