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Bishop Reinhold Stecher responds to his critics
Translator's Note: This is version 1.3 of my translation of Bishop Reinhold Stecher's response to the critical  reactions from fellow bishops and others to his Statement concerning the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of [the] Priest. Please note that Bishop Stecher now refers to his fall 1997 "letter" as his "Statement" (the piece was published as a "Brief" or "letter" on the web).  I plan to continue to revise this translation (suggestions for improvement are greatly appreciated!).  The major change in this version of the Stecher response is my addition of a picture of Bishop Stecher along with a link to a larger pictorial tribute. The images are captured stills from a 3-hour conversation with Dr. Stecher I videotaped at the Bishop's home near Innsbruck on 20 May, 1998.

I am translating a copy of the document "Versuch einer Antwort auf die im Zusammenhang  mit meinem Statement von österreichischen Bischöfen und anderen verbreiteten Vorwürfe" which Dr. Stecher sent me personally for the purpose of translation and distribution on the Internet.  I have made a few minor editorial changes.  In the document only the first three reasons (pastoral, moral theological, and social) are numbered.  I added numbers 5. and 6.  for the theological and scriptural reasons which are part of the same section, but left a couple of concluding paragraphs (which do not bear the designation "reasons") without numbers. In his response, Stecher refers to married priests as "am Zölibat gescheiterte Priester."  This phrase is difficult to render in English. Literally, it means "Priests who have shipwrecked on [the reef of] celibacy."  Since the article itself does not leave the impression that Stecher views married priests as wrecks I decided on a more moderate translation (which captures the less severe metaphoric connotation of the German phrase):

If you cite or electronically copy this translation, be sure to include this introductory material, the copyright notice, and the date and time of the last revision which appears at the end of this document. Please, check for updates before passing the document on and do not publish this translation in printed form without asking permission (passing on personal printouts to friends and colleagues does not fall under this restriction).

Ingrid H. Shafer,  4 April  and 5 June 1998
Related links:
Bishop Reinhold Stecher's thoughts concerning the Roman document, Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of [the] Priest 
A Visit with Altbischof  Dr. Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck,  20 May 1998: A Pictorial Tribute
Dr.  Reinhold Stecher
Lärchenstraße 39a, A-6064 Rum

Attempt at a response to the charges disseminated by Austrian
bishops and others concerning my Statement

Insofar as I can summarize these pronouncements, several of my brother bishops were scandalized  by the following: my assertion that the current policy of the reigning pontiff toward priests for whom celibacy had become an insurmountable obstacle did not conform to the demand of Jesus for forgiveness and mercy.  Hence – apart from the rhetoric of indignation – only one issue can be relevant: whether this charge is true or not.

A preliminary comment concerning the "public nature" of my Statement

Since even bishops have alleged otherwise, I maintain once again: My Statement was intended for a relatively small circle.  I wanted to share my reactions to the "decree concerning the collaboration of the laity" with at least a few competent people because I hoped that one or the other among them might be able to make use of some of my deliberations.  I was aware, of course, that within a few days I would retire.  If I had even thought of the general public, it would never have occurred to me to include Latin phrases in the text.  Apart from that, I can easily establish via my secretariat that I never considered publication.  Nevertheless, some of my brothers accuse me of that intention.

I am as much involved with the publication of the Statement as I was with the publication of that letter in 1997 which I marked "confidential"and sent  by registered mail to the members of the Austrian Bishops' Conference, and which was subsequently passed on to the magazine News by one of the bishops.

Precisely the same thing happened with the publication of the list of my potential successors in Innsbruck which I sent "sub summo sigillo" to Rome (whereby in the diocese itself neither a vicar general nor a secretariat had the vaguest notion).  Approximately eight months prior to the actual appointment, the daily paper Die Presse published the list.  When our publicity department inquired where this information had been obtained, Die Presse openly explained: "We have a reliable source in the Vatican." In light of such forms of inner-church discretion, it is one of the subtleties of this affair that I am being  accused to my face of having planned publication from the very outset.

Of course, I couldn't provide my letter with "the papal seal of confidentiality" (which is useless anyway).  It is, however, true that I stated after publication that I retract nothing.   I stand by that assertion.

A preliminary comment concerning the assertion that "I failed to lodge my charges with the appropriate authority"

Both concerns, the issue of the scarcity of priests, the vir probatus, and the issue of dispensation, I have long presented emphatically to the highest authorities: Five years ago I personally informed the Holy Father in a private audience of the critical necessity for changing the conditions of admission to ordination in line with pastoral concerns for administering the sacraments necessary for salvation. Corresponding requests of the diocesan forum I passed on to Rome. The issue of dispensation for married priests I verbally brought before the appropriate congregations after I had seen proof that a petition I had personally sent would not be considered for a decade  (naturally, along with countless others from all over the world).  Hence there was nothing new in my Statement for the top Church authority in Rome to discover.  There are also enough witnesses among the Austrian Bishops' Conference who can testify that I have always supported these two positions.

The current handling of dispensation for married priests:

Under Pope Paul VI a waiting period of two years was customary for granting a dispensation – a very reasonable time span that in retrospect, as I will elaborate, turned out to be pastorally sound.  After a period of reflection which underscored the fact that this was more than a mere formality, men for whom celibacy had become an insurmountable obstacle should have a chance for a Christian marriage and family with wife (and child).

This policy was radically changed under the present pontificate.  Dispensation was delayed until the man involved was of a certain age, which meant waiting periods of a decade or more.  In many cases the request became pointless, and certainly in many cases, requests were no longer even submitted (this will probably be peddled as statistical "success").

Without doubt, the one responsible for this regulation is the pope himself (which does not mean that I can say anything concerning his motivation). But I refuse to be sidetracked into blaming the "Vatican bureaucracy."  This is as unfair as making IRS agents responsible for tax legislation.  Among those "bureaucrats" I have occasionally found a humane and understanding attitude when I reminded them of Christ's commandment.  But I also realized that they were under instructions from the highest authority.

There was only one chance for a speedy dispensation: proof that the priest in question had lied when he originally vowed celibacy, that he had been under some sort of duress, or that he was generally suffering from a psychological illness. (Those proceedings are parallel to annulment of a marriage). Duress or grave psychological illness could of course call into question the validity of ordination – and it is commendable that those consequences are considered.  However, on the other hand, it is also a fact that petitions are "spun" in that direction and that petitioners consider it underhanded if they are asked to admit that back then they acted in an unethical manner or are somehow abnormal . . .

If some bishops explain that this is not the policy or tell tales of how appeals to appropriately influential Vatican circles can be used to have a particular petition approved, then I have to point out that these kinds of "back doors" and "connections" do not in the least improve the way this business looks.

The reasons why it seems to me that long term denial of reconciliation with Church and God violates the commandment of Jesus

1. Pastoral reasons
Thousands of of petitions ask for no more than to offer priests for whom celibacy has become an insurmountable obstacle the opportunity of living in peace with God and Church in a Christian marriage after a certain period of reflection.  If this is denied over large spans of time the man (with his wife) is forced to conduct his religious life so to speak outside the Church community. He must, as one of those affected once admitted to me, build his relationship with God on the foundation of the hope that God is more merciful than the Church and would give him this chance.  We must, of course, realize that running into celibacy as an insurmountable obstacle is in no way tantamount to a shipwreck of faith.  The current custom of denial has especially grave consequences for wives and children.  When the children eventually discover why their beloved parents are never permitted to go to communion, the Church dies for them in many cases. I find it difficult to dismiss  these pathways of alienation and rejection that are almost enforced by the Church with the kind of indifference reflected in a number of recent episcopal pronouncements.

In order to underscore the negative and positive consequences of the dispensation policy, permit me to add a personal experience: As bishop,  I invited all the priests of the diocese of Innsbruck who in the past 35 years had left the active priesthood in order to get married to spend a day.  Except for a few who had compulsory obligations, they all came.  They told the stories of their lives in the informal conversation circle. For me this became a deeply moving day.  Of course, the difficulties and the wounds were brought up, but none of the men demanded the same office they had entered under condition of celibacy.  It became evident that all the men who had received dispensation within a reasonable period of time were actively involved in the Church with their families.  Some of them carried on in parishes without priests, others were educators or worked in other helping professions.  Among those who came out of the the era of denial I saw nothing except alienation and bitterness.  And if such attitudes have gnawed themselves into a person's very core over many years, they are difficult to overcome.  I sent a report concerning this encounter to Rome.  It apparently reached its final destination in some storage room, if it even made it that far.  Nevertheless,  we must really ask in all earnestness – what is the purpose of pastoral policy – to break the bent  reed or to heal it?
Conceivable, those in power in Rome expected a motivating strengthening of the celibate way of life from this hard line of denial.  But we must keep in mind that celibacy for the sake of the heavenly kingdom can only thrive within a milieu of a developing community of love for God and one's fellow humans.  Disciplinary measures or threats will do little to motivate either the faithful or the vascillating.  Educators have known for a long time – and it has been empirically proven – that the best results are obtained with positive, affirmative incentives, not with aversive measures.

Longtime denial holds two additional dangers: Submitting a petition becomes pointless.  This hopelessness deepens the alienation.  It might also be that a brother priest in such difficulties simply decides to remain in office and lead a double life, in constant contradiction to his vow.  Both from a spiritual and psychological perspective, such a condition is worse and more dangerous to one's wellbeing and salvation than cases of an honest decision, even if the decision means leaving one's office.  If a diocese exudes a spirit of  helpfulness, then there is more of a chance that such a crisis will be openly discussed with the bishop or vicar, and may even be positively resolved.  The threat of excessive strictness has the same effect as parental threats to kick disobedient children out of the family home.  It kills any chance at dialogue.  I can see nothing pastorally sound in the current policy.  The threat of denied reconciliation represents an extinguisher for glowing wicks – nothing else can be said.

2.  Reasons of moral theology:
From the perspective of moral theology, denial of dispensation dragged out over decades appears disproportionate.  Let me underscore this point with another pastoral experience:

In the course of my life as pastor I have heard approximaterly 40,000 confessions because I was very active as confessor.  I have given absolution to adulterers, apostates, persecutors of the Church, frauds, thieves, and even murderers.  But to a married priest I may not offer this peace of the soul – not for years.  He is worse off than a murderer.  And with due respect to the vow of celibacy and without any intention of minimizing it – murder, abortion, and apostasy are more serious sins.
This is why I am speaking of such practices as "disproportionate" from a moral theological perspective.  An additional moral theological contradiction appears to me to lie in the fact that honest admission of guilt does not lead to a reduced sentence  but rather to a harsher sentence. Let me share another personal example:
An overall excellent priest who resigned his office because of the points under discussion wrote the following: "I say nothing against celibacy.  I consider celibacy a good thing.  I can only say that in the past, when I made the promise, I meant it totally honestly, had no reservations and was not under duress.  I must only admit that I didn't manage to keep it . . .."
With this totally honest testimony in which he admits his guilt, the man has actually blocked any path toward dispensation.  If he had implied that back then he had made rather light of things . . . and that he didn't take his vow seriously . . . and that he approached ordination without being absolutely certain, then he would have a chance.  Then it would be possible to construct a case for the invalidity of the original promise, based on formal grounds rather than moral grounds. Instead he simply said, I admit I am guilty – I didn't manage to keep my promise.  And once again every moral sense is offended when this man's petition is discovered sitting on some Roman shelf along with many others, and underneath the date the document was filed, 1995, there is a large magic marker notation, "2005."    And this man could have been placed in the service of the church with the best of conscience . . .

3. Social reasons:
Normally today, in most countries on earth, it is not easy for a middle aged man to find employment.  No matter how appropriate his educational background, younger applicants tend to get hired first. The older the man, the more hopeless the situation.  Consequently, today, the married priest and his family tend to find themselves in economic difficulties (in previous years things were simpler – there inevitably were gaps and nooks where one might be able to earn a living).  In other countries, the situation is even more serious.  This applies especially to areas where the church is poor (according to reports I have read, there are some 5000 married priests in Brazil).  In Italy, many priests completed their education in a small, private seminary which is not accredited by the state – this means that a resigned priest finds himself in the world without even having completed his compulsory education).  I have a letter from an Italian priest in front of me:

"My case is typical for many.  I have been waiting for dispensation for 13 years.  In my despair, I  applied for  a sacristan's position. I was turned down with the explanation that I was not married in the church and hence could not find employment by the church . . .."

Does denial not turn into cynicism at this point? The same church which bars him from marrying in the church then turns around and denies him the chance at making what must be presumed to be a  modest living on the grounds that he is not married in the church. . . . How can this be reconciled with the so often cited principles of  Christian family values?  Do such contradictions not contain the roots of accusing the church of lack of authenticity?   Do we really dare insist that this represents no loss of the "image of mercy"?  In our latitudes it would still be possible with good conscience to integrate a married priest into the educational or social sphere of the church.  Long term denial of dispensation prevents all of this.  No one can spend a decade or more waiting for a position.

4. Theological reasons:
In light of the scriptural evidence I will cite in the next section it is of course difficult to offer theological grounds for years of denying reconciliation. After all, theology has something to do with interpreting that which has been revealed.  Bishop DDr. Klaus Küng, whose statements have been endorsed by several brother bishops, attempts to give a theological justification of the denial of dispensation.   He points out that the vow of celibacy should be understood as similar to the marriage vow.  Consequently, the call for mercy is opposed to the "truth," the truth being that the priest broke his vow (which no one denies).  And thus the restrictive policy of the pontificate is justified . . .

This "theological argument" is not valid.  The church has always justified the indissolubility of marriage in terms of its sacramentality and has only considered the validly consummated sacramental marriage as indissoluble.  It is inappropriate to equate a sacramental union with other human unions.  A sacramental, valid, and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any church authority, even the highest one.  It is illegitimate to try to justify not dissolving  something that can be dissolved by appeal to one's inability to dissolve something one cannot dissolve.  In addition, if we want to stretch the false analogy even further, it would mean that all dispensations under any circumstances must be rejected.  For a long time this was, in fact, the case (except for members of the high nobility whose power made all theological objections fade).

5. Scriptural reasons:
From several quarters, my Statement has elicited harsh condemnation that ranges from "severest injustice," "Pope bashing," " . . . he wants to send the Pope to hell," "accusation of lack of mercy totally false," "ingratitude," to "vanity" and "emotional arrogance."  These accusations are generally presented without any reactions to the subject matter – except for Bishop Küng who in his letter at least attempted a theological justification of the hard line approach.  Otherwise, the most prominent reproach accuses me of disrespect and disobedience toward the Pope.

Ironically,  the most emotional, significant, and unconditionally demanding passages are not even my words but the scripture texts I am citing.  Jesus himself directed those words to his disciples and in one instance to Peter directly (Matt. 18:21-22, "Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?" "No," Jesus replied "Not seven times; I say seventy times seven times. . . .").  To make the point even more emphatically, Jesus added the parable of the merciless servant [translator's note: this tells of a man whose debts are forgiven by his lord but who subsequently has a fellow servant arrested and jailed for not paying what he owes him; when the master is informed of the servant's hardness of heart, he has the servant arrested and tortured until he pays the debt. Jesus concludes: "My heavenly Father will treat you in exactly the same way unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart" (Matt. 18:35).] in which the themes of "forgiveness" and "authority" are pointedly addressed.  In addition it is clear that the theme "Forgiveness and reconciliation is the highest duty – and fulfilling that duty is decisive for salvation" is part of the ethical ground rules of the message of Jesus.  I can save myself the effort of listing  substantiating evidence.  My "crime" for which others apologized in public consists of the fact that I had the effrontery to direct the same words toward today's Peter which Jesus directed toward the original Peter – and to do so in connection with the above discussed policy of long term denial of  forgiveness – and of course in thousands of cases.

But the "Crimen laesae caritatis" [crime of violation of charity] that becomes apparent in these futile petitions of bishops and heads of religious orders carries no weight for some bishops.  They only see the "Crimen laesae majestatis" [crime of violation of majesty] when one dares confront a high authority with the Word of God.  One simply assumes that it is self-evident that whatever  a pope does has to be scriptural and  merciful.  A closer examination of possible discrepancies is not attempted or even permitted.  Consequently, the policies I outlined earlier are "merciful" and justified for those bishops.  I do not believe that this sort of "loyalty" to the Pope is of service to the papacy.  Eventually it might become clear that I was more concerned with the genuine authority and dignity of the papacy which I consider essential.

Structural-organisational  deliberations
I have often said that I will be careful not simply to criticize the much maligned "Vatican bureaucracy."  The depersonalization of  proceedings and the "bureaucracy" are the natural consequences of the procedures ordered from above.  Bishops and successors of Christ all over the world who on Easter Sunday were granted the immediate and unconditional power to reconcile human beings with God, are in this respect stripped of that power.  This means that all such cases within a church of over a billion members are funneled to Rome.  For the bishop who knows his diocese and brother priests, the problematic "case" is a human being.   He knows the  priest, and is usually familiar with his origins and parents, his life to this point.  He knows the parishes and pastors who speak for him; he knows the experts called to give evidence.  As soon as all of this, reduced to paper, is sent to Rome, the human being is by necessity compressed into a file, one file among thousands.  And when this file is put on hold with the comment, "not to be considered for a decade" the file turns into waste paper. We are dealing with a system that represents utter depersonalization or alienation.  I mention this only because I am convinced that the act [translator's note: in German the words for "file" and "act" are the same; this permits a play on words impossible to capture in English] of reconciliation and forgiveness should by its very essence be a deeply personal act, and not a process which can be run on a computer because the sheer mass of such cases makes automation necessary.   I believe that this system must be reconsidered.  I remember sitting in the Innsbruck jail of the Gestapo [translator's note: secret police in the Hitler era] as a student of theology while my future destiny was hammered out on some typewriter in Berlin – by people who had never seen me and did not know me. I believe that these impersonal procedures are diametrically opposed to the nature of a pastoral church. But this I mention only as an aside.  When the procedures take place within a spirit of pastoral sensibility, such deliberations do not turn as destructive.

A small concluding note from canon law:
Canon 212,3
"In accord with the knowledge, competence and preeminence they possess, they [the Christian faithful] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinions which pertain to the good of the Church, and have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful . . .."

Dr. Reinhold Stecher
Retired Bishop of Innsbruck
Rum near Innsbruck, 14 January 1998

Other voices

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Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

Originally posted 3 April 1998 16:15 CDT
Last revised 7 June 1998 4:20 CDT (version 1.3)
Translation, hypertext, and graphics copyright © 1997-1998 Ingrid H. Shafer
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