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Reading the Signs of the Times


Reflections on the Global Church in October and November 1995

by Ingrid H. Shafer


As we approach the First Sunday of Advent I imagine Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, and assorted members of the Curia all standing at a vast dyke, their fingers thrust into holes while the waters keep ominously oozing out of a growing number of cracks and the flood swirls around their ankles. They have reasons to be concerned. For the Magisterium, November was a black month. It could be a new beginning. A few years ago Hans Kueng told me that he experienced Christ most deeply at times of being stopped. Maybe John Paul and Ratzinger should listen to Hans Kueng.

In November the Austrian Catholic periodical Kirche Intern published an exclusive interview with Ludmila Javorova, a 65-year old Slovakian woman from Brno who admits for the first time in public that she and several other women were ordained Roman Catholic priests in the underground church of the 1970s.

Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck officially requested that Rome consider the ordination of women to the diaconate and the ordination of married men to the priesthood.

German Catholics were continuing the drive to gather signatures on a petition calling for democracy in the church, including the ordination of women and optional celibacy for priests.

On November 18, the Vatican published a three page letter, dated October 28, 1995, in which Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking for the CDF, insists that the Pope's May 1994 ban on discussing the possibility of ordaining women must be taken as "infallible."

The CDF appeal was not to papal infallibility but the infallibility of the "ordinary magisterium" of bishops all over the world in agreement that a particular teaching concerning matters of faith and moral is to be held definitively and absolutely. Unfortunately for Ratzinger, quite apart from the fact that the ordination issue has nothing to do with "faith and morals" and even if the ordination of Ms. Javorova is not deemed valid, the fact that bishops were willing to ordain women destroys any possibility to legitimately appeal to the ordinary magisterium.

October 28 was the 30th anniversary of the proclamation of Optatam Totius, the Decree on Priestly Formation, one of the so-called minor documents of the Second Vatican Council. The document's main thrusts were on decentralization and vocations, so that priests could be close their people and there would be a new generation of priests. At a televised conference to commemorate the event John Paul said that for him the celebration of the Eucharist is still the high point of every day. But he refuses to allow women to experience that same joy, and excludes half the Catholic population from the pool of potential priests.

The date of the letter's publication is significant since Vatican officials had been informed that the results of the German petition drive would be announced the following day, November 19. Thomas Arens, one of the German organizers of the drive is certain that the timing was intentional. This preemptive Vatican strike came just before organizers announced that 1.5 million German Catholics had followed the example of neighboring Austria and signed the petition.

And then there is Poland, the Pope's home. On November 19, John Paul's friend Lech Walesa was defeated in the Polish presidential election. Commentators blame the loss at least in part on the rigidity of the Polish church. Church officials blame communism and secularization. The dam keeps cracking.

On November 24, Pope John Paul himself addressed the CDF insisting that "theological debate in the spirit of collaboration and ecclesiastical communion" must be distinguished from "the public debate in opposition to the Magisterium that qualifies as dissent." In other words, the Pope insists that ordinary Catholics must obey the Church on all matters, that "The unity of the faith, guided by the teaching authority of the Church" must be maintained as "the solid base." As for theologians, they too must limit their thinking to ecclesiastical authority, for "theology can never be reduced to the 'private' reflections of a theologian or a group of theologians." Tell that to the Irish. They voted to legalize divorce the following day, quite probably in part motivated by a series of recent scandals in the Irish church that undermined the tendency of Irish Catholics to defer to a paternalistic clergy.

Future historians may well consider the six months between June and December 1995 among the most portentous ever in the formation of the global Catholic Church. It is a period much like the 16th century when Martin Luther tried to reform the Church from within, and found himself in direct conflict with Roman might. It is a period much like the middle of the 19th century when popes were trying to stem the "Modernist" winds of change and built citadels, surrounded by moats and solid walls, such as the Syllabus of Errors, the Index of Forbidden Books, and the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.

Rigid walls crumble. Open walls stand, as the ancient Romans knew when they constructed aqueducts and bridges using connected arches that allowed water and air to pass through. If we are the People of God not only in name but in fact, if "We are Church" then the current struggle pits the Pope and Magisterium against the People of God who see themselves as empowered by Vatican II and the democratic movements of our age.

There is even a Watergate-like semi-humorous facet to Roman developments: According to the magazine Epoca during the night of November 11 to 12, burglars broke into the offices of the CDF and absconded with a computer, a considerable sum of money, along with assorted documents including resumes and other personal papers. Is this indicative of intrigue within the Vatican?

Now as then, the issue is not wholly or even primarily a matter of doctrine: the issue is power. Naked Power! In fact I believe that the apparent bones of contention are smoke screens to hide the heart of the matter which is not sexual morality or celibacy or the ordination of women but the ongoing falling away of the church from God's original prime directive, expressed by some rabbis and by Jesus--to live as a community of equals by the gentle yet demanding law of loving God and each other. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, we are not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath is made for us! Arnold Toynbee tells us that historical challenges will reoccur until they have been successfully confronted--or until they destroy a given institution; returning to the democracy once practiced in the church and then abandoned is such a challenge.

Unfortunately, the two men at the helm of St. Peter's Barge are devout authoritarians who are determined to steer right into a hurricane complete with underwater reefs just to prove their point that Roma locuta causa finita can still be maintained with impunity. They are blind to the fact that ever since the 1968 birthcontrol encyclical the locutions of Rome are irrelevant to the majority of First World Catholics, and that loving the pope as symbol of the church does not mean respecting him as authority when his teachings violate the principles of democracy and the deep sense of most Catholics that universal access to the Eucharist, for example, is infinitely more important than human rules against divorce and remarriage, viri probati (married priests), and even the ordination of women.

It is this deep conviction of the central position of the Eucharist that precipitated the ordination of Ludmila Javorova: nuns and other Catholic women were dying in Communist prisons without access to the sacraments. The organizers of the Austrian and German petition drives were motivated by the threat of the loss of the Eucharist.

Here in the U.S. Christine Schenk, Director of FutureChurch says, "Excluding half of all possible candidates will not help us remain a Euchristic community. And the rhetoric about 'women's equality and dignity' is a slap in the face. Its like telling women they are equal but they can't have a vote or hold public office or be heard in Church decision making. What kind of equality is this? The real debate here is not about women's ordination but about that nemesis infallibility. Infallibility has no meaning if church authorities continue to ignore the voices of both bishops and people."

Yes indeed. And Rome seems incapable of recognizing that their very rigidity is poking holes into their own ship and undermining the authority of pope and magisterium beyond repair. For those who argue for the priesthood of all the faithful this may in fact be a good thing, but it will certainly alter the face of the church irrevocable.

Inspired by the Second Vatican Council, "We are Church" is the slogan that unites and arouses loyal Catholic reformers in many parts of the world, whether they belong to the U.S. based Call to Action or assorted groups in Europe. Last May a group of Austrian priests and lay people--primarily educators--from Innsbruck, the capital of the province of Tyrol, organized a petition drive calling for a spirit of democracy and compassion in the church.

While Tyrolians are known for their strong support of the Catholic Church, that support is more than simple peasant piety; it has an internationally respected academic foundation. Innsbruck is the home of a Catholic seminary and major Jesuit graduate school of theology associated with the tradition of such prominent priest-scholars as Karl and Hugo Rahner and Joseph A. Jungmann, all "fathers" of the reform spirit of the Second Vatican Council. In addition, both former bishop Paul Rusch and his successor Reinhold Stecher have refused to simply toe the Roman party line and have, for example, been outspoken in their opposition to Humanae vitae--a "cardinal sin" for a bishop who seeks to advance in the hierarchy.

At the University of Innsbruck Herlinde Pissarek-Hudelist, one of Karl Rahner's students in the 1950s, was the first woman in Austria to attain the rank of Full Professor of Theology. She was also the first woman to be appointed Dean of a School of Catholic Theology in the German-speaking realm (and I suspect in the world). Sadly, Professor Pissarek died last year, but her spirit lives on, as does the spirit of Vatican II, and it is that spirit which inspired the initiative.

The petition drive was administered throughout Austria in churches, rectories and information booths between June 3 and June 25. One million Austrians are said to attend church regularly, and they were the main target. Under the platform, "We are Church," the petition called for a generous and caring church in which laity have a voice, bishops are appointed with local consultation, women have full equal rights, the priesthood is open to both genders, celibacy is optional, artificial birthcontrol is clearly distinguished form abortion, and sexuality can be celebrated as a God's gift. The petition drive resulted in more than 500,000 signers in a church of some 6 million. Originally, the organizers had hoped for 100,000 signatures.

The movement spread. In August the Swiss conducted a poorly publicized drive which still resulted in 73,000 signatures by September 4. There are about three million Catholics in Switzerland of whom no more than 10% are practicing. Like the Austrians, the Swiss called for the ordination of women and married men. Many were troubled because Bishop Hansjo"rg Vogel of Basel, a young and very popular man, had resigned his position after announcing that he would soon become a father.

On 16 September the Germans began to collect signatures for their petition under the leadership of Christian Weisner, a city planner and member of a Hannover Base Community. Meisner's associates are Eva Maria Kiklas, an x-ray technician from Dresden, and Dieter Grohmann, one of the editors of Publik-Forum, Germany's largest independent Catholic bi-weekly magazine. Kiklas has lived in what used to be East Germany her entire life and has been deeply involved with such activities as youth groups and ecumenical dialogue in a part of Germany where fifty years of Marxism had almost eradicated Christianity.

Hans Kueng fully supported the demands of the drive, considered it in keeping with the original democracy of the early church, and wondered when "a bishop will finally dare speak out and tell it the way it is." During the press conference on October 15 which launched the petition drive, Kueng criticized the bishops for failing to support the initiative. He objected to rigid church structures which alienate potential believers and "make it impossible for women to live their faith-lives in the church." Kueng also pointed out that the points of the petition were truly global in nature, that such issues as birth control and married priests were far more critical in Africa and Latin America than in Europe. He advised bishops to stop playing the role forced on them by Rome.

Norbert Greinacher, theologian and longtime collaborator of Karl Rahner, said that the initiative filled him "with joy" and nourished "the hope that people are becoming conscious of themselves as people of the church." The 90-year old retired archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Franz Ko"nig, one of the major architects of the Second Vatican Council, lent his support to the effort, saying, "We have to be willing to listen to everyone. Freedom of expression in the church, even by the laity, is of tremendous importance." In interviews aimed at marking his August 3 birthday Ko"nig said he expects a married clergy. However he warned that "a pope from Poland" would find it "inconceivable that a tradition that had lasted for many centuries can be changed."

Koenig also said that in his opinion the debate on women's ordination has not ended. Of course, that was before Cardinal Ratzinger's most recent pronouncement that "This doctrine demands definitive assent because it is presented by the magisterium as infallible as based on the Word of God, as it stands written, and continuously preserved by the tradition of the Church from the beginning."

In response to the November 19 press conference of the petition organizers, Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, the Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, called the petition drive an "inappropriate contribution" to dialogue of church and society. He objects to such blanket demands for specific reforms because "In this manner the issues addressed cannot be brought to a serious solution; instead this action raises excessive expectations."

He especially emphasized three points: "The petition brought existing polarizations to the surface and partially sharpened them," the aims and demands of the initiative produced "uncertainty and confusion," and rather than adding a new perspective, the drive gave a "false image of the church" because the future of the church depends not on internal structure emphasized by the petition but on God and faith.

Sean O'Conaill, a teacher of history from Ireland captures the moment perfectly. Reflecting on the elections in Poland and Ireland he wonders, "How many similar humiliations must it [the Vatican] suffer before it loses its invincible arrogance, its conception of the world as a single parish which can be dominated by the force of a single personality?

When will those in power understand that pluralism is here to stay, that the spirit of dissent and open dialogue is indispensible for a healthy community and that the kind of mind-numbing centralization the Pope favors kills the soul and spirit? Luzern Theologian Herbert Haag undestood when he endowed a foundation to award the 15.000 Mark (ca $10.000) prize "For Freedom in the Church" to worthy individuals and causes. It was recently announce that the initiators of the Austrian and German petition drives will receive the prize in January. Hans Kueng, Foundation President said that "the Petition of the People of the Church reminds us of the original freedom of early Christianity and does an immense service for the Church in this difficult period of transition."

Kueng is right. Instead of weakening the church the very process of gathering signatures has turned widespread Catholic apathy in Germany into lively, spirited, and public debate. And the excitement affects especially the young. Martin Loer who teaches religion in a college preparatory high school is quoted in a Publik-Forum article, that "students have stopped yawning in class" and are busy arguing the demands of the petition in terms of scripture. Even some of those who had long turned away from the church announced all of a sudden that "they were Catholics after all, that the Church is more than the Pope and his prohibitions and rules." For the first time since Vatican II the laity is deeply and enthusiastically involved in the Church. And for all of us who love the Church this is indeed a victory of the Spirit.

(c) 1995 Ingrid H. Shafer

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(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

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