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March 2001

The Rev.  Dr. Paul Collins, MSC, Australian priest and historian, resigns from the active priesthood in protest over the current retreat  by the ecclesiastical leadership from the Vatican II vision of the Catholic Church, a vision that  defines church as the living sacrament of  God's presence and the place where God's sovereignty is acknowledged,  expressed through a participative community of people dedicated to the  service of the world and characterised by collegiality and ecumenism. 

Paul Collins

After thirty three years I have decided to resign as an ‘active' priest to  return to being an ordinary Catholic believer. Many people will justifiably  ask: why? The reason is simple: I can no longer conscientiously subscribe to  the policies and theological emphases coming from the Vatican and other  official church sources. 

While the reason is straight-forward, the decision to resign is the result  of a personal and theological process. This, of course, is not a step that I  have taken lightly and I have been considering it for some time. I will try  to outline the reasons in detail. 

The core of the problem is that, in my view, many in ecclesiastical  leadership at the highest level are actually moving in an increasingly  sectarian direction and watering down the catholicity of the church and even  unconsciously neglecting elements of  it's teaching. Since this word  ‘catholicity' will recur often I will define it. It is derived from the  Greek word ‘katholikos' which means ‘general',‘broad or ‘universal'. The  Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines ‘catholicity' as ‘the quality of having  sympathies with or being all-embracing; broad-mindedness; tolerance'. 

But ‘catholicity' also has a profound theological meaning. The recently  appointed American Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ has a fine book entitled The  Catholicity of the Church (1988). Catholicity, he says, is characterised by  (1) inclusiveness, which means openness to various cultures and opposition  to sectarianism and religious individualism; (2) by an ability to bridge  generations and historical periods; (3) by an openness to truth and value  wherever it exists; (4) by a recognition that it is the Holy Spirit who  creates the unity of the church through whose indwelling we participate in  the life of God. 

This is the kind of Catholicism that I, and many others, have embraced  throughout our lives. Its foundations, which are deeply embedded in church  history, were given modern expression in the vision of the church  articulated at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. For Catholics like  myself our benchmark is a church that is defined as the living sacrament of  God's presence and the place where God's sovereignty is acknowledged,  expressed through a participative community of people dedicated to the  service of the world and characterised by collegiality and ecumenism. It is  precisely this image of Catholicism which I think is being distorted by many  at the highest level in the contemporary church. I increasingly feel that  being a priest places me in the position of co-operating with structures  that are destructive of that open vision of Catholicism and of the faith of  the people who have embraced it. If I am to be true to my conscience,  resignation seems the only option. 

The fact that we are retreating from the Vatican II vision of Catholicism  may not be everyone's view of what is actually taking place in the church. I  accept that, and I also accept that the tension between a broad, open vision  of Catholicism rooted in living experience, and a narrower, static  hierarchical view of faith, runs right through church history. It is my  perception that at present many in the hierarchy and some laity are moving  increasingly in this narrow, elitist direction. Over the last few years I  have watched with escalating concern as a series of documents have been  published by the Vatican, the last of which was the declaration of the  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Jesus (DJ), issued on 6  August 2000. DJ, which claims to protect the uniqueness of Christ, in fact  expresses a profoundly anti-ecumenical spirit at odds with the sense of God'  s grace permeating the whole cosmos. DJ gives voice to a wider movement that  is slowly but pervasively turning the Catholic church inward in an  increasingly sectarian direction. It is this which concerns me most. 

Sectarianism is incompatible with genuine catholicity. It is the antithesis  of the kind of openness to the world, tolerant acceptance of others and a  sense of religious pluralism that most thinking Catholics have been formed  in and have embraced over the last three or four decades. Thus many  Catholics find themselves involved in a corrosive disjunction between what  they believe and have experienced, and the views expressed at the highest  levels of the church. The reason is because those who claim to articulate  Catholic belief seem to be abandoning their ‘catholic' spirit. As a result  there is a turning away from the other Christian churches, and a rejection  of the search for common ground with the other great religious traditions.  Thus more and more thinking Catholics who have been educated and live in  pluralist, democratic and tolerant societies, find themselves in conflict  with church hierarchs who seem to be moving in an ever-more sectarian  direction. 

Some times there is a hankering after a more genuinely Catholic approach -  as you find in John Paul II's encyclical Ut unum sint (1995), where he went  so far as to ask the other churches for advice on papal primacy. But  ecclesiastical reality indicates that this hankering is, in fact, merely  ecumenical wishful- thinking, while the hierarchical reality is exclusivist. 

There have also been regular attempts to ‘muzzle' and condemn the discussion  of issues such as the ordination of women through the use of a new category  of doctrine. This has received its clearest expression in the apostolic  letter Ad Tuendam Fidem (30 June 1998). The letter argues that there is an  intermediary, ‘second-level' of revealed doctrine between the established  and defined teaching that all Catholics believe, and what up until now has  been called the ‘ordinary magisterium'. Before the introduction of this  so-called ‘second-level', all non-infallible or non-defined teaching was  exactly that: doctrine that should be respected and offered various levels  of submission of mind and will, but still ultimately open to debate,  discussion and development within the Church community. 

What Ad Tuendam Fidem has done is to introduce formally through this  ‘second-level' a category of ‘definitive' but non-infallibly-defined  doctrine. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger says that this second-level  teaching is,  in fact, infallible. He says that it includes ‘... all those teachings in  the dogmatic or moral area which are necessary for faithfully keeping and  expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the  magisterium as formally revealed'. As examples of  second-level definitive  teaching he includes the condemnation of euthanasia, the validity of the  canonization of a particular saint, the legitimacy of a papal election, and  even the invalidity of Anglican orders. The gratuitous reference to  ‘Anglican orders' is astonishingly maladroit and insulting; it reveals a  real lack of ecumenical sensitivity. 

There is also an emerging unspoken assumption among some very senior church  leaders that the contemporary western world is so far gone in individualism,  permissiveness and consumerism that it is totally impervious to church  teaching. Claiming to assume the broader historical perspective, these  churchmen have virtually abandoned the secularised masses, to nurture  elitist enclaves which will carry the true faith through to future, more  ‘receptive' generations. This is why the New Religious Movements (NRMs) have  received so much favour and patronage in this papacy. The NRMs have embraced  an essentially sectarian vision of Catholicism, are very hierarchical in  structure and theologically reactionary. This is true of some elements in  the Catholic charismatic movement, and also outfits like Opus Dei, Communion  and Liberation, the Neo-Catechuminate and the Legionaries of Christ, as well  as a number of other smaller, less significant groupings. 

Over the years my public disquiet with increasing papal centralism and the  erosion of the vision of a more ecumenical Catholicism is well known,  especially in Australia. I have often been critical of the church's  leadership, perhaps too harshly at times, in books, broadcasts, talks and  articles. I have been concerned with ecclesiastical narrowness and the de  facto denial of catholicity. But I also constantly argued that it was only  by ‘staying in' the priesthood that someone like myself could influence  things and bring about change. But it was always an every-day decision to  continue the struggle through the internal structures of the church. And  there can come a moment when you decide that both conscientiously and  strategically ‘staying in' no longer remains a viable or honest option. You  realise that you can no longer collude in what is happening by remaining in  the official priesthood. 

While important, life-changing decisions may seem sudden to outsiders, and  even some times to the person who makes them, that is rarely the case. Such  conclusions are more likely to be the product of long unconscious reflection  on an issue. Slowly the connections, inferences and directional movement in  which the internal and unarticulated argument has been progressing comes  into consciousness. Often it will be a single event that focusses your  thought and impels you toward a decision. Suddenly you realise that, in  conscience, you can no longer allow your name to be associated with what is  happening. Of course, your judgement may be wrong, frighteningly so, but the  Catholic tradition has always been that you must follow even an erroneous  conscience. Certainly  you must do everything you can to ascertain what is  really happening and what your obligations are, but in the end you must be  true to conscience. 

What helped to focus my mind was the article ‘Catholic Fundamentalism. Some  Implications of Dominus Jesus for Dialogue and Peacemaking' by my friend,  John D'Arcy May. [The article is one of a series of essays in the book,  Dominus Jesus. Anstoessige Wahrheit oder anstoessige Kirche edited by  Michael Rainer]. DJ is primarily directed against those Catholics involved  in the ‘wider ecumenism' who have been trying to find common ground with the  great non-Christian religious traditions. But DJ also managed  to offend  many Anglicans and Protestants through an awkwardly-worded passage that was  so obscure that many journalists incorrectly took it to mean that only  Catholics could be saved. The passage actually says that Anglicanism and the  various forms of Protestantism ‘are not churches in the proper sense'(DJ,  Paragraph 17). 

It was the opening sentences of May's commentary that struck me between the  eyes. "There is no reason, in principle, why the Roman Catholic church,  despite its enormous size and global presence, could not become a sect.  Sectarianism is a matter of mentality, not size ... The deep shock Dominus  Jesus caused in ecumenical circles consisted precisely in their exposure to  the specifically Roman Catholic form of fundamentalism". This put into words  what I had unconsciously concluded but had not articulated. 

It is precisely this movement in a sectarian and fundamentalist direction  with which I profoundly disagree. A person with a public commitment like a  priest is bound in conscience to ask: ‘Can I continue to co-operate with  this kind of regime in the church?' I feel bound in all honesty to say now:  ‘No. I cannot'. But I emphasise this does not mean that I have the slightest  intention of leaving the community of the Catholic church, nor of abandoning  my work in writing and media, as long as that is available to me. 

But there is also a second constellation of reasons that have led to my  resignation. They centre around the book Papal Power (1997) which is  currently being examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith  (CDF), that part of the papal bureaucracy that deals with Catholic belief. I  have consistently tried to keep this so-called ‘examination' in perspective  and have not treated it too seriously. However, it is clear to me that the  CDF is moving toward an escalation of the issue. This inevitably involves  other people. The CDF demands that all correspondence with me pass through a  third party, the Superior General of my religious order, the Missionaries of  the Sacred Heart (MSCs). This means that my superiors and the order will be  caught in any cross-fire between the CDF and myself. I do not wish to put  them in this position. 

On 14 December 2000 the current Superior General of the MSCs, Father Michael  Curran, was summoned to a meeting in the Palazzo of the Holy Office in the  Vatican. This meeting happened totally without my knowledge and I only found  out about it five weeks later. At the meeting Father Curran was asked why I  had not responded to three issues raised in a letter from the CDF sent to me  via Curran and my Australian superior in April 1999. He responded by  providing the CDF with an article I had written in a theological magazine  called Compass responding to the CDF's concerns. He felt the article ‘would  go a long way to answering' the CDF's questions. In the course of the  discussion reference was also made to a mildly critical media statement  about the CDF that I had made, which was briefly reported in the US National  Catholic Reporter (16 July 1999). 

Ratzinger claimed in a subsequent letter to Curran (18 December 2000) that  my critical comments ‘may put [my] alleged adherence to magisterial teaching  in question'. In other words, even if my theological answers in the Compass  article were found to be satisfactory, the comments in the NCR would show  that I had not really repented because I was still criticising the CDF after  writing the Compass article. 

However, the Cardinal's chronology was wrong. His comments make it clear  that he believes that the NCR interview was published after the Compass  article. In fact, the 16 July, 1999 NCR interview was published several  months before the spring 1999 edition of Compass. I suppose you could  forgive the Cardinal for not remembering that spring in the southern  hemisphere comes in September-October, and not in April-May as in the  northern hemisphere. The Compass interview was published in the southern  spring of 1999, which was October-November. That is some three or four  months after the July NCR article. 

Be that as it may, the whole tone of Ratzinger's letter to Curran makes it  obvious that the CDF is preparing to censure me because the Cardinal's  comments clearly prejudge the issue. The constant difficulty in dealing with  the CDF is that your accusers are also your judges. An accused person is not  even allowed to choose their own defence counsel; they are not even  permitted to know the counsel's name. 

This situation with the CDF will be exacerbated even more when a new book  that I have edited is published in March in Australia and in the northern  spring of 2001 in London and New York. It is entitled From Inquisition to  Freedom. It consists of interviews that I put together with six people who  have also been ‘investigated' by the CDF. Those participating in it are  Tissa Balasuriya, Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Lavinia Byrne, Jeannine  Gramick, and Robert Nugent, as well as myself. I have contributed two other  essays, the first outlining the history of how the Roman Inquisition  eventually evolved into the CDF, and a second describing and critiquing the  details of the Congregation's procedures. While the tone of the book is  respectful and moderate, I don't think it will win friends and influence  people in Rome. I foresee considerable problems. The most important of these  are that the book will eventually place Father Curran particularly, and the  MSCs generally, in the likely position of being forced by the CDF to take  some form of punitive action against me. 

I have no doubt that the Congregation will not go away, and that they will  not let this matter rest. As the experience of the six other people in the  new book makes abundantly clear, there is never any form of dialogue. The  Congregation simply demands that a person not only submit to what they  define as ‘doctrine', but they are determined that you actually use the  words that they dictate. I knew exactly what I was doing when I edited From  Inquisition to Freedom, but I thought it was important these stories be told  for they expose the injustice of the CDF's procedures and their persecution  of people who are clearly concerned to live a truly Catholic life and to  give ministerial and theological leadership to others. But there is also no  doubt that the book will lead to a further exacerbation of my relationship  with the CDF, and that the order and Father Curran will be caught in the  middle. My resignation will to some extent save them from that. 

Finally, I want to make it absolutely clear that my resignation does not  mean that I have any intention whatsoever of leaving the Catholic church. I  am just changing status in the family. Catholicism is my home and I have no  intention of leaving - come what may. 

Paul Collins, 1 February, 2001. 

Link to Paul Collins' Response to the Observations on his book Papal Power by an anonymous consulter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (20 April 1998 Manuka, ACT 2603, Australia)

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Last updated 11 May 2001
Copyright © 2001 Ingrid H. Shafer
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