National Press Club

Newsmaker: Austrian Priest Leads Catholic Reform Movement From Within

July 23, 2013 | By Marie Robey Wood |

If the Catholic Church wishes to draw in more priests and young people and continue ministering to all its faithful, it must become more inclusive and transparent, according to Rev. Helmut Schüller, an Austrian Catholic priest who spoke at a National Press Club Newsmaker event on Monday.

Schüller is the founder of the Priests' Initiative which issued a “Call to Disobedience” in 2011. This initiative advocates admitting married men and women to the priesthood, changes to church governance, the allowance of greater lay leadership and participation, and inclusive ministries which should include divorced and remarried Catholics.

“Our agenda is the participation of lay people in every level of the church community and the bringing in the gifts of these lay people in the decision-making of the church,” Schüller stated. He added that his group is asking for a kind of church constitution. In the late 1960's Pope Paul VI started such a project called a fundamental rights constitution for the church, he noted.

This proposed constitution never became a reality. “If it had,” he believes, “the problem of sexual abuse would have been handled in quite another way, because we had no transparent handling of this problem at the time.”

According to Schüller, a key question of reform is the control of power and the accountability of those in office –- “accountability in front of the people of God.” Again referring to a proposed church constitution he reflected that “Our church teaches the dignity of the baptism of each member and such a constitution would be a very practical expression of respect for this dignity.”

Regarding how bishops are chosen, he observed: “We have a situation where the people of God are led by men who are not controlled by anyone and are nominated by those who are not controlled by anyone,” he said.

By not allowing women to become priests he feels Catholics are losing the gifts of women for the church in daily life. Schüller said that according to an American newspaper eighty percent of the services of the church are done by laity and eighty percent of these tasks are performed by women. “If our church has the key images that men and women together represent the image of God in this world, then we have to present that image also in these structures.”

His group is also asking for opening the church to a real approach to modern society. “We [priests] are practicing disobedience on a daily basis because we are accepting divorced people in communion and letting lay people take part in the decision-making of the church. We are practicing our pastoral work silently, not in line with the official order, or we are silent and appearing as if we are in line, and that is not healthy for the system.”

When Schüller was asked if instead of fighting for reforms he would ever consider leaving the church he responded: “My answer: it's my church. ... I have grown up in the church, I'm committed to it and committed to the people of the church. Why leave them behind? ... It would not be fair to them.”

Schüller's appearance at the Press Club was part of a nationwide tour called “The Catholic Tipping Point: Conversations." It includes visits to 15 cities including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. In Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley forbid organizers to hold the presentation on Catholic property. Instead it was held in a Unitarian church.