There could hardly be a more appropriate sequel to my previous commentary (On the Crisis of Theology and the Need for Rulers) than the new threat of open disobedience by the Priest’s Initiative in Austria. Claiming the support of 329 priests, this group states that it will proceed to give Communion to those who have divorced and remarried, end priestly celibacy, bring married priests back into ministry, promote the ordination of women, and permit lay people to preach and lead Communion services.
|Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna|
In my previous essay, I emphasized the need for bishops to rule if they are to restore order in Catholic theology; the same thing applies to restoring order in the ministry, and in particular those aspects of the ministry which ought to reflect a sound Catholic theology firmly rooted in the teachings of the Church. It may, then, be fortuitous that a group of clearly Modernist priests is finally threatening to defy both Church doctrine and Church discipline openly, which saves a bishop the painful and arduous task of sifting through various complaints to try to determine which of his priests defy the authority of the Church only when he is not around.
The welcome clarity of this situation consists in the fact that it cannot be papered over without immense and obvious harm to the faithful. That doesn’t mean it won’t be, but in general internal Modernist dissent has been characterized by a strategy of avoiding the contradiction of one’s own bishop to his face. When a priest actually directly challenges his bishop, and does so publicly, it is much harder for a bishop to pretend that things are really not all that bad.
In the present case, barring public repentance, it is impossible to retain any of these priests in active service without signaling to the entire Church that Catholics may believe and do whatever they want. That’s why the only way to resolve the problem is to give the priests who support the Initiative a direct and personal choice of either taking an oath of obedience which repudiates the Initiative or being excommunicated (or, at the least, removed from active ministry). Anything less is a victory for those who wish to overthrow the Church herself.
The argument that it is better not to precipitate a schism, or better to avoid the loss of so many active priests, will not hold water in this instance. That is a very good argument where there is widespread ignorance and consequent inadvertent failure to represent the Church as the Church requires. Under such circumstances, a patient plan of improvement might have some merit (though the lack of a plan of improvement, which has too often been the case, causes such an irenic approach to fail miserably). But where there is open, public defiance, a line must be drawn and, if necessary, heads must roll.
That’s what it means to rule, and ruling is not only a good in its own right but also a great contribution to teaching and sanctifying. In the absence of effective rule, teaching is inconsistent or false, and the Catholic processes of sanctification are derailed. Since the faithful have a right to receive the teachings and the sacramental rites of the Church in their proper and correct forms, the bishop who properly exercises his duty to rule performs a signal service to all the Christian faithful. And a bishop who does not exercise that duty betrays them.
Paradoxically, it is often the case that the damage done by doctrinal and disciplinary divisions can be minimized only by making those divisions deeper and more pronounced. Past policies of ignoring the teachings and actions of ministers who do not accept the authority of the Church have simply resulted in widespread laxity and confusion, with a general drift of the members of the Church into the most unfortunate attitudes and sentiments of the surrounding secular culture. Only by ruling some positions entirely out of order can this process be reversed, so that Catholics know what they are expected to believe, and how they are expected to respond to Christ’s call to holiness.
This call to holiness ought to be manifested in everything the Church does, yet it is undermined almost completely by priests who refuse obedience to the Church’s Magisterium and to the disciplinary authority of their superiors in the hierarchy. The failure to rule decisively in such matters shows not only a contempt for the rights of the faithful, but for their very souls. As I have argued elsewhere (see, among other writings, Repairing the Scandal the Catholic Way), this same contempt for the faithful lies at the heart of the sexual abuse scandal. It is not to be taken lightly.
Cardinal Schönborn, his brother bishops, and the Pope behind them are unmistakably called instead by the Priests’ Initiative to show their profound respect for the rights of the faithful. In other words, they have no moral choice but to rule. In this case, even if it involves the loss of all 329 priests, ruling is the only way to strengthen the Church’s priestly identity, which is the key to her salvific power.