In an interview published May 26 in Austrian daily Salzburger Nachrichten, Fr. Helmut Schüller spoke about a disconnect between bishops and the people of the church and weighed in on the priest shortage.
"The pope at the very top and the church communities at the very bottom of the church understand one another well," Schüller said. "In between there is the episcopal level, that is the bishops -- and they somehow do not really seem to want to."
Schüller, 63, a former vicar general of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, founded the Austrian Priests' Initiative for church reform in 2006. In 2011, he initiated the initiative's "Call to Disobedience," which called on priests to offer the Eucharist to "all people of goodwill," including divorced and remarried Catholics and members of other Christian churches, without waiting for the necessary church reforms. The initiative's priests want to pave the way for a new model of priesthood rather than merging parishes.
Schüller is in close contact with the International Network of Church Reform Movements and attended its conference in Limerick, Ireland, in April, where international Catholic reform leaders discussed issues such as church governance, greater accountability of hierarchies, the full participation of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, and the place of LGBT Catholics and interfaith families in the life of the church.
In the long run, the church will not be able to avoid issues such as women's ordination and who can take over the leadership of priestless communities, Schüller said.
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The hemorrhage from the Catholic church to the Pentecostal churches in Latin America is partly due to the shortage of Catholic priests, Schüller said. "Some communities are only visited by a priest two or three times a year. The Pentecostal communities, on the other hand, are very small and each has its own pastor."
But, Schüller's interviewer asked, aren't many church communities in Latin America ahead of Europe as far as lay leadership of parishes was concerned?
"The Catholic church is standing at a crossroads on this question," Schüller replied. "Either it succeeds in providing its communities with priests or it must begin to develop new forms of community leadership. Latin American communities are reacting to the situation very pragmatically. As far as we know, that is exactly how early Christian communities reacted. Community leadership was developed simultaneously in different forms."
Schüller said Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Xingu, Brazil, had raised the question of ordaining viri probati (mature married men) at his private audience with Pope Francis in April 2014 because of a shortage of priests in Latin America. Francis told him that it was up to the bishops' conferences to make courageous suggestions at the regional and national level.
"I am really curious whether the Brazilian bishops will do so," Schüller said. "As far as I know, the Brazilian bishops' conference is addressing the issue of community leadership. Maybe it will make some suggestions on this issue."
Many bishops seemed to be taking a wait-and-see attitude and were watching from the sidelines, the interviewer observed.
"I think many bishops are above all determined not to do anything wrong at the present moment because if this pope does not come out on top, they could expect little good from those in leading positions in Rome," Schüller responded. "Moreover, Pope Francis expects bishops to behave completely differently to what has been demanded of them in the past. They are now expected to make courageous suggestions for which not long ago a bishop could expect to be strictly disciplined."
Bishops' conferences' agendas have hardly changed, the priest said. They are keeping to their defensive administrative strategy of merging independent parishes into vast, impersonal parish associations.
"That is pretty much the most unimaginative thing one can do. Even some of those responsible in Rome find it extraordinary," he said. "Some U.S. parishes that were merged have succeeded in getting Rome to allow them to become independent communities again."
According to Schüller, the climate of the church is what has changed most under Francis. People are less afraid to mention necessary reforms, whereas before this pontificate, even to mention reforms had been frowned upon.
"Our opposition is now directed against the sluggishness of the system which has hardly changed. At the moment, therefore, opposition means staying on the task, pressing our claims and sustaining our efforts," Schüller said.
It is not yet clear how far Francis himself wants to go, Schüller said.
"It is possible that he will not undertake essential reforms. We do not as yet know what his position regarding the ordination of women is, for example. The pope, moreover, comes from a society that is still pretty traditional. The controversies the Western industrial nations are facing have yet to reach Latin America," Schüller said.
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]