Father Helmut Schuller: A Call to Disobedience

by Lourdes Rodriguez-Nogues, President, DignityUSA

"Wondering why we are closing parishes, rather than opening ordination…”
"Celebrating God's image in LGBT people…”
"Betrayed by Church structures that promote sexism, heterosexism, misogyny..."
"Come, Lord Jesus, send us your Spirit and renew the face of the Church..."

The gathering started with the reading of several statements like the above, followed by the sung response. This opening prayer was recited by over 400 Catholics who recently came together at a Unitarian Church and its adjacent green in Massachusetts on a sweltering summer night.

We had gathered together to listen to Father Helmut Schuller, the founder of the Austrian Priests' Initiative, whose "Call to Disobedience" has brought worldwide attention and momentum in addressing the serious crisis in the Catholic Church. Father Schuller is traveling the United States, speaking in 15 cities this summer. This tour is being sponsored by progressive Catholic lay organizations, including DignityUSA, Call To Action, CORPUS, New Ways Ministry, Voice of the Faithful, and Women's Ordination Conference, and others.

Many believe that Father Schuller is really not breaking any new ground theologically or pastorally. Truly, what he spoke about is something that many of our reform organizations, including our own DignityUSA, have been addressing for a long time now. However, it was quite intriguing to me that the issues were being articulated quite well by an ordained priest at the head of a movement of ordained priests. In the United States we have grown accustomed to seeing these priests as the exception rather than the rule. Father Schuller tells us that 15% of Austrian priests have vocally and publicly signed on to his Call to Disobedience, and that 75% of the remaining priests agree with the statements but remain more silent. He also stated that the parishioners are supportive and in agreement, voicing the same concerns. Here in the United States, it seems as though the people in the pew are rising up and leading the way, hoping the clergy will follow. Some clergy have, at a very high price.

Many of Father Schuller's points resonated with me:

  • Recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the laity
  • The church is an absolutist monarchy; we must insist on an inclusive and transparent Church, with participation in decision making
  • We must demand an opening for ordination for all, including women and married men
  • The Eucharist must be open to all, and cannot be used as an instrument of punishment
  • We must bring the Church to embrace the times and keep step with our society and our world; church must not only teach society but learn from society
  • We must affirm the dignity of the baptized; we have fundamental rights as citizens of the Church
  • The concept of obedience is being used to keep us down and perpetuate the structures; we owe obedience first to God, second to our own conscience, and only thirdly, to authority (not the other way around).

Of special interest in terms of LGBT citizens of the Church, Father Schuller was unequivocal: in its moral teaching, the Church must put the emphasis on the quality of relationships, and not on the external form of relationships. This statement is firmly embedded in his call to proclaim the dignity of human personhood, and to see all of the citizens of the Church as sharing a sacramental life in community.

I experienced Father Schuller’s words as a call and as an affirmation. His words affirmed for me the message that we, as a Dignity community, have been proclaiming for a long time. He made it clear that solidarity is an important aspect of our movement of renovation, a movement that must include all citizens of the Church if it is to reach the "top." He also was giving voice to a call for action. His call, however, was to the ordained, a call for integrity to those who preach a Church teaching that they do not believe in. This, he stated, allows the repression to keep going, and many to "pretend" everything is fine the way it is, knowing the harm that is being perpetuated.

I truly enjoyed listening to Helmut Schuller and to the dialogue that followed his talk, with the many questions he answered and commented on. I encourage you to attend his presentation if he comes to a church near you (never in Catholic space, of course!). Read about the initiative online; it is getting a lot of press. I also encourage you to go to the website catholictippingpoint.org and sign the petition.

It is my hope that this Call to Disobedience sparks a lot of conversation and dialogue among the Catholic faithful, and that it reaffirms and reenergizes the Catholic renewal movement, and encourages many more American Catholic ordained priests to speak out. It is this vibrant solidarity that will make us a true, living, renewed Church.