U.S. Catholics web site is running a story (thank you Eric for letting me know!) that trouble is brewing in the Catholic Church in Austria, where more than 400 priests are calling for disobedience if there are not massive reforms in the church.
Perhaps Martin Lutheran was nearly 500 years ahead of his time. Or not, since it is quite possible that official retaliation for disobedience will simply come down on the heads of at least some of these 400 priests. Remember who is Pope right now, after all.
But the issues, which all revolve around the churchs medieval attitudes on human sexuality and hierarchical authority, are worth reviewing: the celibacy rule, the treatment of lesbian and gay people, and divorced/remarried people.
From the British Tablet editorial on this disobedience, “point: “They are right that what Catholics hunger for, and not just in Austria, is a Church of integrity, without hypocrisy, doublespeak or pathological denial.”
The pastoral realitythe reality in the parishes and among faithful Catholicsand everybody else in the world of faithis that official teachings are not only often at variance with how people need to live their lives, those teachings do not enhance the credibility of the core Christian message.
I am reminded of developments in the business world, where major corporations in the last several decades have spun off or sold off subsidiaries when times get tough. Often their official spokespersons tell us that the company will now focus more tightly on its “core business.”
Although the church is not a business, it does need to jettison what ever doesnt serve its core message, and that message is the grace of the Gospel of Jesus, and the call to follow him in paths of generosity, mercy and compassion in this broken world. Upholding twisted or strained official rules of extreme moral strictness has become an impediment to telling the world about the love of God in Christ.
Yes, celibacy is an ancient Christian practice, but it never caught on universally until it was forced on the priesthood in the Dark Ages. Yes, the Scriptures frown on unchastity, divorce and remarriage, but the definitions of those terms has slipped over and over down through time, and Jesus never condemned the woman at the well who had apparently been married five times and was living with a man who was not her husband, nor did shame her for her difficult life. In other words, it was not a “deal breaker” for her hearing and receiving grace.
As for the treatment of gay/lesbian people (can we be more inclusive, with bisexual and transgender people, too?), history has ample evidence that the modern condemnations being read out of the Bible by conservatives and fundamentalists were not read that way for more than 1,000 years after Christ. I am still impressed with the scholarly work of Prof. Theodore Jennings, who authored The Man Jesus Loved, which lays open some of the covert gay stories of the Gospels.
We have struggled with the issues surrounding homosexuality in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for several decades, and the conclusion of thousands of people is that we simply cannot summarily condemn gay and lesbian people because of two or three references in the Bible any more than we can forbid Christian women from serving in ordained ministry because of one or two citations. The grace, acceptance and reconciliation of God overshadows everything else. Period.
John Paul II commented officially years ago that women could not be priests because Jesus chose only male disciples. Well, Jesus only had Jewish disciples too, so that logic would have kept both John Paul II and Benedict XVI out of the priesthood. My point is that arguing over the trivial rules of the church is ultimately not successfuleven if the conservative side insists it has a lock-tight argumentbecause its logic, authority, high-handedness and even cruelty to individual believers is increasingly rejected by 21st century people of faith.
One of the most appalling weapons used in the Catholic Church is to silence dissent with papal authority. Significant theologians have simply been banned form public teaching, speaking or publishingnot much different than burning dissidents at the stake as the Catholic Church did 500 years ago. I would not be surprised if the leaders of this “disobedience” move in the Austrian church will face similar silencing moves from the Vatican.
But how long will it take before all the thinking faithful are silent and faith itself will simply wither away because the content of what is left will only be faith in authority, not in the Gospel of Gods gracious reconciliation with humanity. Sooner or later, the church must also reconcile with the world as God has done, or it will continue to be working with futility against the will of God.
Pastor Dan Hooper