Rebel Priest Helmut Schüller to Tour the U.S.: Can the Great Catholic Shrinkage Be Reversed?

Austrian priest Helmut Schüller is an Unruhestifter — a troublemaker — but the kind you have to admire. He’s trying to reform the deeply ossified Catholic Church with his Call to Disobedience, leading a movement that

… recognizes the Holy Spirit among the laity and calls for inclusive and transparent changes to Church governance, including women, LGBT persons, and married priests.

He also wants the Mother Church to relax its opposition to divorce.

Schüller says that Church leaders have a priest-centric view of Christianity that they are reluctant to abandon:

“Jesus was a layman. And he made no effort to install a clerical class…he encouraged people to confront God on their own.”

All of which comes at a price.

Once the vicar-general, or top assistant, to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, in 2011 the 64-year old Schüller… [wanted] the church to embrace a program of realistic change. In response, Pope Benedict had Schüller stripped of his status as monsignor.

Schüller, though, is still a priest.

It’s impossible to know what percentage of Catholics support his reform agenda, but the disobedience call was signed by a majority of Austrian priests, and Schüller is a bit of an international superstar these days, finding a warm welcome on his lecture tours. Starting July 16, he’ll do a 15-date romp through the U.S., speaking in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., among other cities.

At its heart, Schüller’s movement is about the Church’s declining popularity in the West.

In the United States, 20 percent of parishes have no priests, and U.S. bishops have been selling an average of one hundred churches a year since 1995, continuing a decline in Catholic infrastructure that started in the sixties.

Jason Berry at Alaska Dispatch, who wrote an eyepopping article about this slow-motion disappearing act, says it’s “an economic drama playing out.” I’m not sure I agree with that. Religious drama, yes. Economic drama, maybe not. The sold churches have been gutted and repurposed, or replaced outright, by all manner of businesses and residences; it’s reasonable to surmise that their economic impact is at least as big as the church’s ever was, especially because, you know, churches are tax-exempt and the rest of us pay our fair share.

(Berry also weirdly underestimates the number of shuttered Catholic churches — that is, he first correctly says the number is “more than 1,700 since 1995,” then equates that to “a church shuttered once a week for 18 years:” it’s actually two a week. A minor quibble, I suppose, so let’s move on.)

He is surely correct when he paints the rest of his picture of Catholic decline, and the partial reason for it.

Most of these dioceses have been rattled by parish closings, financial stress, or fallout from litigation over clergy sex abuse. San Diego and Portland weathered draining bankruptcy proceedings before agreeing to large settlements.

Of course this means that every priest guilty of child abuse chipped away not just at the Church’s moral authority, but at its solvency, too. Maybe it’s Divine Justice.

Berry also points out that

For every 100 priests who retire, only 30 men are ordained, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate.

And he quotes a nun who is rightly worried because the average age of the US priest is 63; in 1970, it was 45. Without fundamental change, she says, the lack of priests means that

“…in the next ten years a cataclycsm will happen.”

For the Vatican, the picture is much more rosy in South America and Africa, where there is still plenty of growth potential.

In Europe and North America, though, Father Schüller and friends are going to have to work some real miracles to reconnect lapsed or doubting Catholics to the Church.

***UPDATE*** His higherups in the U.S. have banned Schüller’s talk in Boston. One of the organizers told prospective attendees by e-mail:

“We have just been directly contacted by the regional bishop and advised that Cardinal Sean [O'Malley] has forbidden any appearance by Father Schüller on any Catholic property in the archdiocese, and that we are to comply with that directive.”

The event will now be held in a nearby nondenominational church. Thanks to reader Reginald Selkirk for the heads-up.

(Church ruin image via Estate Vault)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.