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 and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • ortcutt

    If people really want to belong to a church with “changes to Church governance, including women, LGBT persons, and married priests”, there are already plenty of Protestant churches out there. Between the various Lutheran, Anglican, UCC, etc… churches, there are a panoply of options.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      The notion that you can and should switch to a church that reflects your own personal values undercuts the notion that any of them are offering truth.

      • ortcutt

        I’m sure that the Catholics most amenable to Schuller’s message already don’t believe that the Pope is magic.

        • Mario Strada

          The pope is not magic!!!
          What’s next?

  • Ders

    It’s going to be weird when the Catholic Church is basically an organization that exploits 3rd world spiritualism to fund the ownership of hospitals in the US.

    • ortcutt

      No, that Catholic Church will be an organization that uses government health spending and private health spending (mainly of non-Catholics) to fund hospitals that don’t provide certain basic medical services.

      • Ders

        Agreed. I was just suggesting that eventually the Catholic Church won’t be a church here; just a really shitty health care provider.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I still don’t understand how a church can reform without God coming back to clarify or refute anything he said in the Bible.

    • Fred

      Easy. They’ll just claim that Jesus came to them and spoke to their heart and reminded them about xyz thing said in the bible.

      They’ll never mention the abc thing they were following earlier was also in the bible.

      • Houndentenor

        they do it all the time and have done it from the beginning.

      • Art_Vandelay

        It’s brilliant, really.

    • thebigJ_A

      Well, god came back and told the Mormons that the lines specifically stating black people are inferior were a…. um…. misunderstanding.

      In 1978.

    • Matt D

      They take advantage of the “blind faith” of their followers and simply change the rules when necessary, claiming it was divine inspiration.
      There’s no need to worry what people think when the majority of your followers do not bother thinking.

  • Rain

    “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.”

    Interesting. Who is the legal owner of this mysterious “Catholic property” thingy. I don’t think there’s actually an answer to that. I don’t think anybody knows. They should tell Cardinal Sean to respectfully buzz off.

    • thebigJ_A

      It’s any property owned by the Catholic church.

      • Rain

        So the Pope could call the cops if he doesn’t want someone on the property?

        • ortcutt

          The Bishop is the head of the Diocese. He could call the cops. As the Diocese has proven many times when they close parishes against the wishes of the parishioners, the laity has no ownership of the parish that they support.

        • thebigJ_A

          Does the CEO of a multinational corporation call the cops if he doesn’t want someone on property owned by the company?

          This isn’t complicated.

    • ortcutt

      The Diocese owns Diocese property.

  • Houndentenor

    “It shrinks?”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  • Matthew Baker

    Shouldn’t they get the church to at least 1850 before trying to bring them into the here and now? Given time travel is dangerous and them being 50-400 years behind the times.

  • Anna

    I’m surprised they haven’t defrocked him!

    I wish Schuller luck. At least he’s actually trying to do something to change the church’s most harmful policies, unlike those Catholics who say they disagree but don’t back up their disagreement with action.

  • Shirky

    I wish him luck, although I don’t think the Catholic church is worth the bother of reforming. As Ortcutt says, there are plenty of liberal churches already and part of me wishes that unhappy Catholics would support them instead- the Quakers, for example, have been campaigning for gay marriage in my country, and it would be nice to see their congregations swell because of it. I think those lovely old church buildings will be put to good use- I once ate curry in a former church that had become an Indian restuarant, and another local church is now inhabited by a firm of soliciters.

  • Lester Ballard

    Reformed? Let me know when it’s a cultural, social, and political relic.

  • Bob Becker

    Bare ruin’d choirs looming ahead…….

  • Loren Petrich

    Related to this, nuns in the US and Europe are going on a steep decline; they are becoming “none”. They are dying off, with hardly anyone joining them. From some statistics and articles several years ago, I constructed a simple demographic model of US nuns, and it’s been holding up rather well as the years go by.

  • the moother

    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.

    I find the insinuation that the rape and suffering of children was necessarily helpful in the demise of the church reprehensible at best.

    • DavidMHart

      The widespread sexual abuse of children and systematic coverup is one of the main reasons why we should be glad to see the back of it.

      I.e. it is the abuse committed by the church that makes it all the more necessary for the church to lose power and influence. And that is indeed happening, at least in the West. I don’t see what’s reprehensible about considering that to have an element of poetic justice.

      • the moother

        The church and all religions are being made irrelevant by education and technology. No need to gloat about child-rape.

        Waving the suffering of children around as a victory flag is tasteless.

        • Carmelita Spats

          No one is waving the sexual torture of children as a victory. The sexual torture of children just shows that the RCC is an organized crime syndicate that should be subject to racketeering statutes. It’s a symptom of a larger problem: the collusion of rank superstition with authoritarianism. The sexual abuse scandal just hastened their inevitable demise by several decades. Less children will suffer and we can be very glad of that.

          • the moother

            Fewer children will suffer, indeed… and we are glad for that… But we should also say that that any child had to suffer at all is a tragedy.

            Celebrating the fall of the church as a consequence of child-rape is, in fact, a celebration of child-rape.

            What is being conveyed is that we are grateful that little johnny got torn in half and he was just collateral damage or, worse, a necessary player.

  • Guest

    equates that to “a church shuttered once a week for 18 years:” it’s actually two a week.

    What are you, a math teacher?
    Oh? Oh.
    Well, then, let’s move on.

  • Allogenes

    FWIW, I believe the church which will be hosting the talk is UU.