Fr. Helmut Schüller’s “Catholic Tipping Point” Tour Calls for Disobedience

Fr. Helmut Schüller at Judson Memorial Church in New York, July 16, 2013
Photo: © 2013 Phil Fox Rose

In his leadership roles as president of Caritas in Austria and vicar general of Vienna, Fr. Helmut Schüller witnessed the dysfunctionality of the institutional church and the harm to communities caused by parish consolidation, overworked priests and the disenfranchisement of the laity. His “sorrow” in the face of these observations led him to stand for a series of reforms he believes can restore vitality to the Roman Catholic Church. On Tuesday, July 16, in New York I attended the first stop on a 15-city “Catholic Tipping Point” American tour where Fr. Schüller is outlining these reforms. What’s most interesting about his efforts is that he remains a church leader in good standing even though he’s calling for women priests and honoring of gay unions, among other things. He was stripped of his monsignor title, but at least so far is managing to advocate for major reform from within the Catholic bureaucracy – an ordained priest, church pastor and church magazine columnist.

Fr. Schüller is a vibrant, upbeat presence. When asked directly about the relationship with his archbishop, he said that Cardinal Schönborn has asked him not to do this, but did not stop him, and that they are in ongoing dialogue. Some of this, perhaps, is possible because of Cardinal Schönborn’s open-mindedness  – it’s hard to imagine the same being tolerated in most American dioceses. In fact, because it’s been made clear his message is unwelcome and several local bishops have forbidden him to appear on church property, all the venues for Schüller’s American tour are Protestant churches or secular buildings except one, Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, which is hosting him in active defiance of Archbishop Chaput. As Schüller said on Tuesday at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, this is not a problem for him, but it is a problem for American Catholics. It is not a prohibition of him to speak — he can speak anywhere. It’s really an attempt to prohibit the Catholic laity from listening to his message.

Fr. Schüller got the world’s attention in 2006 when he organized the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, calling attention to the shortage of priests and suggesting reforms specifically to address that problem. In 2011, he upped the ante in his a “Call for Disobedience” with a list of practical actions local priests and parishes could enact that, while disobedient to the wishes of church authorities, do not violate any essential Catholic or Christian principles. More on them in a minute.

Fr. Schüller’s central message is that as a Catholic, a Christian and even as a priest, his obedience is and must be to God first, his conscience second, and then to earthly authorities in the Church third. If the Church is in contradiction to God and his own conscience, then he cannot obey it and neither should lay Catholics. Further, he says, you have the right to expect your obedience to be respected and honored, something the Church has failed at miserably.

Fr. Schüller proposes the following:

  • allowing priests to marry
  • allowing women to become priests
  • allowing lay people to have communion services without a priest present
  • giving lay people much greater control of church policy and practice and local and higher levels
  • allowing remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist
  • honoring loving committed gay relationships

It’s important to understand that while the Roman Catholic Church has certainly never been democratic, power used to be less centralized. Vatican II was so named and positioned because it was in part an attempt to undo the centralizing of power that happened at Vatican I in the 1860s, which affirmed the principle of papal infallibility and said the pope has “full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church.” Election of bishops by the people was common until the Middle Ages, and abandoned in part because the public elections had become corrupt. And until then, marriage and other sexual relations were common for priests as well; it’s common knowledge the practice was banned for reasons concerning control of property, not faith.

None of the reforms he is proposing, says Fr. Schüller, are to modernize for its own sake; but rather they are efforts to regain vitality by rediscovering core principles: if we are all truly made in God’s image, then it is problematic to exclude women and married people from opportunities to lead; to deny anyone the Eucharist; to denounce loving partnerships.

In discussing allowing remarried congregants the Eucharist, Fr. Schüller at no time suggested open communion, but he strenuously argued that denying the Eucharist to any baptized Catholic as a form of punishment or exclusion is offensive; that of all things communion should be a symbol of welcome and God’s embrace.

Schüller spoke for about a half hour, followed by a Q&A period that was longer and more meaty. When asked what can be done at the parish level today, Fr. Schüller suggested a mixture of modest actions with education. Priests can:

  • make clear that the communal embrace of the Eucharist is available to all baptized Catholics;
  • affirm committed gay partnerships; and
  • give lay people, especially women, as much of a role as possible, including preaching and have communion services when a priest is unavailable.

This can be accompanied by opportunities to learn about the history of church reform, including the history of women deacons, married priests and the popular election of bishops.

Fr. Schüller’s audience in New York, July 16, 2013, was mostly gray-haired Vatican II warriors.
Photo: © 2013 Phil Fox Rose

The major disappointment – an observation made not by me but by the one young adult who asked a question — is that virtually everyone in the audience was in their 60s or older — mostly Vatican II warriors who are still fighting. (Of course, word about this event spread through those old Vatican II networks, so the lack of reform-minded young adults may not be quite that extreme, but it is confirmed by most of my experience.) Schüller said young people have already given up on the chance for Catholic reform and moved on. If the only ones who remember a forward-looking progressively-minded Catholic Church are in their 60s and older, and the only young people staying are conservative, is there any chance of reform? Is there any chance of young progressives coming back?

Of course, Fr. Schüller’s tour comes on the heels of the election of Pope Francis. He is hopeful but very skeptical. While all indications are that Pope Francis is open-minded and pastorally oriented force, he will be able to effect radical reform, Fr. Schüller said, only if he truly uproots the existing Vatican bureaucracy, and several past popes have tried and failed to do that. “Hope is there,” said Fr. Schüller. “Let’s see if he can continue what he is doing as an individual for the whole system.” Is this conceivable? Fr. Schüller points to the fact that Pope Paul had begun a process to create a constitution establishing rights for and distributing control to the laity. It was sidelined under Pope John Paul II, but it has happened elsewhere. A successful example is the current Dalai Lama, the latest in a long line of absolute rulers who in 1963 established a constitution and democratic structure that removed much of his own power; then in 2011 successfully proposed a further change to replace his political role with an elected leader, leaving him only a spiritual role.)

Can the huge Catholic ship turn around from the course it’s been on for over 30 years? Does it want to? Or will progressively minded young Catholics continue to find a home elsewhere, leaving it a purified conservative church? The audience at Judson Memorial was sometimes tiresome; these Vatican II warriors are marginalized within the church and many are bitter and combative. This and the absence of young people made me wonder how Fr. Schüller’s efforts could possibly bear fruit. But his message is clear and appealing, and perhaps change will come through his work in other channels – Fr. Schüller will be meeting privately with priests while on tour – bolstered by the fresh winds of the new pope.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Christine Schenk

    Thanks for this piece. A few clarifications and amplifications. Fr. Schuller is calling for lay celebration of communion services in the absence of a priest, not the Eucharist or the Mass. These services use bread consecrated at an earlier Mass.

    Second, this initiative includes a lot of energy from younger Catholics. The national planning committee includes four leaders in their 20s and 30s. The Cleveland Schuller tour is being organized entirely by a 27 year old wife and Mom with an MA in Theology and 3 year old twin boys, and the Boston event was attended by FutureChurch’s 20-something board member who has an Mdiv and brought along three of her Mdiv classmates. There are many younger Catholics engaged in leadership in the reform community…Catholic reform is here to stay.

    Sr. Christine Schenk csj…Executive Director of FutureChurch (one of the national sponsors of Fr. Schuller’s tour.

    • Phil Fox Rose

      Sr. Christine, I’m delighted to hear about the involvement of young adult Catholics. I was reacting to what I saw at the New York event as well as Fr. Schuller’s own remarks on the subject, but it is encouraging to hear that there is a serious young adult component nationally. On the Eucharist without a priest present, I did understand that Fr. Schuller meant using bread previously consecrated by a priest. I intended the term “Eucharist” to refer to the consecrated host, not to the mass, and called it “communion services” elsewhere in the piece. I’ve changed the wording in that one case to avoid confusion. Thanks for pointing it out. I appreciate your comments. Peace, Phil

  • PetrusRomanus1

    True, the bishops have been marginalizing the “aging Vatican II generation,” also known as Catholic Woodstock. It’s just as true, and far more relevant, that the bishops are marginalizing themselves and diminishing their authority day after day after day.
    Unthinking and non-critical adherence to institutional celibacy in the face of the sexual revolution reveals a clerical mindset that is mostly incapable of dealing with issues they cannot understand, precisely because the hierarchy and the ordained cannot understand themselves as human persons. Meanwhile, institutional celibacy is more often honored in the breach, rather than adherence to it.
    Catholic bishops need to take Father Schueller and his message seriously, before it’s too late.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      What if it is the sexual revolution that is the error?

      • PetrusRomanus1

        Whether the sexual revolution is right or wrong, valid or invalid, laden with truth or full of error, the catholic hierarchy has shown itself singularly unequipped even to understand just what sex and sexual morality are all about, even without considering the revolution that occurred about the time that oral contraceptives became available to women.
        That’s why Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” was a disaster; he never wrote another encyclical. That’s also why (in part) we have the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis. That’s also why Cardinal Avery Dulles advised the hierarchy to tread very lightly on sexual issues in general and contraception in particular. And much more.
        If celibacy is to have relevance for today’s church and tomorrow’s, then the church’s teachings on sex require close examination, adjustment, overhaul, and in some cases abandonment. Father Schueller knows this and is not afraid to speak publicly about what he knows. As for our bishops (mostly JPII and BXVI appointees), they know they’re in BIG trouble, but they’re not sure exactly what the trouble is, or what to do about it, and have no stomach for another revolution inside “their” church.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          Actually, Humanae Vitae shows more knowledge of what sex is really about, than any Planned Parenthood Pimp.

          The sexual revolution is the worst disaster that has ever befallen mankind- just look at the divorce rate if you don’t believe me. Contraception is evil. Everything Pope Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae has come to pass, and worse.

          The only reason celibacy has any relevance at all is because it provides an option to the addiction and slavery to orgasm that the sexual revolution offers. The sexual revolution is inhuman- it’s nothing more than a bunch of monkeys playing around with sex.



    The bishops have been talking and writing about Religious Freedom and hawking Fortnights of Freedom for some time now. But apparently the freedoms of the People of God are restricted to those areas carefully defined by the hierarchy. Daring to brook those boundaries is to invite condemnation by the local bishop, attempts at silencing and even excommunication.

    What about the freedoms of conscience, thought, discussion and assembly?

    Kenneth Gavin, speaking in the name of Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, says that the reformist views of Helmut Schüller on the ordination of women and married men, the permission of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments and an end to celibacy for priests is to “diverge very seriously from Catholic belief and practice.”

    What Gavin doesn’t say is that these beliefs and practices did not come from a loving God but are man-made decisions of a particular age for a particular reason. Those reasons revolved more around money, power and control than anything else.

    Helmut Schüller is the founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, a movement organized in 2006 to address an increasing shortage of priests. His Call to Disobedience has brought worldwide attention to the crises in the Catholic Church and addresses the necessity of reforming church governance.

    A religious denomination that seeks to deny or stifle the exercise of such basic human rights by its membership is a religion in deep trouble. More than that, attempts at such condemnatory actions are unconscionable.

    Why does the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church so fear an educated, thinking laity willing to work with the bishops in addressing the crises in today’s Church?

    Perhaps Archbishop Charles Chaput and some of the bishops of the tri-state area will be gracious enough to attend this Friday evening event at Chestnut Hill College’s SugarLoaf campus and share their thoughts with us.

    Looking forward to seeing you this evening at the SugarLoaf campus of Chestnut Hill College.

    Sister Maureen Paul Turlish

    Voice of the Faithful, Greater Philadelphia
    National Survivor Advocates Coalition
    Delaware Child Victims Voice Coalition
    Catholic Whistleblowers

    • Quid

      “What Gavin doesn’t say is that these beliefs and practices did not come from a loving God but are man-made decisions of a particular age for a particular reason. Those reasons revolved more around money, power and control than anything else.”

      This is a common misunderstanding among non Catholics talking about tradition in the Church. There are two kinds, Tradition (one of the three sources of divine revelation) and traditions, which come from the leaders of the Church, not the Holy Spirit.

      The Tradition of the Church can never be changed even if the entire laity calls for it, because it comes directly from the God. This priest’s campaign to permit women priests or accept gay partnerships in the Church will never be successful because the Church cannot not declare something acceptable that the Holy Spirit has declared immoral. Shuller should know this, I’m shocked he became a priest without ever studying basic catechetics every 1st grader ought to know from CCD.

      As for the traditions of the Church (lowercase ‘t’) they can be changed, since they are established for a specific time and a specific reason. Celibacy of priests is a great example, because there are plenty of instances where a priest is given a dispensation to be married. I’ve known priests in full communion with the Church who are married. Dispensations aren’t guaranteed, but bishops have the authority to authorize them under certain situations. I’m not sure, but I think the administration of sacraments to the divorced is also subject to change. It’s not a dogmatic proclamation like that marriage is intended to be a loving relationship between a man and women.

      As for your issues of power and control, you’re going to have to take those up with Jesus. He was the one who appointed only men for the priesthood, and his Father was the one who condemned gay relationships numerous times in the Bible.

      • Phil Fox Rose

        Quid, first you say of the comment by Sister Maureen that it’s a “common misunderstanding among non Catholics.” Later you say, “Shuller should know this, I’m shocked he became a priest without ever studying basic catechetics every 1st grader ought to know from CCD.” So YOU are right about everything concerning the Church and this sister and priest are so ignorant that they’re not even up to 1st grade Catholic level, if even Catholic?

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The message for me from God on the Women’s Priest Issue will come the day I meet a pro-life woman who can tell me how one can be an alter christus and still respect life.

  • Quid

    “Fr. Schüller’s central message is that as a Catholic, a Christian and even as a priest, his obedience is and must be to God first, his conscience second, and then to earthly authorities in the Church third. If the Church is in contradiction to God and his own conscience, then he cannot obey it and neither should lay Catholics.”

    The problem with this, is you can’t be Catholic if you believe the Church is in opposition to God. Issues like women priests and honoring gay partnerships are dogmatic. The Church herself has declared that both these things are wrong, and if the Church is wrong about anything dogmatically, it completely unravels; the Church’s foundation is inspiration and guidance from the Holy Spirit, so if she is wrong about anything dogmatic, no matter how small, the entire Church is a lie. It does’t make any sense for this priest to still claim to be Catholic if his beliefs are in direct opposition the the Church’s. He needs to find a new church that better coincides with his own personal beliefs, but leaders of the Church have made it very clear constantly that the Church will never change her statements on gay relationships, women priests, or other controversial moral issues of the modern age.

  • jocelynrose

    This story breaks my heart as it suggests that the only way to reform, as in the sense of making improvements, is to rebel against the teachings of the Catholic Church in pursuit of declaring a new Truth. Anyone within the American Catholic Church will concede that there needs to be reform. But the reforms suggested by Fr. Schueller are neither new or helpful. They are Protestant. And, in many senses, can only harm those already struggling within the American Catholic Church.

    My small parish in Skokie, IL also believes in reform. But our Pastor believes in the type of reform that sets the young hearts of Americans on fire for the Truth of the Catholic Church. Our young children are catechized with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. And instead of traditional CCD, we have a newly developing youth church, all of it blessed by the Cardinal. The goal of the youth church is to inspire our young people to request the Sacraments when their hearts are ready with the hope that they may have a sincere understanding of the beautiful truths of our faith.

    And what I see in this reform is healthy families that drive from near and far to be in community. And not so healthy families that are being made healthy again. I see marriages that are full of love and faithfulness and children that speak openly about Christ’s love for them with confidence. And children whose chastity formation is helping them to enter into healthy, lifelong relationships. This is the type of reform that can make a difference in the lives of American Catholics.

    I pray that Fr. Schueller, and all of those who think changing the Truth of the Tradition of the Catholic Church is the way to healthy reform, may have their hearts changed and drawn back into the beauty that is our Church. May we all walk humbly together seeking Christ’s truth in our lives.

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