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European reformers set to approve draft church constitution

NCR Staff

Members of the leading network for Catholic reform groups in Europe were expected to approve a draft constitution for the Catholic church when they met this week in Liechtenstein.

The document reflects the work of the U.S.-based Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church.

The ninth annual meeting of the European Network, held Jan. 7 in the village of Schaan in Liechtenstein, was also an opportunity to reflect upon what seems to be a recent boom in the European Catholic reform movement -- a development fueled by dramatic successes in Austria and Germany. One of the more significant recent events was the overwhelming mandate for change issued by the Dialogue for Austria (NCR, Nov. 6, 1998).

The relationship between the international We Are Church movement and older church reform groups loomed as an especially pressing issue.

The European Network is composed of 28 Catholic reform groups in 12 nations. For the past few years Americans from groups such as Call to Action, Catholics Speak Out and Catholic Organizations for Renewal have attended the meetings as observers.

The draft constitution expected to be adopted in Liechtenstein attempts to provide a framework for church governance that in many respects mimics the principles of secular democracies. It calls for a separation of powers among the pope, a general council and a supreme tribunal. Under the scheme, the pope is construed as a chief executive elected to a single 10-year term; the 500-member general council would be composed of laity, clergy and bishops with power over “doctrine, morals, worship, education, social outreach, administration, finances and other activities carried out in the name of the universal church”; and a supreme tribunal would serve as a court of last resort for church disputes.

At lower levels the draft calls for parish, diocesan and national structures organized in similar fashion. The document repeatedly asserts the principle of subsidiarity, that decisions should be made at the lowest level of governance possible.

The document asserts a right to public dissent from church teaching, a right to divorce and remarriage, a right to “appropriate measures of family planning,” a right to optional celibacy for clergy and a right for access to the exercise of all powers in the church for women, in addition to a variety of other guarantees. The draft constitution may be found online at http://blue.temple.edu/~dialogue.

Mary Louise Hartman, a board member of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, said she does not expect that endorsement of the draft constitution in Liechtenstein will lead to serious consideration of the idea in Rome.

“We’re not naive,” she said. “We know you can’t just take this to the Vatican and expect them to act on it.” Instead, Hartman said, she hopes for a “trickle-up” process in which local parishes and dioceses will adopt their own constitutions based on the principles in the draft, leading eventually to a more receptive climate for the idea of a constitution for the universal church.

The European Network may present the draft constitution to the bishops expected to gather sometime in 1999 for the Synod for Europe, according to Simon Bryden-Brook, the network’s secretary. “That would be a very sensible thing for us to do,” he told NCR.

Bryden-Brook is active in Catholics for a Changing Church, a reform group in England launched in the wake of Humanae Vitae.

In terms of the European Catholic reform scene, Bryden-Brook said the recent emergence of the We Are Church movement has significantly intensified the demand for change. “There is no doubt that We Are Church has changed the face of dissidence in the Catholic church, certainly in Europe. It’s getting more and more support and has been the means by which reform groups in other countries are coming out of the woodwork.”

The question now, he said, is what relationship the We Are Church movement will have to older groups, as well as to other umbrella organizations such as the European Network. “Some of the older groups have had their thunder stolen by We Are Church, especially in Austria and Germany,” Bryden-Brook said. “Sometimes there’s an understandable reluctance to see themselves being less and less important. It’s the same with religious orders,” he said, “when one rises up and another dies out.

“We have to accept that it’s a fluid situation, that different organizations come and go,” he said.

“It may well be the judgment of our group that the international We Are Church movement is the best global network for reform groups,” Bryden-Brook said. That does not mean other umbrella groups such as the European Network would die out, but that We Are Church “would be the banner under which we move forward.”

Bryden-Brook said the decision to assemble in Liechtenstein was driven “in part” by recent turmoil surrounding conservative Archbishop Wolfgang Haas (see story below). The group may engage in some sort of protest, he said, though “we will be guided by the wishes of our hosts,” the reform-oriented Union for an Open Church of Liechtenstein.

Hartman said the value for Americans in attending meetings such as the European Network comes in rediscovering the roots of their activism. “We are the children of Catholics from Europe with these ideas of democracy,” she said. “We are standing on the ideas of our European mothers and fathers.”

Dan Daley, co-director of Call to Action, said that transatlantic connections among reformers are clear at the group’s annual conference, where recent speakers have included Bishop Jacques Gaillot from the “virtual diocese” of Parthenia, and Elfriede Harth, coordinator of the international We Are Church movement.

Don Wedd of Call to Action, who was set to attend the Liechtenstein gathering, said he hoped to learn how Austrian reformers had managed to become part of an official dialogue with their bishops on church reform. He also hoped to hear “a critique of the American reform movement and of the U.S. church.”

We Are Church's international Web site http://www.we-are-church.org/
Call to Action's site http://call-to-action.org/
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National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999