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Reformers vow to push agenda beyond married priests

NCR Staff

Convergence and solidarity within the Catholic reform movement seemed the leitmotifs at a congress of the International Federation of Married Catholic Priests held July 28-Aug. 1 at Emory University in Atlanta.

The event drew 330 activists from 17 nations. In addition to 16 associations of married priests from around the world, approximately 25 other Catholic reform groups -- such as We Are Church, the Women’s Ordination Conference and Catholics Speak Out -- were represented.

Canadian Bishop Remi de Roo had been scheduled to address the conference but pulled out in May under Vatican pressure (NCR, May 21). Australian Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, facing Vatican scrutiny for his book Papal Power, replaced de Roo.

The Atlanta event brought together the leadership ranks of a wide spectrum of progressive Catholic groups. “People here are not concerned only with a married priesthood,” said Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler of Catholics Speak Out in a telephone interview from Atlanta. “They’re seeking a thoroughly reformed church, with full equality for women and gays and lesbians. All these issues have dovetailed.”

Fiedler struck the convergence theme in a homily. She predicted changes under the next papacy but warned that these changes may come with strings attached. “The acceptance of a married clergy is very likely to be one of the first changes,” she said. “I will be among the first to applaud and celebrate this step toward resurrection as long as -- for example -- those who accept such a priesthood are not required to reject the idea that women can be priests.

“By the same token, if women are ordained, we cannot accept a requirement that we exclude our gay brothers or lesbian sisters, or that we refuse Communion to those of other faith traditions, nor can any of us take stands that exclude whole classes of people from church or priesthood.”

Anthony Padovano, longtime leader of the American married priests’ group CORPUS and now vice-president of the international federation, echoed Fiedler. “If there were a readmission of noncanonical priests and nothing else was changed, why would I go back if I would have to be silenced on every other issue of reform?” he said in an interview.

“A truncated ministry like that would be unbearably oppressive.” Padovano said there is a “virtual unanimity” among the members of the CORPUS on this point.

The relationship between the married priests movement and advocates of women’s ordination has not always been so congenial. In the 1970s and ’80s, some married priests worried about linking their cause to what were perceived as more radical demands; at the same time, some feminist leaders argued that CORPUS and other married priests groups remained too clerical and too male-dominated to be effective partners for Catholic women.

Elfriede Harth of Versailles, France, believes these antagonisms have faded. “We see that the real issue is leadership that responds to the needs of the community,” said Harth, coordinator of the international We Are Church movement. “Whether that’s a married man or a woman isn’t so important.”

We Are Church originated in Austria and Germany, where petitions demanding church reform garnered more than 2 million signatures in the mid-1990s.

In part, Fiedler credits Vatican intransigence for this convergence. “If the passage of time had brought a married priesthood at the cost of excluding women, we might not have seen this. But the fact that we all have remained excluded from full acceptance in the church has produced a growing sense of solidarity,” she said.

Organizers of the Atlanta conference said they had “preliminary discussions” about calling a major world congress of Catholic reform groups in 2002 or 2003, to be held either in Latin America or Rome.

The conference theme at Emory was “Human Rights and Reconciliation.” Harth argued in a speech that human rights will not be protected in the church until it is reorganized along democratic lines. “You know that people, and particularly young people, cannot identify with institutional forms of religiosity that smell of the dust of absolute monarchy,” she said.

Harth said that a democratic church would not be a religious supermarket where people “satisfy themselves as consumers,” but rather a place “where all voices are welcome and heard, where democratic forms of leadership and authority unfold.” In such a church, a monarchical papacy would become a historical curiosity.

“I dream of the day when I can go to visit the Vatican palaces as I now go for a walk to the Castle of Versailles,” she said. “It would certainly be a magnificent tourist attraction, but its form of government would be a thing of the past.”

Philippe de la Chapelle, a married priest who worked at the Vatican with the Pontifical Commission for Peace and Justice in the late 1960s, reviewed the history of the Catholic church on human rights. Pointing to concepts such as the right of sanctuary, he said, “The universality of Catholicism has helped to establish a better understanding of the universality of human rights.” Yet in critical areas such as sexuality, women, divorce and celibacy, he said the church falls short.

“Celibacy is an individual choice, a personal agreement, not an obligation from on high,” la Chapelle said. “A way of life so voluntary must be freely accepted each day by an internal consent and not by an external regulation.”

Collins’ address focused on the structural dimensions of renewal. He warned reformers against unrealistic expectations of rapid change. “Our asceticism must be that of knowing that personally we will probably never achieve what we set out to do,” he said.

Collins said many Catholics are today called to be pontiffs. Noting that the word literally means bridge-builder, Collins said reformers must “provide the link between the Catholicism of the past and the creative manifestations of the tradition that are yet to come.”

Daniel Maguire, professor of moral theology at Marquette University, argued that in view of crises such as ecological devastation and threats to peace, “the question of whether the leaders and ministers who work on this are married on unmarried, gay or heterosexual are cast belatedly into the abyss of pathetic irrelevancy.”

Patty Crowley, a founder of the Catholic Family Movement and a member of Paul VI’s birth control commission, received an award at the conference, as did representatives of the New Faith Community in Rochester, N.Y.

Full text versions of the major addresses at the conference may be accessed at www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999