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Pittsburgh priests split from federation

Special Report Writer

The Association of Pittsburgh Priests has withdrawn its membership from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, claiming the national body is too passive and silent and no longer a vital organization of priests leading the church toward renewal in the vision and spirit of Vatican Council II.

The 55- to 60-member Pittsburgh group had affiliated itself with the national federation for more than three decades, held membership on its national board for a quarter-century and been deeply involved in leadership, especially at its national meetings. But in recent years the gatherings have been more about “guys getting together to talk about spirituality” and less about addressing the changing needs of the U.S. church, Fr. John Oesterle told NCR. Oesterle chairs the Pittsburgh association and was a board member of the national federation from 1985-’89.

The priest said the vote to withdraw was “pretty unanimous” and under consideration for some time. Oesterle called the decision “very painful.” He asked, “Who else is going to lead us on a national level?”

The Pittsburgh group may be unique among groups that belong to the national federation because about a third of its members are resigned priests, their wives and lay Catholics -- most of them liberal in outlook and active in church renewal issues, Oesterle said. Its membership represents about 10 percent of the approximately 500 diocesan priests in Pittsburgh. Oesterle called the Association of Pittsburgh Priests more “a Call to Action group” than a traditional priests’ council. It intends to continue its links with the Catholic Organizations for Renewal -- a national umbrella group of 33 renewal groups -- and to support the Eastern Pennsylvania Call to Action group in its effort to renew the church and to speak for justice and peace, Oesterle said.

He faulted the National Federation of Priests’ Councils for no longer being the kind of activist group it once was. In past years the national federation spoke out on social justice, and team ministry called for a simple and non-clerical lifestyle for priests, he said. It made prophetic statements about America’s military role in Vietnam, racism, nuclear disarmament and capital punishment. It also called for the ordination of married men and women.

While Oesterle found its leaders to be “popular, hard-working priests,” he said they are not “the prophetic, outspoken or challenging” priests that are needed if priests’ councils are to meet the needs of the church in the new century. “They don’t make waves. Yet Jesus made a lot of waves, and Peter and Paul got killed for making waves,” he said.

The new president-elect of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, Fr. Robert Silva, said he was “having a hard time understanding” why the Pittsburgh priests withdrew. “We’re still committed to the work of the gospel at the council level,” he told NCR in a telephone interview from Stockton, Calif., where he is pastor and rector of the Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Silva, who replaces Fr. Don Wolf of Oklahoma City next July l, said that the National Federation of Priests’ Councils had made a deliberate shift in recent years from an adversarial style to one of being a partner to the local diocesan councils of priests. “Our advocacy will hopefully be as strong as possible but it will not be like it was 15 and more years ago.

Soon after the federation’s launch in 1968, some of its members were viewed by some in the church “as out to throw bombs,” Wolf told NCR at the group’s 1998 convention in East Rutherford, N.J. (NCR, May 15, 1998). The national federation had paid the legal fees for priests in the Washington area who took issue with papal teaching in Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that upheld the ban on artificial contraception.

There is a different tenor, feel and process underway in the national federation today, Silva said. “We don’t want to be adversarial, but rather productive and positive.” The group will not issue resolutions, as in the past, but will be more likely to circulate white papers on such topics as the priest shortage. “Our task is to do the research and to circulate it to the priests’ councils that we serve.” Such a method would allow for raising the issue of a married clergy, of recruitment, personnel and of all the justice issues involving lay ministers, Silva said. “We can’t be afraid to raise any of these hard questions.”

Silva said that the national federation would approach the Association of Pittsburgh Priests “in brotherhood and according to the precepts of the gospel” in order to heal any wounds between the two parties and to move forward in unity. “There is enough dissention in the church,” he said.

The national federation counts 26,000 members. It works to give priests’ councils a representative voice in matters of presbyteral, pastoral and ministerial concern to the church in the United States and in the universal church. That role has changed with the changing of canon law, the graying of the clergy and the shortage of priests, Fr. Neil McCaulley told NCR. McCaulley, pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Pittsburgh, was president of the national federation from 1980 to ’82.

He said that the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law -- which made bishops the chairpersons of priests’ councils -- had “muddied the waters” for the national federation. Formerly the organization saw itself as a vehicle for collegial dialogue with the bishops, a role that diminished when the bishops became the chairpersons, McCaulley said.

Similarly, the work of renewal and social justice, which frequently made its way into resolutions at federation conventions and was then enacted by local offices of justice and peace, no longer moved in this way once the national federation “became too tied to the bishops,” McCaulley said.

Most of the members of the national federation belong to local diocesan presbyteral councils, whose members are elected or appointed and serve as official consulters to local bishops. The Association of Pittsburgh Priests is one of only four priests associations in the national federation, according to McCaulley. The associations are apart from the presbyteral councils. The others are in Southern Illinois, South Carolina and in Chicago where the national federation is headquartered.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999