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European reform engine seems to sputter

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Schmiedeberg, Germany

From an organizational viewpoint, it seems that the engine of church reform in Europe, in overdrive from 1995 to 1999, has shifted into low gear.

This impression was formed during the second weekend in January, when a leading network for Catholic reform groups in Europe held its 10th annual meeting here. Delegates from 12 countries spent three days telling one another their stories, firming up their links in cyberspace, electing new officers and doing a marvelous liturgy together on Saturday night -- in German, French and English.

But they launched no new initiatives, and the outgoing secretary for the group -- known as the European Network Church on the Move -- reported the demise of one Italian affiliate and the resignation of another. Simon Bryden-Brook of London also said that a reform group from Liechtenstein has declined several invitations to join the network. Its tentative affiliation last year was hailed as one of the network’s more significant accomplishments.

The closest thing to dramatic action came when members of the group decided to be present in Rome as a kind of shadow synod when the world’s bishops gather again in 2000.

This sense of drift on the Catholic left in Europe is admittedly based on one January meeting in a remote ski town in eastern Germany. There is another, bigger reform group, the International Movement We Are Church. And there are a number of local groups who didn’t send delegates to this meeting; they continue quietly to live the spirit of Vatican II in their little towns and campus organizations. One brochure issued by a German network called “Initiative: Church From Below” listed 42 affiliated local groups from Munster, Germany, to Munich, Germany.

But the engine for reform is certainly sputtering in Austria, until recently the heartland of European reform energies. In the Easter season of 1995 a small group of Catholics in Innsbruck, Austria, launched a petition drive to call for a more loving, democratic and generous church. They seemed to triumph in 1998, when the official church-sponsored Dialogue for Austria, a national convention of Austrian Catholics, endorsed a sweeping program of reform.

The Austrian Kirchenvolksbewegung, or “People’s Movement in the Church,” hacked out a five-point action program. They said the church had to: (1) respect all the people of God, whether lay or ordained, by giving them a meaningful voice in church affairs -- including a role in the selection of bishops; (2) give full equal rights to women; (3) lift mandatory celibacy for priests; (4) encourage a positive understanding of sexuality; and (5) teach the gospel as a message of joy.

Within a few months, this renewal campaign had spread to Germany, and soon local versions of the Austrian initiative sprang up in countries all over the world, including Belgium, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Catalonia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, Great Britain, Holland, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the United States and Venezuela.

By October 1999, this rough coalition of Catholic reform groups was ready to present signed petitions to the Synod of European Bishops meeting in Rome. In a good-natured, laughing and very informal ceremony, representatives of the reform from all over the world presented more than 2 million signatures to a functionary of the synod outside the synod’s meeting hall at the Casa Santa Marta, just a stone’s throw from the Holy Office.

There is no evidence that the synod took any official notice of this “shadow synod.”

What happened in Austria? “Our bishops pulled back,” reported Matthias Jacubec, one of the delegates to the network gathering. “For a while there, we thought we had something going. But the bishops were not willing to continue the dialogue.”

Emboldened, perhaps by secret letters from Cardinal Ratzinger telling them that the Austrians were departing from church teachings and discipline, Jacubec said, “They decided on a policy of aussitzen -- waiting it out.”

“And then,” said Jacubec, “after the Austrian press lost interest in a story that wasn’t going anywhere, a lot of the people lost interest, too. Many just stopped going to Mass.”

Is there no sign of hope in Austria? “There is,” said Jakubec, who works as a software engineer for the Austrian telephone company. “Laymen and laywomen will just start taking over in communities where the priests are fading away. That’s the future of Catholicism in Austria.”

The trouble is that in much of Europe, Austria included, there is no separation of church and state; the government gives the church 40 percent of its yearly budget, no questions asked. “That money,” said Jakubec, “doesn’t go to the people of God. It goes to their bishops.”

The European Network delegates didn’t spend all their convention time looking inward. Valerie Stroud of Rochester, England, and an officer in We Are Church United Kingdom, said, “We need to do more than talk. We have to get out there and be Christians in the spirit of Matthew 25.”

She was an eager listener to presentations that took most of one day by four earnest young women, Catholic social workers from Germany, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. They told about the rise of prostitution in Poland and along the German border, and a vicious new slave trade that sells (or leases) pretty young women from the former Soviet Union and most of the other countries in Eastern and Central Europe to well-heeled businessmen throughout the world.

Fully half of the slavers, it was said, are tough women from Bulgaria, Romania and Russia. And the other half are Russian Mafia.

Typically, they give their working girls 10 percent of their earnings; after paying rent in the brothel, with six to eight roommates in a single room, their take home pay is 300 marks a month, about $150.

And so, network delegates learned about the facts of life under Europe’s new capitalism. Most of them even took a bus trip to the nearby Czech border to observe streetwalkers in action. “Nothing new here,” said Simon Bryden-Brook. “They looked no different than the streetwalkers of London or Rome. It’s an old profession.”

If only it were more of a profession in Eastern Europe. Joanna Garnier, a social worker from Warsaw, said there are no laws against prostitution in Poland (and therefore no legal protection for the young women caught up in it). She said social workers are pushing for the legalization of prostitution in Poland. So far, they have received no help at all from the official church to do something for the victims of Europe’s new sex trade.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000