This summer seven Catholic priests in
Portsmouth, Hampshire, invited their fellow priests to form an association for Catholic priests in England to promote the ongoing reform of the Church. They urged their brother priests and in fact all the faithful to read the signs of the times.
In response to their bishops' call to foster "a culture of dialog and solidarity," the seven noted issues which they believe need attention and discussion, such as married priests, Church teaching on sexual matters, and the Curia's by-passing of Vatican II teaching by countermanding the local bishops' authority for vernacular translation of liturgical texts.
One response to their invitation came from a seminarian in England who suggested that these priests should "look at the reaction of the young people to the current Holy Father. They appreciate his clarity and his uncompromising Christianity. I think people have become sick of a Church that has tried to be trendy; they want to be part of a Church that knows what it stands for. If these Priests want to go with the times, they might wish to consider moving to the Church of England!"
Clearly not all clergy agree with them or the other priest-associations in
Austria, Ireland, Australia, and the United States who are also issuing calls to action.
Some Catholics see criticism of the Church, the pope, the
Vatican or the bishops as equal to insubordination, disloyalty, even mutiny. History and theology, however, suggest that talk of reform and critical comment are needed to keep the Church on course, true to its Gospel mission.
Reformans et reformanda is Church tradition.
Criticism and change was at the heart of Paul's encounter with Peter: "And when Cephas came to
Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong" (Gal 2:11).
And in the midst of the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI reminded the Roman Curia that "we have to accept criticism with humility and reflection and admit what is justly pointed out. Rome has no need to be defensive, turning a deaf ear to observations which come from respected sources, still less, when those sources are friends and brothers" (Acta Apostolica Sedis, 797).
It must be acknowledged that some criticism can be devoid of respect for authority, divisive, and destructive. Karl Rahner addressed this matter, insisting that "attachment to the Church must also be part of the spirituality of the future. Otherwise it (criticism) is elitist arrogance and a form of unbelief" (K. Rahner, Concern for the Church, Crossroad, 1981, p. 153). Criticism without reason, respect, and love is counter-productive, but those who love the Church, who bring intelligent observation, and couch their critiques in reverence for others and for the magisterium deserve a hearing.
Former Archbishop of San Francisco John R. Quinn applauded Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Ut unum sint, calling it "a revolution." He wrote, "For the first time it is the Pope himself who raises and legitimizes the question of reform and change in the papal office of the Church" (J R Quinn, The Reform of the Papacy, Crossroad, 1999, p.14).
Quinn quotes the encyclical frequently, noting John Paul's openness to exercising his primacy in a new situation, and highlighting the pope's request for prayer for the ongoing conversion of the Bishop of Rome. The Holy Father wrote, "I earnestly invite the faithful of the Catholic Church and all Christians to share this prayer. May all join me in praying for this conversion" (UUS, 4).
Yves Congar's book True and False Reform in the Church was met with censure by the Curia in the 1950s, but there is evidence that Archbishop Angelo Roncalli's reading of that study influenced his decision to summon the Second Vatican Council when he became pope.
Congar began with the plea that those who read his book would understand that "this is not a book of negative criticism but of love and trust --above all, of total love for and absolute trust in the truth."
He recalled the words of Pope Pius XII: "The free expression of one's opinion is the prerogative of every human society...In the eyes of Christians, repressing the expression of opinion or forcing it into silence is an attack upon the natural rights of persons, a violation of the world order that God has established...The church is a living body, and it would lack an element of its life if the free expression of opinion was lacking --a lack for which both pastors and faithful would be blamed" (cf. Osservatore Romano, 2/18/1950, as quoted in Congar's book, p. 35).
A group of 35 Cincinnati-area priests (including one from the diocese of
Columbus OH, and four from the diocese of Covington KY) met July 30 at Good Shepherd Church, Cincinnati, to review the agenda, policies, and plans of the recently formed Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) which held its inaugural convention at St. Leo University in Florida in June.
The Cincinnati-meeting surfaced laments about the state of the Church today which were very similar to those aired at the
Florida meeting (e.g., the rift between younger and older clergy, lack of dialog, sense that Church authorities are backtracking on Vatican II, creeping infallibility).
Those who participated at the
Cincinnati meeting also expressed their hopes and dreams (e.g., holding to the vision of Vatican II, promotion of lay involvement, overcoming a climate of fear, keeping Christ as the center of priestly ministry, observing the 50th anniversary of the Council, finding a voice through the AUSCP).
The great majority of AUSCP members, locally and nationally, are loyal to the Church, concerned about deviations from the Gospel and from the directions set by Vatican II, and dedicated to their parish members.
Their criticism proceeds not from a desire to impose their personal opinions upon the Church, but from a sincere commitment to keeping the Church true to its mission.
Bishop Quinn's observation is worthy of consideration: "The failures of the Church in the second millennium --the loss of whole peoples to Catholic unity in the sixteenth century, the loss of the workers in the nineteenth, the alienation of the intellectuals in the twentieth-- have been due not so much to reform within the Church as to the lack of timely reform, the failure to weigh carefully enough the signs of the times, and the failure to act in time" (Reform of the Papacy, p. 44).