CRISTA PONGRATZ-LIPPITT. Renowned reformer: ‘Church has 5 years for a complete turnaround or it’s over’

Father Helmut Schüller of Austria says the sex abuse crisis shows urgent need to ‘desacralize’ the Catholic priesthood and empower the laity. .

One of the world’s most credible reform-minded Catholic priests has warned that time is running out for the Church to make major structural changes if its leaders want to save it from collapse.

“If the Church does not accomplish a turnaround shift within the next four or five years, then it’s over,” said Father Helmut Schüller, a former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna, at a press conference on Feb. 27 in the Austrian capital.

The 66-year-old cleric, a co-founder in 2006 of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative (API), said the current sex abuse crisis must impel the Catholic Church to rethink (überdenken) its constitution, give lay Catholics more rights and introduce control mechanisms for those in positions of power.

Speaking to reporters during a meeting of Austrian Church reform movements, Schüller said one of the most necessary reforms is to “desacralize” the priesthood.

“We must get back to seeing the priesthood as a service and not as an office that gives the holder power, because that can lead to abuse,” he said.

A related reform that is also urgent, he added, is to make those in positions of responsibility accountable “from the top down.” Additionally, there must be a charter to establish and protect the basic rights of the baptized faithful, Schüller said.

He noted that Paul VI had made proposals in this direction but “when the powers-that-be realized that any such plans would cut to the bone,” the proposals were “buried” by Pope St. John Paul II.

Schüller insisted that a system of checks and balances be implemented without delay in the Church since “now everything always lands on the pope’s desk.” He said proposals for a basic Church constitution should be made by Church employees at all levels, and that this is an urgent matter.

“The abuse crisis has only grown rampantly in a system that has become unhealthy,” the priest reiterated.

A credible voice for Church reform

Schüller, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, is a credible voice on the abuse issue and Church reform.

A former head of Caritas Austria, he was Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s vicar general from 1995-1999 and headed  the Archdiocese of Vienna’s ombudsman office for helping victims of clergy sex abuse from 1996 until 2005, when he pushed to have a layperson take up that position.

The following year Schüller and Father Udo Fischer, a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Göttweig, founded the API.

The initiative has backed Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, the re-institution of a married priesthood and the ordination of women.

It has led to the establishment and strengthening of similar priests’ movements in places such as Ireland, Germany, France, Australia and the United States.

In 2011, the API issued a “Call to Disobedience,” which ramped up calls for reform and insisted that laypeople be allowed to run priestless parishes. A year later Pope Benedict XVI stripped Schüller of the honorary title of “monsignor” which the Vatican had bestowed upon the priest in 1992.

During the Feb. 27 press conference in Vienna, Schüller insisted that the basic problem behind the “abuse phenomenon” lay in the imbalance that exists in the Church.

“Catholics have become resigned to living in two worlds – in the world outside, which in Europe is usually a democratic world; and within the Church, where as soon as they cross the Church threshold, they are servants in an absolute monarchy,” he said.

He pointed out that the baptized faithful had long enjoyed no rights at all and were completely isolated if, for instance, they were assaulted by clerics.

The Vatican abuse summit

The Vienna archdiocesan priest also weighed in on the “abuse summit” that was held Feb. 21-24 in Rome with the participation of the pope and representatives of all the world’s bishops, religious orders and abuse victims.

“The Vatican summit must speedily trigger concrete system changes. Pope Francis has the unique chance to convert the Church into a community equipped with a basic constitution and he himself must lead the way,” Schüller said.

He was critical of the summit, saying he hoped “that something like this will never happen again – not in this form and in this vagueness.”

“Things that are taken for granted and do not need repeating were once again emphasized,” Schüller said. “But that merely shows how deep the crisis is,” he added.

“The summit was a costly event at which the participants first had to be brought up to the same level (of knowledge) on something that even the youngest members of our parish councils are fully acquainted with,” the reformer-priest said.

He said every summit participant should have been handed “notebook with a list of obligations/duties” for use in their own local Church. And he added that a stack of forms allowing bishops to submit their resignations should have been placed at the exit of the Synod Hall where the summit was held.

Many of those attending the Vatican meeting “are, after all, part of the problem and not of the solution,” Schüller pointed out.

The Cardinal Groer Affair

The Austrian priest’s initial experience in dealing with clergy sex abuse came during Holy Week in 1995 when it was revealed that the then-Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, had abused a minor.

John Paul II appointed Father Christoph Schönborn, then a Dominican theologian, as coadjutor bishop to Cardinal Groer. A few months later the Vatican allowed the disgraced cardinal to retire at age 75. And as the new archbishop, Schönborn named Schüller head of the archdiocese’s newly established ombudsman office for reporting abuse.

The priest said the awareness that “respect, esteem and safeguarding possibilities for the victims” were imperative and had led to a “long and tough learning process.”

But he said there was still something missing — the “right of control” as far as bishops were concerned and their commitment to accountability and to shouldering responsibility.

“Bishops should not only be removed from the episcopal office if they cover up abuse cases – but also if they simply sit back and do nothing,” Schüller emphasized.

The Cardinal Pell case is a warning

In an interview with one of Austria’s most respected dailies, Die Presse, Schüller noted that, only 48 hours after the conclusion of the Vatican abuse summit, it was officially announced that Australian Cardinal George Pell had been convicted of sexual abuse.

He said the “remarkable” thing about the Pell case was that Pope Francis had made no attempt to protect the Australian cardinal at the Vatican. Rather, he told Pell to report to the police in Melbourne where he’d been accused.

“That is very different from former times when Church officials who committed offences did not turn themselves in,” Schüller said.

The Pell case certainly indicates a shift from the way the Vatican previously has dealt with sexual abuse involving senior Church officials, he said.

“Pell was one of a group of the pope’s closest advisors,” the Austrian priest said. “His case is a warning for the many who have up to now not taken the abuse cases seriously enough.”

Published in La Croix International, March 7, 2019

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7 Responses to CRISTA PONGRATZ-LIPPITT. Renowned reformer: ‘Church has 5 years for a complete turnaround or it’s over’

  1. J Knight says:

    It is often repeated that Geo Card Pell was directed by the Pope to return to Australia.

    I believe the Cardinal made that decision of his own volition and its just slander or lazy reporting to make this claim…as with all in the Pell case, ‘where’s the corroborated evidence.” It’s just hearsay.

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    “If the Church does not accomplish a turnaround shift within the next four or five years, then it’s over,”

    We are ‘all’ sinners, nevertheless His promise “the gates of hell shall not prevail “ still holds true and the challenge to-day for renewal, will be based on both scripture and sacred tradition, which will involve all the ‘faithful’.

    ‘A lack of stillness’ desolates as can be plainly seen in the turbulence today within the Church, similar to the time God destroyed the Tower of Babel because they did not speak /act in unity of purpose, as they served their own egos rather than the Will of God.

    Jesus was very specific in regards to the Commandments, as in not “One iota” as with His teaching “Whatever you do to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”. Self- justification has no part to play within a Christian heart, as we all fall short in regards to “One iota” and love of neighbour, and this comes about when we fail to “Love the Lord your God with all our Heart, mind and soul”… this is the precursor to ‘A lack of stillness’.

    It could be said that a ‘Good-Enough Life’ is that of love of neighbour without the Love of God/’Truth’, but it ‘is not good enough’. But a humble life/heart is, as “Only God is Good”. Truth is the essence of love. The Truth, as in not one iota, is the yoke that binds us to Jesus Christ, in ‘humility’. St. Bernard- Humility a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself…

    “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest (‘Stillness’) for you souls” …

    The True Divine Mercy Image/message, one of Broken Man given by Our Lord Himself, is a missionary call that offers the Church the means to embrace all her children no matter what their state of being, who are ‘willing’ to embrace the wedding (Bonding) garment of humility. The one and only state from where the ongoing transforming action of The holy Spirit can take place. While we evangelize through the action of Humility, a disarming action in its honesty, that embrace all in its simplicity, as we encounter our brothers and sisters who stand and seek direction at the crossroads (Difficulties) of life.

    So in our present shameful situation, is God preparing the birth of a Church that will be truthful with herself. A Church that proceeds and leads in humility, openly acknowledging her failings before God and all of her children and in doing so, permit her children to do the same, and walk dressed in the Wedding (Bonding) Garment of humility also. Please consider continuing via the link
    https://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2017/10/15-october-28th-sunday-in-ot/#comment-91945

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    It might also be valuable to have the act of Confession restricted to those eighteen or older. It has been well-noted in other articles that it was the dropping of the age for making one’s first Confession to the age of – was it 10? around the end of the 19th/early 20th-century – that gave paedophile-minded priests abusing the right to pry into children’s states of mind (re something they could probably have scarce-imagined) and from that to the kinds of molestation and assaults – using their power – which are seeing this wave of revulsion towards the church around the world. Thank goodness for Julia Gillard for getting the Royal Commission under way here in Australia. And no thanks to Tony Abbott – best buddies with George PELL. That is something which needs unpacking a little further I would respectfully suggest.

  4. Jennifer Herrick says:

    Well I can’t see the change Schuller correctly signals happening in his allocated timeframe. And this is because structural change, even to the extent Schuller outlines, begs the question of the current Church Model in play. As I have noted elsewhere, Dulles’ “Models of Church” brought this to our attention 45 years ago. There are many alternative models to the current Institutional Model, the Model of Communion for one.

    • Joan Seymour says:

      That’s true. But the real question isn’t whether there are other possible models. The question is whether the current hierarchy, which hold all the power in the model we have, is willing to use that power to change the model. Are they willing, and do they know how? I’m afraid the answer is negative in both cases. But – perhaps – if the Church as a whole decided just to do it differently and ignore the claims of the hierarchy, a new model would emerge with a new authority.

    • carey burke says:

      Jennifer, you have a fair point about “the current Church Model in play” but I think you are overlooking one of Schuller’s primary observations.
      Here we have someone who stepped off the institutions’s upwardly mobile track for clergy twenty years ago, and has been working at substantive church renewal ever since. He is now saying that we are running out of time. Five years is not very long. Why does Schuller fixate on five years? Further, is this fast approaching point of no return only for the Church in Vienna or does it have applicability elsewhere – like locally, down under?
      A disturbing prospect which many will discount and discard as not needing to be answered. But, beyond the loose and frequently misleading statistics of 10% practising and 90% missing in action along with an aging clergy and worshipping congregations, we know little about our reserves of resilience and capacity for sustained renewal.

  5. Mary Tehan says:

    How to get power openly AND equitably shared in monarchical and/or patriarchical structures and systems is the key question and challenge. Is it even possible unless conventional power is dismantled and reframed? Is using the same people with this power to be the resolvers of the problem even wise or effective? The question of trust is up for grabs at every turn. What if true leadership is not inside the Christian elite or clique? How do you think parents find their way through the daily minefield of shared power based on need (not want)? Remember the NZ film Whale Rider? It is the wise elders who knew where the authentic leadership lay … bring forward the wise elders.

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