At the end of my recent post about the Ecumenical Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I mentioned the Pfarrer Initiative in Austria, that calls for radical reform within the Roman Catholic Church. I did promise a future blog post about it. So here it is!
The Pfarrer Initiative is an open call to disobedience by nearly 400 Roman Catholic priests and deacons in Austria. As such, they constitute roughly 10% of the Austrian Roman Catholic clergy. You can read their original ‘Appeal to Disobedience’ in English, by following this link. However inevitably, most other online material about this radical reform movement is only available in German.
This initiative arises out of two major issues that increasingly face Roman Catholic priests across Europe and North America. How to offer the sacraments and pastoral care, to the ever increasing number of people whose lives do not conform exactly to official Roman Catholic doctrine. And how to overcome the ever increasing shortage of priests. What the Pfarrer Initiative calls for is radical change. But it is also a call for honesty rather than the hypocrisy that exists at present
The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that anyone who has been married in Church and later divorced and remarried in a civil ceremony, cannot be admitted to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Likewise, it is only paid-up members of the Roman Catholic Church that can be admitted, not members of any other Christian Church.
With the ever increasing number of Roman Catholics who are divorced and remarried, the official position creates major pastoral problems for Roman Catholic priests. Many overcome the problem by simply ignoring official RC teaching and allow those who are divorced and remarried to receive the sacraments. Alternatively, these individuals take themselves off to a Church two or three parishes removed from where they live, where their past marital affairs are unknown.
Likewise, I have received the sacrament of Holy Communion from a Roman Catholic priest, with his permission, on numerous occasions. The most memorable occasion was in Spain where the priest was a paid-up member of Opus Dei. When administering Holy Communion, he gave the consecrated host/communion wafer to each individual and invited them to take the consecrated wine by intinction. But when he came to me, he insisted that I should take the chalice in my own hands and drink the consecrated wine, ‘because I was a priest’. Of course, the official Roman Catholic position is that all Anglican orders are invalid!
In Austria, the problem of the shortage of priests is currently being dealt with in one of two ways, both of which are causing increasing anger and frustration from clergy and laity alike. Parishes are being amalgamated and priests are being forced to run around between Churches, celebrating mass one time after another, with little time for pastoral conversations following worship. Or African clergy are being imported who cannot speak German properly, let alone Österreichisch, and who inevitably have little understanding of the people or their culture.
The Pfarrer Initiative calls for ‘the admission of women and married people to the priesthood’ as a very practical way of addressing this problem. But even if the official Roman Catholic position on this matter were to change overnight, and under the current Pope that most certainly will NOT happen, it would still take many years for such people to undertake theological training and then be ordained.
It is what then follows this call that I find most interesting. ‘We express solidarity with colleagues no longer permitted to exercise their ministry because they have married, and also with those in ministry who live in a permanent relationship’.
By implication, those behind the Pfarrer Initiative are saying that, if those priests forced to cease their ministry because they have fallen in love with a woman and have chosen to marry her, were allowed to resume their ministry, the number of available, already theologically trained priests, would promptly increase. They are also acknowledging what many people already know, including many in the RC hierarchy – that many supposedly celibate Roman Catholic priests, actually live, ‘in a permanent relationship’. Once more, what we have here is a clear call for honesty and an end to hypocrisy.
It is those Roman Catholic priests who openly admit that they have fallen in love with a woman and do the right and proper thing and marry the lady, who are being honest. Yet as things currently stand, such individuals are promptly deprived of their right to minister. Yet those priests who have a girlfriend three parishes down the road, or a live-in lover whom they declare to be their housekeeper – they are allowed to continue in ministry.
I found a news report on the BBC News website three years ago, absolutely fascinating as it bears out everything I’ve written in the previous paragraph. It relates the results of a survey of Roman Catholic priests in Poland, carried out by a sociologist. Responding to a questionnaire, aided by the cloak of anonymity, more than 30% admitted to having had sexual relations with a woman and 12% said they were living in stable relationships with a woman.
I am very aware that all of us, myself very much included, can be guilty of hypocrisy – of saying one thing and then doing another. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday in two days time, spells it out clearly. ‘We confess to you, Lord…. all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy and impatience of our lives’. In response we ask, ‘Lord, have mercy’. I for one, welcome all that the Pfarrer Initiative calls for. It is a clear call for honesty, in place of hypocrisy. However, whether the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church will ever take heed of it, is a very open question.