VATICAN CITY, April 5, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In an extremely rare move, Pope Benedict XVI today issued a forcefully worded correction of a group of Austrian priests who last year issued a public letter calling on their fellow clergy to disobey Catholic teaching in key areas.
“Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination,” the pope said.
Speaking at the Holy Thursday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica today, one of the most solemn occasions of the Catholic Church’s liturgical year, Pope Benedict asked, “Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church?”
Although he did not name the country, it is clear the pope was referring to a public letter the priests, who called themselves the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, issued in June 2011 demanding “reform” on priestly celibacy, the reservation of the priesthood to men and the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics. Titled “A Call to Disobedience,” the letter accused the Catholic Church of injustice and violations of human rights, and announced that the signatories intended to continue giving Communion to “members of other Christian Churches and, in certain cases, Catholics who have left the Church”.
“We would like to believe” the pope said, “that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church. “But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”
Posing the rhetorical question, “Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God?” the pope said that the authority of Christ, as the Son of God, was unique, and something that no human priest can claim.
“Indeed he did [correct human traditions], so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice,” Benedict said. The choice of the Holy Thursday liturgy, seen in the Catholic Church as the Mass of the priesthood, to address the letter indicates the depth of Benedict’s concern. Catholics believe that the priesthood and the Mass itself were inaugurated by Christ on Thursday night before his death the next day on the cross. The priesthood and the nature of the Church are the main focus of the liturgy for the day, a day that has recently also become the locus of annual protests by anti-Catholic groups agitating for women’s ordination, among other changes to Catholic teaching.
Benedict continued, saying Christ “lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.”
The situation in Austria remains unresolved, with the group of 300-400 priests having issued a statement last October refusing to recant their letter, titled “A Call to Disobedience”. “Disobeying certain valid and strict church rulings and laws has for years been part of our life and work as priests,” they said.
Since the group issued its demands, local Catholic authorities have engaged in “discussions” with them. A spokesman for the archdiocese of Vienna said, “There has been no discussion of sanctions, no ultimatum, no talk of punishment.” The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn, said he wanted to discuss the needs of local Catholics with the group.
It is clear, however, that the lack of a prompt resolution to the situation is unacceptable to the Pope, who said today, “All our preaching must measure itself against the saying of Jesus Christ: ‘My teaching is not mine’. We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.”
In answer to the position of the Austrian priests, Benedict highlighted the “religious illiteracy” that has become common in the formerly Christian western world, even within the Church.
“The foundations of faith, which at one time every child knew, are now known less and less. But if we are to live and love our faith, if we are to love God and to hear him aright, we need to know what God has said to us – our minds and hearts must be touched by his word,” he said.
The “hermeneutic of continuity” – the interpretation of Catholic teaching in the light of the Church’s traditional understanding of scripture – has been a major theme of Benedict’s papacy. He has struggled to make clear that the Second Vatican Council, cited by the Austrian group as the source of their disobedience, did not mandate any change or reversals in Catholic dogma, doctrine or discipline.
Again today, Benedict revisited this theme, answering the priests’ claim, saying that the texts of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “are essential tools which serve as an authentic guide to what the Church believes on the basis of God’s word”.
Benedict has had his hands full with the scandal-plagued Austrian Catholic Church. In 2009, a rebellion of the nation’s Catholic bishops made it impossible for him to appoint his choice for the diocese of Linz, a see that has been the centre of decades of liturgical abuse as well as more recently of several high-profile sex abuse cases.