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 The Lepanto Institute

Secure a home for orthodox, canceled priests: LifeFunder

(Lepanto Institute) – In 2018, the Lepanto Institute published a report detailing the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests’ (AUSCP) involvement in a dissident organization called the International Church Reform Network (ICRN) and focused primarily on an alarming conference the ICRN held in Chicago in 2016.

We recently conducted a deeper investigation into the AUSCP’s involvement with the ICRN and have established the following points:

  • The AUSCP helped found the ICRN with the help of other dissident priest groups in 2013.
  • The AUSCP held a leadership role within the ICRN from 2013–2019.
  • The AUSCP is currently listed as a participating member of the ICRN.
  • The ICRN’s main areas of focus include discussing strategies for achieving the ordination of women to the priesthood, homosexual activism, and the establishment of priestless parishes.
  • Recent ICRN social media posts also include the promotion of “reproductive freedom” and organizations such as Catholics for Choice

AUSCP’s role in the founding and leadership of ICRN

As we reported previously, the AUSCP officially played a substantial behind-the-scenes role in promoting and facilitating a U.S. speaking tour by Father Helmut Schuller, head of the revolutionary Pfarrer Initiative in Austria. This was done behind the backs of several bishops who had banned Schuller from speaking in their respective dioceses. During this speaking tour, Schuller directly called for the ordination of women priests, pushed homosexual activism, and called for the use of artificial contraceptives.

One month prior to Schuller’s tour, he was invited to give a presentation to the 2013 AUSCP Annual Assembly. According to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), Schuller “emphasized his hope for a strong international network of priest associations.”

It’s worth noting here that the same NCR article indicates that the AUSCP also gave a platform to the head of Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), Father Tony Flannery, at its 2013 Annual Assembly. Flannery was ordered silent by the Vatican in 2012 for his heretical beliefs.

In October of 2013, Schuller hosted a meeting of “reformist” priest organizations from six countries in Bregenz, Austria. The AUSCP was present, represented by Father Dan Divis. Flannery from the ACP also attended, as did several leaders from lay organizations such as FutureChurch and We Are Church.

The group named the organization the International Church Reform Network and committed to forming a core group of members to continue ongoing discussions. According to the ICRN website:

“After the Bregenz-Conference we started a Skype circle every 8-10 weeks of 7 members, representing the national groups. members of the core group are: Tony Flannery, Helmut Schüller, Ian Mc Ginnity, Dan Divis, Deborah Rose-Milavec, Markus Heil and the German representative (Klaus Kempter, Wolfgang Gramer, Max Stetter).”

The AUSCP’s involvement with the ICRN was not limited to the core discussion group. It also joined the leadership “steering committee” of the ICRN, first with Divis as the AUSCP representative and later, from 2016–2019, Father Bob Bonnot took over the reins. So, the AUSCP was not only intimately involved with the founding of the ICRN, it played a very active role in its work and leadership.

Further corroboration for this comes from Catholics for Renewal’s David Timbs who wrote about the founding of the ICRN:

“The formation of the International Church Reform Network (ICRN) began with a friendship and a meeting of minds between Helmut Schüller (Austrian Pfarrer Initiative) and Tony Flannery C.Ss.R (Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland) in 2013. Both had toured the U.S. earlier that year to speak to large audiences about the critical challenges facing the Church in many parts of Europe, including Ireland (https://www.catholictippingpoint.org/2013). In the U.S. Deborah Rose-Milavec and her colleagues at Future Church provided invaluable support. Soon after the U.S. tours, Schüller, Flannery and Rose-Milavec contacted Fr Ian McGinnity of the Australian National Council of Priests along with Fr Dan Divis of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests. It soon became obvious that the very same catalogue of challenges these groups were talking about were facing Catholics across the world. Consequently, more reform minded priests, religious and laity from South Asia, Australia and Latin America were invited to be part of the growing conversation. The common focus of the participating bodies became the reform of the structures and governance of the local churches and their ongoing renewal according to the teaching and vision of the Second Vatican Council.”

AUSCP’s Bonnot declined further steering committee responsibilities following the ICRN 2019 conference in Poland, as did Schuller and Flannery. The current steering committee members are:

  • Deborah Rose-Milavec, Future Church, USA.
  • Martha Heizer, We Are Church, Austria.
  • Virginia Saldanha, Indian Christian Women’s Movement.
  • Colm Holmes, We are Church Ireland, IMWAC.
  • Max Stetter, Pfarrer Initiative, Germany.
  • Rastislav Kočan, ok21, Slovakia.

Despite the recent change in leadership, the AUSCP is still listed as a participating member of the ICRN on its website.

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The Atlantic has launched an open attack on the Rosary, and won't stop there unless we push back today.

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The article, which has been edited significantly since publication, scaremongers about "militant Catholics", implying they are capable of extreme violence because the Rosary is used as a weapon in the fight against evil spirits.

Editors have already changed the original image and headline because it was clearly anti-Catholic, but the article remains in place despite the unfounded smears about the Rosary inspiring violence. 

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The ICRN promotes women’s ordination and homosexual activism 

The topic of women’s ordination to the priesthood was discussed even at the very first ICRN meeting in Bregenz. During conferences in Ireland, Chicago, Bratislava, and Poland, women’s ordination took an even greater role in the discussions due to official representation from the Women’s Ordination Conference, a radical group agitating for the sacramental ordination for women.

Official reports and press coverage from the conferences note that all present were agreed in principle on women’s ordination to the priesthood, but differed on strategy. Flannery and Schuller, having already been disciplined by church leadership, are more vocal proponents of women’s ordination, while AUSCP representatives stated a preference for incremental strategies to avoid disciplinary measures from U.S. bishops.

Bregenz 2013

The ordination of women to the priesthood was discussed along with opening the Eucharist for reception by the divorced and remarried and active homosexuals. According to Schuller in an interview with the EFE Agency, “We have not needed five minutes to agree on the issues. They are the same,” indicating all involved agreed on these dissident opinions.

According to a report from the German publication DerStandard:

“Sounding out the potential of the network and developing strategies on how to offensively use the windows and doors that Pope Francis has opened are the main goals of the meeting. You don’t have to look for common themes, he found that out on his American tour, says Schüller. The main problems facing Catholic parishes around the world are a shortage of priests, an ageing population, overwork, and the exclusion of married people and women from the priesthood.

‘The agenda is surprisingly the same. That always amazes me in my international contacts,’ says Schüller. It also fills him with satisfaction, because: ‘You can no longer dismiss our network as the madness of a few ageing priests from eastern Austria.’” [Translated from German]

As a side note, Schuller’s remarks show that the AUSCP presence is a cause of grave scandal as it is giving added clout to dissident and rebellious movements such as the Pfarrer Initiative that had just previously in 2011 issued a “Call to Disobedience,” urging the ordination of women priests among other heterodox opinions.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

The AUSCP’s Divis spoke with the National Catholic Reporter in an article concerning the Bregenz Conference, stating:

“‘These are grounded, sincere priests with compassion and a sense of ministry … who live for the people in their churches,’ said Dan Divis of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, whose membership includes 1,000 priests. ‘I see priests who are frightened about the future if issues such as parish closings, the priest shortage and participation of women in church leadership, etc., aren’t attended to.’”

Limerick 2015

Flannery and the ACP hosted the next ICRN conference in Limerick, Ireland, in April 2015. According to the National Catholic Reporter:

“The role and full equality of women in church life as well as the governance of the church were the two main issues discussed by delegates at the second international meeting of priest associations and lay reform groups here April 13–17.”

The Women’s Ordination Conference was officially represented by Kate McElwee, as were other major proponents of women’s ordination such as Martha Heizer, head of We Are Church Austria, who, according to NCR “was excommunicated by the Vatican along with her husband, Gert Heizer, for holding ‘private’ Masses without a priest present.”

Divis again represented the AUSCP at this conference and can be seen in photographs from the event.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

According to accounts of the conference by Kate McElwee, FutureChurch’s Deborah Rose-Milavec and NCR, the major proponents of women’s ordination organized a request to have a woman “co-preside” over the Mass on the final day of the conference. An argument ensued as some of the priests present feared the excommunication such an act would bring.

According to the NCR:

“Nonetheless, the elephant in the room in Limerick was the church’s prohibition on the ordination of women to the priesthood. On the third day of the gathering, a group of female participants, including Kate McElwee of Women’s Ordination Conference, approached Flannery with the idea that one of the women might co-preside with one of the priests at their joint Eucharist. [Editor’s note: McElwee is married to NCR Vatican correspondent Joshua J. McElwee].

‘We reasoned: The Eucharist, the sign and symbol of our unity in the church, should reflect our common work together in Limerick as co-equals working for change,’ Rose-Milavec said.”

Writing afterward on his blog, Flannery said, “It created enormous dilemmas for most of us … There was a great deal of hurt, sadness and tears, with many people clearly wrestling with their own conscience and coming face to face with their fears in a very open way.”

In the end, the group decided not to celebrate the Eucharist together but to hold a joint prayer service instead.

Chicago 2016

In 2016, The AUSCP played a major role in ICRN’s International Conference which took place in Chicago. A report on the conference by the Pfarrer-Initiative indicates that the AUSCP was on the conference steering committee, participated in discussions on homosexual inclusion and women’s ordination to the priesthood, and helped draft statements issued by the conference itself. The very first page of the report, in fact, shows that the AUSCP helped to finance the operation.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

According to the conference report, no less than eight representatives from the AUSCP were present at the conference. Considering the Women’s Ordination Conference stunt in Limerick, we must question why the AUSCP would move forward to hold another ICRN conference in their own Chicago backyard, with WOC in attendance yet again. What follows is a list of participants from the Pfarrer-Initiative’s report on the conference found on pages 26 and 27:

C/O: Lepanto Institute

On page 2, the proposed topics for discussion at the Chicago conference included homosexual activism and women’s ordination.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

Included in conference handouts was a strategy sheet for women’s ordination titled “Women’s equality and ordination in the Catholic Church: ‘A paradigm shift’ – Strategic possibilities and priorities.” The first portion, written by Marilyn Hattan of Catholics Speak Out (CSO), details the plan for an incremental approach to finally achieving women’s ordination. Of note is the indication that the child abuse scandal and the election of Pope Francis provides a “window of opportunity” for achieving the plan. Beginning on page 2, it says:

“This window of opportunity, terrible as it is, gives us a chance to stop this destructive patriarchy and clericalism by focusing on what we can do as first steps for women’s equality in the Catholic Church. We are exploring and canvassing the option of supporting and electing women in decision-making positions (that do not require ordination as a prerequisite) throughout the Church as a first step. Women’s presence and influence would start to change the clerical culture as it did in secular society in the early days of the women’s movement. It would also work to break the destructive way the church uses ‘silence’ as power and would augur well for optional celibacy.”

A couple of paragraphs later, the paper outlines three “first priorities,” culminating in the pursuit of women deacons as a prerequisite.

“We consider the following as first priorities:

  1. Develop and implement the change of electing women into decision-making positions in curial dicasteries that do not require ordination as canvassed by the Cardinal Parolin and simultaneously support electing more women in governance structures in dioceses across the world. (Renewal groups ‘Future Church’ and others have suggested this previously but, at that time, the Secretary of State was not floating the idea.)

  2. Work to have Ordinatio Sacerdotalis revoked, an idea supported by one of the German bishops recently. We continue to challenge the 1994 Papal ban on discussion of women’s inclusion because it was not an infallible ruling and was not approved by the world’s bishops.

  3. If the Vatican does proceed with the Commission on Women Deacons, its members must be elected in a democratic process independent of the Vatican to ensure membership of competent women and men appropriately qualified. Most women say “there have been enough Commissions on Women’s place in the Church. There is no barrier, just sinful sexism. Ordain women who are qualified and have a vocation.”

Flannery noted in his account of the Chicago ICRN conference that the same discussions were held as far as having a woman co-presider at the eucharistic celebration, and also noted that all were in agreement about women’s ordination but differed on strategy:

“Everybody there, both women and men, would, I think, have had little or no difficulty saying that they supported the ordination of women to the priesthood at some stage. But some, and not all of them men, believed that pushing for ordination at this stage was not helpful, because it only served to make dialogue with Church authorities impossible. Instead they argued that a better policy was to work for ‘full equality for women in decision making in the Church.’ Others were more passionate about the ordination question, and believed that full equality was not possible without ordination.”

Bratislava 2018

This conference took place in Pezinok, Slovakia, in July of 2018. According to conference reports, Bonnot was the official AUSCP representative on the ICRN steering committee but could not make the trip. In his place Father Gerry Bechard and Father David Cooper represented the AUSCP.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

This conference featured a presentation by witnesses to the underground church in Czechoslovakia during its communist rule. These witnesses stated that the underground church ordained married men to the priesthood due to the emergency and possibly “ordained” a woman to the priesthood as well, though this was reprimanded after the fall of the Iron Curtain and done without Vatican consent.

According to conference reports, these presentations emboldened the ICRN to form working groups on women’s equality in the church and a renewed effort on homosexual inclusion and priestless parishes.

Flannery’s recollection of this conference includes a curious and unsettling piece of information, indicating that women may have played a priestly role in a “celebration of the Eucharist”:

“For me the most satisfying aspect of the whole week was the celebration of the Eucharist. This was my fourth such conference over the past seven years. At previous conferences we have had great difficulty over how we could celebrate Eucharist in a way that everyone could feel they fully belonged. The problem centered around the conflict between those who needed women to feel completely equal in the celebration, and those, priests mostly, who needed an ordained priest as the presider. But on this occasion, maybe because of all that we had heard about the underground Church, we all sat around together and had a wonderful celebration. I found it hard to keep back my tears, an experience not very common for me!”

As noted above, the previous two ICRN conferences included battles over the inclusion of a woman “co-presider” at Mass. We can reasonably conjecture, but cannot conclude, that Flannery is implying that this ICRN conference included a woman as “co-presider” at its eucharistic celebration, which is an abuse of grave magnitude.

In addition to this possibly invalid and sacrilegious Mass, the conference produced a disturbing internal brainstorming document from the working group on the future of parishes. In the opening of the document, it provides a breakdown of the purpose of the working group, asking, “What possibilities are we working towards?” Answer number four to this question states that “Sacraments [should be] designed to be more aligned to the culture.” Bear in mind that this was one-year before the Amazon Synod and the pachamama incident in the Vatican gardens. On the same page, asking “Who will benefit,” it answers, “Everyone. All laity, all communities, because priests will be liberated, women will have their proper role, ecology of the planet better respected.”

Following this, the document explains what is meant by women having a “proper role,” saying: “We cited a European example where a Swiss Abbess has appealed to the Vatican to ordain one of her community of nuns, because of the shortage of priests.”

At the bottom of page two is a list of items under the heading, “Limiting beliefs – what holds us back?” Among the listed items are “Conservative dissidents”, “Fear of church law,” “Ritualism,” and “The current definition of Sacrament – especially of the Eucharist.”

On page three, the document asks, “How do we deal with the traditionalism of young clerics coming out of seminaries now?” The brainstorming session concluded with a call to “remember holy disobedience.”

Warsaw 2019

The fifth ICRN conference was held in Warsaw, Poland, in September 2019. Bonnot represented AUSCP at this conference.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

According to Deborah Rose-Milavec from FutureChurch, the conference heard from local residents with both fond and ill memories of Pope John Paul II, and took the following three actions:

  1. International Catholic Reform Network (ICRN) supports the ongoing work in parishes that are calling women and men out of their communities to prepare them to preside over the Eucharist and to be responsible for the pastoral care and sacramental life of their parish community. [Priestless parishes, women presiders].
  2. ICRN calls on the Polish Bishops to comply with Church teaching regarding LGBT people that calls all to respect the intrinsic dignity of each person in word, action, and law.
  3. ICRN voted unanimously to support the charter on the Fundamental Rights and Responsibilities of all Catholics worldwide which obligates the entire church to respect the primacy of conscience; the equality of all Catholics in the church [allusion to women’s ordination]; freedom of expression, including the freedom to dissent; the right and responsibility to participate in a Eucharistic community and to receive responsible pastoral care; genuine participation in decision making, including the selection of their leaders; due and just process when accusations are made; protection of children, and others.

As noted above, a new steering committee was established at the conclusion of this conference.

Due to COVID restrictions, the ICRN has held no further in-person conferences, opting for online meetings. Information concerning the nature of these meetings and AUSCP participation is unavailable due to the closed nature of these meetings.

Current ICRN social media activity

Despite the lack of information on current ICRN meetings, the organization is still very active on its Facebook presence. The following examples are representative of the focus of ICRN:

This April 2019 post endorses the Maria 2.0 movement, which formally called for allowing “women access to all church functions,” meaning ordination, the abolition of “mandatory celibacy,” and the alignment of “churchly sexual morals more realistically with the reality of life.”

C/O: Lepanto Institute

This October 2021 Facebook post promoted a joint-event called “Cocktails and Church Talk,” hosted by the Women’s Ordination Conference and the pro-abortion Catholics for Choice.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

This February 2022 Facebook post from ICRN shows further promotion of Catholics for Choice.

C/O: Lepanto Institute

This August 2022 Facebook post shows more blatant promotion of women’s ordination to the priesthood by spreading an article by liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who claims “[t]here is no doctrinal or dogmatic barrier that prevents women’s access to the priesthood.”

C/O: Lepanto Institute

These posts are only the tip of the iceberg: the ICRN Facebook feed is absolutely littered with such posts. Remember, the AUSCP is still listed as a participating member of the ICRN and given its heavy involvement up until the last in-person conference, there is no reason to think they are no longer involved.

Conclusion

The above information proves the introductory points beyond a shadow of a doubt.

  • The AUSCP helped found the ICRN with the help of other dissident priest groups in 2013.
  • The AUSCP held a leadership role within the ICRN from 2013–2019.
  • The AUSCP is currently listed as a participating member of the ICRN.
  • The ICRN’s main areas of focus include discussing strategies for achieving the ordination of women to the priesthood, homosexual activism, and the establishment of priestless parishes.
  • Recent ICRN social media posts also include the promotion of “reproductive freedom” and organizations such as Catholics for Choice.

The current director of the AUSCP, Father Stephen Newton, last year threatened us with legal action while stating the organization had not “officially endorsed” women’s ordination to the priesthood (which is arguably false as noted in our response) and then refused to answer specific and fundamental questions about the AUSCP’s position on basic doctrinal matters.

This new information concerning the AUSCP helping found and lead an international cabal that is directly strategizing for the ordination of women to the priesthood further calls into question Newton’s response to us.

If the AUSCP is an association of priests “in good standing,” as they claim to be, then the AUSCP must immediately repudiate the ICRN and all of its members and formally and publicly denounce its agendas while affirming the immutable teachings of Holy Mother Church.

Additionally, it is well past time that the bishops of the United States formally investigate the AUSCP. We’ve issued dozens of reports on how this organization of priests, who claim to be “in good standing with the Church,” are actively undermining the Church’s teaching and causing grave harm to the faithful.

No priest in any diocese should be allowed to join, attend, partner with, or otherwise associate with the AUSCP, which is pretending to be a group of faithful shepherds when in fact they seek the complete gutting of Holy Mother Church.

Reprinted with permission from the Lepanto Institute.

Secure a home for orthodox, canceled priests: LifeFunder

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