Catholic rebels challenge Austrian bishops

Dissident Austrian Catholics announced lay people will start celebrating Mass when a priest is unavailable, a clear call to disobedience just as the country’s bishops hold their autumn conference.

A manifesto adopted by dozens of activists at the weekend said lay people will preach, consecrate and distribute communion in priestless parishes, said Hans Peter Hurka, head of the group We Are Church.

“Church law bans this. The question is, can Church law overrule the Bible? We are of the opinion, based on findings from the Second Vatican Council, that this (ban) is not possible,” he said Monday.

The Catholic Church only allows ordained priests to preside at Mass.

Hurka said dissidents had long planned the meeting but were happy it came just before a regular four-day session of the Catholic bishops’ conference starting Monday.

He said he wanted bishops, led by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, to respond to the paper, the latest in a series of challenges by grass-roots Catholic reformers in Austria.

“We basically expect this because the demands for reform are not especially new,” he said. The bishops received a copy of the manifesto Saturday, he added.

Bishops planned to discuss proposed initiatives and reforms that have been put forward, according to their website, although the main topic of the session was preparing for parish council elections due in March.

Schoenborn, a former student and close associate of Pope Benedict, has ruled out sweeping changes demanded by dissident priests led by his former deputy, Rev. Helmut Schueller.

Tipped as a possible future pope, the cardinal has said he would not lead his diocese into breaking away from the Vatican by letting clergy flout Church rules after a group of priests issued a “Call to Disobedience” to try to press reform.

The group, which claims to represent about 10 percent of the Austrian clergy, has challenged Church teaching on taboo topics such as priestly celibacy and women’s ordination.

The dissident priests, who have broad public backing in opinion polls, also say they will break Church rules by giving communion to Protestants and remarried divorced Catholics.

Reformist Austrian Catholics have for decades challenged the conservative policies of Benedict and his predecessor John Paul, creating protest movements and advocating changes the Vatican refuses to make.

Catholic reform groups in Germany, Ireland and the United States have made similar demands.

A record 87,000 Austrians left the Church in 2010, many in reaction to sexual abuse scandals.

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Controversial Catholic priest to speak on female ordination

In his 39 years as a Catholic priest, Father Roy Bourgeois has been used to speaking his conscience on issues of justice, most notably against repressive regimes in Latin America and the U.S. foreign policy that has supported them.

In recent years, the 72-year-old Bourgeois has turned his attention to the Catholic Church’s ban on women’s ordination, calling it a grave injustice and affront to God.

Bourgeois, who has been threatened by the Vatican with excommunication and now faces dismissal from his religious order for refusing to recant his views, will speak on sexism in the church this weekend in Milwaukee, at the annual gathering of the Catholic reform group Call to Action.

“This for me is rooted in justice. It is a matter of conscience,” said Bourgeois, who says he was persuaded by the many gifted and spiritual women he has met in his work as a peace activist.

“We profess that God created women and men of equal worth and dignity,” said Bourgeois, who likens the ban to the racism in the Deep South of his youth, where black Catholics sat in the last five pews of his church.

“As priests, we say we are called by God and only God. Who are we to say that our call is authentic, and God’s call of a woman is not?”

Bourgeois will speak, beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, as part of Call to Action’s annual conference, which is expected to draw more than 1,000 theologically liberal Catholics from around the country. The conference began Friday at the Frontier Airlines Center and includes sessions on the clergy sex-abuse scandal, immigration, liturgy, gay and lesbian inclusion, the role of women in the church and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bourgeois has spoken previously at Call to Action, but this is the first time he’s addressed women’s ordination.

A Vietnam veteran and Maryknoll Missionary, Bourgeois is best known as the oft-jailed founder of the School of the Americas Watch, a human rights group that advocates the closing of that training academy on the grounds of Fort Benning, Ga. Its annual prayer vigil outside the school – some of whose graduates have been linked to assassinations of Catholic priests, nuns and a bishop in Latin America – draws thousands.

Bourgeois began speaking in support of women’s ordination three years ago, and quickly drew the attention of the Vatican. The church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered him to recant his views in 2008 or risk excommunication after he delivered the homily at a woman’s ordination.

This year, he received a second “canonical warning” from the Maryknolls, saying he would be expelled from the order if he did not publicly recant. The move prompted more than 200 priests to sign an open letter supporting Bourgeois’ right to speak his conscience.

Catholic teaching holds that only men are called to the priesthood. Pope John Paul II reinforced that position in a 1994 apostolic letter, saying the church has no authority to ordain women.

Supporters of women’s ordination say women served as priests in the early church and that there is no theological basis for the ban.

The majority of U.S. Catholics say they would support women’s ordination – 62 percent, according to a new study by researchers at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America.

The women’s ordination movement has about 100 priests around the world and is growing, according to Alice Iaquinta, who was ordained by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2007. She celebrates services once a month at an old train depot in Wauwatosa, Wis.

Efforts to reach the Vatican and Maryknoll order on Thursday were not successful. A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in an email reiterated John Paul II’s position, including his assertion that “the presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable.”

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Boston Catholic journal withdraws gay devil column

The oldest Roman Catholic newspaper in the United States has retracted an opinion column suggesting the devil may be responsible for gay attraction.

The column, which appeared Friday in the Archdiocese of Boston’s official newspaper, The Pilot, was titled “Some fundamental questions on same-sex attraction.” It was written by Daniel Avila, an associate director for policy and research for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In the column, Avila says “the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil.”

It also says “disruptive imbalances in nature that thwart encoded processes point to supernatural actors who, unlike God, do not have the good of persons at heart.” It says that when “natural causes disturb otherwise typical biological development, leading to the personally unchosen beginnings of same-sex attraction, the ultimate responsibility, on a theological level, is and should be imputed to the evil one, not God.”

The 182-year-old newspaper withdrew the column from its website on Wednesday, saying it had failed to recognize the “theological error” before publication. It posted an apology from Avila saying the column didn’t represent the position of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose stated purpose is to “promote the greater good which the Church offers humankind,” and wasn’t authorized for publication.

Avila said he deeply apologized for the “hurt and confusion” the column caused.

Archdiocesan officials said Avila’s apology would appear in the issue of The Pilot to be published this week, The Boston Globe reported.

The Boston archdiocese, the bishops’ group and Avila were involved in communications leading to the decision to retract the column, said archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon, who called Avila “passionate about his faith and passionate about his church.”

“This one,” Donilon said, “clearly just got away from him.”

Several gay rights organizations, including DignityUSA, an association of gay Catholics, and MassEquality, a Massachusetts group organized to support same-sex marriage, didn’t immediately return telephone or email messages seeking comment Wednesday night.

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Bishops again blast nun’s popular book about God

The nation’s Catholic bishops again condemned a prominent nun’s book about God, in a move that may further fray relations between the hierarchy and Catholic theologians.

Given the popularity of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s, “Quest for the Living God” in parishes and universities, the bishops’ renewed criticism may not help their, credibility in the pews, either.

The 11-page statement issued Friday (Oct. 28) by the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine reaffirms a March declaration that Johnson’s book “does not sufficiently ground itself in the Catholic theological tradition as its starting point.”

Johnson, a professor of systematic theology at Fordham University in New York and a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph religious order, published “Quest for the Living God” in 2007. It was widely hailed for elaborating new ways to think and speak about God within the framework of traditional Catholic beliefs and motifs.

In fact, “Quest for the Living God” became so popular that many Catholic universities began using it as a textbook, a development that sparked concern among conservatives, who have been gaining influence within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On Friday, Johnson said she read the bishops’ latest condemnation with “sadness” and “disappointment.”

“I want to make it absolutely clear that nothing in this book dissents from the church’s faith about God revealed in Jesus Christ through the Spirit,” Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson also said the bishops had not responded to her explanations and did not respond to her offer to meet with the doctrinal committee to discuss their differences.

A spokesperson for the bishops said Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, head of the doctrine committee, had offered to meet with Johnson.

The 21-page critique that the nine bishops on the doctrinal committee released last March puzzled many experts and observers because the criticisms did not seem to reflect the contents of Johnson’s book.

The bishops’ critique claimed that Johnson did not pay sufficient heed to Catholic traditions or did not argue hard enough on behalf of those traditions. The bishops also said that Johnson used ambiguous terms that were open to misinterpretation and could lead believers astray. Particularly, the bishops took issue with Johnson’s discussion of female images for God without giving sufficient weight to the primacy of male imagery.

The USCCB’s criticism irked Catholic theologians because it came without warning more than three years after the book was published and seemed to violate the bishops’ own guidelines, which call for dialogue with theologians rather than public pronouncements.

Those guidelines had been adopted in an effort to try to ease growing tensions between theologians and the hierarchy. Church officials said the popularity of Johnson’s book made it imperative that they act without wider consultations.

In addition, there were concerns because the top staffer at the doctrine committee, the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, is a conservative theologian who had long been associated with a controversial Catholic community in Washington.

In a May speech, Weinandy said that theologians can be a “curse and affliction upon the church.” He did not mention Johnson by name but blasted theologians who “often appear to possess little reverence for the mysteries of the faith as traditionally understood and presently professed within the church.”

In June, Johnson responded to the doctrinal committee with a 38-page defense of her work, arguing that the bishops had misunderstood and “misrepresented” her book.

The critique by the bishops does not mean that Johnson’s book is formally banned from parishes and universities, though it will likely become a marker for conservative critics if they see priests or theologians using the book in churches and classrooms.

And as often happens in these cases, the hierarchy’s disapproval has actually made the book even more popular than it was before.

In her statement Friday, Johnson said she received thousands of messages of support from readers after the condemnation was published in March, including one from an elderly Catholic man who had read “Quest for the Living God” in his parish book club.

“Now I am no longer afraid to meet my Maker,” the man told Johnson.

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