Low-key Reformist Priest Fr. Helmut Schuller Talks of ‘Healing Our Deeply Wounded Church’

By Bill Casey, long-time Voice of the Faithful® affiliate leader, former board chair and trustee

Today (July 22), I attended a presentation by Fr. Helmut Schuller at the National Press Club in D.C. The venue was one of several stops in a multi-city tour, during which he is talking about a group of Austrian priests’ “Call to Disobedience.” Schuller is one of the founders of the group, which comprises about 15% of the priests in Austria but is supported by a large number of Austrian clergy and lay people.

Schuller is a low-key guy with some very insightful conclusions about the failed/failing state of parishes in Austria and throughout much of Europe. There are too few priests to properly serve too many parishes, and as a result, the faith communities suffer from a disengaged faith experience — those that still remain active, not to mention the droves of others, including the youth, who have no connection to parish life. In response, Schuller’s group calls for pastoral disobedience when responding on a personal level to those excluded from full faith experience, including the divorced and remarried who are precluded from Eucharist, gays and lesbians who are excluded officially or unofficially from parish life and sacraments, and women and married men who are excluded from ordination. His group calls for public prophetic disobedience in calling for reforms that are silenced or ignored by hierarchical positions.

Although we would expect any such priest in the U.S. to be silenced, banned, or excluded in some way if he did what Schuller has done, Schuller and the other priests are in good standing within their dioceses. Schuller himself writes a weekly commentary on the Sunday readings in the diocesan newspaper, and his bishop (Cardinal Schonborn) did not attempt to block his speaking tour on these topics. Of course, at the only Catholic parish which invited him to speak, Boston Cardinal O’Malley banned him. The President of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, however, ignored objections from Archbishop Chaput and hosted a talk anyway.

Some key comments that I heard from Schuller today included the following (my wording):

  • The Austrian clergy experience deep sorrow over the minimalist life of parishes where priests can barely cover a weekly liturgy and little else. It is a scandal when parishioners receive so little from their clergy.
  • What have lay people received over the last 40-50 years as a result of their “obedience” to hierarchical decisions? There are far more victims of “obedience” than disobedience in our faith communities.
  • The Church should fulfill an initiative of Paul VI who wanted to develop a “Constitution” for the Church that would distribute authority and hold those with authority accountable for exercising it.
  • The handling of the sexual abuse scandal in our Church would have unfolded quite differently if such a Constitution were in place ten years ago.
  • If reform were to take place, it would need to come out of the full collaboration of clergy and laity alike. Reform by lower clergy meeting with higher clergy is not a model to seek. A new Council at this moment in time would favor the latter.

Schuller struck me as a priest deeply concerned about the full life of Catholics, not as a headline-grabber for priestly interests. I hope that his movement infects priests in other countries to take a prophetic stand as a group and receive the fullest support and collaboration of laity in healing our deeply wounded Church.

Also see “Reformist Priest Sees Potential Ally in Pope Francis” by Kevin Eckstrom, Religion News Service, which reports on Fr. Schuller’s National Press Club talk. 

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