Action Alert!

Pastoral malpractice

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 15, 2011

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna plans to meet with a group of dissident priests , sometime in late August or September. Why is he waiting so long?

When the Initiative of Parish Priests was launched in Austria in June, Cardinal Schönborn waited a few days before issuing a public statement. He explained that he was shocked by the group’s bold statement, which called for open defiance of Church teaching and discipline. The cardinal said that he took a few days to get over his initial shock and anger before responding. Then he spoke in carefully measured tones:

“The open call to disobedience shocked me,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said in a July 7 letter, noting that many professionals would have “long since lost their jobs” if they had called for disobedience. Reminding priests that they had freely promised obedience to their bishop at ordination, he asked, “Can I rely on you?”

The answer to the cardinal’s rhetorical question seems evident. No, he cannot count on the obedience of priests who signed a document entitled a “Call to Disobedience.” Those priests have made their intentions clear. Now how will the hierarchy respond?

Cardinal Schönborn observes, quite accurately, that in the business world, employees who so openly defied corporate policies would be dismissed. Quite so. The cardinal seems to be conveying a threat, but he has not made that threat credible. The priests who have defied Church authority remain in place, as pastors of souls. 

In their “Call to Disobedience,” these priests attested that they would ignore canonical norms by allowing lay men and women to preach homilies; administer the Eucharist to non-Catholics and to Catholics who have divorced and remarried; and “use every opportunity to speak out openly in favor of the admission of the married and of women to the priesthood.” Clearly these priests are not thinking with the mind of the Church. Yet they are preaching as representatives of the Catholic Church.

Nor can the Initiative of Parish Priests be lightly dismissed as a fringe movement. The 300 signers of the Call to Disobedience constitute a small proportion of Austria’s 4,200 priests, but not an insignificant proportion. Can the Austrian bishops, whose duty it is to ensure that the faithful receive proper pastoral care and orthodox preaching, live comfortably with the realization that 7% of their priests reject the authority of the Church? Evidently they can: at least—in the case of Cardinal Schönborn—until late August or September.

If your doctor told you that you had a serious infection spreading through your body, would you be satisfied by his promise to begin medication in a few months’ time?

Meanwhile in Boston, an urban parish held a special “welcoming Mass” attended mainly by homosexual activists. This special ceremony had been postponed a few weeks earlier , on orders from the Boston archdiocese, after faithful Catholics protested.

A spokesman for the archdiocese explained that the Mass was postponed to avoid misunderstandings, because early announcements in the parish bulletin “may have given the impression that the Mass is in support of Gay Pride Week. It is not." If that archdiocesan spokesman honestly believes that the Mass was not intended as a show of support for homosexuals, he is one of very few people in the Boston area still clinging to that naïve belief. Homosexual and lesbian activists dominated the congregation at the July 9 celebration, and in interviews with local media outlets they made it quite clear that they saw the Mass as a triumph for their movement.

When Father John Unni, the pastor of St. Cecilia’s, preached a homily to that congregation in which he said that no one should ever be discouraged from receiving the Eucharist, his meaning was clear to all. He was certainly not telling homosexuals that they should abide by the guidance of the Church regarding the grave immorality of homosexual acts. He was not encouraging them to confess their sins. He was telling them that they should receive the Blessed Sacrament without fear. He was, in short, sending them a message that was clearly and completely at variance with the teachings of the Church. Yet Father Unni remains a pastor, with the full support of Cardinal Sean O’Malley and the Boston archdiocese.

How can Cardinal Schönborn and Cardinal O’Malley tolerate the knowledge—so clear to any dispassionate observer—that some of their priests are openly contradicting the teachings of the Church, thus harming the unity among the faithful and endangering the salvation of souls? Why don’t they take action immediately? I just don’t understand.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Jul. 18, 2011 5:13 PM ET USA

    I fear even good bishops are still infected with the virus that helped cause the abuse crisis. To wit: The punitive is not pastoral. Immediately suspending these renegades would be a pastoral act toward the faithful, sparing them their malpractice. It would also be a pastoral act toward the renegades, letting them know in no uncertain terms they are in grave spiritual peril. Sometimes this is the very pastoral act God expects, especially if one is a bishop (watchman). (See Ezekiel 3:17-21)

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Jul. 18, 2011 2:38 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, Cardinal von Schonborn has failed in Vienna. Theologians often do not make the best bishops. He has been a weak leader from the start of his tenure. Of course, he succeeded a conservative archbishop who was himself an abuser of children and that has undoubtedly limited his effectiveness. Both cardinals in question are fine men.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Jul. 18, 2011 2:18 PM ET USA

    I hope that what is being pursued is something along the line of the time and care that was taken in the matter of Australian Bishop William Morris.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 18, 2011 1:06 AM ET USA

    I believe the singular best answer is Prudence. He is waiting to meet with them for the same reason he waited 3 days to respond: so that he could form his thoughts and speak in a manner expected of a representative of the Church. Just because these heretical priests do not follow prudence doesn't mean our bishops should do likewise. Secondly, there is a very serious and real shortage of priests. If he is thinking of serious discipline, he must be exploring ways to deal with the crisis.

  • Posted by: avemaria702 - Jul. 16, 2011 12:52 AM ET USA

    There are a number of possible explanations, among them some small sympathy on the part of the bishops for the dissidents, or that the dissidents have something on the bishops that makes them reluctact to move against their potential blackmailers.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 15, 2011 10:34 PM ET USA

    We are often told that priests (and bishops) are not mere employees or professionals: oddly, this has often come to mean that they are held to a lower, rather than higher, standard. This "lenience" is unconscionable harshness if one believes that parishioners have eternal souls that could be lost. So, what do they believe the effect might be of pastors teaching error? Do they care?

  • Posted by: Hal - Jul. 15, 2011 3:01 PM ET USA

    Hear, hear! I don't understand either, but it is a scandal, a disgrace and unacceptable.