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The Austrian Priests’ Initiative Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 13 October 2011

I was glancing at the British journal The Tablet the other day and came across an editorial on something called “The Austrian Priests’ Initiative.” “That’s nice,” I thought. “Priests taking initiative.” It quickly became clear, however, that these aren’t exactly priests eager to take on more. Indeed, as far as I can tell, they seem eager to shed the really challenging part of their job: namely, dealing with sin. 

According to The Tablet: “The Church has been in turmoil since more than 300 priests led by Mgr. Helmut Schüller called for disobedience on matters such as priestly celibacy and Communion for re-married divorcees.” By “the Church,” I take it they mean the “Austrian Church,” since the whole business hasn’t really rocked my world. Where I live, Mass is still being celebrated and confessions are still being heard.

Be that as it may, The Tablet goes on to add that: “The priests are drawing attention to the wide and growing disconnection between the norms of official church teaching, and everyday Catholic life as lived by many of the clergy and laity. Issues raised include birth control, Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, priestly celibacy, and the treatment of homosexuals.”  

Why always the same old list: birth control, celibacy, homosexuality, divorce, and remarriage (a.k.a, “how to replace your old, annoying, unsexy wife with a newer, sexier model”)?  Is there nothing these priests can think about other than sex? How about greater support for Catholic parents who are struggling to raise six kids?  How about better civic values and concern for the common good?  How about better pay for teachers in Catholic schools and nothing less than a first-rate education for all Catholic school children? Nope. Just sex.

These priests must imagine that all of us who are married are getting sex all the time. I hate to disappoint them, but modern women tend to take a rather dim view of husbands who think of their wives as regular sex machines. If you’re not ready for celibacy, guys, you’re probably not ready for marriage.

“What Catholics hunger for,” says The Tablet, “and not just in Austria, is a Church of integrity, without hypocrisy, doublespeak or pathological denial.” If by that they mean people should practice what they preach, then absolutely. If they mean people should stop preaching what’s hard to practice, well then, that’s just silly. Nobody ever said Christianity was going to be easy. 


       Stephansdom in Vienna: among Austria's church buildings that do not belong to dissenting clergy.

When surveys come out trumpeting that such-and-such a percentage of Catholics don’t practice what the Church teaches on, say, contraception, I feel like pointing out to them that 100 percent of Catholics don’t practice what the Church preaches about loving their neighbor as themselves, forgiving as they have been forgiven, not stealing, and not coveting their neighbor’s possessions. (Once you throw “coveting” in there, things get really dicey, don’t they?)  In addition, 100 percent of Catholics don’t consistently care for the poor or live up to the demands of the Beatitudes. So should the Church “bow to reality” and dump those things too, because they’re hard? Look, if only 40 percent of Catholics are failing to live up to the Church’s teaching on contraception and conjugal union, then I’d say we’re still about 60 percent ahead.

What exactly are these priests thinking? I assume nearly everyone is going to be stuck in the rut of sin pretty much every day. That’s why I find accusations of “hypocrisy” a bit odd. If going into a Catholic church were a public proclamation of being sinless, then, yes, we’d all be hypocrites.  But since I take it that going to church implies: “I’m a sinner who wants to do better, in need of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ,” then charges of “hypocrisy” are simply misplaced.  Catholics don’t claim to be perfect. People who aren’t sick don’t need a doctor. 

As for the “disconnection between the norms of official church teaching and everyday Catholic life” the Tablet is worried about, let me be the first to admit to a pretty healthy distance in my life between theory and practice. I call the gap between the two: “sin.” The theory is: “love my neighbor as myself.”  But I act like a selfish jerk. That’s precisely why I need a priest who’s willing to go through that struggle with me, not one who finds the messy business of dealing with sin just too. . .what?. . .unsophisticated?

This business in Austria seems pretty serious. One headline called it “Austria’s Moment of Truth.”  Another talked of “schism.”  Wow.  Schism.  Really?  Over what? In centuries past, people argued over deep theological issues such as the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and the sacraments. These priests seem willing to walk away from a two-thousand-year-old Church because it teaches that a married couple shouldn’t turn fertility into a pathology that needs to be treated with drugs or sterilized with the sexual equivalent of a latex surgical glove.

But look, if these priests feel they have to walk away, God go with them.  Being a priest and dealing with sin is admittedly hard.  No one can force you to do it.  Just one thing, though:  If you leave the Church, guys, leave the church.  Schismatics somehow think they get to keep the beautiful buildings. Gentlemen, the places where you live and work were built over centuries by generations of faithful men and women dedicated to principles you now reject. 

The buildings don’t belong to you just because you’ve lived in them for a precious few years. You were merely holding them in trust for the next generation. If you no longer wish to carry on the tradition handed down to you, fine. Walk away if you must. But please, go build your own churches. We’d like ours back. 


Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (19)Add Comment
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written by M., October 13, 2011
The Tablet! the 'Bitter Pill' strikes again. It was once a venerable publication, now it more often than not aids and abets this lifestyle liberalism Prof. Smith rightly mocks. It is scrupulously silent about this particular world religion and it's 'initiative' which is deracinating the West.
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written by Martinkus, October 13, 2011
There is a scene in the movie "Becket" when Becket excommunicates King Henry. It is a very dramatic scene. We need such scenes in the Church today. We could start with these Austrian priests. If volunteers are needed to be with the bishop in the dead of night to assist with the ceremony, I gladly volunteer. I think any good Catholic would be willing to travel 20, 30, 45, 60 minutes or more to Mass in order to be at one preside by an orthodox priest; and if they wouldn't, they don't belong in the Church either. It's getting harder to read Zenit or Catholic News Agency--from the pope and bishops we get words, words, words and rarely action.
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written by Hen, October 13, 2011
Divorce and remarriage in the context and way it was used here needs a break. For many reasons which I'm not qualified to articulate, serious theological examination is warrented. Pleasei
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written by Hen, October 13, 2011
Divorce and remarriage in the context and way it was used here needs a break. For many reasons I'm not able to articulate, it needs serious theological examination. please
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written by Grump, October 13, 2011
Great piece, Mr. Smith. I especially enjoyed your sardonic comments about marriage, including this gem: "If you’re not ready for celibacy, guys, you’re probably not ready for marriage." As a long-time married man with a wife past menopause, I know precisely what you mean.
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written by Achilles, October 13, 2011
The unchanging Truth about marriage is in no need of theological examination, only intelligible explication.
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written by Deacon John M. Edgerton, October 13, 2011
Congratulations Professor Randall Smith. I would love to see you do an article on why the majority of the Bishops in the U.S. do not promote, govern and enforce the Mandatum of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Most of our Catholic College Students support the views of the Austrian Priets with regard to sexual practices contrary to God's Word and the Magisterium of the Church. These students are not being taught orthodox Teaching at Notre Dame, Seton Hall University, Boston College, and almost 80 per cent of our "Catholic" Universities and Colleges administered by priests, governed (?) by Bishops with regard to the Faith.
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written by Paolo, October 13, 2011
Great article. It's true: all of us, churchgoer, are mere sinners, aspiring to improve, almost something. It's anyway comfortable to think that a sinner is forgiven, not the case of a sinner who thinks to be a saint.
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written by Sherry, October 13, 2011
How about the newly created "Association of U.S. Catholic Priests" - based on the Irish "Association of Catholic Priests"?
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written by charles carroll, October 13, 2011
“What Catholics hunger for,” says The Tablet, “and not just in Austria, is a Church of integrity, without hypocrisy, doublespeak or pathological denial.”

I'm pretty sure what we are talking about here is the sexual abuse of children by clergy. Or maybe you haven't heard?

Dante was right when he called the Church a harlot - hypocrisy, doublespeak or pathological denial fit, too.
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written by Msgr. Pope, October 14, 2011
Magnificent analysis and rebuttal !
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written by GOR, October 14, 2011
Excellent piece, Professor! It reminded me of Chesterton’s words about Tradition and the democracy of the dead:

”Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death….”
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written by Mark Roberti , October 14, 2011
Wow! Excellent commentary. I sent it to two people whom I direct spritiually. One does not want to accept all that the Church teaches, the other is seriously frustrated that the Church does not insist that its own shepherds follow the Church's teachings. I fall in the other category -- sinner -- one who likes to believe he follows the Church's teachings, but spends a good part of my confessions on sins of omission. There is nothing easy about this faith!
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written by James Hughes, October 15, 2011
What a really good article. Congratulations Prof. Smith. I like the notion that Catholics hunger for a Church with integrity that carefully follows the teachings of Christ as laid down in the Scriptures and the Church's traditions. If this gang of dissenters want a different kind of Church so be it . Let them go but remember that they are on their own, no churches or easy livings . They seem to think that marriage is like some kind of Nirvana where sex is on tap any time ,any place, anywhere just like the old Martini advert. As a married man with 9 children (15 thru 29) I can but dream. But I would never opt for fewer kids . I would rather have my chances and hopes of heaven in the long term. Eternity is a long, long time! I think that perhaps the cardinal should excommunicate the lot of them for the common good. The holy father has been far too patient with them. As regards the clergy and bishops in the US and UK what is wrong with them? We need a whole lot more like Archbishop Chaput and the Abp of the military to speak out about the abuse the Church suffers at the hands of the so called PC /equality brigades . Unlike those who discipline faithful priests who speak up in defence of Catholic doctrine, like the Canadian bishop .
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written by davepinoy, October 17, 2011
The Church had lived through more critical and significant crises than this. If these priests no longer respect their vow of obedience, and its against their amorphous conscience to follow the truth of the Catholic Church, they should pack up their things and form their own religion. And unlike Islam they wont be assassinated or killed for being apostates. Satan has taken over their consciences and they are being "handed over" to their arrogant and evil master. If they dont know scripture, and consider Jesus a liar, and even be blasphemous to the Holy Spirit, let them be anathema.

This is good riddance to arrogant and deceitful clergy.
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written by John O'Connor, November 05, 2011
I beg to differ. There are elements of this article that seem to me surprisingly unintelligent. It assumes that the Austrian Priests initiative is all about sex and then conflates disobedience with regards contraception with other failures to observe love of neighbour, the beatitudes etc. Those catholics who fail to live up to Christian principles will recognise these as failings. I don't believe those who practice contraception do the same.
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written by Graham, February 19, 2012
For a professor of theology to be so damming on this subject comes as quite a surprise - especially when he uses such sardonic criticism and poor humour.
The priests in Austria are, contrary to the professors belief, raisings issues that are being debated in the pews in every corner of the Church, Catholic and Protestant. Come down form your ivory tower sir and join the real world.
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written by Michael, June 29, 2012
Graham:
Unlike the Protestant churches, the Catholic Church is not a democracy. If these priests wish to dissent, just walk away from their vocations.
However, sir, if they do that, they won't have the free house, the free car or the free health care. Then they can have all the sex they want, since sex seems to be all these priests can think of.
If one joins a club and does not want to follow the rules of the club, they are either kicked out of the club or they can choose to leave the club.
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written by Robomarkov, June 27, 2013
It is in the news again (EWTN June 27, 2013). Why don't they just become Episcopals and be done with it? This is nothing more than secular humanism in the trappings of religion.

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