The Austrian Priests’ Initiative Print
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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