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Catholic Church Reformer On U.S. Tour Stops In San Diego

Pope Francis blesses a sick or disabled person wearing Harley-Davidson garb at the end of a pro-life Mass in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican on Sunday.
Andrew Medichini
Pope Francis blesses a sick or disabled person wearing Harley-Davidson garb at the end of a pro-life Mass in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican on Sunday.
Catholic Church Reformer
Catholic Church Reformer On U.S Tour Stops In San Diego
GuestFather Helmut Schuller, Austrian Priest

CAVANAUGH: Observers are declaring Pope Francis' first overseas trip as pontiff a great success. He wrapped up his tour of Brazil on Sunday with an outdoor mass that drew 3 million people. And it's his comments in a news conference Monday that have also impressed some Catholics. Pope Francis said "who am I to judge" gay people, and added that gays shouldn't be marginalized. These statements could signal good news to people who are institutional change in the Catholic church. One such person is an Austrian priest touring America to bring the Catholic church to a tipping point. Father Helmut Schuller, welcome to the show. FR. SCHULLER: Thank you very much for inviting me. CAVANAUGH: Let me get your reaction to the pope's widely reported comments in that conference. Do you think they signal change? FR. SCHULLER: On the one hand, I think they are really interesting and more friendly statements this issue of gay people in church. On the other hand, I think we need much more. We need not only friendly statements; we need not only the point of mercy for them, but also the question for justice. This means really to respect what they are building up in their relationships and their partnerships, if they're agreeing with the -- with our social teaching, that means our relationships and partnerships should be built up on justice and fidelity and trust. And a lot of people of homosexual orientated people do that daily. And they are waiting for a new approach of the church. Maybe this statement of the pope will be the -- will have been the opener for it. We the people, we feel a little kind of relief. But there are also expectations. CAVANAUGH: Right. And there's also been a lot written about the style of Pope Francis, that he travels without a big retinue, he focuses his attention on the poor. Does that necessarily indicate change within the church? FR. SCHULLER: Yeah, there are some dynamics now that could become more of it, if he wants. And he's speaking very interesting, his style in speaking and sound bites to the different issues is a very interesting approach. And so I think change can happen, may happen, but what we are waiting is if all this signals and symbols and gestures we change into systemic changes, that is the decisive question, I think. CAVANAUGH: Now, you are an advocate for what I think might fairly be categorized as major reforms in the priesthood of the Catholic church. What led you to become a leader in this movement? FR. SCHULLER: I am a parish priest. I pastor in my parish together with a lot of other priests. We've discuss should we not do more for a church reform, because up to now the priests were more in the background. It was more that the work of the laypeople in church, and they were sidelined very often. And therefore we have thought about taking a decision, making -- practicing advocacy for the people of God, lending them a little bit of our power in the hierarchy because they are without any power. And to see ourselves as advocates, as companions, and sharing with them our own sorrows on behalf of the future of the church, that was the beginning. And then our association, our initiative grew very rapidly. We are now 430 priests in Austria, out of roughly 3,500. We are a minority but a very active one, and we try to do our best to connect ourselves with the colleagues in other countries and so on. CAVANAUGH: Part of the agenda is to open up the priesthood to people to whom it's excluded now. Married men, women. That is part of your agenda. FR. SCHULLER: Yeah, that's part of our agenda. CAVANAUGH: Now, pope Francis said on Monday that he thinks the Catholic church does not have a good theology of women. Would you agree? FR. SCHULLER: I would agree totally, yes. CAVANAUGH: What does that mean? FR. SCHULLER: That means maybe that he will start a project to develop such a theology, which is a really -- with which it really has the competence to meet our modern society. CAVANAUGH: The pope, he said most emphatically that the door is closed to women priests. Pope John Paul II said so. Some people feel that the pope John Paul II’s decree on that is part of his infallibility doctrine. Other people aren't so sure about that. Where do you stand on that? FR. SCHULLER: Yes, I think this document is lacking the quality for an infallible decision because on the basis of cannon law, the bishops of the world have to be involved before. They were not. That means the quality of this document is correctly discussed. And the command of Pope Francis that the doors are closed, the door is closed, it provokes the question who has closed the door, really? And we should try not only to knock politely at the door but only to try if we can open it again. CAVANAUGH: There are a number of religious scholars around the world who say they believe the theological support for the exclusion of women from the priesthood is rather thin. Do you agree? FR. SCHULLER: It's not really existing. CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha. FR. SCHULLER: Because at the center of our message out of the Bible, we know simply spoken that man and woman are together, the image of God in the world. So to deliver this message without having -- without representing it in the ministerial structures of the church is I think no way into the future. And the arguments concentrating on history and tradition, we know a lot more about the origins of our church, and we are sure that women have been involved in the leading ministries of our church. And yes, the traditional argument that Jesus has not done, has no not done, you may ask, if the church would every time only do what Jesus did, and not do what he not did, it would be quite another church. Because we have a lot of things Jesus did not, and they are doing it at the top of the church. So let's come to the serious ground of the discussion that means we have to open ourselves for a restarting of this discussion, letting take part the laypeople, the church citizens as we call them, in this decision making. Let's bring in the experiences that are there of science, of sociology, of theology, and so on and so on, and of the pastoral practice. Because one is sure in this country, United States, 80% of the services, the churches is offering are done by laypeople, and 80% of these 80% are done by women. That means there is also the argument of the reality. Church is kept up by women. So let's start again a serious discussion about this issue. CAVANAUGH: Now, father, you embarked upon this decision in part I believe because you saw the numbers of priests declining. And many people have commented if married men were allowed to be priests, if the celibacy rule were not a rule anymore, the ranks of the priesthood would swell. I'm wondering if you feel -- you agree that there should be married priests allowed, and what your feelings are on continuing celibacy in the priesthood. FR. SCHULLER: I think we should have a change to optional celibacy as some part of our church have officially. The Greek part of our Catholic church has married and unmarried priests. But I'm thinking not only this opening will be decisive, but also the change in the structure of our church as a whole. Decision-making, fundamental rights, young people who want to be open for the modern society are missing all these things. So it's not only I think the question if I can get married or not, but which church I am ministering, in which church I will minister. Therefore there are a lot of churches at the table of church reform. CAVANAUGH: One of the major ideas that you have in this reform and trying to find a tipping point for the Catholic church, the layity, the laypeople have to be more of a force in guiding the church into the future. What kind of a role would you like to see them play? FR. SCHULLER: I think the role of taking part as building up a kind of constitution, and a regulated and on the base of rights, not only voluntarily by some bishops or by one pope at some moments. Fundamental rights for this church. It's interesting that Pope Paul VI started such approach in the late '60s. It was called the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis, because he wanted to have the church citizens to get baptized, the laypeople to have fundamental rights. If they should share the responsibility for the church, they must also share the decision-making in this church. That's a very simple rule, I think. And therefore it's not only to have some possibilities to do some contributions, but their principal standing in this church is at stake, I think. And we should discuss it open transparently. CAVANAUGH: What kind of repercussions have you gotten for these stances that you've taken about change within the church? FR. SCHULLER: Almost no such sanctions or something. Yes, the bishops are not amused about us. Sometimes they are angry about us. But we are not there to amuse our bishops. We are there to do our work. And they know that. There were some little sanctions, like members of our initiative must become higher officials in diocese, and some of those who are deans, between the bishops and the parishes in this sandwiched position, yes, we mustn't become or stay as deans. It's also not a tragedy because there's a lot of workload for the priests besides that. So real sanctions we didn't have. Because I think the Austrian bishops are realizing together with the Vatican that the support by the people of the church in Austria is extremely high and intensive. And it would not solve any problem coming down on us. So there is a kind of balance of risk. We have the risk to be sanctioned, are and the bishops have the risk that sanctions would cause a lot more problems for them. So that's the space we can work now. CAVANAUGH: And what's been the response on your tour here in the United States? FR. SCHULLER: The response is very, very intensive. I'm surprised that this goes -- we have such a quick agreement on the key issues. It means that these issues are presented in each country of this church. And we have a lot of moving meetings. I think there are beginnings of more connection on the international level that it's also important to be connected and to speak in future more on the international level. Yes, that was all the consequences and effects of this speaking to. I'm very grateful to those and thankful for those who are organized, have organized it, and I engaged in it. CAVANAUGH: And what is this tipping point that you talk about? This reaching the tipping point? FR. SCHULLER: I think the tipping point is that we start to speak out clearly. That's new. We as priests may be also the laypeople in a new clearness, in a new openness and transparency. And also using the platform of the media, of the public opinion to bring this discussion forward. And so I think the tipping point, the real tipping point was on the one hand the second Vatican council, and I think the -- to implement this council will be a lasting tipping point. CAVANAUGH: The father will be speaking tonight on reimagining church governance and the voice of the laity at 7:00PM at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on 7th Street. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. FR. SCHULLER: Thank you for inviting me.

Observers are declaring Pope Francis' first overseas trip as Pontiff a great success.

He wrapped up his tour of Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country, on Sunday with an outdoor mass that drew 3 million people.

It's his comments in an impromptu news conference Monday that have also impressed some Catholics. Pope Francis said "who am I to judge gay people" and added that gays shouldn't be marginalized.

These statements may be good news to people who are working for institutional change within the Catholic church.

One such person, an Austrian priest, is currently touring America in an effort to bring reform within the Catholic Church to a tipping point.

Fr. Helmut Schuller will be in San Diego on Wednesday, July 31 to speak at the First Unitarian Universalist Church.