The Liberal Protestant Future of Catholic Dissent

One of the many memorable scenes in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago features Zhivago’s family fleeing the ugliness and brutality of Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution for the tranquility of the family’s country estate in Varykino.  Upon reaching the estate after an arduous journey, Zhivago’s father-in-law, Alexander Gromeko, finds the main house boarded up, with a notice affixed to the door.  After reading the notice, he cannot contain his exasperation: “A body, styling itself the Yuriatin Committee of Revolutionary Justice, has expropriated my house. In the name of the people. Very well. I’m one of the people, too!”

I know how Gromeko felt.  I recently attended a lecture at the Cleveland City Club by Helmut Schuller, a dissident Austrian priest who just finished touring the United States to promote his plan to dramatically refashion the Catholic Church so that it is more in line with Schuller’s opinions.  Schuller claims to be acting in the name of “the People of God,” a phrase he repeated many times in Cleveland.  As a baptized Catholic, I’m one of the People of God, too.  But I no more gave Schuller authority to speak in my name than Gromeko gave the Bolsheviks authority to steal his house.  And despite fawning coverage from such venues as The New York Times, NPR, Reuters, and the National Catholic Reporter, most of Schuller’s speeches were attended by crowds of no more than a few hundred, or less than the number who attend Mass each Sunday at a typical suburban parish.

It is clear why the media is so excited about Schuller.  His talk featured nothing indicating that Schuller believes that the Church is right about anything of importance or that it has anything to teach the world.  Instead, Schuller said the Church should learn from the world, and he repeatedly stated that the Church needs to conform to the opinions of “the people of our time.”  So much for tradition, Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.”  Indeed, Schuller presented the Church as an oppressive institution, advocating disobedience by priests because Germans and Austrians have learned that obedience is dangerous and stating that change can come to the Church just as change came to the Soviet Union in 1989.  In other words, a priest’s vow to obey his bishop is the equivalent of the oath of a soldier in the Wehrmacht to obey Adolf Hitler and the Vatican is the equivalent of the Kremlin.  No wonder the City Club presented Schuller’s talk as part of “The Karen Faith Witt and A.H. Weinstein Memorial Forum on the Persecution of Peoples.”

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What Schuller told the City Club he wanted was democratic governance in the Church, women priests and married priests, a “renewal of our moral teaching” so that homosexual acts are sanctioned and divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion, and “a new language … for delivering the Gospel to human beings today.”  Schuller didn’t go into detail about this last point, but his later reference to “his or her mind,” in speaking of the Holy Spirit, perhaps gave a hint about what Schuller wants.

Needless to say, most of what Schuller advocates is contrary to the New Testament and authoritative Church teaching.  The New Testament condemns homosexual acts, and one of the ways Christians stood apart in antiquity is that they avoided such acts.  Although a current talking point among some on the Catholic Left is the claim that Jesus never explicitly condemned homosexuality, Schuller’s advocacy for Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics shows just how much such an explicit denunciation by Our Lord would have meant to Schuller and all the others who long for the Church to submit to the Zeitgeist.  After all, Christ was quite clear about divorce:  “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”   The Church accordingly has maintained that marriage is indissoluble from the earliest times, and another way that Christians stood out in antiquity is that they did not divorce.  The prohibition on receiving Communion while engaging in adultery or any other serious sin is not an imposition of the Vatican, but a teaching of St. Paul:  “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. It is apparent that Schuller does not regard Scripture as being authoritative in any meaningful sense.

Nor does Schuller regard Church teaching as authoritative.  He campaigns for women priests even though John Paul II declared that “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”  Although Schuller wants bishops to be removed from office as a result of popular demand, this is exactly what Saint Clement warned against in his widely read Letter to the Corinthians, written in the first century:  “It is disgraceful, beloved, very disgraceful, and unworthy of your training in Christ, to hear that the stable and ancient Church of the Corinthians, on account of one or two persons, should revolt against its presbyters. … The result is that blasphemies are brought upon the name of the Lord through your folly, and danger accrues for yourselves.”  Schuller’s faith, then, is wholly subjective, and not bound by the Bible, the Pope, or Tradition.  The only imperative is to bow to the demands of today as interpreted by Schuller.

In this, Schuller is following in the well trod footsteps of liberal Protestantism.  Nothing in Schuller’s talk indicated that he would disagree with anything found in liberal Protestantism, and in Austria he has advocated freely giving Communion to Protestants.  Liberal Protestantism began, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous words, with the belief that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  Its logical culmination is found in the likes of Gary Hall, the Dean of Washington’s National Cathedral, who just told The Washington Post that “I describe myself as a non-theistic Christian.”  Since there is no sin in the world of liberal Protestantism, except maybe holding unfashionable political opinions, and no beliefs that are necessary for salvation, except maybe the current editorial position of The New York Times, denominations that embrace liberalism have a hard time convincing people to get up early on Sundays and go to church, even though they have done everything Helmut Schuller wants the Catholic Church to do.  The United Church of Christ has lost half its members since the early 1960s, even though the overall US population has doubled during the same period of time, the Episcopal Church has lost nearly a quarter of its Sunday communicants in the last decade, and the established Protestant churches in Europe have fared even worse.  As measured by demography, liberal Christianity is a clear failure.

At the talk, I asked Schuller why he thought the implementation of his ideas would not lead to the same disastrous decline in numbers that liberal Protestantism has experienced worldwide.  He dismissed my question as “capitalistic” and said “that if we get more trouble than we have, we have to do it, because it’s our opinion, it’s our conviction, out of the principles of our faith.”  This is essentially the same as Joseph Ratzinger’s prediction that the Church might need to become “small,” a prediction that has been enraging parts of the Catholic Left for decades, with this difference:  Ratzinger was willing to countenance declining Church membership if that was the result of maintaining historic Christian doctrine; Schuller is willing to risk declining Church membership as a result of abandoning historic Christian doctrine to suit his “opinion.”  Schuller ended his response to me with a curt “That’s it.”  By contrast, he professed “respect” for the women in the audience who claimed to be ordained Catholic priests, women Schuller also labeled “prophetic.”  Despite his repeated calls for an “open dialogue,” it seems that Schuller really isn’t that interested in talking to people who disagree with him.

Schuller displayed similar impatience with younger priests.  When an audience member lamented that younger priests were “more official and hierarchical,” Schuller said that for the last 20 to 30 years seminarians have been “interested in the First Vatican Council Church” and that such views represent a “real clash between two visions of Church,” since Schuller sees himself and his confreres as championing Vatican II.  The only hope Schuller offered his distressed interlocutor was that younger priests will “gather some experience in life and faith,” the unspoken assumption being that experience will lead ineluctably to holding the same opinions Schuller has.  Schuller repeated this theme in Los Angeles, warning his audience there that “The church is more and more led by relatively young priests of these movements, who nobody knows really.”

Early in his talk, Schuller complained that his “dialogue” with the Austrian bishops was a failure, even though he admitted that the bishops were polite and cordial.  The problem, in essence, was that the bishops did not agree with Schuller.  For Schuller, “dialogue” is a process that leads to the acceptance of his opinions.  Let us hope that never happens.  The way to deal with demanding moral teachings is not to jettison them, but to provide support to people trying to live by them.  And the way forward for the Church is not more councils, committees, and structures, but a renewed emphasis on holiness for all its members, from the Pope and the Curia to the most humble layman.  I believe Vatican II may even have said something about that.

(Photo credit: The Cleveland Plain Dealer)


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