Controversial Catholic priest comes to Chestnut Hill College despite Philadelphia Archdiocese ban

 Austrian priest, Father Helmut Schüller, discusses Catholic Church reforms at Chestnut Hill College on Friday night. (Jana Shea/for NewsWorks)

Austrian priest, Father Helmut Schüller, discusses Catholic Church reforms at Chestnut Hill College on Friday night. (Jana Shea/for NewsWorks)

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia didn’t roll out the welcome mat when Father Helmut Schüller came to town to speak at Chestnut Hill College on Friday night. The Catholic priest is something of an outlaw to the Holy See.

Schüller’s message is simple: the Catholic Church needs to get with the times.

Together with the Austrian Priests’ Initiative (API), he has put forth an “Appeal for Disobedience,” advocating for sweeping reforms.

The appeal calls for “a new image of the priest” where women and married persons may be ordained, among other proposed changes. These actions will enable the church to become deeply involved in a conversation with modern society, Schüller said.

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As a result, Schüller was stripped of his monsignorship and demoted to parish priest. Schüller has embarked on a 15-city tour of the U.S. to spread the message of reform, but has been prohibited from speaking on church properties.

“The Archdiocese wanted to avoid any confusion about Catholic teaching — especially a priest speaking about Catholic teaching — so we made it very clear that Father Schüller would not be permitted to speak at any parishes or Archdiocesan facilities in the area,” said Archdiocese of Philadelphia spokesman Kenneth Gavin in a statement to NewsWorks last week

The tour is taking place inside Protestant churches and secular venues, with the exception of its Philadelphia stop at Chestnut Hill College.

Schüller noted he believes the ban says a lot about the “absolutistic monarchy” of the Church. It is not about prohibiting him to speak as much as it is about forbidding Catholics to listen, he added.

The Catholic college defied Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput to host the dissident priest Friday night, drawing more than 350 attendees who, after all seats were taken, stood packed shoulder to shoulder or sat clustered on the floor at Schüller’s feet to hear his views.

Diginity of the baptized

API calls for today’s disfranchised Catholic Church citizenry to exercise more control in the decision making process. Creating a Church constitution, as proposed by Pope Paul VI during Vatican II, would establish rights and detail the co-determination of power. As such, Church citizens should be allowed to participate in the election process of their representative council and leaders.

API also wants to see the use of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, abolished as what they see as a tool of exclusion by allowing divorced Catholics, those remarried outside the Church, as well as gays and lesbians to receive the sacrament.

Love is love

Schüller says the Church needs to incorporate a new teaching concerning sexual relations that is inclusive of homosexuals, and those who are divorced and remarried.

Biblical passages condemning homosexuality are deeply rooted to ancient cultures and times, he explained. In the same biblical books, one can find passages demanding the death penalty for many transgressions (adultery, being the victim of rape, blasphemy, cursing, being a stubborn and rebellious son) for which would never be punished by death today.

Expanding the role of women

Perhaps considered the most radical by the Vatican is the call for the opening of the priesthood to women. Schüller says the reasoning comes not from a shortage of priests, but because of the value of women’s perspective and achieving an end to inequality.

In his experience and travels, Schüller saw that it was women who contribute not only the majority of service to the Church, but also carry the burden of daily life in society. In the U.S. alone, 64 percent of church services are carried out by women, he said.

A growing movement

API’s movement is taking on momentum. The first group of priests to support the appeal came from Ireland and now number more than 1,000. API’s reform movement has attracted other like-minded groups of priests from Germany, Switzerland, France, the U.S. and Australia.Despite only limited support for the appeal in Latin America, the API has issued a statement concerning Pope Francis I’s first 100 days in office. His simple language and outreach to those in society’s margins are promising, according to the group. 

“There is hope in the air” for systematic change, Schüller said.

Moving forward

API’s proposed reforms struck a chord with those in attendance, the majority of whom were elderly members of religious orders.

A woman who identified herself as “Sister Jean, from the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia” said that for decades, many Catholic women have been thinking the same things.

“We’re already in a movement for 30 years and we’ll be so glad when our brothers join us,” she said.

Schüller says he doesn’t fear being sanctioned. “I will continue my work in my parish community. Then let’s see what will happen,” he said.

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