The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has barred local churches from inviting a rebel priest to speak at parishes during his upcoming trip to Philadelphia.
Austrian Catholic priest Father Helmut Schuller, described by supporters as a priest activist, has been pushing for major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church through his organization, the Austrian Priests’ Initiative. Schuller is scheduled to speak at Chestnut Hill College this month on his "The Catholic Tipping Point" tour.
In a 2011 edict called the “Call to Disobedience,” Fr. Schuller and the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, citing a shortage of priests and declining followings, called for lay people to take a larger role in the church and help with decision-making.
Fr. Schuller also supports relaxing the rule barring women and married people from being ordained as priests and prohibiting communion from being given to divorced parishioners and other Christians.
Such views, coming from a practicing and ordained priest, have not sat well with church leaders. Pope Benedict XVI stripped Fr. Schuller’s monsignor title. Bishops in Boston and now Philadelphia are protesting his 15 city U.S. speaking tour – The Catholic Tipping Point – which stops at Chestnut Hill College next Friday.
In a statement about Fr. Schuller’s visit, the archdiocese says he “publicly advances views that diverge very seriously from Catholic belief and practice. . .As a result, and to avoid the furtherance of any confusion about Catholic teaching, he may not speak at any parish or diocesan-related facility in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” the statement reads.
Church officials also make it clear that Chestnut Hill College, while a Catholic institution, is not run by the archdiocese.
“Chestnut Hill College is not affiliated with the archdiocese, nor is it an official sponsor of the Schuller appearance. Nonetheless, allowing a campus venue to be used in this manner is regrettable and inevitably damages the unity of the local Church.”
“What I think should be emphasized is that he has a really positive message for church reform that addresses some of the challenges the church is facing today,” said Regina Bannan, president of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. The group, which pushes for women to be ordained, is one of the local organizations coordinating Fr. Schuller’s Philadelphia visit.
Bannan said the archdiocese’s statement isn’t unexpected, but that the focus should be on listening to Fr. Schuller’s views and not controversy over his visit. “I would like to see the bishop attend,” she said.
Sister Christine Schenk of FutureChurch, another progressive Catholic group sponsoring Fr. Schuller’s U.S. tour, was more critical of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Archbishop Charles Chaput’s statements.
“For my part, a priest in good standing like Fr. Schuller should be warmly welcomed by an Archdiocese struggling with closing 27 parishes because of the priest shortage,” Sr. Schenk said.
The archdiocese announced in June they would be merging 27 parishes, in a second round of parish restructuring. Officials said a decrease in available clergy was one of the factors.
While the archdiocese's statement forbids Fr. Schuller from preaching at Philly-area churches, archdioceses spokesman Kenneth Gavin says the priest was not given an invite from any local parishes.
Chestnut Hill College Director of Communications Kathleen Spigelmyer says the school "fully respects" Archbishop Chaput's statement and that they are not taking a position on Fr. Schuller's views.
"The College serves merely as the site for the event, having agreed to rent the facility several months ago as part of the College’s continuing mission to encourage dialogue on issues of importance to society."
Fr. Schuller’s talk will be held at 7 p.m. on July 19 at Chestnut Hill College’s SugarLoaf Hill. The event is open to the public and free.