Last week in his visit to Brazil, Pope Francis sent an explicit message that his tenure would be a departure from tradition. "I want a mess," he told the audience at World Youth Day. "I want trouble in the dioceses!.... I want to see the church get closer to the people." This statement was followed by other ground-breaking by his eminence. While U.S. bishops are watching the pope, they might consider taking heed of another Catholic reformer making the rounds from overseas.
Let me come clean about something before I go on. I'm not Catholic. My interest in this is as the husband of a wonderful Catholic woman and the father of three great Catholic kids. I'm Jewish, and I'd like to see my kids raised in a church capable of living a mission of grace, one that is more interested in community than condemnation. I think the Catholic Church can be that place, on its best days.
But I've been asking myself, why is it that U.S. Catholic Bishops don't want to hear from Father Helmut Schuller? Here's a guy with a relatively simple message -- in some ways it's not even as radical as the pope's. Around the world, Schuller says, and particularly in Europe, the Catholic church is facing a shortage of candidates for the priesthood. But that's true only if you think of candidates as the men interested in serving who also happen to be willing take a vow of celibacy. That will tend to keep your candidate pool pretty small.
Co-founder of the Austrian Priests' Initiative, Schuller speaks on behalf of 400 or so reform-minded Catholic Parish leaders agitating in the tradition of Martin Luther. They don't have exactly 95 theses, but they do have a fairly compelling "Call to Disobedience," focused on solving the problem of Europe's growing priest shortage
Schuller is In the midst of a U.S. tour, and he is forbidden by U.S. bishops to speak at any Catholic Church. That's a tough blow for a guy who once had the title Monsignor and, as many priests have, has devoted his life to the church and its people. So instead of speaking to Catholics in their own houses of worship, he speaks to the hundreds who come to hear him at Unitarian churches and free speech forums like the City Club of Cleveland (where I work).
They may not be in the same place, but Father Schuller and Pope Francis are having a conversation, and it's fairly monumental. Francis asked for dissent in the dioceses. He's getting it. And in the Vatican's first ever unscripted, in-flight press conference, Francis revealed, in some ways, what the topics of the conversation are.
On the LGBT community: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Pope Francis said. Schuller was a little more verbose, calling on the church "to include them, to accept them in their orientation, to have them with us, and to respect also their trying to build up relationships which are founded on trust and confidence and taking care of one another, and therefore we should shift our concentration from the external form of partnerships and relation to their quality."
On the ordination of women, Schuller obviously sees this as a solution to the central numbers problem in the vocation. By simply taking the question and responding authentically, the pope has demonstrated a capacity for dialogue on the issue. To be fair, he said he believes Pope John Paul II definitively "closed the door" on ordaining women, but that wasn't all. He went on to say the church doesn't have a very good theology of women. As the National Catholic Reporter's Reverend Thomas Reese told NPR, " I mean when was the last time you heard a pope say that we didn't have a good theology? Usually the Vatican presents itself as the answer man. He's inviting us into a conversation."
Ultimately, this is a conversation about the future of the church, a future that implicitly seems to acknowledge decisions of the past haven't always been in the best interest of the broader community. The Catholic Church is the kind of institution that changes and reforms in geologic time, and seldom in the time frame of a single generation. And while it evolves -- and I believe that's what it is doing -- it does something amazing. In a remarkable and beautiful way, the Church is able to hold and contain the paradox and tension of dissent in relationship to the rigid architecture of doctrine. As strong as that architecture is, it is also superficial. Beneath it is an ongoing dialogue of difference among laity and leadership. And right now, we're not talking about buying indulgences. We're talking about the fact that what's best for the church may be leaders who are good at leading, regardless of whether they are single or married, gay or straight, male or female.