"God's Rottweiler" seized an opportunity during Holy Week to growl, whimper and call upon Roman Catholic dissidents to choose "radical obedience" to the Magisterium over fidelity to such causes as women's ordination, compulsory celibacy for priests and divorce. Two years ago Joseph Ratzinger declared the discussion of women's ordination over. Is the pontiff changing his tune? According to the The New York Times the group at whom Ratzinger's snapping is aimed is an Austrian group called Preachers' Initiative.
The initiative was started in 2006 by the Rev. Helmut Schüller, the former director of a Catholic aid agency, Caritas Austria, to combat a shortage of priests. Since then, more than 400 Austrian priests have endorsed him, according to news media reports, as well as priests in the United States and across Europe.
The Vatican fears that the initiative could cause a schism in the church. Father Schüller has called the Vatican an "absolutist monarchy" and said that the church's resistance to change might lead to rupture anyway.
Does Ratzinger really fear a schism? It is hard to know. An old man fighting a losing battle, Don Quixote-style, Ratzinger may be too out of touch to genuinely fear a schism. Even so, he must be quaking even if just a little in those scarlet shoes because when it comes to selling "radical obedience" (to the Magisterium) to most Roman Catholics, Ratzinger hasn't a prayer! "Radical disobedience" is fast becoming the norm in the church Ratzinger is said to lead. Whole religious orders and individual priests are thumbing their noses at this pontificate in increasing numbers.
Many experts on the Vatican think Ratzinger has been yearning for some kind of unofficial schism for decades. Many believe think he was the brains behind the John Paul II pontificate and that Ratzinger was militating for a purer more Magisterium-honoring church long before he became pope. But Catholics who leave take their money with them, for which reason a weird "good cop-bad cop" zeitgeist has ensued. One one hand, we have hard-line cardinals like Timothy Dolan cracking down in "sin cities" like New York; on the other hand we have slick "Come home" campaigns designed to make Catholic worship appear more cozy.
Ratzinger has a problem in the form of a growing trend wherein Catholics under protest stick around, refusing to let the hierarchy take their church from them. Often these Catholics are active on parish pastoral councils and in liturgical and social justice ministries. Often they are catechists entrusted with formation, and their message of conscientious disobedience filters down, in nuanced and hard-to-govern ways, to children and adults preparing for the sacraments.
For these Catholics "radical obedience" to Christ supersedes "radical obedience" to Joseph Ratzinger.
Not quite two years ago, Ratzinger dug in his heels as he reminded Roman Catholic priests that even engaging in the debate about the ordination of women was a form of disobedience. He compared the severity of this transgression to that of juvenile rape. The bishops had taken up the question, he told us, and the matter was closed.
As he reminds Catholics all over the world, this week, that the church does not have the authority to ordain women, Ratzinger comes off like a teacher in an loud unruly classroom who raises her voice when she should be lowering it.
The pope has lost control of the class.
Most North American and European Roman Catholics support women's ordination and believe it is only a matter of time before the Vatican ordains women. Many of Roman Catholicism's most accomplished theologians and bishops believe there are no substantive theological impediments to ordaining women.
So why does Ratzinger bring it up now?
The Vatican is beginning to recognize that disobedience in the church is now the norm. In the United States and Europe, from whence most Vatican income streams, there are far more excommunicated Catholics in the pews than there are doctrinally-compliant Catholics.
Disgusted Catholics in North America and Europe are leaving the church in droves. The chance is slim that a generation growing up now -- amid the pedophilia crisis and the wars on gay marriage and contraception -- might be more faithful to the Magisterium than were their parents.
Increased media attention to the fiscal corruption in the Vatican is hurting the Holy See, siphoning off what little credibility the Vatican has left.
Many dissident Catholics who might once have left the church are now electing to stay. They don't expect to change the Vatican's mind, but changing the pope's mind in order to change the church is no longer seen by radically disobedient Catholics as necessary.
Many parishes are all but run by women. Gay married Catholics work as catechists, lectors and ministers of Holy Communion. Male Roman Catholic priests serve as spiritual ministers to Roman Catholic women priests. Elderly Roman Catholic nuns are active in the Women's Ordination movement. "Radically disobedient" (to the Magisterium) Catholics are finding community and safety in numbers. Each year these numbers increase. With greater and greater frequency, we see "radically disobedient" Catholics hiding their "plain truth" in plainer sight. "Radically disobedient" Roman Catholics often contribute "time and talent" in lieu of cash to their parishes. They are changing the church while declining to kick back to the Vatican.
The increased media attention to Vatican fiscal impropriety has helped the "radically disobedient" church along. Certainly church history has taught us that dogma and doctrine become malleable when great sums of cash are at stake. While Joseph Ratzinger and ilk might prefer selling Absolution to caving in to the demand to ordain women, the Vatican might have to change its mind on women's ordination for economic reasons.
The juvenile sexual abuse crisis will become more and more expensive for the church. Apparently the problem of juvenile sexual rape by priests in African nations and India is ongoing, severe and just beginning to come to light. When the scope of the scourge of child abuse and juvenile rape in the developing world comes to light, the Vatican is likely to take a huge hit. If (when!) these human rights cases are finally heard in the Hague, the defendant (the Vatican) stands to lose a fortune.
When it comes to fighting Catholic dissidents, the Vatican is also out of ammo. Take excommunication, example, the threat of which has almost entirely lost its sting.
It is possible that the majority of Roman Catholics in the North America and Europe who will attend Easter Mass this year will be self-excommunicated Catholics.
If they have used birth control, have had abortions, support legalized abortions, are women priests, have taken Communion at a mass celebrated by a woman priest, are gay and sexually active, are single and sexually active, are divorced and remarried -- or are married outside of the church -- and receive Communion on Sunday they risk self-excommunication. A priest who knowingly gives Communion to those he knows are are culpable of the aforementioned "sins" also risks self-excommunication. What that means is that vast number so priests, bishops and pastors are also excommunicated.
The Vatican has already lost the battle to keep women out of the priesthood. Vocations among women are up; among men, they are down. Conservative Catholic spokespersons enjoy ridiculing the hundreds of women who have been ordained but even they know that such ridicule is a blessed badge of honor in Roman Catholic history, hagiography and tradition.
Show me a saint, and I'll show you someone who in his or her lifetime was taken as a wack-job.
As the Vatican loses its ability to punish them, dissident priests become emboldened. Take, for instance, Father Roy Bourgeois. For three years the Vatican has sought to make an example of the Nobel Prize-nominated founder of SOA Watch (a group that works to shut down WHINSEC, the former School of the Americas, an academy for torture.) The Vatican has strong-armed Father Bourgeois's Maryknoll order, demanding that they defrock Father Bourgeois for the transgression of attending and supporting women's ordinations. Maryknoll, an order with an uncommonly Christ-like commitment to social justice, took a lot of heat from all Catholic sides about moving to defrock Bourgeois -- all the while supporting this him in defending himself against forced laicization.
It now appears that the Maryknoll order will refuse to defrock Father Bourgeois.
Strong Roman Catholic precedent for saying "no" to the pope (so as to say "yes" to Christ) is being set. Ratzinger knows that the Roman Catholic priesthood originated as a result of "radical disobedience." Although the pope may honestly believe the church lacks the authority to ordain women, he can not deny that the rogue character of the Woman's Ordination movement reflects the tradition, history and origins of the Roman Catholic (mostly male) priesthood. Lockstep Catholics can say that women who are ordained through Roman Catholic Womenpriests are not "real priests," but the truth is that the male priests and bishops, who have themselves been ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession, beg to differ.
And there's not a thing Joseph Ratzinger can do to stop Roman Catholic women from becoming Roman Catholic priests.