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The Catholic Spring: Ferment in Switzerland

One of the disadvantages of English as a home language, is that too often it leaves us weak in other tongues, and as a result all too ignorant of developments in the wider world (outside, that is, the UK, the USA, and the British Commonwealth). A case in point is the matter of Catholic discussion around matters of ordination to the priesthood, which the Vatican insists must be restricted to celibate males. In the English – speaking world, the National Catholic Reporter caused a stir last week with an editorial proclaiming that contrary to directives from Rome, Catholics have not only a right but a duty to discuss women’s ordination, but in other regions, discussions have gone much further.  Fortunately for us linguistically challenged English speakers, Rebel Girl does a sterling job of bringing to our attention useful information from foreign language press, in English translation. From Brazil, for example, she reported recently how Archbishop Dom Jacinto Furtado de Brito Sobrinho of Teresina

told reporters last week that, regardless of any opinions Pope Benedict XVI may have expressed on the importance of celibacy, the pontiff’s words on this question are not infallible. He reiterated the Church teaching that the Pope is only considered infallible on matters of faith and morals and mandatory celibacy doesn’t fit in those categories. The bishop added that “the fact that to be a priest you also have to be celibate is a discipline that the Church can change.”

-Rebel Girl, at Rentapriest

But it’s in Switzerland that things are getting really interesting. In a fascinating pamphlet, a Swiss abbot, Martin Werlen, has gone way, way beyond simply urging us to discuss ordaining women priests – he has suggested among other notable innovations, that it is time for the Church to appoint women cardinals!

A senior and influential figure in the Swiss Church has issued a potentially incendiary appeal for church reform with a string of proposals to empower the laity.

The ideas, put forward in a pamphlet by Abbot Martin Werlen of Einsiedeln, include appointing women and young people as cardinals and arranging regular meetings for them with the Pope. He also proposes giving laypeople greater say in the choice of bishops, discussion of priestly celibacy and Communion for remarried divorcees.

- The Tablet

The Abbot is certainly not alone in his thinking: the Tablet report goes on to note that he has been given the backing of the next president of the Swiss bishops’ conference, Bishop Markus Büchel of St Gallen, who according to the Tablet report, “thanked Abbot Werlen for his intervention and called it a boost for necessary discussion in the Church” . In the wider church, his brochure has been enthusiastically received: he has received more than 1,000 emails and 100 letters, while his pamphlet sold out in three days and is being reprinted.

(I’ve seen several summary reports about this, but have been unable to find a full text in English. However, there is some useful commentary by Anthony Ruff OSB at  Pray Tell, in addition to that at the Tablet, and an extended German language text, by Abbot Werlen himself, is at Der Sonntag )

Meanwhile, bigger trouble for Vatican orthodoxy is brewing in the political sphere: Swiss Catholics in Basel may soon be voting to abolish To appreciate the significance, recall that as in some other Northern European countries,  the state collects and distributes on behalf of the church – and in return, voters get to express their views on Church matters.

In Switzerland, the Catholic Church is organized in a two-tier system: in addition to the canonical structures specific to the Catholic Church (dioceses, parishes), there is effectively a system of ecclesiastical corporations benefiting from a public law statute both at the cantonal and communal levels. These corporations, which are democratically elected, notably distribute the church taxes they receive, but do not have the right to modify the conditions of admission to Catholic ministries, which remains the responsibility of the Magisterium.

That’s the background. What has happened now, is that voters  in the neighbouring half – cantons of Basel and Basel Land have launched an “Initiative for Equality in the Church”. This began with a public petition with nearly 3000 signatures, including those of several theologians. This was accepted as “valid” by the Roman Catholic synod of Basel in November, and was due to be presented to the synod of Basel Land early in December, where it was expected to be similarly accepted. The next step will be to present for a canton wide popular vote during the summer of 2013. (The Swiss are notable for their enthusiasm for popular direct democracy, at every level and on every subject). The vote will not be binding on the Church authorities, but it will be a powerful, incontrovertible demonstration of the popular will in the area.

On Tuesday, November 27th, the synod of the Roman Catholic Church in Basel, Switzerland, recognized the validity of the “Initiative for Equality in the Church” which requires notably the abolition of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. “We take the concerns of the initiative seriously, Christian Griss, the chairman of the synod, declared Thursday to the Basler Zeitung daily.

In the neighboring canton of Basel Land, a similar initiative has been launched and will be submitted to the synod when it meets in Liestal on Monday, December 3rd. But the executive of the Synod has already asked that it be considered valid.

Nearly 3000 signatures, including those of several theologians, were collected to support this “Initiative for Equality in the Church” launched jointly in the two half-cantons of Basel. If passed by the synod of Basel Land, it may be submitted to a popular vote before the summer of 2013, and if accepted, the cantonal ecclesiastical authorities would be required to commit to the abolition of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.

The scope of this initiative is however limited to church civil law structures and will not effect the ecclesial level. However, its supporters hope to have a effective means of pressure against diocesan and Roman authorities.

- original French report at La –  Croix,

(with English translation by Rebel Girl at Iglesia Descalza)

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One Response

  1. The Swiss situation is a sort of perfect anomaly. I look forward to the vote in the summer because it’s will be an accurate assesment of where active Catholics stand in relationship to magisterial power. I doubt these European intiatives will have much effect on Benedict, but they will on his successors. Latin America is an even bigger wild card.

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