Helmut Schüller on God’s Mysterious Ways

Austrian 'disobedience' and hope for change

Helmut Schüller: “Whoever they pick [for Pope], it has to be someone who can take on the system.” | Photo: Kian Lovett

Helmut Schüller: “Whoever they pick [for Pope], it has to be someone who can take on the system.” | Photo: Kian Lovett

“God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform!” my grandmother would tell me, quoting the poet William Cowper, in moments when my curiosity had stretched too far. She liked to retreat into literature to avoid unpleasantness and keep ‘unmentionables’ where they belong.

I have wondered what she would have had to say about Benedict XVI stepping down from the papacy – in her Protestant worldview, undoubtedly an act of inexcusable spinelessness. But then what could one expect of the Catholic religion my mother had chosen to marry into.

So I was interested to discover that Austrian “rebel priest” Helmut Schüller seems to agree with her. Having launched the Priest’s Initiative (Pfarrer-Initiative) and a “call to disobedience” for reform in the Church, Schüller was openly sceptical of the reasons given for the Pope’s decision. Unconvinced by “age and illness”, he diagnosed “rising pressure from the right-wing clerics,” that had only grown with time. I was surprised.

For us mortals here on the ground, Pope Benedict has been plenty right-wing enough: A dogmatist who saw the “code of silence” and rigid adherence to tradition as the only way forward, Benedict chastised Schüller from the pulpit a year ago, saying that the Austrian priest’s call to disobedience had challenged “definitive decisions” of the Church leadership, like mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women.

Two months later, Benedict rebuked Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn for accusing another cardinal of blocking an investigation into sexual abuse by former Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër – an investigation that the pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger, had himself sought.

So as I said, we’re not talking about a wild-eyed reformer. Still, some saw the resignation itself as a radical act, forcing public debate and a polling of the constituency at a time when feelings ran high.In such a moment, even the conclave might be capable of thinking outside the box.

This seemed to be what happened with the selection of Pope Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina, and known champion of the poor.

But not according to Father Schüller.

“I very much hope that they will not pick someone, however sensational – like an African or a Latin American – who comes from completely outside, but who will be neutralised in short order,” he said in a radio interview before the vote. “Whoever they pick, it has to be someone who can take on the system,” to challenge what he considers “a systemic abuse of power”.

If Schüller is right, the cardinals have fallen right into the trap. In the confusion that reigns in today’s Church, Catholics could be forgiven for feeling despair: Real reform seems very unlikely.

William Cowper was in despair back in 1890, and would have drowned himself in the Thames, had the cabbie not lost his way in the fog. In gratitude, he wrote his famous poem.

Perhaps the pressure from the on-going sex abuse and corruption scandals will be enough to pry open the Church’s rigid structures.

In the end, however, it will be the growing throngs of Catholics abandoning the Church, leaving parishes echoing with empty pews, that will finally force the unthinkable – ­allowing women and married men, children and families into the inner sanctums of Catholic life – and bring real communities back into the fold.

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