US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Path to church unity in Austria: Get in line. At papal synod: Get on Twitter

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Two decidedly different approaches to dissension in the Catholic ranks emerged in the last week. From Austria came a letter from its bishops on the Year of Faith, with a specific section devoted to the "Appeal to Disobedience," a bit of a manifesto signed by 400 Catholic priests in Austria lamenting the "reform backlog"--ordination of married men and women, communion for remarried people, and so on--facing the church in Austria.

Issued on behalf of the Austrian bishops by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, the bishops argued that "the Second Vatican Council decided in favor of retaining mandatory priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic church and that all the episcopal synods since the council have confirmed this. Should this not be seen as a sign from the Holy Spirit?" The bishops' message that  "renewal can only come from faith, and wishes for reform obviously cannot" suggests, not surprisingly, that faith and the voice of the Holy Spirit can be found only in the bishops.

Meanwhile, over at the Synod of Bishops, Pope Benedict XVI closed the gathering arguing that, in addition to "traditional and perennially valid pastoral methods, the Church seeks to adopt new ones, developing a new language, attuned to the different world cultures," which Reuters journalist Philip Pullella suggests includes the Vatican's recent turn to the Internet and social media, though the pope himself never mentioned those.

Note the problem: The Austrian bishops offer a top-down approach to the working of the Spirit, in effect rejecting calls for reforms from Catholic people, while the pope appeals for "developing new languages, attuned to the different world cultures." But as world cultures shift increasingly to a democratic approach human institutions--social media being a major expression of that spirit--I don't see how the bishops can maintain their fundamentally hierarchical approach to the church's problems.

Then again, I suspect the pope imagines social media, for example, as merely a new platform for preaching the Catholic faith. But the medium is the message--and all you need to add your voice online is an Internet connection. If everyone can have a say whenever they want, it gets harder to convince them they don't get a say when it comes time to make decisions.