Benedict's first twelve months: 'We Are Church' delivers its verdict

Benedict's first twelve months: 'We Are Church' delivers its verdict

Michael Gilchrist

As the Catholic world held its breath, the eagerly awaited, definitive verdict on Benedict XVI's first twelve months was delivered by the international body of ageing dissenters calling itself "International Movement We Are Church" (IMWAC).

Centred mainly in Europe, with scattered followers elsewhere, including a few in Australia, IMWAC originated in Austria in 1995 with a petition drive it says collected 2.5 million signatures worldwide (actually mostly in Austria and Germany) "calling for fundamental structural reforms in the Roman Catholic Church".

We Are Church says it keeps in touch with other reform movements all over the world with the goal of continuing "the process of reform in the Roman Catholic Church, a process which has been opened with Vatican II Council (1962-1965) and in recent years came to a standstill."


Like similar groups that have come and gone, with claims to be keeping alive the "spirit of Vatican II" during the long years of John Paul II's "reactionary" pontificate, We Are Church sounds for all the world like a group of nostalgic 60s hippies. They have no relevance or appeal for today's younger Catholics who are either completely secularised or drawn to the radical orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

But IMWAC soldiers on, periodically issuing wish lists of "reforms" and grandiose media releases like 1998's "A Pope for the Time to Come: Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor". In the usual churchspeak, IMWAC challenged the "faith community" to call for "a model of church built on a 'discipleship of equals' and a style of leadership that is collaborative, dialogic and open to fundamental change."

Carried away by its own propaganda, IMWAC prefaced its media release, "In Unprecedented Move, Over 140 Catholic Groups from Six Continents Issue Statement about Leadership in the Roman Catholic Church."

In the hope of influencing the selection of the next Pope, with John Paul II presumed to be on his way out in 1998, We Are Church's "spokesperson" Elfriede Harth announced the qualities IMWAC expected in a future pope.

These were spelled out in its letter to each cardinal:

"The Universal Pastor we envision would be collaborative in style, inviting the world's bishops to share leadership with him and with other members of the People of God. He would listen as well as preach and dialogue as well as teach. As a brother bishop, he would retire at the age established for all bishops. He would respect the equality of all the faithful and end any discriminatory barriers to participation in ministries and decision making. This leader would embody the spirit of ecumenism, recognizing the Spirit of Jesus in all Christian churches, and dialogue with them to bring about the dream of Christian unity."

Eight years on, We Are Church is as self-confident as ever.

In a press release "on the First Anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI", Christian Weisner, IMWAC's Chair, said Benedict's first year had "not changed the problematic situation in the Catholic Church substantially" and there were "severe deficits, which are cause for deep concern."

Rea Howarth, a "woman religious and spokesperson of We are Church in the United States", said Benedict "must be able to listen and, in his pontificate, must give and allow answers on the pressing questions of the Church and society that are keeping with the times."

Sr Howarth insisted that "Christians in the whole world expect answers that are humane on questions concerning justice and peace, the inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism, the position of women in Church, sexual ethics and the world-wide lack of priests. Otherwise, the march not only of women out of the church will continue."

While finding Benedict's style of leadership "more consultative and collegial than that of his predecessor", she thought the "continuing fixation on office and person of the Pope as well as on the Church hierarchy" did not "reflect the teaching of Jesus and cannot be a model for the youth."

There was cause for worry, in any case, when it was recalled "how rigid Ratzinger was for more than 23 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, banning critical theologians, condemning the liberation theology, formulating a rigid sexual doctrine, limiting women's influence in the Church as well as the ecumenical relations with Protestant churches."

This was evident with "one of the first documents licensed by Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican Instruction on 'Homosexuality and Ordained Ministry'," which, IMWAC said, "discriminates against homosexual men entering priesthood" and was "very disappointing to many Catholics, not just to those who are most directly affected".

Women priests

Also "disheartening" was Benedict's "decisive rejection" of any "reopening of the question of ordination" for women. This, it declared, "surely will exacerbate the priest shortage."

We Are Church expressed disappointment too that its letter "asking the new Pope after his election for a personal meeting" had "not even been answered yet" after twelve months.

Its press release concluded: "The International Movement We Are Church offers these reflections in hopes Benedict XVI will see within them some reflection of the gifts of the Holy Spirit emanating from the People of God. We call upon him to begin a new phase of the church, by recognizing that laity is the Church's treasure rather than its 'problem' and that those of us who raise our voices for reform and renewal are indeed faithful Catholics, possessing a true capacity for reflection and discernment, and a genuine love for the whole church. Again, we invite him to participate in a true dialogue."

Meanwhile, We Are Church shouldn't hold its breath.

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