European Reform Engine Seems to Sputter

By Kaiser, Robert Blair | National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

European Reform Engine Seems to Sputter


Kaiser, Robert Blair, National Catholic Reporter


Few new initiatives advanced in international gathering

From an organizational viewpoint, it seems that the engine of church reform in Europe, in overdrive from 1995 to 1999, has shifted into low gear.

This impression was formed during the second weekend in January, when a leading network for Catholic reform groups in Europe held its 10th annual meeting here. Delegates from 12 countries spent three days telling one another their stories, firming up their links in cyberspace, electing new officers and doing a marvelous liturgy together on Saturday night -- in German, French and English.

But they launched no new initiatives, and the outgoing secretary for the group -- known as the European Network Church on the Move -- reported the demise of one Italian affiliate and the resignation of another. Simon Bryden-Brook of London also said that a reform group from Liechtenstein has declined several invitations to join the network. Its tentative affiliation last year was hailed as one of the network's more significant accomplishments.

The closest thing to dramatic action came when members of the group decided to be present in Rome as a kind of shadow synod when the world's bishops gather again in 2000.

This sense of drift on the Catholic left in Europe is admittedly based on one January meeting in a remote ski town in eastern Germany. There is another, bigger reform group, the International Movement We Are Church. And there are a number of local groups who didn't send delegates to this meeting; they continue quietly to live the spirit of Vatican II in their little towns and campus organizations. One brochure issued by a German network called "Initiative: Church From Below" listed 42 affiliated local groups from Munster, Germany, to Munich, Germany.

But the engine for reform is certainly sputtering in Austria, until recently the heartland of European reform energies. In the Easter season of 1995 a small group of Catholics in Innsbruck, Austria, launched a petition drive to call for a more loving, democratic and generous church. They seemed to triumph in 1998, when the official church-sponsored Dialogue for Austria, a national convention of Austrian Catholics, endorsed a sweeping program of reform.

The Austrian Kirchenvolksbewegung, or "People's Movement in the Church," hacked out a five-point action program. They said the church had to: (1) respect all the people of God, whether lay or ordained, by giving them a meaningful voice in church affairs -- including a role in the selection of bishops; (2) give full equal rights to women; (3) lift mandatory celibacy for priests; (4) encourage a positive understanding of sexuality; and (5) teach the gospel as a message of joy.

Within a few months, this renewal campaign had spread to Germany, and soon local versions of the Austrian initiative sprang up in countries all over the world, including Belgium, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Catalonia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, Great Britain, Holland, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the United States and Venezuela.

By October 1999, this rough coalition of Catholic reform groups was ready to present signed petitions to the Synod of European Bishops meeting in Rome. In a good-natured, laughing and very informal ceremony, representatives of the reform from all over the world presented more than 2 million signatures to a functionary of the synod outside the synod's meeting hall at the Casa Santa Marta, just a stone's throw from the Holy Office.

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