Beliefs Institutions

Buoyed by a new pope, priests gather to urge church reform

Father Ernie Davis blesses the communion during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS file photo by Sally Morrow.

(RNS) The death of liberal Catholicism has been proclaimed so often in recent decades that few even bother to check to see if the body still has a pulse.

Father Ernie Davis blesses the communion during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS file photo by Sally Morrow.

Father Ernie Davis blesses the communion during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS file photo by Sally Morrow.

But a fledgling organization of priests believes the obituaries are premature, and as the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests gathers this month to discuss an agenda for church reform, its leaders are pointing to support from the laity as well as inspiration from the top: Pope Francis.

“For me, his papacy so far has been a lifesaver,” said the Rev. Dave Cooper, a priest from Milwaukee who is head of the AUSCP, which will hold its second annual assembly at Seattle University from June 24-27.

Not that Francis is a starry-eyed liberal who is about to ordain women priests or turn the church into a representative democracy. He’s not. Rather, it is the new pope’s repeated exhortations for the church to engage the world, to be humble and open to dialogue, and above all to show people – including Catholics – a welcoming face that has buoyed Cooper and others in the AUSCP.

“The pastoral style is most encouraging to me personally,” Cooper said. “I hope it will grow and deepen and continue.”

The AUSCP was started in August 2011 by about two dozen priests from 11 states who met at a seminary near Chicago with the goal of trying “to keep the best of Vatican II alive,” referring to the landmark church council of the 1960s that opened Catholicism to the modern world.

Like similar groups of reform-minded clergy in Ireland, Austria and elsewhere, these priests were, as one put it, “more than mildly distressed by the ecclesial turn of events” in the past 30 years that has seen the Vatican and local bishops take strong measures to enforce orthodoxy and curb anything that smacks of dissent.

From that modest start two years ago, the AUSCP has grown to nearly 1,000 members from about 120 of the 195 dioceses in the country.

This month’s meeting is expected to draw about 250 of those priests, who will listen to church experts and debate 15 proposals that focus on promoting collaboration and transparency in the church. Proposals include a call for lay people and priests to have a say in selecting bishops, who are now chosen solely by the pope through a secret process.

But one proposal bumps up against the third rail of orthodoxy by calling for a study of ordaining women and married men to the priesthood. Just raising the ordination topic publicly raises the hackles of conservatives — especially younger clergy who entered the priesthood under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and tend to be more orthodox.

One of the critics is the Rev. Martin Fox, who wrote a long blog post ripping the AUSCP as the “swan song” of aging liberal Catholics who were enamored with a “spirit of Vatican II” that has been quashed by a younger, more tradition-minded generation of clergy and laity. “Utterly pointless,” Fox said of the AUSCP’s agenda.

What’s telling is that Fox is not just any priest, but heads the Office of Priestly Formation for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. After a few of his fellow clerics objected to the broadside, Fox later apologized for some of his remarks and amended his original post.

But the thrust of his objections – which have been standard fare among church leaders for years – remained, and underscored a division that may not be overcome anytime soon. “If we keep inviting them, that’s all we can do,” Cooper said of his conservative brethren.

Another AUSCP leader, the Rev. Bob Bonnot of Youngstown, Ohio, rejected the idea that the association is a rallying point for disaffected older priests. “There is no question of dissent,” Bonnot said. “These are open questions in the life of the church and various priests want us, as priests, to discuss them.”

What’s more, he said, almost all of the proposals – the calls for collegiality, ordaining women as deacons, and allowing use of the previous translations of the Mass – are ones that have been debated and sometimes supported by top church leaders.

“Are all the cardinals dissenters because they discuss these items?” he added.

Bonnot noted that the “vast majority” of his members are workaday parish priests rather than clerics who work in academia or church bureaucracies, and their proposals reflect the concerns of parishioners that they serve.

“Regardless of the ages of the priests that might be involved, the issues are enduring issues that are very much in play,” he said.

And discussing those issues openly is vital to the future of the church, said Cooper.

“The Catholic Church is a living organism and all living organisms change and adapt. As the Catholic Church continues to grow and expand, the genius of Vatican II would say that it must take root and grow among the people,” he said.

“We have to be where the people are. That is our passion.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • When will these priest learn that their field is spiritual and individual morals, and they should politics to the laity. When Saint Paul wrote Romans, chapter 13, he was talking about the Roman Empire, and I do not think he would have done any good for himself or the fledgling Church if he had meddled in the politics of the Roman Empire.

  • Martin Fox may think “aging liberal Catholics” like the AUSCP are singing a “swan song,” but how does he explain the continuing decrease in practicing Catholics, especially among the young, because of the exposure of the hypocrisy, criminality, and sinfulness of the sex abusing clergy and the awful monetary cost to those same “aging liberal Catholics” for sleazy accountants, lawyers, and court awards for those offenses?

    Are people like Fox actually defending a church that attracts and condones, even if without announcing it publicly, such offenders and those who accept or promote them by doing nothing or covering up their sins and crimes?

    Are people like Fox really ready to ignore the people in the pews who were forced to ask after Benedict imposed his new ritual English on them, “What does ‘consubstantial’ mean,” and what sense does the literal translation of the Latin, “Et cum spiritu tuo” have over “And also with you?”

    People like Martin Fox take comfort in ancient, magical, illiterate mysteries and in clerical power. That’s why they’re being left behind in fewer and emptier churches. The only omission of the AUSCP is to demand that the lay people of every parish be the ones who select their own priest from a list approved for training by a consortium of national bishops chosen by the lay people and their priests.

  • I am proud to be associated with Cardinal Bernardin. I hope to be around for another 10 or 15 years so let’s find some common ground.

  • “Allowing previous translations of the Mass”. A few years ago would this same group promote and call for a greater acceptance of the 1962 missal?

  • For me I’m fed up with both the left and the right. The left wants to “discuss things” and have an “open dialogue”. Then when they get what they want, the dialogue is shut down and there is no more open discussion. So in reality the motive was not to have a discussion but to get one’s way.

    The right is no better, it looks to find a tradition that agrees with it and once it finds it, it makes that interpretation or voice exclusive. Doesn’t sound catholic to me.

    Left or right, how does such manipulation work with the redeeming love of the Christ? The whole thing, inevitably becomes about personal power and the message of atuning ourselves to love gets trampled upon. Where is Christ in all of this? as usual outside the gate and in the rain.

  • It is amazing how often in stories like this that the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood gets erroneously conflated with the issue of whether married men should be ordained to the priesthood.
    As far as I can tell everyone who knows their history and what they are talking about doctrinally considers the two issues as drastically different for in the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome there are today many married priests (as well as Anglican priests who have “crossed the Tiber.”)

  • It is such a sad commentary on the state of the institution that Martin Fox, head of the Office of Priestly Formation for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, dismisses the AUSCP as “ the “swan song” of aging liberal Catholics who were enamored with a “spirit of Vatican II”. That “Vatican II” and its spirit, dismissed by Fr. Fox is the highest teaching authority within the Roman Catholic Church, an ecumenical council of bishops in conjunction with the pope. As of 2013 Vatican II has not been replaced as the highest teaching authority, nor has “its Spirit.”

    Does Fr. Fox recognize that he is courting heresy – and I have an awful lot of respect for many so-called heretics, not including the current head of the Office of Priestly Formation for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati – when he writes that “the spirit of Vatican II…has been quashed by a younger, more tradition-minded generation of clergy and laity.” These so-called “more tradition-minded generation of clergy and laity” are not only not tradition-minded – they are putting aside and ignoring Vatican II and its spirit – but may be little different from the members of the Cardinal Lefebvre founded Society of St. Pius X that is known as a strong defender and proponent of the Tridentine Mass, along with pious practices, beliefs, customs and religious discipline often associated with the period before the Second Vatican Council, which the society believes promoted erroneous teachings and thereby reject as heretical. SSPX has no canonical status in the Roman Catholic Church for doctrinal reasons, and Fr. Fox and his “more tradition-minded generation of clergy and laity” sound remarkably similar to SSPX.

    In his recent book, Dynamics of Catholic Education, De La Salle Brother Louis DeThomasis writes:

    Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, in The Vindication of Tradition, demonstrates how we could explain Jesus’ understanding of tradition:
    Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.
    If we Catholic educators embrace tradition rather than traditionalism, we can and will be an effective and powerful force in aiding the institutional church to relate to the faithful and the world writ-large. As Saint Augustine tells us:
    Believers are also thinkers; in believing they think, and in thinking they also believe…. If faith does not think, it is nothing.
    The world has changed and so too must Catholic education. To change does not mean that the truth of God’s revelation has changed. It does mean that we must grow in Christ’s love in response to the times. Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 made John Henry Newman “Blessed” on his way to possible sainthood. Perhaps we Catholic educators should heed Cardinal Newman’s insight when he said:
    “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Louis DeThomasis FSC Dynamics Of Catholic Education : Letting The Catholic School Be School
    Fr. Fox’s so-called “tradition-minded generation” are in fact the traditionalists “that gives tradition such a bad name.” They are not Augustine’s believers who “are also thinkers” nor are they Newman’s believers struggling for perfection who “have changed often.”
    Those for whom “Tradition is the living faith of the dead” will be found with the priests of AUCP and in parishes served by these priests.

  • John Quinn writes:.…That “Vatican II” and its spirit, dismissed by Fr. Fox

    …thus demonstrating that he did not read the post I wrote, which he nevertheless criticizes. I make very clear in my post that I fully support Vatican II. If Mr. Quinn wants to criticize me, please criticize what I actually say. Instead, he says the following, of me:

    when he writes that “the spirit of Vatican II…has been quashed by a younger, more tradition-minded generation of clergy and laity.”

    Oops. Mr. Quinn attributed to me something Mr. Gibson said about me. That’s not how it works. Please don’t put Mr. Gibson’s words in my mouth–especially on the way to accusing me of heresy.

    Perhaps Mr. Quinn would like to try again. It might help to stop calling names, and actually engage with my argument, rather than making things up out of whole cloth.

  • gilcahan, you may wish to consider the fact that the most of those who are staying are those whose faith has actually been properly formed through proper catechesis… Some of us *like* the thomistic and scotistic philosophies of the scholastics (mainly because they’re coherent and true, unlike untenable materialism and philosophical scientism).

    As for consubstantial… (or homoousious) my dear friend, you can look it up in the new advent catholic encyclopedia. You can look it up on *wikipedia* for Peter’s sake! “One in being with the Father” is a meaningless phrase since *EVERYTHING* is one in being with the Father, who is God, who is Being Itself, Actus Purus. If it wasn’t one in being, it wouldn’t exist!

    Et cum spirito tuo is superior in that:
    1) It’s got Biblical references. 2 Timothy, Philemon…
    2) It better reflects the Priest’s role in the Mass. Some old liturgies had “With you and with your spirit” as the proper response.
    3) Theology is important, Tradition (big T) is important, and this helps shore up theology, given that Mass is often the only catechesis they’ll ever get… this is even more important (Maybe that’s why twelve year old Orthodox cousins can run theo-philosophical circles around the ‘average catholic’s’ head, which is disappointing since western scholasticism is rather robust). It’s why we have the Creed in Mass.

    Truthfully, those amongst my peers who left the Faith did so for two general reasons. 1) Crappy liturgy, inconstancy in the teachings and sermons, happy-happy joy-joy liturgies and “religious education”, or 2) They didn’t like what the Church taught because it went against their ‘gut instincts’ or it ‘didn’t sit right’ with them, regardless of any modus ponens, tollens or dialectical arguments from teleology or scripture we might give (often using emotive and often irrational argumentation with no actual objective / moral basis),

  • How can anyone fully support Vatican 2? Take for example the stopping of debate on ‘methods of birth regulation’ by the Council by handing the subject over to a special commission which would report ‘soon’ to the Pope, so that the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World could be approved by December 1965. It was not until July 1968 that Pope Paul V! issued his encyclical Humanae vitae. It seemed to fly in the face of the principle of “reading the signs of the times”, the recommendations of two commissions, and advancements in biology, psychology, sociology and environmental science. Its idealisation of human love is admirable, just as much as is the imagery of the Church being the Bride of Christ but it exhibited the lifelong celibate’s
    lack of appreciation of what it was like for a man and a woman to want to have sex with one another, to be prepared to get married if that is what society required of them, to be prepared to nurture and care for any children that may come as a result of their conjugal union, but also to exercise discretion where they may not be able properly to care for one another and their children. The catholic men and women the Pope was speaking to had radically different life experiences from the Pope’s. They were not stupid. Nor were they disbelievers in The Good News of Jesus Christ. They wanted to be able to use advances in modern biological science to assist them in showing their love for one another without creating avoidable burdens for themselves and their children.
    I can only guess that the Bishops at Vatican 2 were tending towards leaving married couples the freedom to decide how they controlled their sexual relations within marriage and hence their use of birth control methods. Hence the Council’s views on the sanctity of the individual conscience. There are more sins committed against charity than there are against chastity in the catholic church – even if one were to include the child sexual abuse of children by clergy and religious in the statistics.

  • “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

    Great quote. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Reverender your job was to find UNcommon ground to follow in the foot steps of Christ. proclaim the dignity of each individual person. especially their right to exist. the hippy priests don’t care about individuals, they care about individualism…. every person supposed has a right to come up with their own meaning to life and right and wrong. they don’t see people, they only see “opressed” groups. that is marxism not christianity.

    if all we needed was to find common ground with the voice of the world than the world didn’t need to be redeemed in the first place.

  • the conflation is on purpose. the author is trying to mix the ideas together and declare them equivalent…. the RCC once allowed married priest therefore they will one day allow female priests. its the tool of a propagandist. just like the news likes to report the very words doctors who happen to perform abortions but no abortionists.

  • the dignity of the human person doesn’t change. Fr, Fox may have put aside the “spirit” of vatican 2 , whatever that means,but you have put aside the actual documents.

  • Fr. Fox, with all due respect but your traditionalism and dismissal of older priests and Catholics as hippies are unfounded and based on ignorance what truly transpired in Vatican II. Younger priests and Catholics have been too brainwashed into ultra-conservatisms that often times lacks basic common sense, human compassion and justice – all for the sake of the Church’s man-made tradition that are non-biblical or originate rom Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the epitome of love, acceptance, flexibility when it comes to the application of charity and compassion. He abhors adherence to the law and tradition at the expense of human love and compassion. The judgmental and totalitarian pontificate of JP II was what made the younger generation of Catholics and priests like you more close-minded; and more all too easily to reject/unwelcome anything that’s come across as liberal thinking. The right wing rule of JP II would rather covernup crimes and sins than protect victims in order to protect the image of the Church. The right wingers are so hung up on the externals or superficiality. But why?

  • First off: these priest and nuns are not representative of the total “Catholic Priest and Nuns” in the Roman Catholic Church; just as the United States parishioners are not the total opinion of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes people want “radical change” (i.e. female ordination, homosexual marriage, lifting of celibacy, endorsement of the right to choose). Most of the opinions come from “lapsed Catholics” who are not returning to the pew anyway and if they are they are not staying. In America none of the faiths are being aggressively endorsed and you want to know why, America is the most spoiled, immoral, obtrusive, non-caring, indulgent, country on this earth. We’re a bunch of spoiled brats (I want, I want, I want) who don’t like to be told what to do. These so called radical progressive (no hell below us) lost the habit a long time ago. These bullying tradtionalist are oppressing them. If they think that there is strength in their message; then they owe it to their followers to start up a religion of their own. Follow the lead of Martin Luther: stop playing the jilted progressive; form your own church. Our church is what our church is-already gutted by the misinterpretation of Vatican 2. We served the poor with over 1.5 million soup kitchens, hospitals, and care efforts before this reform. After, this reform- no one knew what was right and what was wrong after Vatican 2 started. It confused people and our seminaries started emptying. Many nuns threw off the habit and started saying NO. This works in the workplace but in a religion where both men and women are expected to obey-trouble occurred. AND I WILL SAY THIS WITH DEEP, DEEP CONVICTION-and can prove it to anyone who wants to take me up on this.
    THE PROGRESSIVE SIDE of the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH is the one that started this Pedophilia Crisis and it is praised today/or sympathized with by the very people who want to wreck the church. Who are the Al Qaeda of the Crisis? I will name a few—-Father Gilbert Gauthe, Father James Porter, Father John Geoghen, Father Paul Shanley, Cardinal Rembert Weakland, Cardinal Mahoney, and yes Cardinal Bernard law—-that is to name a few. READ THEIR WRITINGS prior to the abuse crisis. READ THEIR WRITINGS. They are saying and were saying the SAME THINGS many of you were, prior to their being caught up in this crisis. Cardinal Law was one of the most Progressive Cardinals in the Holy Sea. Mahoney still carries the PROGRESSIVE banner-but “that’s terrific,” right? Guys and gals these were active disciples of Vatican 2. The PROGRESSIVE SIDE (the “no hell below us” –“all you need is love”) side of this church grew like a cancer in the 60’s. And yes they abused our children-A majority of the Pedophiles that exist in the Roman Catholic Church are from the PROGRESSIVE side of this house. Give me one year and I will debate you on any stage on this proven fact. Pedophia came from the PROGRESSIVE SIDE/no right or wrong side, of this house. And I will further state is still is seeking to be understood and justified through this same side of the house. The New York Times praises to this day serial pedophile Cardinal Weakland and Cardinal Keith Obrien(a nemesis of Pope John Paul 2)
    If the changes are enacted and this church pedolphia scandal will explode because let’s face it PROGRESSIVES-you are for same sex marriage/the LCRW are for same sex marriage-most if not all of the pedophilia priest were homosexuals-and that is one small piece of WHY Vatican 2 was an utter and dismal FAILURE.

  • You of course mean exposing all of you progressives who brought shame on the church by the Pedophia Scandal. Question, when did most of the pedophia happen? When did Vatican2 happen? Exactly……….

  • Imagine there’s no heaven; it isn’t hard to do. No hell blow us-an no religion, too.

  • Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact waas a amusement account it.

    Look advanced to more addded agreeable from you! By the way, how could we communicate?

  • I strongly believe that it is time for Vatican lll and even a wider and deeper reformation of Roman Catholicism. We must, together, as a church body, allow married men and women to be priests. Our savior did not proclaim celibacy as a rule, rather a pope did that. We must allow contraception, as was the recommendation of the council convened by Pope John XXlll. In addition, bishops should be selected by the laity and priests, rather than solely by the pope. The pope, of course, must give final approval to such an important selection. There must be an investigation of the issues of transubstantiation and consubstantiation in the protestant tradition. Perhaps unification in the remembrance of the spirit of Christ will all Roman Catholicism to stop exclusive holy communication, and make it a table of God open to all believers in Jesus Christ. I hope that Pope Francis I is successful with all of his reforms. It seems to me that we may lose the church if he is not. This is a critical era. May God bless him and sustain him in his papacy.