After thirty three years I
have decided to resign as an ‘active' priest to return to being an
ordinary Catholic believer. Many people will justifiably ask: why?
The reason is simple: I can no longer conscientiously subscribe to
the policies and theological emphases coming from the Vatican and other
official church sources.
While the reason is straight-forward,
the decision to resign is the result of a personal and theological
process. This, of course, is not a step that I have taken lightly
and I have been considering it for some time. I will try to outline
the reasons in detail.
The core of the problem is
that, in my view, many in ecclesiastical leadership at the highest
level are actually moving in an increasingly sectarian direction
and watering down the catholicity of the church and even unconsciously
neglecting elements of it's teaching. Since this word ‘catholicity'
will recur often I will define it. It is derived from the Greek word
‘katholikos' which means ‘general',‘broad or ‘universal'. The Shorter
Oxford Dictionary defines ‘catholicity' as ‘the quality of having
sympathies with or being all-embracing; broad-mindedness; tolerance'.
But ‘catholicity' also has
a profound theological meaning. The recently appointed American Cardinal
Avery Dulles, SJ has a fine book entitled The Catholicity of the
Church (1988). Catholicity, he says, is characterised by (1) inclusiveness,
which means openness to various cultures and opposition to sectarianism
and religious individualism; (2) by an ability to bridge generations
and historical periods; (3) by an openness to truth and value wherever
it exists; (4) by a recognition that it is the Holy Spirit who creates
the unity of the church through whose indwelling we participate in
the life of God.
This is the kind of Catholicism
that I, and many others, have embraced throughout our lives. Its
foundations, which are deeply embedded in church history, were given
modern expression in the vision of the church articulated at the
Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. For Catholics like myself our
benchmark is a church that is defined as the living sacrament of
God's presence and the place where God's sovereignty is acknowledged,
expressed through a participative community of people dedicated to the
service of the world and characterised by collegiality and ecumenism. It
is precisely this image of Catholicism which I think is being distorted
by many at the highest level in the contemporary church. I increasingly
feel that being a priest places me in the position of co-operating
with structures that are destructive of that open vision of Catholicism
and of the faith of the people who have embraced it. If I am to be
true to my conscience, resignation seems the only option.
The fact that we are retreating
from the Vatican II vision of Catholicism may not be everyone's view
of what is actually taking place in the church. I accept that, and
I also accept that the tension between a broad, open vision of Catholicism
rooted in living experience, and a narrower, static hierarchical
view of faith, runs right through church history. It is my perception
that at present many in the hierarchy and some laity are moving increasingly
in this narrow, elitist direction. Over the last few years I have
watched with escalating concern as a series of documents have been
published by the Vatican, the last of which was the declaration of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Jesus (DJ), issued
on 6 August 2000. DJ, which claims to protect the uniqueness of Christ,
in fact expresses a profoundly anti-ecumenical spirit at odds with
the sense of God' s grace permeating the whole cosmos. DJ gives voice
to a wider movement that is slowly but pervasively turning the Catholic
church inward in an increasingly sectarian direction. It is this
which concerns me most.
Sectarianism is incompatible
with genuine catholicity. It is the antithesis of the kind of openness
to the world, tolerant acceptance of others and a sense of religious
pluralism that most thinking Catholics have been formed in and have
embraced over the last three or four decades. Thus many Catholics
find themselves involved in a corrosive disjunction between what
they believe and have experienced, and the views expressed at the highest
levels of the church. The reason is because those who claim to articulate
Catholic belief seem to be abandoning their ‘catholic' spirit. As a result
there is a turning away from the other Christian churches, and a rejection
of the search for common ground with the other great religious traditions.
Thus more and more thinking Catholics who have been educated and live in
pluralist, democratic and tolerant societies, find themselves in conflict
with church hierarchs who seem to be moving in an ever-more sectarian
Some times there is a hankering
after a more genuinely Catholic approach - as you find in John Paul
II's encyclical Ut unum sint (1995), where he went so far as to ask
the other churches for advice on papal primacy. But ecclesiastical
reality indicates that this hankering is, in fact, merely ecumenical
wishful- thinking, while the hierarchical reality is exclusivist.
There have also been regular
attempts to ‘muzzle' and condemn the discussion of issues such as
the ordination of women through the use of a new category of doctrine.
This has received its clearest expression in the apostolic letter
Ad Tuendam Fidem (30 June 1998). The letter argues that there is an
intermediary, ‘second-level' of revealed doctrine between the established
and defined teaching that all Catholics believe, and what up until now
has been called the ‘ordinary magisterium'. Before the introduction
of this so-called ‘second-level', all non-infallible or non-defined
teaching was exactly that: doctrine that should be respected and
offered various levels of submission of mind and will, but still
ultimately open to debate, discussion and development within the
What Ad Tuendam Fidem has
done is to introduce formally through this ‘second-level' a category
of ‘definitive' but non-infallibly-defined doctrine. Cardinal Josef
Ratzinger says that this second-level teaching is, in fact,
infallible. He says that it includes ‘... all those teachings in
the dogmatic or moral area which are necessary for faithfully keeping and
expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by
the magisterium as formally revealed'. As examples of second-level
definitive teaching he includes the condemnation of euthanasia, the
validity of the canonization of a particular saint, the legitimacy
of a papal election, and even the invalidity of Anglican orders.
The gratuitous reference to ‘Anglican orders' is astonishingly maladroit
and insulting; it reveals a real lack of ecumenical sensitivity.
There is also an emerging
unspoken assumption among some very senior church leaders that the
contemporary western world is so far gone in individualism, permissiveness
and consumerism that it is totally impervious to church teaching.
Claiming to assume the broader historical perspective, these churchmen
have virtually abandoned the secularised masses, to nurture elitist
enclaves which will carry the true faith through to future, more
‘receptive' generations. This is why the New Religious Movements (NRMs)
have received so much favour and patronage in this papacy. The NRMs
have embraced an essentially sectarian vision of Catholicism, are
very hierarchical in structure and theologically reactionary. This
is true of some elements in the Catholic charismatic movement, and
also outfits like Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, the Neo-Catechuminate
and the Legionaries of Christ, as well as a number of other smaller,
less significant groupings.
Over the years my public
disquiet with increasing papal centralism and the erosion of the
vision of a more ecumenical Catholicism is well known, especially
in Australia. I have often been critical of the church's leadership,
perhaps too harshly at times, in books, broadcasts, talks and articles.
I have been concerned with ecclesiastical narrowness and the de facto
denial of catholicity. But I also constantly argued that it was only
by ‘staying in' the priesthood that someone like myself could influence
things and bring about change. But it was always an every-day decision
to continue the struggle through the internal structures of the church.
And there can come a moment when you decide that both conscientiously
and strategically ‘staying in' no longer remains a viable or honest
option. You realise that you can no longer collude in what is happening
by remaining in the official priesthood.
While important, life-changing
decisions may seem sudden to outsiders, and even some times to the
person who makes them, that is rarely the case. Such conclusions
are more likely to be the product of long unconscious reflection
on an issue. Slowly the connections, inferences and directional movement
in which the internal and unarticulated argument has been progressing
comes into consciousness. Often it will be a single event that focusses
your thought and impels you toward a decision. Suddenly you realise
that, in conscience, you can no longer allow your name to be associated
with what is happening. Of course, your judgement may be wrong, frighteningly
so, but the Catholic tradition has always been that you must follow
even an erroneous conscience. Certainly you must do everything
you can to ascertain what is really happening and what your obligations
are, but in the end you must be true to conscience.
What helped to focus my mind
was the article ‘Catholic Fundamentalism. Some Implications of Dominus
Jesus for Dialogue and Peacemaking' by my friend, John D'Arcy May.
[The article is one of a series of essays in the book, Dominus Jesus.
Anstoessige Wahrheit oder anstoessige Kirche edited by Michael Rainer].
DJ is primarily directed against those Catholics involved in the
‘wider ecumenism' who have been trying to find common ground with the
great non-Christian religious traditions. But DJ also managed to
offend many Anglicans and Protestants through an awkwardly-worded
passage that was so obscure that many journalists incorrectly took
it to mean that only Catholics could be saved. The passage actually
says that Anglicanism and the various forms of Protestantism ‘are
not churches in the proper sense'(DJ, Paragraph 17).
It was the opening sentences
of May's commentary that struck me between the eyes. "There is no
reason, in principle, why the Roman Catholic church, despite its
enormous size and global presence, could not become a sect. Sectarianism
is a matter of mentality, not size ... The deep shock Dominus Jesus
caused in ecumenical circles consisted precisely in their exposure to
the specifically Roman Catholic form of fundamentalism". This put into
words what I had unconsciously concluded but had not articulated.
It is precisely this movement
in a sectarian and fundamentalist direction with which I profoundly
disagree. A person with a public commitment like a priest is bound
in conscience to ask: ‘Can I continue to co-operate with this kind
of regime in the church?' I feel bound in all honesty to say now:
‘No. I cannot'. But I emphasise this does not mean that I have the slightest
intention of leaving the community of the Catholic church, nor of abandoning
my work in writing and media, as long as that is available to me.
But there is also a second
constellation of reasons that have led to my resignation. They centre
around the book Papal Power (1997) which is currently being examined
by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), that part
of the papal bureaucracy that deals with Catholic belief. I have
consistently tried to keep this so-called ‘examination' in perspective
and have not treated it too seriously. However, it is clear to me that
the CDF is moving toward an escalation of the issue. This inevitably
involves other people. The CDF demands that all correspondence with
me pass through a third party, the Superior General of my religious
order, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSCs). This means that
my superiors and the order will be caught in any cross-fire between
the CDF and myself. I do not wish to put them in this position.
On 14 December 2000 the current
Superior General of the MSCs, Father Michael Curran, was summoned
to a meeting in the Palazzo of the Holy Office in the Vatican. This
meeting happened totally without my knowledge and I only found out
about it five weeks later. At the meeting Father Curran was asked why I
had not responded to three issues raised in a letter from the CDF sent
to me via Curran and my Australian superior in April 1999. He responded
by providing the CDF with an article I had written in a theological
magazine called Compass responding to the CDF's concerns. He felt
the article ‘would go a long way to answering' the CDF's questions.
In the course of the discussion reference was also made to a mildly
critical media statement about the CDF that I had made, which was
briefly reported in the US National Catholic Reporter (16 July 1999).
Ratzinger claimed in a subsequent
letter to Curran (18 December 2000) that my critical comments ‘may
put [my] alleged adherence to magisterial teaching in question'.
In other words, even if my theological answers in the Compass article
were found to be satisfactory, the comments in the NCR would show
that I had not really repented because I was still criticising the CDF
after writing the Compass article.
However, the Cardinal's chronology
was wrong. His comments make it clear that he believes that the NCR
interview was published after the Compass article. In fact, the 16
July, 1999 NCR interview was published several months before the
spring 1999 edition of Compass. I suppose you could forgive the Cardinal
for not remembering that spring in the southern hemisphere comes
in September-October, and not in April-May as in the northern hemisphere.
The Compass interview was published in the southern spring of 1999,
which was October-November. That is some three or four months after
the July NCR article.
Be that as it may, the whole
tone of Ratzinger's letter to Curran makes it obvious that the CDF
is preparing to censure me because the Cardinal's comments clearly
prejudge the issue. The constant difficulty in dealing with the CDF
is that your accusers are also your judges. An accused person is not
even allowed to choose their own defence counsel; they are not even
permitted to know the counsel's name.
This situation with the CDF
be exacerbated even more when a new book that I have edited is published
in March in Australia and in the northern spring of 2001 in London
and New York. It is entitled From Inquisition to Freedom. It consists
of interviews that I put together with six people who have also been
‘investigated' by the CDF. Those participating in it are Tissa Balasuriya,
Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Lavinia Byrne, Jeannine Gramick,
and Robert Nugent, as well as myself. I have contributed two other
essays, the first outlining the history of how the Roman Inquisition
eventually evolved into the CDF, and a second describing and critiquing
the details of the Congregation's procedures. While the tone of the
book is respectful and moderate, I don't think it will win friends
and influence people in Rome. I foresee considerable problems. The
most important of these are that the book will eventually place Father
Curran particularly, and the MSCs generally, in the likely position
of being forced by the CDF to take some form of punitive action against
I have no doubt that the
Congregation will not go away, and that they will not let this matter
rest. As the experience of the six other people in the new book makes
abundantly clear, there is never any form of dialogue. The Congregation
simply demands that a person not only submit to what they define
as ‘doctrine', but they are determined that you actually use the
words that they dictate. I knew exactly what I was doing when I edited
From Inquisition to Freedom, but I thought it was important these
stories be told for they expose the injustice of the CDF's procedures
and their persecution of people who are clearly concerned to live
a truly Catholic life and to give ministerial and theological leadership
to others. But there is also no doubt that the book will lead to
a further exacerbation of my relationship with the CDF, and that
the order and Father Curran will be caught in the middle. My resignation
will to some extent save them from that.
Finally, I want to make it
absolutely clear that my resignation does not mean that I have any
intention whatsoever of leaving the Catholic church. I am just changing
status in the family. Catholicism is my home and I have no intention
of leaving - come what may.
Paul Collins, 1 February,
to Paul Collins' Response to the Observations on his book Papal
Power by an anonymous consulter of the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith. (20 April 1998 Manuka, ACT 2603, Australia)