We Are Church International

Presentation by Martha Heizer to AYA/ATF, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

First of all I want to tell you that I am very happy to be a Christian. I love the Catholic Church in which I was raised and in which I have lived since my birth. She is not perfect, but I definitely want to belong to her. It is my church. In her I met the living Lord and in her I meet people who experience the same. And, most importantly, we can speak about that and share our experiences and exchange points of views.

Our Lord taught us that God is our father and all people are on the same level as brothers and sisters. So I enjoy addressing you all as my brothers and sisters and I want to thank you from the depth of my heart for your invitation to come and speak to you here in this wonderful part of the world.  And I am very glad to have had the possibility to join you for the whole time of AYA/ATF. As we say in Austria: „You gave me mountains!“

All men and women are born equal. We are all on eye-level. So if we speak of justice that means equal rights to the whole mankind.

Christian churches did a lot in history to bring justice and peace to the world. I appreciate that very much. But they all, and especially my catholic church, could be a much more critical voice, ought to develop and show a much more sensitive social conscience as they in fact are doing nowadays. I think you all will agree when I maintain that the message of the church for the world is an absolutely good and a wholesome one. Just think of the Sermon of the Mount or the 10 Commandments -  which are nothing else but a guideline for a righteous and honest life. There are two commanments against greed e.g. For us from the reform movement We Are Church it is a big problem that the voice of our church is often enough too week or timid. One reason is that in the church itself structures of injustice and unfairness can still be made out.

Therefore it comes close to hypocrisy for the church to critizise others -  if the church itself does not abide by the rules. E.g. it infringes on human rights by advocating the death penalty (what about the 5th commandment: you shall not kill?). „This economy kills“ says francis but the Vatican profits from capitalism. There is still too much money in the Vatican…

And, given the deficiencies and blunders of the Catholic church, it is all too easy for the world to brush aside its criticism and exhortations even when they are justified. It counters the church by saying, „Don’t you tell me what to do. Put your own house in order first.“ The credibility of the church is very much at stake.

Now I’m going to tell you what we in the movement We Are Church are working for.

It all began in 1995 in Austria when bishops appointed who were incapable of doing their jobs properly. They were quite incompetent, lacked theological knowledge and religious wisdom. They were not able to lead their dioceses, and often behaved in a condescending and arrogant manner. Finally the first case of child abuse by our cardinal was made public and an outcry of disgust and rage followed which intensified when more cases of abuse by clerics were brought to light.

That was the time when we started the referendum and we asked the catholics of Austria for their signature, and they willingly gave them!  Just imagine: There were two of us at the beginning, both working in the field of religious education. We had no computer, therefore no internet, no mobile phone, no press contacts, and no money. But we had the strong wish to contribute to and bring about the reform of our church, to make it more human, to step more intensively in Jesus‘ footprints. And it became apparent that we experienced what the church calls KAIROS, we were at the right time at the right place.

This is what we asked for in this referendum:

We had five points. They were established after discussions with our pupils and students (=voice of the youth!)

  1. The creation of brotherly and sisterly church, filling up the golf between clerics and laity, a church in which all members have a say and are granted participation in decision making.
  2. Full participation of women in all aspects of church life including ordination and access to all ministries.
  3. Free choice for the clerics to marry or not to marry: removal of the obligation of clerical celibacy
  4. A positive attitude towards sexuality, birth control; recognition of the primacy of conscience; fair treatment and dealing with people of different sexual orientations
  5. A preaching of the gospel that cares and does not scare – another more merciful approach to people who do not fulfil church regulations, and fewer sanctions (like excommunication or outlawing „heretic“ theologians etc.)

We were successful.

More than half a million people signed the referendum in Austria (and Austria is a small country of 7 million!). Germany did the same (2 million signatures) and other countries followed. What is more, We Are Church nowadays has members on all continents and in more than 30 countries worldwide. (and still expanding in Asia ).

However when it comes to the Vatican it’s a different story: The walls of the Vatican were impenetrable for all our efforts. Pope John Paul II and Bendict and the church gouvernment were completely resistant. For nearly 22 years we got no reaction from the Vatican – exept for some vain attempts to silence us. Nevertheless we appealed again and again to bishops and cardinals and popes – but without success. Nobody can call us impatient. But the media were always on our side. And so more and more people understood us and followed us all over the world. And together we prayed urgently.

And the good God heard our prayers. As Yahwe said in Exodus, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people, and have heard their cry, for I know their sorrows“ (Ex 3,7). - And we got a new pope – from the other end of the world.

A new pope – a new hope

He indeed helps a lot.

Look at point 5 of our requests: a message of joy. Francis changed the face of our church, its reputation. He wants more justice and compassion within the church, he tells the Curia in the Vatican not to reign but to serve. He wants mercy given to all; he says the right things (mostly ?). Just think of „Amoris laetitia“ („The joy of love“): He invites remarried couples to speak with their priests and to go to holy communion if they want and feel legitimated by God.

„Amoris laetitia“ leads us to point 4 of our requests: a positive view on sexuality. Nobody expected a pope to speak about a passionate sexuality, full of relish. He did. I cannot remember a pope who encouraged people to enjoy their sexuality as a gift of God. He did.

Our point 1: more democracy within the church. The pope asks the dioceses to develop more self-responsibility. He says: „Who I am to judge…?“ All his preaching and letters prove that our church need not exert an authoritarian regime, it need not insist on obsolete doctrines or on monarchical principles. We have a pope who declares freedom of thought and encourages participation by the people.

Even in point 2, the women’s issue, is already something going on. In Germany the bishops conference runs a special course for women to prepare them for a function in church leadership. The hierarchy learned that it is no good for the church leaving the women aside in decision making on a higher level rather than the decision who will bake the cakes for the parish picknick. In my home country Austria quite a lot of women hold high-level posts. And the lack of priests gave more and more women the chance to lead a parish.

There is still point 3: celibacy. It is still an absolute no-go for a cleric to decide by himself whether he wants to marry or not, (it’s the same with women’s ordination). But even in this point we recently hear some new tunes: the pope considers having proven men ordained – to help small parishes in the middle of the jungle or the desert, in very remote places of the world. But this is much too little in our eyes. And that makes it clear as mud:

There is still a lot to do.

Remember what I said in the beginning: the critical voice of our churches could be/should be stronger than it is now. Our church should be an example to the world. If our church should be a „field hospital“ she will not be able to do that as long as she herself wounds people.

Looking on our points again there are (at least) four issues that are very important – not only to me:

1. First of all there is the question how women are treated in my catholic church.

Even if there are tentative efforts to put them into decision making positions, the fact remains that women are not allowed to become priests. Over the years we have discussed this point intensively, weighing all pros and cons, and we came to the conclusion that this is the crucial point for equal treatment. Women remain second-class people as long as they are not allowed to hold the same positions as men.

In this case the Pope wants sometimes to be helpful, he said e.g., "It is not enough to have altar girls, women readers [to let them read the gospels in mass] or women as presidents of Caritas" or "Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests," furthermore, "Mary is more important than the apostles." This sounds good, but we know such remarks also in secular society: some men praise women highly but nevertheless treat them as subordinates.  And it is a pity that we also heard some baffling statements by the Pope like „women are the strawberries on the cake“. Perhaps Pope Francis was simply talking like many 80-year-old men. But words matter, particulare when they are said by a pope.

The Catholic Church is also a moral institution, and is and should be an example to the world. As long as it refuses to treat women equally it cannot make a credible claim for the equal treatment in the world. We all know that poverty hits women in the first place. Women suffer sexual abuse very often. They are widely considered second rate human beings. One reason for this is that men experience that they are often physically stronger than women which tempts them to develop the feeling of natural superiority. Many of them think they are allowed to force women to behave as they want.

So many wounded women! And there is little and more often than not NO HELP AT ALL from the church! In contrary the church herself wounds women.

2.The second

  1. important reason for a necessary change in our church is the treatment of people with different sexual orientations.

The state of the art in science is that sexual orientation is mostly congenital, i.e. you are born with your sex. There are countries in the world where homosexuals are persecuted and even killed. In theory the church says that such people have to be treated with respect and mercy. But reality is different: As soon as it comes to granting them equal rights e.g. it backs down!

The church wounds people!

This attitude is inconsequent and insincere.

We know from some Vatican insiders that the number of homosexuals in the Vatican is extremly high. Let me make it perfectly clear: being homosexual is not at all a sin. The really bad thing with it is that homosexuals are often not allowed to come out or do not dare to come out. So they are forced to live their lives in hiding. The founder of psychology, the Austrian Sigmund Freud, pointed out what consequences it may have: They develop defence mechanisms like projection, repression, displacement. Many high-level clerics in the Vatican are homosexuals and suffer from those consequences. Yet they shrink from revealing themselves because homosexuality is an impediment to priesthood and they would also lose esteem and reputation. Reacting irrationally, they scourge what they condemn in themselves.  

At this point I also want to mention the Vatican‘s opinion about „gender. We heard fundamentalists say that „gender kills families“. This is absolute nonsense. I’m sad to say that they merely use the scientific term „gender“ in order to discredit homosexuals and research into women’s issues.  Men and women are born with a special equipment and raised in societies with clear guidelindes. Gender research deals with the social and political consequences to the individuals. And it postulates that men and women have both female and male characteristics. It is even so that more men and women are endowed with more characteristics of the opposite sex than was formerly believed. The Vatican simply does not want to hear this.

(Maybe you have heard about Conchita Wurst who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2015). Mind you, Gender science is a serious science, and gender ideology is a polemics sold by fundamentalists.

  1. Another issue we want to be changed is obligatory celibacy for clerics. The ban on marriage contradicts God’s order in the Covenant of the Rainbow with Noah: “Be productive and multiply; spread out over the land and multiply throughout it." (Genesis, 9.8). The hierarchs of the Church know this of course, but they give it no relevance.  

Conservative Catholics defend celibacy by referring to Jesus and the venerable tradition. Yet it’s a fact that St. Peter and other apostles and followers of Jesus were married. Tradition? Celibacy was stipulated as late as in 1139. And as to celibacy, Jesus says, “let the one who can do it (i.e. not to marry) accept this teaching.“ (Matthew, 19.12). So he does not require his followers to remain single. Celibacy should be optional.

You know two synods on the theme of family have taken place. The bishops praised families highly and wanted to help them educate and breed their children well. But it sounds odd if clerics praise the family to the skies but are stricktly forbidden to found one.  What does that mean? Their songs of praise are incredible. Suspicion is that for them marriage and families are the choice for those who are too week to embrace celibacy.

The consequences of obligatory celibacy often are: priests have little or no understanding of what it means to live in a marriage and raise children. They have no existential knowledge of e.g. the meaning of sexuality in marriage. Too many of them develop strange or even criminal desires like alcohol addiction or, even worse, sexual abuse of children and subordinates.

Wounded people again: priests, their wives, their children – and sometimes their victims!

So we fight for abolishing obligatory celibacy!  

4. And the forth issue I want to mention here constitutes the first point of our referendum from 1995: It concerns participation and democracy in the Church.

As an Austrian I was born and raised in a democracy. But many church structures are not at all democratic. Of course we do not want to cast a vote on matters of faith.  On the contrary, we want to have detrimental structures changed (e.g. celibacy, exclusion of women etc.). Being brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and sons and daughters of God means that we all are on eye-level. No one stands above the other, no Pope, no bishop, cardinal or priest.

Naturally such a big organisation as the church needs professional leadership. And we have come to believe that participating in leadership is most effective. Pope Francis seems to know that but his administration, the Curia, refuses to give up power. Yet it is very important for people to have a say in decision–making processes.

The election of incompetent bishops in Austria was the beginning of the movement We are Church. What is more, at the time being in my diocese, Innsbruck, Tyrol, we have had no bishop for 20 months, and nobody knows why -  except the Curia. This is ridiculous and infuriating.  The more because an anonymous administration in far away Rome usurped the right to decide this matter. The diocese’s needs and wishes are simply ignored. The situation is totally intransparent. This is degrading for the people of God in our diocese of Innsbruck.  

And there is our Pope who says: more self-responsibility to the dioceses. So what?

We declare that we want to get back our right to elect bishops by ourselves! This is not new. Until the 9th century the laity together with the clergy elected bishops completely by themselves. From the 9th century onward the pope only interfered when he was asked to. We Are Church has handed in proposals for a just and fair appointment procedure - but to no avail until now.

You see: there is still a lot of work to do for a reform movement in the church!

What do we do?

We learned appealing to the hierarchs is in vain. We will still do it, of course. We will continue to publish press releases, to organise actions, to speak out what we think is going wrong. But we paid too much attention to the hierarchs. We put our main emphasis on rational arguments, and overlooked emotions and feelings to a certain extent. Countering this, we will turn the focus of attention to the basis, to e.g.  little story telling groups. It is so important to understand each other, even if we have different opinions. Only if we listen carefully to each other will we understand each other. And then sustainable development in all fields of Church life will be possible.

So we will organise small story telling groups which tell each other their experiences and emotions about „church“, „parish“, „eucharist“, „women in church“, „celibacy“ and so on. We will tell each other how it feels to be touched by Jesus. Important themes will be telling one another what decisive experiences in our religious life we had and how we dealt with them and what consequeses they had. What dreams, fears, failures formed our faith and religious views? What are our wishes and hopes?

Furthermore, we will think about what ressources we can fall back on, what gives us power and strength and hope in our life, our social networks, for our activities. We will share them with each other and it will be very personal.

It is a pity that in Europe many believers shrink from talking about faith and their religious experiences. If they do, they may expect people to be embarrrassed or even annoyed. But we will overcome the speechlessness. Telling your own story you may encourage and support people and may induce them to do the same. Africans say when an individual dreams it remains a dream, but when many people dream their dreams become reality. Alone we are often not courageous enough, but together we can prevail.

Story telling groups may help us to develop a new attitude towards the leaders of the Church: Many, if not the majority, of the faithful are no obedient sheep any more who need their guidance. Since most of the hierarchs do not listen to us, we decide for ourselves what to do. So men and women celebrate the eucharist without a priest, women deliver sermons, parishioners accept priests living with their wives and children, homosexuals are blessed by priests, pastoral workers in hospitals administer the anointing of the sick without a priest, a famous German Benedictine monk invites Protestants officially to the Eucharist, just mention a few examples.  

Putting it in 2 words: We disobey. We will not wait for permissions any longer. An unjust law is not a law at all, it obliges nobody, says Saint Augustine. It is a question of truthfullness, justice and mercy.

Coming to an end I remind you of the motto of the Indonesian state in 1945: „Bhinneka Tunggal Ika“ – unity in diversity. This applies to the Catholic Church also. We from We are Church probably represent the majority in the church, but there are still many who do not support our goals, even though the goals correspond with the human rights. Therefore we postulate unity in diversity. Nobody needs to leave our church, not the fundamentalists, not the sympathizers, not the reformers. We all are part of her.

I have two wishes:

  • To our Lord: Take away the sins of our church! Let her be a field hospital which heals the wounds and doesn’t cause them!
  • To you: Let us work together on the improvement of our church for the benefit of the Church and the world!

Keep We are Church in good memory and if you want: join us!

I thank you very much for your kind attention!