Catholic Reformers Contest New Edict

By James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
April 26, 2004

An influential group of liberal-minded Catholic reformers is debating a response to Bishop Anthony Pilla, who recently banned the organization from meeting on Diocese of Cleveland property.

Future Church, which claims more than 800 members locally, advocates allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained as the best ways to alleviate clergy shortages.

The group had operated unrestricted in the Cleveland diocese for more than a decade. But the truce ended unexpectedly April 1 after Pilla issued an edict to all pastors.

"Future Church is not an organization affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, nor does it have the support or approval of the bishop of the diocese," Pilla's warning read.

"Future Church is an independent organization of individuals who promote an agenda that is not consistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church," the statement continued, and the group's activities are "not appropriate" at church institutions or facilities.

An internal debate over how to respond has been raging ever since via e-mail exchanges among Future Church leaders. Some members are urging the group's executive director, Sister Christine Schenk, to appeal directly to the Vatican's ambassador, the Papal Nuncio, in Washington, D.C. Others recommend a more deliberate approach, hoping to preserve some semblance of the status quo.

"We're puzzled and saddened by the description of us as not being in line with Catholic teaching," Schenk said recently. "We have some of the best Catholics in the diocese as members."

In a statement posted Friday on Future Church's Web site, Schenk said the group's beliefs are consistent with the church's teachings, and called on the bishop to open discussions on the issues of priestly celibacy, the inequality of women in the church and increased participation of all baptized Catholics in church ceremonies.

Diocesan officials have declined to discuss Future Church or the bishop's edict. Spokesman Bob Tayek referred a reporter to Pilla's statement on the group as the final word on the controversy.

But in an e-mail to other Future Church leaders, one member said a priest close to Pilla told her the group should not expect any sympathy from Cathedral Square.

" 'It's not your church, it's Jesus' church,' " she quoted the priest as saying. " 'If you don't like the church, then leave.' "

Future Church was founded in Cleveland in 1991 to oppose the decision by American bishops to allow laymen to administer communion at Sunday services when no priests are available. Its founders argued that a better way of dealing with the shortage of priests would be to let priests marry and women to be ordained.

The group claims more than 5,000 members nationwide - including bishops, priests, nuns and lay parish leaders.

Included among the diocesan properties deemed off-limits by Pilla is St. Mark Church in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland, where Future Church has its offices.

St. Mark's pastor, the Rev. Doug Koesel, did not respond to telephoned and written requests for comment. But e-mailed messages among Future Church members describe him as concerned about a growing alienation from Pilla among diocesan priests and predicting that the ban on the group could actually boost its standing in the community.

In one e-mail to the group's leadership, Schenk weighed the potential outcomes:

"My guess is that if pastors refuse to ban us and JCU and the CSJs [John Carroll University and the Sisters of St. Joseph, which host Future Church events] refuse to ban us, what can the diocese do? Kick out a priest for allowing discussion when they haven't kicked them out for sexually abusing kids?"

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: 216-999-4153


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