Translator's Note: This is version 2.0 of my translation of Bishop Reinhold Stecher's powerful letter concerning the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of [the] Priest. The first draft (version 1) was published on the Web at 9:14 am CST on 13 December, 1997. While I worked very hard to capture Bishop Stecher's nuanced and often fairly colloquial style, I plan to continue to revise this translation (suggestions for improvement are greatly appreciated!). The major change in this version of the Stecher letter is my addition of a picture of Bishop Stecher along with a link to a larger pictorial tribute. The images are captured stills from a 3-hour conversation with Dr. Stecher I videotaped at the Bishop's home near Innsbruck on 20 May, 1998.
The German term "Heil" presented me with some difficulties because it has no equivalent in English. In German (as in Latin) the term is associated with the root for a term meaning health to be applied to both body and soul, and Bishop Stecher used that connection repeatedly. In English I had to resort to different words (i.e. "salvation," "wellbeing") according to primary context but lost some of the broader connotations. As of version 1.4 of this draft I have changed my original translation of this letter's title from "Thoughts on the New Decree concerning the Collaboration of the Laity" to "Thoughts on the Most Recent Decree Concerning the Co-workers with the Laity." Because of the title of the Vatican document, I had unconsciously misread Bishop Stecher's German title and seen "Mitarbeit" (collaboration) rather than "Mitarbeiter" (collaborators or co-workers). Also, the term "neuest" deserves to be translated as "most recent" rather than simply "new." As Thomas Arens pointed out, the expression "Mitarbeiter der Laien" opens up the possibility of interpreting the focus of this document on priests as the co-workers with the laity!
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As a native of Innsbruck and long time admirer of Bishop Stecher's openness to the "signs of the times," his deep humanity and integrity, his sense of humor and hopefulness, his writings, paintings, and scholarship, his love of people and passionate commitment to Jesus and the Church, I am honored and delighted to have this opportunity to help share this prophetic letter with the English-speaking world.
Ingrid H. Shafer, 14 December 1997 and 5 June 1998
Related links: Bishop Reinhold Stecher's January 1998 response to the reactions to his November 1997 Letter
A Visit with Altbischof Dr. Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck, 20 May 1998: A Pictorial Tribute
The Bishop of Innsbruck Thoughts on the Most Recent Decree Concerning the Co-Workers with the Laity
Since I had decided some time ago to voice necessary criticisms of the Church not as "courageous retiree" but while I was still in office I can't avoid putting down some thoughts concerning this issue before I turn over my crozier. I am not primarily concerned with the details. Clearly, the decree makes points that must be preserved. After all, there is such a thing as the ordained priesthood with the power of the Eucharist, and no one can simply seize this power or have it conferred from below. And it is quite true that in this area there is regrettable wild growth, even if these tendencies are kept in check in Austria (so often maligned in Rome). Concerning the details, in a spirit of critical analysis one can point out that the differences between the ordained and the laity cannot all be thrown into the same pot. There is clearly a distinction, for example, between defending the Eucharistic power or the power to preach at a mass. Even if one is able (as is often still the case) to import an old priest from somewhere for the Eucharist this does not justify that an appropriate, theologically trained lay person should be barred from preaching the homily (during the All Souls / All Saints period my Vicar General had to preside as substitute priest all by himself at seven Eucharistic celebrations!) I fully agree that preaching requires ecclesiastic permission. But to omit the homily in the Eucharistic celebration because only the ordained are authorized to preach is an entirely different matter. This prohibition makes no sense to anyone in the congregation when the alternative is nothing.
This is why I stand by my primary objection to this decree--a decree which once again only restricts--that views the layperson, such as the communion assistant--merely as a stopgap measure (Notnagel) for a few functions when there is absolutely no other alternative. My objection is grounded in the decree's failure to take into account the theological significance of the Eucharistic celebration for the Christian community and the Church. Concerning the latter, an article by Wolfgang Beinert in Stimme der Zeit speaks with great clarity (11 (1997): 736 ff).
Let me illustrate this dilemma: In the province of Tyrol some time ago the problem arose that only licensed nurses [equivalent of R.N.s or L.P.N.s in the U.S.] were authorized to give life-saving injections to numerous diabetics in apartments and nursing homes. There are clearly not enough such nurses for the job. Naturally, for various reasons, the professional organization of licensed nurses defended their monopoly. However, out of concern for the population's health the decision was made to authorize specially trained aides and care-takers to administer the shots. -- The children of the world are truly wiser than the children of the light. We, too, are concerned with saving lives -- salvation with a dimension in eternity. And we too suffer from a serious shortage of licensed practitioners (priests) whose number -- in light of the clerical age pyramid -- is decreasing steadily. And it is further obvious that this number will remain small, as long as we insist on authentically lived celibacy. For celibacy to be lived with integrity it is essential that the individual affected not suppress the loss of sexual intimacy and companionship but transform it into a healthy, spiritual, pastoral, social, intellectual, service-oriented, and creative unfolding. This, however, remains the way for those "to whom that is granted." And even in the words of Jesus there is no hint that this elite number should conform to the theological necessities of a living Church. In our times and historical climate it has become even more difficult to conform to this ideal than it was for example at the time of my vocation and formation during the period of Nazi persecutions.
A serious problem arises whenever one absolutizes human rules while bypassing the divine salvation plan and the deepest theological essence of the sacrament.
The decree concerning the laity is limited to the defense of "licensed nurses and licensed care," that is clerical authority, splendor, and professional rights. The health of the people, that is the wellbeing or salvation of the parishes, is totally beside the point. An alternate path to salvation without sacraments for these parishes has long been quietly put into effect, a fact that makes anyone with training in serious scholastic theology shake his head in amazement. The indispensable quality for salvation of the sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance, and/or Anointing of the Sick was powerfully defined there.
But once again we encounter a dilemma if the conditions for the Eucharistic office are not viewed from the perspective of the wellbeing of the community but exclusively in terms of the individual conditions of admittance (which are, after all, in part wholly a matter of human law) and without concern for the general saving will of God and the essential Eucharistic structure of the community. Everything is sacrificed to this rigid adherence to a notion of office which cannot be justified by revelation. Some time ago a bishop who is well known for his conservative tendencies told me with a smile: "Ah, with us every priest has three parishes -- this works superbly." Interestingly, this particular high dignitary has in his lifetime never led one single parish, let alone several. If he had done so he might be a bit more cautious with this sort of audacious analysis. In France I came to know priests, tired and burned out priests, who race from parish to parish, "taking care" of seven to ten congregations. Even if such priests have had an excellent theological education they have no chance to be involved in the conversations upstairs. The little priest at the front is kept far away from the episcopal eminence and is deprived of any opportunity to be a conversation partner concerning these issues. Consequently, only a few bishops take notice of the parish priests' experiences and frustrations and carry them up. Looking down one is at best satisfied with sympathetic sighing and a moving lament concerning the lack of Christian families to manufacture vocations to celibacy in sufficient numbers. And further up, one is content with pouring cement on existing rules, as in the present decree. The anguish behind the events is not even a topic.
If this topic should be discussed in the coming Dialogue for Austria [Translator's comment: Dialog für Österreich is a year-long process leading to a document to be discussed and finalized during an assembly of some 300 clerical and lay delegates planned for 23 - 26 October 1998 in Salzburg] (unless it has already been successfully banished into some corner) one will point with sovereign dignity toward the fact that this issue is clearly a matter for the World Church (which is accurate) and consequently should be of no concern to Austrian faithful, parishes, priests, and others in positions of responsibility.
I am not saying all of this because I am opposed to celibacy or because I am under the illusion that there as no difficulties with the state of the "viri probati." Difficulties exist wherever there are human beings. Parenthetically, it is an unconscious or deliberate falsification to pass off the current issue as a disputation concerning celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is not in question. The truly dismaying aspect of all of this-- no matter how embarrassing to admit--involves the astonishing theological and pastoral inadequacy of current Church leadership. The office in the Church, interpreted in biblical terms, constitutes an office of serving and not an exercise in sacred narcissism which can be unconcerned whether millions upon millions of Christians even have the opportunity to receive the grace-giving sacraments and to nurture the center of their community which according to Scripture and dogma is the Eucharist in a humanly meaningful manner. It is still true that "Propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis" and not "propter nostram auctoritatem et propter stricte conservandas structuras ecclesiasticas descendit de coelis . . ."
And one should not assume that the laity and the majority of parish priests in Austria are incapable of seeing through this business and that they can simply be dismissed as incompetent in a dialogue that was intended to be sincere. It is because of those members of the laity and those pastors far more than assorted Roman decrees that despite of everything we still have a Church in Austria.
The most shocking aspect of many of the decisions made by our Church at the end of this millennium is the tendency to value human rules and traditions more highly than the divine commission. No one in the highest authoritative bodies appears in the least disturbed when literally hundreds of millions of Catholics have no access to the sacraments of reconciliation which are essential for moral wellbeing (and since they cannot come now will no longer wish to come after a generation). The Anointing of the Sick might have a chance -- also in the [secular] environment of more holistic medicine. But the Christ who especially loved the sick can no longer come to millions because of the fact that the faculties are limited to the celibate. Ecclesiastic central authorities are not troubled in the least by the fact that the practice of combining parishes they so generously legislated makes it impossible to lovingly and sacramentally accompany the ill. And here salvation is really at stake, eternal salvation!
In this entire question, what troubles me most is the disregard of divine mandates concerning our relationship with married priests. From personal experience I know that petitions which the bishop passes on with urgent, pastorally and humanly justified requests are not even looked at for a decade or more. The new decree changes this practice only marginally. Note well, this involves only petitions of reconciliation with God and the Church, pleas for the chance to live in a Christian marriage, and maybe the opportunity to serve in non-ordained functions. Here, too, there is nothing except for the unforgiving "no." Once again: What did the Lord say? In all of his teachings and parables, in all of his actions up to and including his prayer on the cross, did he not insist on mercy and reconciliation as the highest ethical duties? Did he not insist on the most serious sanction pertaining to the law of having-to- forgive? Did he not say that the one who shows no mercy will receive no mercy? Did he not personally tell Peter that he should forgive not seven times a day but seven times seventy? [Translator's note: The New American Bible renders this passage (Matt. 18:22) as "seventy-seven times"; my Austrian New Testament reads "siebzigmal siebenmal" or "seventy times seven"] This passage never shows up in Roman decrees, only Matt. 16:18. All of those who emphasize their love for the Pope and let themselves be praised for their loyalty to the Pope, should they not be terrified by the words of the Judge of the Worlds when a Pope dies with thousands of rejected applications and petitions for reconciliation? What do we do at a death bed when we know that the one who lies there dying refuses to forgive? Do we not try to soften his heart because his own eternal salvation is at stake? And what would we think of a priest who in such a case would tell the penitent, "With your type of sin, come back in ten years; maybe then I'll be inclined to offer you reconciliation"? Is it not theologically obvious that the refusal to forgive and reconcile is a vastly more serious sin than the violation of celibacy? The latter pertains to a human rule and is a sin of weakness. The former pertains to a divine law and is a sin of cruelty or hardness [Härte]. Or is it possibly assumed that judicial manipulations in the Church do not fall under Jesus' commandments? Does one really figure that in the eyes of the Judge of the Worlds desk perpetrators will fare better than those who commit particular sins?
Once again this shows the tendency to subordinate the directives of Jesus to ecclesiastic administrative practices and the human exercise of authority.
This mode of proceeding undermines papal authority. For this authority which is so essential for the Church derives its weight only from the extent to which it is in agreement with Jesus, as is expressed in the deepest meaning of infallibility. But history teaches that even the practice of the supreme office can stray from the path of Jesus. The current practices against certain particular sins is as opposed to the spirit of Jesus as the interdicts and large-scale excommunications against entire countries and towns of the past. And I know that many priests and lay people who take their being-Christian seriously suffer under these contradictions and yearn for a Pope who embodies primarily goodness for our times. As things stand today, Rome has lost the image of mercy and taken on the image of harsh domination. This image will not further the Church in the Third Millennium, no matter how many beautiful words and pompous Millennial celebrations. The real issue involves shifting the emphasis in certain essential points of pastoral practice as well as one's dealings with Jesus' general call to salvation as well as one's dealing with the sinner.
And for the sake of the Church it must not be that the very top is concerned with every splinter at the basis but doesn't see the beam in its own eye.
Even though I call these failings of our contemporary Church (which extend into the pharisaical analysis and explication of Scripture) by name I do not retract anything pertaining to my hope for the Spirit's rule and the future of the matter of Jesus (Sache Jesu). But the sensitivity for the true intentions must grow more distinct in our Church. Straying from such principles has had serious consequences in the past. Pondering the Millennium should bring insight concerning these issues.
Dr. Reinhold Stecher
Bishop of Innsbruck
33rd Sunday of Pentecost, the Sunday of the Last Judgment
(Translator's note: this should be 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Originally posted 13 December 1997, 9:14 CDT Last revised 7 June 1998 4:10 CDT (version 2.0) Translation, hypertext, and graphics copyright © 1997-1998 Ingrid H. Shafer Reactions and comments: Ingrid Shafer. RETURN TO: ARCC/VATICAN2 Homepage RETURN TO: Ingrid Shafer's USAO Homepage: