Paul Collins's explanation for his resignation from the priesthood
(Reprinted from the National Catholic Reporter 9/3/01)
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 its teaching. Since this word “catholicity” will recur often I will define it. It is derived from the Greek word katholikos that 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 characterized 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 direction.
Sometimes 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 Church community.
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 realize 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 focuses your thought and impels you toward a decision. Suddenly you realize 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 emphasize 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 round 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 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 will 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; in the United States it is entitled The Modern Inquisition. 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 me.
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, 2001.