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Address given at the International Federation of Married Catholic Priests held July 28-Aug. 1, 1999



I feel very honored to stand here today as the spokesperson for the International We Are Church Movement, and to address this Congress of the International Federation of Married Priests. I feel very honored and very happy, because I see this as a convergence of reform forces within Roman Catholicism. This, you see, is one of the main purposes of We Are Church: to encourage all those who believe in the future of Catholicism. I am talking about Catholicism in the real meaning of the term, a genuine democratic, inclusive and plural Community of communities in the Spirit of the Sermon of the Mount. To reach this future, we need to stand up and to encourage each other to unfold our charisma and gifts, for the benefit of all.

We gather here in this symbolic place, the city of Martin Luther King, to consciously put ourselves and our actions in a specific tradition in line with the spirit of the finest values of humanism, human rights and democracy. We thereby acknowledge our heritage, and we testify to our willingness to assume responsibility for preserving, developing and transmitting values we consider to be among the most precious of humankind.

The Congress theme is Human Rights in the Catholic Church and Reconciliation


Let us start to think about Human Rights. I don’t need to recall to you in the United States Thomas Jefferson’s words by which 13 colonies declared independence from the British Crown in 1776. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “unalienable rights” given to each person by their creator. This clear recognition of the fundamental human dignity of each individual person, independent from all other attributes a person might have, was like a spark that lit a fire that had been glowing for centuries in the hearts of all sorts of precursors, prophets of their time.

A few years later, in Versailles, on the very street where I am actually living, less than 100 yards away, just across the street, men gathered during the summer of 1789. They were filled by the spirit of human dignity and liberty, and moved by a profound conviction that “the time had come.” It is appropriate to call this a “Pentecostal” event, because these men became prophetic instruments of a fundamental message for humankind, when they wrote down the document that can be considered the founding act of modern political thinking and acting: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

This happened, not in a remote colony, but literally at the front door of the most triumphal symbol of absolute monarchy in the world of its time: the Castle of Versailles. The men gathered there did not want to abolish monarchy. They did not want to abolish Church nor religion. They did not want to start a revolution. They only felt, deep in their hearts, that men were all born equal.

This review of history is useful to better understand the moment we are living. But you may have noticed that I always speak of men. This is because in 1789 humanity was definitely still understood in terms of maleness. An exceptional woman of that time, Olympe de Gouges, one of the revolutionaries who very soon claimed equality for women too, and who even wrote, in 1791, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, denounced the sexist attitudes of her contemporaries. She had to pay her prophetic courage with her life. She was executed on the scaffold as a dangerous agitator. And it still took 200 years, two full centuries, for a United Nations Conference in Vienna to declare in 1993, only six years ago, that Women’s Rights are Human Rights. There are still people in the world who think this is a revolutionary and dangerous idea - those in the Vatican, for instance. We’ve made some progress, but we still have a long way to go.

So I will take history one step further by naming the French document by an improved name: The French Declaration of the Rights of the Person and of the Citizen. That document was improved many times by further generations, and completed, but it was a milestone in the history of humankind. And - very important for us Catholics - it was a logical consequence of Judeo- Christian religion and culture.

For what reason? Because Judaism and Christianity are centered on partnership. The revolutionary central concept of both religions, is the idea of a Covenant, an alliance between God and the people, between God and humankind. And since Jesus Christ - an alliance between God and each individual. A covenant makes no sense when the relationship between partners is unbalanced. Both must be able to accept or to reject its terms. This is the foundation for liberty. The biblical Covenant was made to achieve God’s project of creation. And through this covenant humankind became responsible for history.

The Ten Commandments, written in stone about thirty centuries ago, were the first Charter of the Covenant, the first Charter of our Tradition to recognize that each member of the community has fundamental rights: the right to live, to have a family, to have property, to be told the truth, to know, to love and worship the sacred in God.

One millennium later, the Man of Nazareth gave us the Second Charter of our Tradition in the Great Commandment of the Last Supper, when he washed the feet of his friends and told them: “love each other as I have loved you.” Thus, each one has the right to be loved, to be served, to be respected, to be healed, to be called by his or her name to become a disciple in absolute equality. Then she or he can love, serve, respect, heal and invite others to become disciples in equality.

Human Rights. 200 years ago, we got the Declaration of the Rights of the Person and the Citizen. 50 years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Six years ago, the United Nations Declaration: Women’s Rights are Human Rights. But what about the Church in all this process? Was the church in the forefront of the struggle for human rights? In a word, no. Sadly, many popes were in openly hostile to the evolution of Human Rights. The hierarchical and feudal structure of the Church, a product of European history, was justified as if it were God’s own will and it was recommended as an example to civil society.

So, for instance, less than 100 years ago in 1906, Pius X declared in his encyclical Vehementer Nos: “This church is in essence an unequal society, that is to say, a society comprising two categories of persons, the shepherd and the flock... These categories are so distinct that the right and authority necessary for promoting and guiding all the members toward the goal of society reside only in the pastoral body; as to the multitude, its sole duty is that of allowing itself to be led and of following its pastors as a docile flock.”

For a long time and for important parts of civil society, the Human Rights movement was experienced as an emancipator movement from clerical absolutism. And it was about two decades after World War 11 and just a couple of years before the first human beings walked on the moon, that John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council acknowledged that humankind had (after almost two centuries!) entered a new historic period. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of that Council teaches that there is “a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the body of Christ.”

One of the basic elements of Human Rights is thus acknowledged: equality. And although this was not said explicitly, it implies democracy and the end of monarchy.

John XXIII and his successor Paul VI was too fearful to dismantle the powerful and monarchy-minded Roman Curia. John Paul II became pope in 1978.

He has developed a public image as an apostle of Human Rights. And since most people don’t know history, they think that Human Rights and Catholicism are more or less identical. Unfortunately not! But it is interesting to consider what John Paul II does and why. [Now John Paul has rightly defended the human rights of the Jewish people, various ethnic minorities and his own native Poles.

But in other ways, his Human Rights crusade is sorely wanting. Since the institutional Church lost secular political power, and Canon law is no longer valid except within the Church, the Pope has invoked Human Rights as a means to defend certain specific moral rules and impose them on the whole society. This is questionable, because the genuine sense of Human Rights is the defense of the individual from the oppression of the State. The Pope’s stance would lobby the state to enact laws that feel oppressive to some segments of society. This is particularly visible with legislation on divorce, homosexuality, contraception and abortion, where individual rights are bluntly denied, in the name of Human Rights, and a relentless effort is made to impose on a whole society the particular philosophical or ethical conception of a small segment of it.

To make clear what I mean, if you personally believe that divorce or homosexuality or contraception or abortion are sins, you have the right to abstain from divorcing or from practicing homosexuality or contraception or from having an abortion. There are no laws compelling you to divorce or to practice homosexuality or contraception or to abort. (This indeed would violate Human Rights!) But if a great majority of the population, even among Catholics, do not agree with this philosophical conception, one cannot force a whole society to have laws that criminalize those who act according to their conscience. That too violates human rights.

Before becoming pope, in 1969, confronting the totalitarian regime in Poland, Karol Wojtyla wrote: “Conformity means death for any community. A loyal opposition is a necessity in any community” (The Acting Person). Unfortunately, twenty-four years later, in total contradiction to his own ideas, he proclaimed in Veritatis Splendor (1993): “Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to the constitution of the People of God” (emphasis in original).

Often I wonder if the energy he spends denouncing violations of Human Rights by all sorts of regimes in the world doesn’t divert attention from the disastrous Human Rights situation in the realm of Canon Law, where the ’concept of Human Rights does not even exist. While most countries acknowledge the equality of women and men, at least in their constitutions, the Code of canon law from 1983, issued during the papacy of John Paul II, still explicitly discriminates against women because of their sex, excluding them from ordination. But it is not enough to have discriminatory legislation, and let women experience in their own persons that they are considered second class. All baptized Catholics, lay as well as clerical, who want to assume specific ministries in the Church, have to sign the Ad tuendam fidem oath pledging unconditional acceptance of, and obedience to, this discriminatory doctrine against women. Even women have to sign it to become theology professors!

And I do not need to recall to you the doctrine and practice concerning gays and lesbians, the Jeannine Gramick and Bob Nugent affair that has just happened. Nor do I need to speak to this assembly about the banning of Bishop Remi de Roo from this very Congress and the general ostracizing of married priests. This treatment also ostracizes women, marriage and family. Most of you know the emotional and/or existential annihilation priests are exposed to when they decide to get married. I don’t either need to recall to you names like Hans Kung, Tissa Balassuriya, and even post mortem Tony de Mello, etc... We have a long way to go before we can claim a Church of Human Rights. Perhaps we need an Amnesty International in the Church!

Human Rights. They are the rights of individuals. Individuality is the central value. And the limit to an individual’s freedom is not society, but the freedom and the rights of another individual. We have to stress this: It is not “the Church,” the institution, that has to be protected, but the rights and the liberty of one’s neighbor. He or she might not be Catholic, nor even interested in religion. But it is his or her rights that are the limit to my own liberty. We are called to make sacrifices for Human Rights to preserve the rights and liberty of our neighbors, not the unity of a monarchic institution.

We need to think about this deeply when we reflect on Human Rights, and in particular when we are called to act in favor of Human Rights.


And now I want to look at the other concept of our program: Reconciliation. On one side we have the individual and his or her rights. Now we have to look at the relationship of this individual to others.

In the term reconciliation, there is implicit the idea of “healing” and putting pieces broken apart together to reconstruct “unity.” Now considering the ecclesial community, what could that healing be? What does “unity” mean?

Does it mean just restoring a community of the past? I would say: no. Restoring is looking backwards, like mourning for a golden past that got lost.

Of course we need to build community because we are human persons created in the image and likeness of God, and our God is a Trinitarian God, a God made of loving relationship. To be individuals, to build up an identity as a person, we need the presence and the relationship of “others.” We are profoundly and essentially social.

But what kind of community do we need? Do we want?

The institutional form of Church we know produces exclusion and causes much human pain, even though the faith for which it stands demands respect for Human Rights - the idea that we all are born equal, free and are called to live in solidarity with each other. You may remember the slogan of the French Revolution that you find everywhere in France on public buildings: LibertŽ, EgalitŽ, FranternitŽ, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

Well, as I told you, in 1789, they hadn’t yet discovered that women are human too, so today we would say “Solidarity” in the place of “Fraternity.”

So, how do we build up an ecclesial community respecting individuals? I submit it is by organizing our community as a democracy. This is possible only when all those who want to form that community treat each other as equals and have equal rights. When all are free and respected as such. When nobody is forgotten and excluded, and all feel responsible that all members of the community have a right to the fullness of humanity. And - when they all have the right to dissent. This aspect is particularly important. When a community is made up of free individuals who come together voluntarily because they want to share a project, conflicts are of the greatest importance. Because conflict means sharing something from a different point of view. Through this sharing, adversaries are interrelated and can become partners. Of course I am talking about conflicts where those involved understand that dissent is a privileged form of communication and unity, and do not see the solution to struggle as the annihilation of the adversary. Annihilation can be either exclusion or ostracism, and in the extreme cases of totalitarianism and fascism, the emotional or physical killing of that other. So what we urgently need to develop in the Church is tolerance.

To conclude, I would like to stress, that reconciliation means building up a Church on the basis of Human Rights. Our Church has to reconcile itself as an institution with the religion it stands for. And this religion is rooted in Human Rights. That means that this Church has to be built on the principles of Liberty, Equality and Solidarity. And I am talking of Church at any level. It needs structures that are quite different from those we are used to. I am convinced that things will change in the near future. They will change, because the general conditions of life have changed tremendously. And because even the Vatican can’t go on for too long closing its eyes to the glare of reality.

As a matter of fact, in 1967, the Synod of Bishops on “Justice in the World” declared: “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognizes that everyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and lifestyle found within the church herself.” In such statements, there is hope for the future of our Church.

Finally, what is our Church? Is it the Vatican? Is it a Bishops Conference? Is it a parish community? It is all this, but much more. You all know that today is lived less and less in traditional ways and institutional forms. You know that people, and particularly young people, cannot identify with forms of religiosity that smell of the dust of absolute monarchy. They are children of today’s society and they often feel that going to a Catholic community as the Vatican wants it, is like going to a museum. Of course, there are people who love to go to museums, but even among them, the percentage of those who love to live in museums is rather small. Of course there are lots of enthusiastic youngsters who cheer the pope when he comes or when he plays his role of JPII-Superstar. This is part of the modern Woodstock culture. But I doubt that it is possible to run a country, or even a city or a small town by organizing open-air concerts, even though this sort of event has a high symbolic power that shouldn’t be underestimated.

The democratic Church we need is not a community that its members visit like a museum or a supermarket, where they satisfy themselves as consumers with certain religious needs. It is a place where each person in her or his specificity and diversity feels called and wanted and needed, where all voices are welcomed and heard, where democratic forms of leadership and authority unfold. Of course, it will be quite different from the obsolete monarchic model that we know. I dream of the day, when I can go to visit the Vatican palaces as I now go for a walk to the Castle of Versailles. It would certainly be a magnificent tourist attraction, but its form of governance would be a thing of the past.

That will be the day when we are true to our call to be a church of Human Rights and Reconciliation. Do you want to work for that day to dawn?

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999