Catholics Speak Out

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Leader of the International Movement 'We Are Church' (IMWAC) Excommunicated

1 June 2014
Paul Collins

Founded in 1995 in Austria in the wake of the Cardinal Hermann Gröer sexual abuse scandal, the International Movement Wir sind Kirche (We are Church) is one of the largest and most important renewal movements in the Catholic church, with active groups in more than 25 countries. In Australia Catholics Speak Out is affiliated with IMWAC and shares its ideals and works co-operatively with it. CSO shared much of the media work with the IMWAC leadership through two papal elections (2005 and 2013), with plans to co-operate again during the Synod on the Family in Rome in October this year.

However, on 21 May 2014 Dr Martha Heiser, President of IMWAC, was informed by the Bishop of Innsbruck, Manfred Scheuer, that she and her husband Gert had been formally excommunicated because for several years they had celebrated the Eucharist without a priest in their home. While essentially the excommunication was levied by Scheuer, it was issued with the approval of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition). According to Austria’s Kathweb ‘Pope Francis was reportedly not informed personally about the procedure.’ This has been confirmed by Martha Heiser who says that ‘the pope was not involved.’

.           Martha and Gert Heiser have rejected the excommunication and intend to continue their work for the church. They have been quite public about their home Eucharist, and the disagreement with Scheuer has dragged on for two and a half years. The involvement of Müller indicates that the CDF Prefect is using this incident as a way of attacking IMWAC, in an attempt to weaken its influence.

While Scheuer has been supported by Cardinal Christoph Schonbörn of Vienna, the excommunication has been met with widespread criticism across Europe and Latin America. Among the critics has been the Austrian Priests Initiative led by Father Helmut Schüller. The priests say that Martha and Gert Heiser ‘have worked for the reform of the Church with great passion, commitment and energy.’

They point out that ‘fewer and fewer communities have the option of a Eucharistic celebration with an ordained priest being present. Martha and Gert Heiser are touching a sore spot: the Eucharist, the Mass, the central celebration of our faith and of life as a community, is becoming increasingly rare due to the shortage of priests. For this reason Church reform movements have advocated for a long time that the priesthood should be open to married men and women and that ... new forms of leading communities should be developed.’ The Priests Initiative points out that ‘the penalty is not only completely out of proportion, but shows the inability of the leadership of our Church to settle differences of opinion and conflicts in accordance with the gospel and in a kind and loving way.’

Perhaps the most iniquitous aspect of Scheuer’s action is that while Catholics like the Martha and Gert Heiser are ‘excommunicated’ for following Jesus’ teaching that ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’, not a single priest child abuser has been excommunicated by any bishop or pope anywhere.

Given the proliferation of all types of home liturgical celebrations, including Eucharistic celebrations, by Catholics across the world including Australia, bishops who followed Scheuer’s example would have their work cut out running around ‘excommunicating’ people. Catholics are taking matters into their own hands precisely because there are not enough priests due to the celibacy requirement.

The shortage of priests is vividly illustrated in Australia by the fact that our bishops continue to import priests from developing countries that themselves are short of priests, and that this year – 2014 – Australia will pass the 50% mark: that is 50% of all priests working in Australian parishes will be foreign born, most of them not trained in Australia and completely unprepared for ministry in a society very different to their own.

Perhaps Pope Francis has given Martha and Gert Heiser the best advice when he told the Latin American Conference of Religious that hierarchs like Scheuer and Müller ‘will make mistakes, they will make a blunder, this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine [of the Faith] will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing. ... But don’t worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.’  This is exactly what Martha Heiser has said she will do.

In other words, in the end it won’t be Bishop Scheuer or Cardinal Müller who will judge anyone; it will be God who reads hearts, minds and consciences. Ironically the so-called ‘excommunication’ could be revered: perhaps Scheuer and Müller have, by their actions, actually excommunicated themselves from the mainstream of the Church community.



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