Global Council Network


Church reform in Europe after 6 years of Pope Francis' Pontificate. 

by Mauro Castagnaro           


Half a century after the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church lives, especially in Europe, a real "crisis" linked to the affirmation of secularization, understood as a process that leads individuals to live regardless of religious references, with the consequent drastic decline of sacramental practice and of consecrated vocations, and ecclesiastical institutions to lose the monopoly as agencies for the production of shared values, and therefore social, political and cultural weight. To deal with it, starting from the pontificate of John Paul II, the authority of the Church has focused on the revival of Catholic identity through the charismatic mobilization of a mass neocristianity and then, more explicitly with Benedict XVI, through the affirmation of the "naturally" and "rationally" based character of Christian anthropology and ethics. The conviction of being able to counter the feared "irrelevance of the Christian fact" only by proposing a clear doctrine, a rigorous morality and a coherent organization has entailed a re-compacting and ecclesial centralization, to the detriment of the freedom of the particular Churches, of the search for creative answers to the problems of post-modernity, of pluralism. And it blocked the reforms of the ecclesiastical structures, to which the need for "a profound spiritual renewal" was opposed, almost as if the changes in the way of life of the Church were alternative to the inner conversion of its members and not rather among the concretizations of the latter.

All this produced a profound malaise above all among those who had worked with greater enthusiasm to apply the conciliar guidelines, as Henri Tincq, responsible for religious information for the French daily Le Monde from 1985 to 1998, wrote in 2012: "The Catholics so-called ‘conciliars' are discouraged by the hand extended to the fundamentalists, by the fearful withdrawals they see in the doctrine, in the dogma, in the liturgy, in the discipline, by the Roman centralism that resumes more than ever and by the lack of internal discussion, by the slowness of the ecumenical rapprochement movement, the immobility of positions on sexuality after the prohibition of contraception in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, on medically assisted procreation and on homosexual marriage. The obligatory celibacy of the priests, the inferior status of the woman and that of the couples of divorced and remarried, excluded from the sacraments, are lived with ever greater discomfort and criticized".

Between "submerged schism" and reformist activism

In the Churches of the old continent, specifically in those of Western Europe, being the reality of Eastern Europe marked by its own dynamics, this "discomfort" manifested itself in at least three forms: the abandonment of a visible ecclesial belonging by many Catholics, the diffusion among the faithful of convictions (especially in the field of sexual ethics, but also of ecclesiastical discipline) contrasting with the positions of the Magisterium and the presence of organizations that promote reform of the Catholic Church.

First of all, in fact, many Catholics, above all among young people and now also among women, go to swell the ranks of the "indifferent" or "believers without ecclesial membership", also for the scandals related to child sexual abuse committed by priests and religious.

At the same time the polls reveal that in Western Europe the faithful, even practicing, who agree the use of artificial contraceptives, the access of divorced and remarried to the Eucharist and the abolition of the obligation of celibacy for priests oscillate around 75% , exceeding 60% in the case of the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Finally, in these countries this causes the presence of reformist movements of substantial size, especially in German-speaking Europe, which often involve sectors of traditional Catholic associations, especially where, as in Germany, these have a history of relative autonomy from the hierarchy, and draw nourishment from parochial experiences and pastoral organizations marked by the post-conciliar renewal, by more or less institutional groups committed to peace,  safeguarding of creation and solidarity with the South of the world, by the Basic Communities, though numerically greatly diminished compared to the 70s. In the Scandinavian states, where Catholics are between 0.2 and 2 per cent of the population, there are small but very active (as well as in Portugal) critical groups, while in Eastern Europe this presence is almost non-existent.

The pontificate of Francis

In this context, the arrival of Jorge Bergoglio to the papal throne was experienced as a novelty much more welcome in the outskirts of the Church or even outside it than in the ecclesiastical apparatus, often with a growing coldness the closer one approached its center, with a substantial inertia of the national episcopates, caught by surprise and bewildered by a Pope who proposes a way of being and pastoral priorities very different from those for which the bishops (but the judgment could extend to the directors of the Seminary, to the priests under 40 years, to the leaders of lay organizations and ecclesial movements) had been first trained and then called to work under the last two pontificates. Europe too has therefore seen the opposition of the most conservative sectors, with an impatience turned into an open discredit of the initiatives of the bishop of Rome, gradually accused of sloppiness, populism, doctrinal weakness or yielding to the "spirit of the world", finding a channel of expression in a large number of websites and blogs as well as in a lot of publications, which brings together "devout atheist" columnists and economic circles linked to neoliberal thought, sympathizers of the xenophobic right, traditionalist groups and ecclesiastical of the highest order.

On the other hand, and beyond the enormous popular sympathy, a true movement of the ecclesial base - similar to those that accompanied the preparation, carryng out and conclusion of the Second Vatican Council - in support of the papal orientation did not develop: between those who lived with discomfort and sometimes suffering the involution recorded under the last two pontificates seem to prevail not enthusiasm to finally see their ideas re-evaluated and concrete prospects for reform re-opened, but the relief of those who return to breathe after an exhausting apnea, the retreat to the deserved rest after the effort to keep the conciliar flame alive in a long resistance today replaced by the delegation to the Pope "who came from the end of the world", the distrust of those who fear that the current "spring" will rapidly come suffocated by a new "freeze", the belief that the reform of the Church has too long a time for it to be worth dedicating energies to it than to engage in social initiatives that have become more urgent today. Only slowly did the European ecclesial body set in motion, with theologians - unlike the Latin American ones - still hesitant to deepen Francis’ solicitations and intuitions, while the traditional lay associations still appear to be burdened by years of disciplining by the ecclesiastical authorities .

In these six years the pontificate of Francis, in addition to giving centrality to the social dimension of the Christian message, has re-legitimized the reference to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and restored citizenship to the idea of ​​"reform", for over three decades watched with extreme suspicion from the institution, and changed the ecclesial climate, in particular allowing a free discussion on issues previously excluded from the ecclesial debate, even with censorship measures, which no longer occurred, starting with the role of women in the Church and by a more open pastoral approach to sexual minorities. However, it has not yet introduced any structural change on the issues usually raised by the European reform movements, except for the timid openness to the readmission of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist contained in the Amoris Laetitia.

This also involved the variegated nebula of European reform groups, which seem to have generally lost some momentum, while maintaining a certain presence and liveliness.

Single issue movements

Thus, the associations of priests forced to abandon the ministry for having married - present from half a century almost everywhere, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and generally committed not only to claim the elimination of the obligation of celibacy for the clergy, but to promote a reflection on a more communitarian and ministerial model of the Church - have seen their ranks shrink, also due to the indirect effect of the numerical decline of presbyteral ordinations. They are sometimes joined by women's associations of priests.

On the other hand, considerable growth and diffusion have experienced the Catholic or ecumenical LGBT groups, which aim not only to make gays and lesbians accept in the ecclesial structures, but to rethink the whole sexual ethics in more inclusive terms.

These two trends were also reflected in the activism of the respective continental networks, which were reduced in the case of the European Federation of Catholic married priests (and in the substantial disappearance of the International Federation for a Renewed Catholic Ministry, which brings together US and Canadian associations and to which some European groups, especially English-speaking ones, were referring) and growing in the European Forum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Christian Groups. Very combative, but more limited to the German and Anglo-Saxon area, are the movements that, linked to the international organization Women's Ordination Worldwide, are fighting for the presbyteral ordination of women and, more generally, against sexism in the Church. On the other hand, Catholics for choice, committed to the recognition of reproductive rights and therefore to a different approach to sexuality, is present with collectives in Spain and a European consultative group.

However, in various countries, there are movements that, with different shapes and nuances, express a more general orientation towards reform, from English Catholics for a Changing Church, heir to the Catholic Renewal Movement since 1993, which had its roots in the protest against encyclical Humanae Vitae, to the association of Christian critics Dutch Mariënburg, established in 1983, to the Conférence catholique des baptisé-es francophones, to which the French, Swiss and Belgians belong, an extension since 2011 of the Comité de la jupe, born in 2009 and more focused on participation of women in the Church, avoiding any "claiming" attitude.

National and international networks

More recent is the conformation of national platforms between groups which, while maintaining their specificity of interest - sometimes here partecipate also realities committed to promoting democracy and respect for human rights in the Church, to strengthen ecumenical relations “from below", for example by practicing Eucharistic hospitality towards all Christians, to affirm the secularism in relations between State and Church, to support a more radical action by believers for justice and peace (from Femmes et hommes, égalité, droits et libertés dans les Églises et la société in France to Pax Christi in the Netherlands) – or their configuration (communities, magazines, thematic associations, etc.), they share an ecclesial vision and sensitivity different from that prevalent in the ecclesiastical institution.

This is the case, in France, of the Reseaux du Parvis, a federation of 50 organizations set up in 1999 that connects about 10,000 people; similar is the coordination Pour une autre visage d'église et de societé (Pavés), which brings together a dozen realities from French-speaking Belgium; much wider, counting 150 communities, publications and grassroots movements, Redes cristianas was created in Spain in 2006. In Germany  the Initiative Kirche von unten, made up of about forty associations, in some cases Protestant, dates back to 1980, even if it does not exhaust the specter of German critical Catholic movements. And in 2012, was born in Italy, Chiesa di tutti, Chiesa dei poveri, a cartel of a hundred groups.

In Europe there are then a dozen national sections of the International movement "We are Church", founded in 1995 in Austria on the basis of the Appeal to the people of God who asked for the creation of synodal structures with the presence of all the ecclesial components, the involvement of local Churches in the choice of bishops, women's access to all ministries, the abolition of the obligation of celibacy for priests, the readmission of divorced and remarried to the Eucharist, the recognition of freedom of conscience in regulating births and overcoming any discrimination against homosexuals. And some forty groups from 15 countries form the European network Church on the move, which, enjoying a status of participant at the Council of Europe, works towards the community institutions, in particular on the issues of secularism, as a voice alternative to the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (Comece).

Many of these groups and associations have their own publications, magazines and online news, but other mass media, although independent from specific organizations, have a progressive editorial line and give space to the positions and activities of the subjects committed to the renewal of the Church: from Golias in France to Publik-forum in Germany, from Adista in Italy to The Tablet, without forgetting the international theology magazine Concilium.

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (2012-2015), many of these movements have launched a proposal for a new aggiornamento to respond to the growing disaffection of believers and to avoid the risk that the Catholic Church, following a model of Christianity, will transform herself in a more or less large sect. Great national meetings were then held which resulted in the world meeting of all reform movements in Rome in 2015, on the occasion of the commemoration of the closing of Vatican II.

Many of these ask for the convocation of a Vatican Council III, often conceiving it as "a conciliar process" rather than as a single assembly and thinking it not limited to the episcopate, but with the participation of all the Church components (clergy, laity, religious and religious).

From "disobedient" priests to the International Church Reform Network

Finally, on the eve of the pontificate of Francis, a renewed impetus to requests for reform came from a series of "manifestos" followed one another in various countries, starting with the memorandum of the German-speaking theologians "Church 2011: starting again is necessary" and above all, from the "Appeal to disobedience" from the Austrian Pfarrer-Initiative, quickly spread, albeit to different degrees and with different nuances or emphasis, to Great Britain, Ireland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Germany, as well as in the United States and in Australia, arriving in 2013 to a world assembly of "disobedient priests" and then also extending to lay groups until it formed the International Church Reform Network last year.

The proposals range from the abolition of the obligation of celibacy for priests, also by espousing msgr. Fritz Lobinger’s proposal of "equipes of ordained ministers", to the presbyteral ordination of women, from the participation of Christian communities to the choice of bishops and parish priests to a more effective episcopal collegiality around the Pope, from the access of the divorced and remarried to the sacraments to overcome every discrimination against sexual minorities, from the full possibility of having recourse to the rite of community confession with general acquittal to the recognition of the right to celebrate the Eucharist in a multiplicity of liturgical forms, from the accomplishment of concrete steps in the direction of unity among the Christian Churches to the choice of being “a poor Church and a Church of the poor” to express a clearer commitment to peace, social justice and environmental protection, etc.

Mobilization of priests (but often also of religious, laity and laity) in favor of such changes is stimulated by the "points of crisis" that believers and Christian communities find themselves living, from the most sensational ones, such as the scandals caused by clerical sexual abuse of minors, to lesser-known ones, but a source of equal attrition, such as the increasingly massive unification of parishes in administrative units whose pastoral care is exhausting the presbyters and leaving the faithful unsatisfied, effectively condemning the extinction Christian communities deprived of pastors due to the decline in vocations and the aging of the clergy.

In some cases (Austria, Germany, etc.) these petitions have led to a dialogue with the bishops and the local episcopal conferences, without however producing concrete results, also because the main claims are considered in the responsibility of the universal Church.

Meanwhile, the deafness to the instances of reform has produced in several countries (especially the Netherlands and the United States, but also Belgium, Switzerland and Austria) the birth of "autonomous" Christian communities (sometimes without a confessional identity, but ecumenical), while some militants have renounced ecclesial participation, in the belief that "the effort to change the Catholic Church is useless".

The traditional reformist movements have shown a poor influence, both for their marginality among official institutions, and for their distance from decision-making places. This, together with the aging of their members and the difficulty in guaranteeing a "replacement" - also because the "culture" that had formed the members of these groups was not only the conciliar one, but also that of "1968", centered on collective organization, claim, conflict, etc., and very distant from that of the young generations - has made them lose momentum, with the death of some aggregations and in others the reduction of the interest for the reform of the Church in favor of other objectives, above all the fight against climate change and the reception of migrants. However, new groups and networks have been born, aiming to connect with the reforming energies of today's youth, with their fast and diversified commitment on different topics, such as the Me-too or Friday for future movements, the March for our lives for arms control in the United States or the recent participation of young people in a new political culture in Slovakia. And everyone looks with great attention and hope to the next Synod of bishops of the Pan-Amazon region, which could also ask for important reforms of the ecclesiastical structure, especially in the area of ​​ministries.


European progressive Catholics’ reflections and actions remain crossed by two questions: 1) "The commitment to the reform of the Church does not take away energy from that, which is also a priority for Christians, to resolve the great challenges that afflict the humanity today, that is, essentially, peace, justice and the defense of the environment?" 2) "Is the hope of a reform of the current clerical system realistic? Or we should aim at the idea of ​​a parallel society, do not fight more against the old system, but to build a new alternative way of being Church?".

Personally, I think that 1) the transformation of society in a more free, faire and democratic sense goes hand in hand with the renewal of the Church, so that it gives space to pluralism, to conscious participation and to communion; even better, both are a condition of the other and vice versa: the "option for the poor" requires a more fraternal, community, synodal, ministerial and inclusive Church, and, at the same time, only a Church in which every one is an equally free and responsible subject, the diversity of charisms can be fully manifested and choices are made in a shared way can really work for the liberation of the oppressed 2) the construction of alternative ecclesial practices is indispensable to nourish the Christian faith today, but the effort to introducing changes in the "great Church" is what prevents these experiences from becoming self-referential and elitist.

Mauro Castagnaro