ROME - Striking the tone that once earned him the moniker “God’s Rottweiler,’’ Pope Benedict XVI denounced “disobedience’’ in the church in a stern Holy Thursday homily, chastising priests who seek the ordination of women and the abolition of priestly celibacy.
Referring to recent initiatives by clerics in Austria and elsewhere, Benedict said that while such priests claim to act “for concern for the church,’’ they are driven by their own preferences and ideas and should instead turn toward a radicalism of obedience - a phrase that perfectly captures the essence of the theologian pope’s thought.
While there was nothing new in the contents of Benedict’s message, it was one of the strongest - and most direct - speeches of his seven-year reign, which has more often been dominated by a sexual abuse scandal, repeated tangles with other faiths, and a Vatican hierarchy in disarray. It also showed Benedict, who at almost 85 has been showing his age, in fighting form back in his element as a defender of orthodoxy, favoring a smaller church of more ardent believers over a larger community that relies on diluted doctrine.
The pope delivered his homily from a golden throne in Saint Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday, the day priests recall the vows they made when ordained. He was clearly referring to an Austrian group called Preachers’ Initiative, which has issued a “Call to Disobedience,’’ asking the church to allow the ordination of women, to remove the obligation of priestly celibacy, and to permit priests to allow divorced people to receive Communion.
The initiative was started in 2006 by the Rev. Helmut Schueller, a former director of the Catholic aid agency Caritas in Austria, to combat a shortage of priests. Since then, more than 400 Austrian priests have endorsed him, according to media reports, including priests in the United States and across Europe.
The Vatican fears that the initiative could cause a schism in the church. For his part, Schueller has called the Vatican an “absolutist monarchy’’ and said the church’s resistance to change might lead to rupture, anyway.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Schueller said he was surprised by Benedict’s words.
“But I don’t think they were very harsh,’’ he said. “There was no threat or sanction implied. I think that in the history of the Church, a lot has changed, even if not always voluntarily. There has been new science, new technology, new practices. The teachings are always changing.’’
Allowing women or married men to enter the priesthood “is not a question of faith, but one of tradition,’’ Schueller added. “It is not a matter of theology, but of history and tradition. And those are constantly evolving.’’
In his homily, Benedict made clear that reforms cannot go against church doctrine. He singled out “a group of priests from a European country’’ who had recently “issued a summons to disobedience.’’
They had done this to the point of disregarding church teaching and encouraging “women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the church has received no authority from the Lord,’’ Benedict said.
In 1994, John Paul issued an apostolic letter saying that the church “has no authority whatsoever’’ to ordain women, citing among its reasons that the apostles of Jesus Christ were all men.
“We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this?’’ Benedict continued.
Striking a characteristically inquisitive yet uncompromising stance, he asked whether such moves were aimed at “true renewal,’’ or “do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?’’
Instead, the pope said, Christ’s concern “was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice.’’
Benedict said priests should look to renewal in a “radicalism of obedience,’’ and turn to the saints, not modern convention, for guidance.
Vatican watchers said the pope’s remarks pointed to a growing battle in the Catholic world.
“In spite of the tough response of the pope, I think that the calls for reform won’t diminish, they will only grow,’’ said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican specialist at the Italian daily Il Foglio. “It’s a problem that the Vatican will increasingly have to come to terms with.’’