FutureChurch Wants Discussion on Church Premises
Apparently reversing a fourteen-year practice, the Cleveland diocese recently published a communiqué stating it was “inappropriate” for FutureChurch to continue having programs in church related institutions because the organization is “promoting an agenda that is not consistent with Church teaching.”
The April memo came shortly before Bishop Anthony M. Pilla’s ad limina visit to Rome and after a local Catholic high school backed out of an agreement to host a FutureChurch program featuring retired Bishop of Steubenville, Albert Ottenweller. School officials said they had received calls and visits from some “very rude people” protesting FutureChurch sponsorship and that diocesan chancellor, Fr. Ralph Wiatrowski told them to cancel the program. However, diocesan Parish Life Secretary, Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, told FutureChurch that Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla had welcomed Bishop Ottenweller to the diocese. Fr. Wiatrowski later said he had “recommended” the program be cancelled but not “ordered” it. The program was relocated to the Congregation of St. Joseph motherhouse where Ottenweller’s presentation Conversation about Critical Issues in the Church, was well received by a large and enthusiastic crowd of over 230.
“We’re puzzled and saddened by the description of us as not in line with Catholic teaching,” said FutureChurch director Sr. Chris Schenk in an article published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We have some of the best Catholics in the diocese as members.” FutureChurch has an estimated 800 members in the Cleveland diocese out of over 5000 nationally.
A statement posted on the FutureChurch website says that the group’s call for discussion about the priest shortage, optional celibacy, the inequality of women in the church and increased participation of all baptized Catholics in the life of the Church “is deeply consistent with Catholic teaching (Lumen Gentium 12); Catholic canon law (212.2); and our Catholic tradition (Acts 15:22).”
It continues: “We believe such discussions belong in every Catholic parish, in every Catholic school and in every Catholic home. The absence of these greatly needed conversations among Church leaders and laity about critical issues facing the Church does not serve the Gospel and is destructive to Christ’s body, the People of God who are also the Church.”
“We remain committed to ongoing conversation and dialogue with Church officials regarding our fidelity to Church teaching,” concluded the statement by members of the FutureChurch leadership Council which includes prominent lay leaders, a pastoral minister, two chaplains, two priests, a Catholic brother and a Catholic nun.
FutureChurch and director Sr. Chris Schenk have been the subject of escalating attacks by right wing groups because of the high profile success of their national programs, particularly the Campaign for Optional Celibacy and Mary of Magdala celebrations.
The fall 2003 issue of the Latin Mass contained an article written by Ms. Donna Steichen describing Chris as “desecrating the churches where she holds meetings” and said FutureChurch wants “to displace Jesus from the tabernacle and establish a graven idol in His place.” The upshot was that FutureChurch is part of a “pagan Goddess movement.” The same article described the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Laity as being part of the “Goddess-feminist rebellion within the Church.” Steichen never contacted Chris directly but apparently believed egregious distortions forwarded to her by a small ultra right wing group of local Catholics organized with the sole motive of opposing FutureChurch.
A happy outcome of the persecution is that FutureChurch recently acquired a surprisingly large number of new members from Northeast Ohio, no one cancelled membership and several Catholic groups and organizations offered to host FutureChurch programs in the future. For its part, FutureChurch leadership remains hopeful of finding a way to peacefully coexist in a diocese that up until now has permitted a broad diversity of discussion on church premises.