VATICAN CITY Swiss theologian Hans Kueng has urged Roman Catholic bishops to defy Pope Benedict and push through reforms from below to restore the credibility of their church shaken by child sexual abuse scandals.
The veteran liberal critic of the Vatican wrote in an open letter to bishops around the world on Thursday that Benedict's five years as head of the world's largest church had been "a papacy of missed opportunities and chances not taken."
Kueng, who worked with the future pope in the 1960s, has long been out of favour in Rome but has stayed a priest championing the reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.
He said an open letter was his only way to reach bishops, the Church's key leaders at the local level, in what he called the Church's "worst crisis of confidence since the Reformation."
The scandal of "thousands of youths abused by priests in the United States, Ireland, Germany and other countries" is having "disastrous consequences" for the Church, he said.
"Countless people have lost their faith in the Catholic Church," he wrote in the letter published simultaneously in Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the Neue Zuercher Zeitung and La Repubblica in Rome. "Only an open and honest approach to the problems and thorough reforms can help win back this trust."
Kueng said Benedict, who marks the fifth anniversary of his election as pope on Monday, was isolated from the majority of Catholics and was pursuing a conservative restoration in the Church that had not stopped its decline.
DON'T STAY QUIET
Kueng urged bishops not to stay quiet about the need to reform the Church and to support initiatives for renewal. "Many great things in congregations and the whole Church were started by individuals or small groups," he said.
Although they swore obedience to the pope, bishops owed complete obedience only to God, he added: "You must not feel blocked by your oath from saying the truth about the current crisis in the Church, in your diocese and in your country."
"The use of the vernacular in the liturgy, the change in rules on mixed marriages, the support for tolerance, democracy, human rights, ecumenical understanding and many other things only came about through pressure from below," he said.
Bishops should also work together to find regional solutions to problems that Rome refuses to act on, Kueng added.
"You know one especially delicate problem is the law on celibacy, which dates back to the Middle Ages and has been put into question around the world because of the abuse scandals," he wrote. "A change against Rome's will seems almost impossible.
"But we're not damned to passivity. A priest who after mature consideration decided to marry, must not automatically leave his office if his bishop and congregation support him."
He said bishops should also demand another Vatican council, to push ahead with the reforms decided at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) but blocked by conservative prelates since the time of the late Pope John Paul.
"No doubt they will do everything to block a council, from which they would have to fear a loss of their power," he wrote.