DETROIT (Reuters) - Members of a liberal group of U.S. Catholics called on Sunday on Church leaders to open talks with their members on controversies ranging from the ordination of women to allowing priests to marry.
Members of the American Catholic Council, meeting in Detroit, said they had grown concerned that the Church hierarchy was not listening to its members on issues such as the role of women, married clergy and the treatment of homosexuals.
The meeting comes as the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is struggling with a sexual abuse crisis, loss of membership and a dwindling number of priests.
“When in God’s name are the conversations going to begin?” asked Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who addressed the meeting of about 2,000 people — part of a liberal wing that represents a minority in the 1.2 billion-member Church.
She likened the structure, with bishops and archbishops answering to the pope in Rome, to “a medieval system that has now been abandoned by humanity everywhere, except by us.”
Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron had warned before the meeting that any members of the clergy who attended the group’s mass would be at risk of being defrocked.
“All of the invited keynote speakers have manifested dissent from Catholic teachings or support for dissenters,” the archdiocese said in a posting on its website.
Robert Wurm, a retired priest from Ferndale, Michigan, who officiated at the closing mass, said he was not worried the archbishop would take action against him.
“He was careful about that. He said they could be defrocked, not that they would,” Wurm told reporters.
Under Church law, an archbishop has authority over all masses held in his area. A spokesman for the archdiocese declined further comment.
The group’s “Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” reads like a list of grievances against the conservative leadership of Pope Benedict, who has frustrated liberals by ruling out the possibility of women priests or a married clergy and putting pressure on dissenting theologians.
“Few people realize how powerful the pope is,” Swiss theologian Hans Kueng told the meeting through a video presentation. “We have to change an absolutist system.”
Some of the people attending the meeting said they were frustrated by local bishops’ unwillingness to discuss their views on issues including the treatment of women.
“They refuse to talk about married priests and the ordination of women,” said Edward Ruetz, an 85-year-old retired priest who travelled to the meeting from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The question of who may be ordained has become a practical concern for many U.S. Catholics as the local Church has faced dwindling numbers of priests even as the Catholic population has expanded, thanks partly to Hispanic immigration.
The country’s number of priests stood a bit below 40,000 last year, down by one-third from the end of the reforming Second Vatican Council in 1965, while the Catholic population has risen 43 percent to 66 million over the same period.
These liberals are a minority in the world Church now, but similar groups exist in some other countries, especially in Benedict’s native Germany and neighboring Austria.
“They have to listen to us, we want to have an open dialogue,” said Henk Baas, 58, who traveled to the meeting from the Netherlands, part of a European delegation that included visitors from Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The Catholic Church in the United States and Europe has been rocked by revelations that large numbers of priests sexually abused minors and in some cases were protected by the Church hierarchy.
A report commissioned by the Church and released in May found nearly 6,000 U.S. priests — about 5 percent of the total — were accused of sexual abuse in the past 50 years.
The U.S. Catholic Church has paid out about $3 billion to settle sexual abuse lawsuits, resulting in the bankruptcies of some diocese, including San Diego; Wilmington, Delaware; and, early this year the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Reporting by Scott Malone, additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; Editing by Eric Beech