An Austrian priest theologian has blasted the clericalist Church that infantilises the faithful, warning that such an institution “has no future”.

– Church has failed to allow the faithful to “come of age”

Sociologist of religion Paul Zulehner (80), emeritus professor of pastoral theology at the University of Vienna since his retirement in 2008, outlined to the Carinthian Church newspaper Sonntag July 9 how he is seeking with his theology to put back on a “sound footing” a Church “turned upside-down” by clericalism.

“A Church that is built on clericalism, that cares for underage people who perhaps do not want to come of age at all because they have hardly experienced this in the Church so far: such a Church of priests has no future”, Zulehner warned.

In contrast, he explained, “what is needed are people who allow themselves to be claimed by God, who join the movement of Jesus and with it form a Church that illuminates as light for all people”.

– “It wasn’t important to Jesus that people be saved from the ‘evil world'”

How, though, to overcome the resistance and the inertia and destroy once and for all the patronising and clericalist structures in the Church?

In Zulehner’s vision, reform must start with a return to Jesus and the “movement” he sought to begin in the world in God’s name.

“It wasn’t so important to him that people be saved from the ‘evil world’ and that they enter heaven being morally perfect. His program was that heaven is already coming to us. He called it the Kingdom of God, a world that does not forget God.

“This reliance on God bears good fruit in the present life. The biblical texts call it truth, justice, peace [and] joy. In other words, mature humanity. God became man so that the world would become more human”, Zulehner stressed.

– Reading the signs of the times in the “era of choice” in religion

From Jesus’ example on, the keys to reform in the Church then, for the theologian, are twofold: reading the signs of the times and finding inspiration in mysticism.

With regard to that first key, Pope Francis is a master of reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, Zulehner affirmed, adding that a sign of the times for the pontiff, “as a friend of the Second Vatican Council, is that the so-called ‘Constantinian era’ is over”.

Although in the past people were forced to belong to one religion or another – as, for example, under the medieval principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”) – “today in Austria nobody is forced to be a member of a Church any more”, Zulehner observed, summing up the change as a move “from an ‘era of coercion’ to an ‘era of choice'” about individual beliefs, or the lack of them.

Our no longer being in the “era of coercion” around religion has important implications for the Church’s mission, Zulehner argued, given that the institution must now give people better reasons to join up to and persist in the institution.

“Perhaps more people would join the Church if it were to be moved out of the centre”, Zulehner mused in that respect, adding that in any case the important point is that the Church connects the gospel message of Jesus “with the very everyday life, love and suffering of people”.

– “Gospel communities” with leadership drawn from within, not imposed from without

At a time when many reform-minded people in the Church are pressing for structural changes first and foremost to parishes and ministries, Zulehner stands out in his demand that a spiritual return to Jesus and his movement of solidary love precede those institutional corrections.

The theologian explained his thinking on the matter by affirming that “the strongest reform impulses by which a fallen-down Church was renewed always came from a mystical depth” and citing as an example of that the poverty movement of St. Francis of Assisi, “who fascinates our Pope because he loves creation and wants a poor Church”.

“Mystical people are not sanctimonious, but mostly revolutionary”, the theologian explained, adding that mystics “know themselves to be part of the movement that Jesus brought into the world” and “live in communities of the gospel”.

Zulehner cited St. Paul as another example of a mystical icon, and argued that the apostle’s model of community management – in which everything needed for a local church’s flourishing, including gifts, talents, skills and leadership, was pooled from the inside and not imposed from the outside – could be a model for the Church today.

“Paul did not know a lack of priests because he took the ‘leaders’ from the communities” and not from a “vocations market” nor an “international priestly exchange”, Zulehner observed.

The theologian added that “gospel communities” must be more like “open hostels” than immovable strongholds, ready both to “welcome spiritual seekers in a hospitable way, modern pilgrims, and accompany them, often only for a part of their lives” and to “carry out social projects, work in education and care for people seeking protection”.

Only to the extent to which parishes today move closer to that model of the gospel community can they live out their true vocation today to be “oases of trust in the midst of cultures of fear”, Zulehner said.

More on Novena on the evils of the clericalist Church:

French Bishops’ head ‘gets it’ on rights for women, laity: “The Church cannot act as if humans were children who must be held by the hand”

Theologian accuses German Bishops of perpetuating clericalist Church with new priestly training plans

French Catholics line up behind Pope in blaming clericalist Church as root of Catholicism’s ills

Former Benedictine Abbot Primate questions clericalist Church hierarchies: “I find none of it in the Gospels”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.