Save This Priest - And Your Church

The case of Father Nicholas Gruner raises issues almost as old as the Church itself. At the heart of the matter is the way the Church accommodates—or does not accommodate—internal differences about matters of belief, doctrine and devotion.

Father Nicholas Gruner, the "Fatima Priest"

In its nearly 2,000 years of existence, the Catholic Church has undergone a long series of developments. Some of these, such as the formulation of the Nicene Creed, were accompanied by intense doctrinal debates. Those conflicts, and many others since then, have been settled by definitive pronouncements from the Pope or Councils of the Church. Other matters, however, have yet to be finally resolved by the Church's teaching authority. Traditionally, the Church has permitted free debate in areas where settled doctrine is not involved, following the maxim of St. Augustine: "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity."

Growing Tolerance?

After the Second Vatican Council in 1965, this traditional tolerance began to extend even to those who openly contradict basic Church teaching. Since Vatican II, only one theologian (a priest from Sri Lanka) has been excommunicated for his heretical views, and even he was reconciled to the Church on his own terms a short time later. A more recent example of extreme tolerance was the praise lavished on dissident theologian Hans Küng by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in a speech earlier this year. Küng has publicly questioned or denied everything from the divinity of Christ to the divine institution of the Catholic Church, and has denounced Pope John Paul II as "despotic." Yet Cardinal Sodano, the second highest-ranking official in the Vatican, declared that Küng has written "beautiful passages on the Christian mysteries."

One would expect that a Church so tolerant of legitimate—and even illegitimate—theological debate would have no problem accommodating an orthodox priest espousing entirely traditional views. The campaign to silence Fr. Gruner is thus a startling departure from the prevailing tolerance within the post-conciliar Church.

Or Repression?

Fr. Gruner is neither a radical innovator, nor a propounder of heresy in any form. He preaches nothing that could not have been uttered by the Pope himself—and much of it actually has been uttered by the present Pontiff. Yet he is now one step away from being suspended by the Vatican. One can safely disregard the fact that the official reason for this suspension is given as "administrative disobedience." Articles in this publication make clear that the real reason for this suspension is not what Fr. Gruner has done, but what he says. One of the Archbishops on the tribunal moving to suspend him has admitted this.

The key question therefore is: what has Fr. Gruner said that warrants such dire punishment? He has said that the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin at Fatima were an authentic sign from Heaven, conveying messages and requests which the Church must heed and obey. There is nothing whatever heretical in this. The Vatican has officially declared the Fatima apparitions "worthy of belief," and the present Pope has gone much further, acknowledging that the Message of Fatima imposes an obligation on the Church, and on all mankind.

Officials Displeased

Why would the Vatican want to suspend a priest for agreeing with the Holy Father? Even priests convicted of such heinous crimes as child molestation are usually spared this severe penalty. Yet the Vatican seems only too eager to impose it on a priest of unquestioned moral character, and entirely orthodox Catholic belief. It is obvious that the Pope, well-known to be a Fatima believer, cannot be offended by what Fr. Gruner says. But it is equally obvious that various high-ranking officials in the Vatican bureaucracy, who do not agree with the Pope, are displeased. It is they who are moving to silence Fr. Gruner, using a process in which the Pope chooses not to interfere.

Should the Vatican bureaucracy be allowed to get away with this? For Catholics who are not Fatima believers, the fate of Fr. Gruner may seem to be a matter of little consequence. And yet, a growing number of concerned Catholics—both clergy and laity—are now answering this question with an emphatic NO, because they realize that there is more at stake here than Fr. Gruner's particular case. Every Catholic has the right to follow the dictates of his or her own conscience regarding Fatima. And whatever their choice, both believers in Fatima and unbelievers are entitled to have their convictions respected. Punishing someone for professing and promoting a belief in the Message of Fatima is as fundamentally wrong as it would be to punish unbelievers. It is also contrary to the Code of Canon Law, which explicitly protects the rights of priests to make their views known to pastors and the faithful.

Trust Violated

Seen in this context, the Vatican's campaign against Fr. Gruner is much more than an abuse of power with regard to a single, troublesome priest. By acting as it is, the Apostolic Signatura is violating its sacred trust in a way that threatens the rights of all Catholic priests. The Signatura is their court of last resort, the final guarantor of their fundamental rights. But instead of safeguarding those rights, the Signatura is actively engaging in the very abuses of power it is morally bound to prevent.

Where can Fr. Gruner—or any other priest—turn when the court that is supposed to protect him is instead persecuting him? One would have to be very naive to think that only Fr. Gruner can be victimized in this way. Plainly, the same fate awaits any other priest who dares to express views—however valid theologically—that displease certain Vatican authorities.

Catholics everywhere have good cause to be alarmed by the spectacle of what amounts to political repression within the clergy. At a time when open and sincere dialogue, charitable tolerance, and an improved climate of trust and respect are sorely needed, the Vatican bureaucracy is offering a divisive double standard: extreme tolerance for some, and harsh repression for others.

While they lecture civil governments around the world on respect for human rights, Vatican officials flagrantly deny those same rights to a priest whose views they deem to be 'politically incorrect.' The faithful, shaken by a long succession of clerical scandals and deeply divided on various doctrinal and social issues, deserve more enlightened leadership at this critical time. They are being ill-served by a bureaucracy whose erratic, inconsistent and illicit actions are aggravating problems, rather than resolving them.

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