A leading Catholic religious order has said its Dutch branch risks a split within the Church with its recommendation to allow lay people to celebrate mass to overcome a growing shortage of clerics.
The proposal "risks not only worsening the polarisation within the Dutch Church but also encouraging schism", said a report for the Dominicans, an order that has produced many prominent theologians since its founding in 1216.
The Dutch Dominicans, who sent a booklet entitled "Church and Ministry" to all Dutch Catholic parishes last August proposing that an ordinary person could lead the service if there was no priest available, deny wanting to create a schism.
They say they will also distribute the report criticising the idea, commissioned by Dominican headquarters in Rome and written by French Dominican Father Herve Legrand, to all Dutch Catholic parishes to further debate over the issue.
It was not clear whether the order would take any practical steps against the booklet's authors, four theologians whose proposals recalled the liberal experiments of the 1960s rather than the traditional tone of the Church under Pope Benedict.
Legrand's report, published by the French Catholic daily La Croix on Thursday, said the disputes tearing apart the Anglican Communion showed how damaging divisions could be.
It said the booklet's authors knew "the concrete results of the ordination of a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States: nationally, the creation of new schismatic and competing dioceses, internationally, the split in the Anglican Communion".
The worldwide Anglican Communion is threatened by schism over the issue of the homosexual American bishop Gene Robinson. Some traditionalist parishes and one diocese have quit the Episcopal Church to join conservative Anglican churches, mostly in Africa.
SHORTAGE OF PRIESTS
Dominican spokesmen in Rome and the Netherlands confirmed the report but had no immediate comment on it.
In it, Legrand described the Dutch booklet as "a proposal that no Catholic theology faculty in the world would support" and chided the Dutch Dominican province for distributing it without permission from local bishops.
But he agreed the priest shortage is a serious problem and said the Church could consider relaxing its celibacy rule if that could bring more men to the priesthood.
But he said this would have to be decided by the whole Church, not just one part. Pope Benedict has clearly stated he is opposed to allowing priests to marry.
The Dutch booklet argued that priestless congregations should be able to choose a lay person to celebrate the eucharist, a sacrament reserved for the clergy. It stressed this option would be for extraordinary situations and not the norm.
But it also said any devout Catholic could be chosen and would not need approval from the local bishop. "Whether they be men or women, homosexual or heterosexual, married or unmarried is irrelevant," it said in contradiction to Church doctrine.
When the booklet appeared, the Dutch Bishops Conference denounced it and the Dominican headquarters in Rome announced its disapproval and asked Legrand to write the report on it.
Catholic order warns Dutch priests not to split Church
Published 27 January 2008