Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Swiss Jesuit chooses love

This article was originally published in French as "L'Eglise catholique devient une secte" by Patricia Briel in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps on July 25, 2007. Discussion about this case is lighting up the conservative Catholic blogs. English translation provided by Rebel Girl.

It's the geographical proximity that's amusing. Menzingen and Edlibach are two villages in the canton of Zoug, slightly more than one kilometer apart. The first includes the general house of the Catholics who are part of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X. In the second, one finds an important Jesuit spiritual formation center, Lassalle-Haus. Whereas at Menzingen nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church is cultivated, in Edlibach it's only a matter of spirituality and dialogue between religions and cultures.

But the freedom of speech and thought of the Jesuits was not enough to hold Father Lukas Niederberger. This young 43-year old priest, director of the Lasalle Center, has announced that he quit his order on July 7th. The same day as the publication of the motu proprio liberalizing the Latin Mass. A few days later, the Vatican would publish a document affirming that only the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. An act which could only have made Lukas Niederberger more comfortable about his decision. Because the Jesuit was tired. Tired of defending a Church ever more folded in upon itself, and which showed worrisome signs of becoming closed in. And then, he fell in love. He could no longer respect the celibacy rule for priests and he didn't want to live a double life. So he preferred to leave.

"I was a happy Jesuit", he said right away in a calm tone that would last throughout our meeting. "I have never been disappointed in the Company. It has always been a place where one can think, speak and act very freely within the Church." Lukas Niederberger entered the order of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1985 at age 20. He had dreamed of becoming a film-maker, diplomat or journalist. But a brief retreat at Lassalle-Haus with his graduating class changed his mind. "They talked to us about the Jesuits and their involvement in the world. I wanted to become one of them." Novitiate in the Austrian Tyrol region, theological studies in Paris, Philosophy in Munich. Travelling, meeting other cultures and other religions."I was influenced by the theology of Hans K√ľng, especially in the area of interfaith dialogue, " Lukas Niederberger said. A dangerous area that regularly earns those who venture into it the wrath of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Under the reign of Joseph Ratzinger, several Jesuits were severely reprimanded. If he were to write a book about interfaith dialogue, Lukas Niederberger would certainly also be condemned. He doesn't see Christianity as a superior religion to others. "I like the image that the Baha'i have of other religions. For them, each religion forms a chapter in a book. And each chapter has its value. Therefore it makes no sense to say that one chapter is better than another. Each one is necessary for the cohesion of the whole book. For me, religious pluralism in the world is part of God's plan. It's His will."

Lukas Niederberger has directed the Lassalle Center for twelve years. He must give up his position but he will stay on as administrator for a few months, the time needed for a successor to take over and for the ex-Jesuit to find work. He hopes that it will be in the social or humanitarian field. His decision has been ripening for a long time. "For several years I have been asking myself what I want to do with the second half of my life. But there has been almost no sign of opening in the Catholic Church for the last twenty years," he says."John Paul II has made it into a monolith that tolerates no diversity. And I don't see any hope of change with the present pope, nor in the future. Progressive Catholics are generally over 65 years old. And the next generation is that of John Paul II. The young priests are very clerical and not at all critical of the hierarchy."

And worse: according to the ex-Jesuit, the Catholic church no longer responds to the spiritual needs of men and women of this age. "It's tragic", he says. "The Church has a message to transmit but it no longer knows how to speak to contemporary people, especially in Western Europe. I received about 400 reactions of support when my decision was announced. Many Catholics who wrote to me can no longer identify with the institution." By wanting too much to reinforce the identity of the Church in a traditional sense, the pope is risking making moderate Catholics flee. "One can ask oneself if a Church that turns so much in on itself is not losing its Christian identity," Lukas Niederberger adds. "I'm not saying that the Church should follow the latest trends. But by its inability to adapt to the modern world and take into account the demands being made of it, it becomes a sect. It seems content with the fact that only a minority follow its program. The Church has marginalized itself in society; it no longer has an impact on public life."

Lukas Niederberger fell in love at the right moment. He admits that his meeting a woman helped him make his decision. "We have known each other for a year, and I didn't want to hide my relationship. That would be hurtful for my companion, and there would be no prospect for our relationship as a couple. I don't have any choice, I have to leave. Celibacy is difficult to live out in an order like the Jesuits. We live in the world like laypeople, and that creates constant tensions."

The order of Saint Ignatius is losing an important member. Lukas Niederberger was one of the four Jesuits who advised the Swiss Provincial, Albert Longchamp. A voice that was respected and listened to.

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