On the Lookout: Dissidents Caught in the Web

The thirty-fifth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, will witness the convergence on Rome of dissident Catholics from Europe and the Americas. The militant revisionists will demand that the Vatican acknowledge the signatures collected in a two-year campaign that featured the We Are Church petition. Representatives claim their “restructuring” goals embody the true “spirit of Vatican II,” which they insist has been thwarted by the papacy of Pope John Paul II.

Several American dissident organizations—Call To Action, Women’s Ordination Conference, and the Association of Rights of Catholics in the Church—combined efforts to support the We Are Church Coalition which distributed a referendum in the United States. Their Canadian counterpart, Catholics of Vision, and a European We Are Church affiliate have joined in the symbolic assault upon the Vatican. The groups have circulated the petitions via the Internet as well as at parishes, schools, and colleges.

Principal demands of the petition include: married priests, women’s ordination, reproductive rights—not excluding abortion, sacramental acceptance of divorced and remarried Catholics, ecclesial acceptance of homosexuality, and the right of the laity to elect bishops and pastors.

The organizations have declined to release actual numbers, though early reports indicated they expected to deliver a total of five million names to Pope John Paul II.

Those hopes dissolved when Sister Maureen Fiedler, S.L., of the Women’s Ordination Conference admitted that the referendum had not achieved the one million U.S. signatures the American coalition members envisioned. Their face-saving rebuttal: Many parishioners fear reprisals if their names are found on the petition. Despite intense networking and media attention, the numbers to be presented in Rome fall embarrassingly short of the announced goal.

Dissident Catholic movements worldwide effectively had used the Internet to flash their disgruntlement with the Church to the media, to government organizations, and to their members. The most famous incidence of a dissident Internet strike against the Church was the Austrian “Wir sind Kirche” of June 1995. The petition was e-mailed to thousands who were invited to sign electronically. Weeks later the dissidents had collected half a million Austrian signatures demanding married priests, women’s ordination, birth control, and dialogue with Rome.

Pope John Paul II, aware of the maneuvers of the revisionists, quickly moved to preempt them when he established a state-of-the-art Website for the Holy See. Easter Morning, 1997, the Vatican launched a World Wide Website (www.Vatican.va) that within seconds became one of the world’s busiest. Presided over by three powerful computers, christened Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael in honor of the archangels, the site makes authentic Catholicism available to millions of people daily. The event brought new criticisms from those seeking to restructure the Church in their own image.

“Is this another means of nurturing pope worship?” pouted a Canadian who suggested the Vatican open a soup kitchen instead. “A cheap grab for attention,” posted a British cyber surfer. Other grumbles include these charges: the Vatican site was competing with local Catholic cyber-communities; the pope should refer people to their local parishes, thus decentralizing from Roman domination; and, a snide renaming of the computers to Galileo, Courtney-Murray, and Roncalli.

The Holy Father is acutely aware that many Catholics labor to practice their faith despite “progressive” theologians, bishops, professors, and directors of religious education. In his address on World Communications Day, the pope seemed to welcome the opportunity to present the Church to believers directly—minus the interposing of commentary of dissenters. “In the new ‘computer culture’ the Church can more readily inform the world of her beliefs and explain the reasons for her stance on any given issue or event,” he confided.

The secular media, too, recognizes that www.Vatican.va represents the Church’s opportunity for unencumbered catechizing, as evidenced in this Reuters report: “But if you are a Catholic and in doubt and want to know what the Church teaching is on a certain issue—such as birth control or women priests—you will be directed to a document or the Church’s Universal Catechism.”

Evangelization and catechesis are the primary goals of the Holy Father’s cyber mission. Bishop Claudio Maria Celli explained, “It will be an extension of the pope’s pastoral visits; he’ll be traveling on the Internet.”

Meanwhile, in Rome, a handful of dissident group leaders brandishing their cyber signatures in a symbolic gesture of rebellion will be absorbed by the swelling tide of the Catholic Restoration.


Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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