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Originally published August 3, 2013 at 8:10 PM | Page modified August 3, 2013 at 10:47 PM

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Ex-monsignor brings message of church reform to Seattle

An Austrian priest, stripped by the Vatican of his monsignor title because of his radical messages of reform about married and female priests, is scheduled to speak Monday in Seattle as part of his 15-city U.S. tour.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An Austrian priest who gained global attention two years ago with his call to disobedience for Roman Catholics everywhere is bringing his message of church reform to Seattle.

Father Helmut Schüller is on a 15-city tour across the U.S., where he’s been advocating for female and married priests, more tolerance for gays and wider participation by laypeople in leadership — positions at odds with church policy.

Stripped last year by the Vatican of his title of monsignor because of his activism, Schüller has been banned on this tour from speaking at some Catholic churches.

His Catholic Tipping Point tour, sponsored by several liberal reform groups in the U.S., coincided with Pope Francis’ recent visit to Brazil, where the Argentine urged young Catholics to “shake up the church ... ”

It also comes in advance of the first meeting this October of a group of cardinals charged by the pope with examining ways to revise the Vatican constitution.

In Seattle — the second-to-last stop on his U.S. trip — Schüller will speak at 7 p.m. Monday at First United Methodist Church, 180 Denny Way.

He is scheduled to speak Sunday in Portland.

Founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, a group of about 430 Austrian priests openly challenging church hierarchy on many thorny issues, Schüller said allowing women and married men to serve as priests would help address the priest shortage now plaguing the U.S. church.

Over the past five decades, the number of self-identified Catholics in the U.S. increased by nearly 30 million people to 78.2 million, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate — growth driven in large part by immigrant arrivals in recent years.

During the same time, the number of U.S. priests declined by nearly 20,000 to 39,000. And while the number of Catholic parishes is about equal to what it was 48 years ago, the number of U.S. parishes without a resident pastor increased sixfold during that time.

Washington state is home to an estimated 1 million Catholics, about two-thirds of them in the Seattle Archdiocese, which covers Western Washington, and where 117 resident priests are assigned to 147 parishes.

Opening the church to women isn’t just a response to the shortage, Schüller told a group in Cleveland last week, but a matter of principle.

“A religion which is messaging that women and men are together in the image of God must also have this message in its ministerial structure,” he said.

He has said the church’s ban on women and married priests is not an inherent part of the church’s teachings but an order that can be lifted.

Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Seattle Archdiocese, said church teachings and tradition always have held that the priesthood is reserved for men.

“It is never a good fit when someone seeks to apply a contemporary cultural template to Catholic teachings,” he said. “Our teachings emanated from Jesus Christ, with continuity from the time of Christ until now.”

In the Seattle Archdiocese, there is currently one married priest — a former Lutheran minister. But the church does not ordain married Catholic men who came up in the church.

Area Catholics say the priest shortage is reflected in the growing number of foreign priests conducting weekly Mass.

Betty Hill, president of Call To Action of Western Washington, one of the groups sponsoring Schüller’s tour, said the shortage “seems to be an issue in English-speaking countries and across Europe.

“What that means is that we don’t have priests there for the people,” she said. “Catholics are hungry for change ... particularly women, who have been so downtrodden,” Hill said. “I think conservatives are very worried.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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