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Silenced Priest Assails Vatican’s ‘Institutional Violence’

Times Staff Writer

The latest U.S. Catholic priest to be disciplined by the Vatican said Thursday that he will take a six-month leave from lecturing to give the church “an honorable way out” of its directive silencing him for a year but said that he eventually may be forced to leave the priesthood.

Father Matthew Fox, an internationally known lecturer, author of a dozen popular books and founder of a controversial spiritual center in Oakland, condemned the directive as “institutional violence,” reflective of a church that is dying and showing “the characteristics of a dysfunctional family.”

“The issues of which we are speaking here are too grave to be swept under the rug and be silenced for long. Every day will be an issue of conscience for me,” Fox said at a press conference here.

The order, effective Dec. 15, bars the author-priest from teaching, preaching and lecturing but allows him to write. The directive was publicly revealed earlier this week but was issued in May by Fox’s Chicago-based Dominican Order.

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Fox, who espouses a New Age philosophy of spirituality and environmentalism, said that if he is forced to choose between remaining a “creation-centered theologian and . . . a priest in good standing in the Catholic church, then I will be a creation-centered theologian.”

“But that would be a pity for the church, not because I’m an important individual, but because what we’re doing is so radically Catholic. . . . However, historically, it may point to a postdenominational period that perhaps Mother Earth is requiring of us,” Fox said.

Fox founded the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland 11 years ago and teaches there. The institute mixes Roman Catholic doctrine with Zen, environmentalism, feminism, Native American beliefs, psychology, physics and other disciplines in a New Age approach to religion. He called his decision to take a sabbatical of one semester from teaching an “act of good faith.”

“I would like this whole affair not to be seen as a wrestling match between myself and the cardinal (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). So I want to bend over backwards and give them an honorable way out,” Fox said.

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Fox’s decision to take a one-semester sabbatical, rather than the yearlong sabbatical called for in the directive, could lead to further conflicts. Father John Gerlach, a spokesman for the Dominican Order in Chicago, said he was uncertain what the Vatican’s reaction would be if Fox resumes speaking before the year is up.

“I don’t know what move the superiors in Rome would be prepared to make in that event,” Gerlach said.

Fox went on in the press conference to stand by positions that got him into trouble in the first place, including support for gay and lesbian rights, the ordination of women priests and the right of Catholic women to have an abortion. He called the recent beatification of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system, a “deep, deep, deep offense to all native peoples the world over.”

Fox also seemed to be defying a part of the order by Ratzinger, the official who instituted the investigation of Fox, by refusing to fire a self-described witch named Starhawk who teaches at the institute. Ratzinger said in a letter to the Dominican Order that the Vatican was concerned over Starhawk because her teaching at the institute appears to lend credibility to witchcraft.

Fox said she was hired because she is “a feminist and a very qualified academician,” who is involved in “the moral struggle for nonviolence and equal justice.” Her firing would conflict with the tradition of academic freedom at Holy Names College, Fox said.

The 47-year-old cleric invoked the names of past and present Catholics who have been disciplined by the church, from Galileo to Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, and declared: “There is an honor attached to be being silenced by the present regime in the Vatican.”


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