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VATICAN CITY • Pope Benedict XVI has denounced priests who have questioned church teaching on celibacy and ordaining women, saying Thursday they were disobeying his authority to try to impose their own ideas on the Catholic Church.
Benedict made the rare and explicit criticism from the altar of St. Peter's Basilica in his homily on Holy Thursday, when priests recall the promises they made when ordained.
In 2006, a group of Austrian priests launched the Pfarrer Initiative, or pastor initiative, a call to disobedience aimed at abolishing priestly celibacy and opening the clergy to women to relieve the shortages of priests.
Last June, the group's members essentially threatened a schism, saying the Vatican's refusal to hear their complaints left them no choice but to "follow our conscience and act independently."
They issued a revised call to disobedience in which they said parishes would celebrate Eucharistic services without priests, that they would let women preach, and they pledged to speak out publicly and frequently for female and married priests.
The group now claims more than 300 Austrian priests and deacons as well as supporters in other countries. Its influence has grown to such an extent that top Austrian bishops met with Vatican officials in January to discuss how to handle them, Italian news reports said.
So far, neither the Vatican nor the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, have imposed any canonical penalties on them.
In his homily, Benedict said the dissidents claim to be motivated by concern for the church. But he suggested that in reality they were just making "a desperate push to do something to change the church in accordance with [their] own preferences and ideas."
"We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the church up to date," he said. "But is disobedience really a way to do this?"
He said Jesus always followed true obedience to God's will, not "human caprice."
Benedict's straightforward, "lucid" homily reaffirming mandatory celibacy for priests shows that the pontiff is in solid command at the helm of the Catholic Church, said the editor of the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
The pope, who turns 75 this month, has recently taken to using a cane and other devices to help him move during public ceremonies, and some observers have speculated that the less physically vigorous pontiff's leadership grip of the church might be loosening.
But Benedict's strong call to priests to staunchly embrace church teaching on celibacy "once again erases the stereotype of a weak pope who supposedly isn't governing the church," wrote Vatican editor Gian Maria Vian in an unusually prominent front-page commentary on the papal homily.
Early in the evening, Benedict went to Rome's St. John in Lateran Basilica to preside at the traditional Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. There, two aides helped the pope down the few steps from the altar, but otherwise Benedict walked steadily and briskly on his own to the array of priests who sat, each with one foot bare, so the pope could pour water over the foot in a symbol of humility and service. In remarks at the service, Benedict denounced "arrogance" as the "true essence of sin."
In the same spirit of service, the pope earmarked the collection of money offered by faithful during the Mass to help refugees of the violence in Syria.
The head of the Pfarrer Initiative, the Rev. Hellmut Schueller, downplayed the severity of Benedict's message and said the pope was merely asking for reflection on whether disobedience can reform the church.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Schueller noted that Benedict didn't forbid what the dissident priests were doing or advocating.
"We are listening with interest to this message," he said. "I cannot see it as a very sharp wording."
The members of the initiative, Schueller said, will reflect on Benedict's words as part of a dialogue he hopes to open with Austrian bishops.
"We have decided to go this way because it's the way of our conscience, as faithful, and we are expressing only the opinion of the people at the base of the church."
He insisted the initiative did not seek to split the church or create schism, saying the positions articulated in the call for disobedience increasingly reflected the will of ordinary Catholics.
Any divisions that are being created, Schueller said, are between the base of the church and the hierarchy.
Holy Thursday homilies are often unusual in that the pope uses them to issue direct messages to priests. In 2006, for example, Benedict read a letter written by a cleric who was killed as he prayed in Turkey.
And on Holy Thursday in 2002, Pope John Paul II broke his silence over the explosion of the U.S. sex abuse scandal, denouncing the sins of priestly abusers and the "grave scandal" that was casting a "dark shadow of suspicion" over all priests.