Basel bishop calls time on parish priest

Sabo is seen here celebrating Mass in Röschenz on October 1

The bishop of Basel has banned an outspoken Catholic priest from working in his parish after Franz Sabo refused to accept a six-month suspension of his duties.

This content was published on October 8, 2005 - 13:57

But Sabo has once again gone against the wishes of Kurt Koch, the head of the country's biggest diocese, by celebrating Mass and officiating at a baptism on Sunday.

The bishop's decision came after Sabo celebrated another mass in the Röschenz church last Saturday, shortly after his suspension began, according to Bernard Cueni, a member of the parish council.

Sabo, who has been the parish priest since 1998, had warned he would ignore the suspension order and continue to carry out his duties. He was suspended at the beginning of the month for criticising the Church hierarchy from the pulpit.

The outspoken clergyman told local television on Sunday that he wanted to stay put so long as the parish and his health permitted.

In a letter to Sabo, Koch had threatened the dissident priest with "grave consequences" if he decided to celebrate another mass in the parish in canton Basel Country. "These consequences were not spelt out, but it could go as far as excommunication," said Cueni.

In Saturday's edition of the Basler Zeitung, Erwin Tanner, a specialist in canon law at Fribourg University, said excommunication was one of the few means at the bishop's disposal to put pressure on Sabo.

"He [Koch] cannot physically prevent him from celebrating mass, he is an ordained priest," said Tanner. "Even if his priestly duties don't meet with the hierarchy's approval, they can only threaten him."

Tanner said the parish council, which still backs the dissident priest, could also be excommunicated if it did not accept the bishop's decision.

Cutlure clash

The council, which is standing behind Sabo, believes there is still room for negotiation with the diocese. "The bishop has never proposed a workable solution to this situation," said Cueni.

While the council says it will not give in, what it wants may be of little consequence, according to a British commentator on church affairs, Felix Corley.

"The Catholic Church is not a democracy," he told swissinfo. "Any priest who speaks in a way that his bishop regards as inappropriate, or who attacks the institution of the Church, is quite likely to be removed by that bishop."

Matters came to a head earlier this year after Sabo accused the Catholic hierarchy of abusing its power.

"You do not represent Jesus as he is in the Bible. You are celebrating yourselves and your power," Sabo was quoted as saying during a sermon. This followed earlier personal criticism of Koch.

The bishop announced in March that the dissident priest's canonical mission – or authority to teach Catholic doctrine – would be revoked in September, saying that it was no longer possible to work with him.

But in April half of the parish voted in favour of retaining the priest. Cueni says that nothing has changed since then.

The archbishopric of Bamberg in Germany, where Sabo was ordained, is technically responsible for him.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The case of Franz Sabo is apparently the first of its kind in Switzerland's Catholic Church.
The legal status is unclear as church law only covers the hiring and not the firing of a priest.
If the canonical mission is taken away a priest is no longer allowed to minister to his parish.

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