While there was nothing new in the contents of Benedict’s message, it was one of the strongest — and most direct — speeches of a seven-year-old reign that has more often been dominated by a sexual abuse scandal, repeated tangles with other faiths and a Vatican hierarchy in disarray. It also showed Benedict, who at almost 85 has been showing his age, in fighting form as a defender of orthodoxy, favoring a smaller church of more ardent believers over a larger community that relies on what he sees as diluted doctrine.
The pope, who once led the church’s doctrinal office, delivered his homily from a golden throne in St. Peter’s Basilica on the day priests recall the vows they made when ordained. He was clearly referring to an Austrian group called Preachers’ Initiative, which has issued a “Call to Disobedience,” asking the church to allow the ordination of women, to remove the obligation of priestly celibacy and to permit priests to give holy communion to divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment. 

The initiative was started in 2006 by the Rev. Helmut Schüller, the former director of a Catholic aid agency, Caritas Austria, to combat a shortage of priests. Since then, more than 400 Austrian priests have endorsed him, according to news media reports, as well as priests in the United States and across Europe.
The Vatican fears that the initiative could cause a schism in the church. Father Schüller has called the Vatican an “absolutist monarchy” and said that the church’s resistance to change might lead to rupture anyway. 

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Father Schüller said he was surprised by Benedict’s words. “But I don’t think they were very harsh,” he said. “There was no threat or sanction implied in his words.”
“I think that in the history of the church, a lot has changed, even if not always voluntarily,” Father Schüller said. “There has been new science, new technology, new practices. The teachings are always changing.”
Allowing women or married men to enter the priesthood “is not a question of faith, but one of tradition,” Father Schüller added. “It is not a matter of theology, but of history and tradition. And those are constantly evolving.” 

In his homily, Benedict made clear that reforms could not go against church doctrine. He singled out “a group of priests from a European country” who had recently “issued a summons to disobedience.”
They did this to the point of disregarding church teaching and encouraging “women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the church has received no authority from the Lord,” Benedict said.
In 1994, John Paul issued an apostolic letter saying that the church “has no authority whatsoever” to ordain women, citing among its reasons that the apostles of Jesus Christ were all men. 

“We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the church,” Benedict said, “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. But is disobedience really a way to do this?”
Striking a characteristically inquisitive yet uncompromising stance, he asked whether such moves were aimed at “true renewal,” or “do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?” Instead, the pope said, Christ’s concern “was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice.” 

Benedict said priests should look to renewal in a “radicalism of obedience,” and turn to the saints, not modern convention, for guidance.
Vatican watchers said the pope’s remarks pointed to a growing battle in the Catholic world. “In spite of the tough response of the pope, I think that the calls for reform won’t diminish; they will only grow,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the daily newspaper Il Foglio. “It’s a problem that the Vatican will increasingly have to come to terms with.”