Pope Benedict XVI issued a blistering denunciation Thursday of priests who have questioned church teaching on celibacy and ordaining women, saying they were being selfish in disobeying his authority.

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, a call to disobedience aimed at abolishing priestly celibacy and opening up 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 a female and a married priesthood.

The group now claims more than 300 Austrian priests and deacons as well as supporters in other countries, and 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 publicly imposed any canonical penalties on them.

Dissident priest downplays Pope's remarks

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?"

However, the Austrian priest who founded the group of clergy who question church teaching on celibacy and women's ordination has downplayed Pope Benedict's denunciation.

The Rev. Hellmut Schueller said Benedict was merely asking for reflection on whether their disobedience can help 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.