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Austria’s Catholic revolution


Recent turmoil in Austria’s Catholic church has made that nation a focal point for global reform efforts. This week a national assembly of Austrian Catholics, called the “Dialogue for Austria,” met to debate the direction of their church. NCR’s John L. Allen Jr. was in Salzburg to cover the event. The following story provides background on the Austrian situation; future articles will present the results of the Dialogue for Austria.

From before the Reformation all the way into the 20th century, Austria under the Hapsburg emperors was the bulwark of Catholic identity in Europe. Had Karol Wojtyla -- now the pope -- been born in Wadowice, Poland, just two years earlier than 1920, he would have started life as a Hapsburg citizen himself.

It must be especially agonizing, therefore, for the pope to watch what’s happening in Austria today. Austria in the late 1990s is home to a Catholic revolution -- a revolution directed not against external enemies of the faith, but against the papal absolutism John Paul embodies.

Reformers in this central European nation of 8 million, where 77 percent of the population is Catholic, enjoy remarkable political muscle. Despite advocacy of such officially taboo positions as women’s ordination, the reformers won a showdown with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, over their right to participate in formal church conversations.

This week, the progressives were poised for what may be their greatest breakthrough to date. During three days in Salzburg Oct. 23-26, an unusual national assembly of Catholics was set to debate -- and will likely vote in favor of -- optional celibacy for clergy, a local role in selecting bishops, more democratic governance, expanded roles for laity, a less condemnatory approach to sexual ethics and the possibility of ordaining women. The event is officially sponsored by the Austrian bishops’ conference.

While the votes in this “Dialogue for Austria” carry no canonical weight, many observers see it as a potential watershed event that could energize progressive Catholics around the world.

“It will give the whole structure of reform an important push,” said Elfriede Harth, a coordinator for the international We Are Church movement in France.

“Even if it is not possible to change things legally, the bishops coming out of this session will understand that pragmatically there have to be changes. All over the world this will encourage bishops to try to run their dioceses on their own without caring so much about what is said in Rome, because they know where the people are,” Harth said.

The bishops are indeed likely to get an earful in Salzburg. Polls show a strong majority of Austrian Catholics have been left angry and rebellious in the wake of a sex scandal involving the former cardinal of Vienna. Other points of contention include the appointments of a number of unpopular bishops and general frustration over Vatican inflexibility.

Last June when John Paul visited Austria and largely ducked the controversy, a dissident priest put it this way: “The pope is visiting a burning house, but instead of talking about the fire, he speaks about the lovely flowers in front.”

The assembly is the culmination of a yearlong process of dialogue, billed as an attempt at healing. Observers say that the Austrian bishops -- a mix of two liberal holdovers from earlier popes, a core of moderates and a handful of archconservatives appointed by John Paul -- actually proposed the process in the hope that it might blunt demands for reform. Early working papers made no mention of internal church issues, focusing instead on matters like poverty and international relations.

Reform on the agenda

Widespread public pressure, however, forced the bishops to allow the meeting to tackle reform issues head-on. Also under public pressure, the bishops agreed to present the results of the Dialogue for Austria to the Vatican. International reform groups have vowed to present the results to the second European synod in 1999.

Sources told NCR that the list of delegates for the Salzburg event seems to be representative of the church at large and that reform positions are likely to carry the day on most issues.

In perhaps the most stunning development, the debate will take place with Ratzinger’s grudging blessing. At first, Ratzinger advised the bishops’ conference in two June 1997 letters to freeze We Are Church out of the process. Ratzinger’s words, when published in the Austrian press, sparked a firestorm.

Scores of Catholics including Catholic Action, a widely respected lay organization, threatened to withdraw from the meeting if We Are Church was shut out. That would have led to a boycott of the event by a substantial block of delegates, signaling that We Are Church has a broad base of support even beyond its actual membership.

Ratzinger relented. After what many speculate was an intervention from Schönborn, a former student and friend of Ratzinger, the doctrinal chief said in a March 7 letter that he had no objection to “the carefully circumscribed participation of members of the We Are Church group” in the dialogue, provided it was clear this did not constitute “official recognition.”

Fr. Hans Küng, the well-known progressive Swiss theologian, called Ratzinger’s reversal “a victory for the We Are Church movement, which demonstrates that even the Vatican must now take We Are Church into account after having previously rejected any sort of dialogue.”

In a March 24 letter, Küng also warned, however, that the decision was probably intended to relieve pressure rather than to invite genuine dialogue. “I am putting this so bluntly only because good and faithful Catholics are forever falling into the trap of basically quite primitive Roman maneuverings,” Küng wrote.

Catholic discontent in Austria is deep and wide, a point that became clear in 1995 when a petition demanding reform garnered more than half a million signatures. That’s almost half of the country’s estimated 1.2 million regular Mass-goers.

If reform positions do command a majority in Salzburg, the news should come as no surprise to the Holy See. Only 50,000 people showed up in June to see the Vienna grand finale of the pope’s visit to Austria (in 1983, more than 130,000 saw the pope in the same spot), and many were from neighboring countries. John Paul begged those Austrians who did come, “Don’t leave the church.”

Before the papal visit, the cardinal of Vienna asked We Are Church to send representatives to sit in the V.I.P. section at the concluding Mass. In a telling indication of the current political situation, We Are Church declined, citing the pontiff’s resistance to change.

A cardinal accused

The Austrian turmoil developed over several decades. But the flash point was the 1995 accusations of sexual misconduct against Hans Hermann Groër, the cardinal of Vienna. Groër at first declined to comment, then became more evasive as evidence mounted.

As the Groër crisis deepened, many Austrians concluded that the church was involved in a cover-up. That perception was cemented by the publication of a book showing the Vatican had known about the accusations against Groër for years and done nothing. A poll conducted by an independent research institute at the time showed that 80 percent of Austrians were dissatisfied with the way the church had handled the affair, and 74 percent believed John Paul’s visit to Austria was intended to cover up Groër’s misconduct.

The Groër affair legitimized, for many Austrians, a broader sense that the church needed to change. The poll also showed that 80 percent of Austrians supported getting rid of clerical celibacy, more than 60 percent wanted to ordain women and about the same number wanted to pick their own bishops.

Pressure for reform flared anew in November 1997 when Pope John Paul issued an instruction on lay ministry that, among other things, forbid laity to preach or perform many liturgical functions. Many observers suggested that John Paul had a special eye on Austria, where professional pastoral administrators have taken over many of the functions of priests. Protest in the country was immediate and widespread.

The stark divisions in the Austrian church can be glimpsed simply by looking at public divisions among its bishops. Late last year Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck issued a letter criticizing the papal document on lay ministry, arguing that church leaders are out of touch with pastoral realities (NCR, Dec. 26, 1997). “Rome has lost the image of mercy and assumed the image of harsh authority,” wrote Stecher, who has since retired. Conservative Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten roundly criticized Stecher.

The divisions cropped up again in recent weeks. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has just published a book in which he reasserts the church’s traditional positions on celibacy, women’s ordination and democratization (though he welcomes dialogue). His auxiliary, Helmut Kraetzl, also has published a book reaching exactly the opposite conclusions. Kraetzl argues that the Holy Spirit is active in all the faithful and, therefore, the laity should have a coequal role in church life.

These are the currents that are likely to swirl this week in Salzburg. Thomas Luger, a member of the We Are Church executive committee, told NCR via E-mail that his group hopes the Dialogue for Austria will become institutionalized, meeting every two years -- “like a parliament of the Catholic church.”

For John Paul, all this is clearly not his idea of a revived Catholic center in Europe. But for the European Catholics, the Dialogue for Austria may usher in a different kind of revival, en route to a different kind of Catholic church.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998