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A worldwide model for church reform groups


As the Dialogue for Austria unfolds in Salzburg, that nation once again looms as a model for Catholic reform groups around the world.

“This deserves more news and analysis than it’s been given,” said Dan Daley, codirector of the Chicago-based Call to Action. “The dialogue means that We Are Church has a right to be part of formal conversation about the future of the church in Austria -- yet they stand for women’s ordination, for all these issues that are supposedly off-limits.

“It says to the world that people with these views have a right to be part of the church family in formal conversation,” Daley told NCR. “That’s incredibly important.”

Elfriede Harth, a German now living in Paris, is one of the international coordinators of the We Are Church movement. Though some have accused Austria of launching a second reformation, Harth said the Austrian progressives are strong in part because they’re actually quite moderate.

“You have in Austria a reform movement that is not extremely radical,” Harth told NCR. “They want adaptations, but not a rupture.”

For example, Harth said that Austrian reformers advocate optional celibacy and women’s ordination not as part of a sweeping feminist critique, but simply as a pastoral matter: We want the Eucharist, so we need more priests.

That may be Austria’s chief lesson for reformers elsewhere, Harth said. “They go at the speed of the grassroots and not faster. This is the great secret of the Austrians, and you have to admire it. They move slowly but achieve lots of things.”

Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, who directs the Washington-based Catholics Speak Out and acts as an American contact for the international We Are Church movement, said Austria has probably the strongest Catholic reform presence in the world. “Certainly if you measure activists per square foot,” she said. “It’s an extremely important movement.”

In 1997, Fiedler attempted to duplicate the success of the Austrian petition drive. After setting a goal of a million signatures in the U.S., she netted only 37,000. She offered several reasons Austria was more successful.

In addition to momentum from the Groër scandal and a string of unpopular bishops, Fiedler mentioned the church tax in Austria and Germany. Under that system, all baptized Catholics are taxed by the state for support of the church. One can escape the tax only by formally leaving the church. “People feel a greater stake in the church because they have to pay taxes for it,” Fiedler said. “They’re less afraid to criticize.”

Other observers told NCR that the church tax is important in another sense. Many church employees in Austria and Germany are civil servants, drawing salary and benefits from the state. That means they tend to be well-paid, well-educated professionals, more likely to be independent and assertive. In Austria, many of the leading figures in We Are Church are church employees -- one is a parish administrator, another a religion instructor, another a parish priest.

“The reform presence is very much a part of the warp and woof of parishes and dioceses,” Daley said. “It’s connected with the grassroots of the church.”

At least on the appointment of bishops, observers say that Austrian history also plays a role. Until the 13th century, bishops were elected by cathedral chapters of priests, as was the practice elsewhere. Afterward, the Hapsburg emperor, not the pope, tapped bishops in most dioceses; in others, elections continued. The Salzburg cathedral chapter to this day elects its archbishop from three names presented by the Vatican. Thus Austrians are especially skeptical of claims that episcopal appointments can only be made by the pope.

“It certainly means that the U.S. situation, where we just accept bishops, is not necessarily normative,” said Don Wedd, who coordinates international contacts for Call to Action.

Beyond these factors, Fiedler said an Austrian reformer at a Call to Action meeting once gave her a “deeper reason” for their success. This man told her, “We have heard how evil it is to remain silent in the face of injustice. It is the lesson of the Holocaust.

“There is a very strong belief that everyone has a responsibility to do something about a perceived injustice,” he told Fiedler. “It’s wrong to remain silent.”

Fiedler said Austria is a critical example to the world. “They show what the power of a committed grassroots movement can be, what it really means for Catholics to speak out and to act,” she said.

She cited as an example the reaction when Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten fired a priest for bringing charges against Groër. “First of all, the priest said, ‘They’ll have to get the police, I’m not leaving on my own.’ Next 7,000 people showed up for a protest in support of him. That’s grassroots power,” Fiedler said, “that’s speaking up and making a difference.”

“It’s the kind of thing going on now in Corpus Christi Parish,” Fiedler said, referring to a progressive parish in Rochester, N.Y., that resisted, then opened negotiations when the diocesan bishop told them to stop such practices as blessing gay unions and inviting non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist (NCR, Aug. 28).

“They’re operating on the Austrian model. The difference is in Austria they do all those things in almost every circumstance.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998