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Pope’s right-wing appointments fueled discontent


Perhaps nowhere else in the world have John Paul’s selections for bishops backfired quite the way they have in Austria.

In the 1960s, the Austrian bishops struck a dissenting note on Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the traditional ban on birth control. As a handful of other conferences did at the time, the Austrian bishops said that Catholics who in good conscience could not assent were not obliged to follow the teaching.

Through the 1970s, Austria’s episcopacy -- under the impress of Cardinal Franz König of Vienna, one of the leaders of the progressives at Vatican II -- carved out a reputation for moderation.

When John Paul became pope, he named a series of conservatives in what many saw as an attempt to rein in the Austrians. Observers say the unpopularity of these selections is an important factor in the current discontent.

The appointees included Klaus Küng, the head of Opus Dei in Austria, to the diocese of Feldkirch, and Georg Eder to Salzburg. Küng comes from a long line of conservatives; his brother Wolfgang, for example, is an Austrian trade commissioner known for his far-right views.

Eder, whose only claim to fame before his elevation to the episcopacy was as a writer of shrill letters to the editors of Austrian newspapers, once said AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuals. He also said that “he who recites a rosary does more for peace than any pacifist demonstration.”

Later came Kurt Krenn, another archconservative appointed auxiliary bishop of Vienna with special responsibility for the “artistic, literary and scientific” worlds -- even though he admitted on television that he could not name one living Austrian artist, painter, poet, sculptor, novelist, musician or scientist.

Krenn was eventually named to the diocese of Sankt Pölten. He has said that supporters of the We Are Church agenda are anti-Christs and compared its 1995 petition calling for church reform to the 1938 plebiscite welcoming Hitler to Austria.

Hans Hermann Groër was named archbishop of Vienna in 1986. Sources told NCR that Krenn was actually the first choice for the Vienna post, with Groër a compromise candidate. At the time Groër was in semiretirement tending a Marian shrine; his lone qualification seemed to be a close friendship with the pope.

In 1995, a 37-year-old man claimed that Groër had sexually abused him as a high school student. Four other accusers emerged, though none filed legal charges (the Austrian statute of limitations had expired). As evidence against him mounted and as his own statements became more evasive, Groër was forced to resign.

John Paul accepted the resignation bitterly, saying that Christ also had faced “unjust accusations.” Although more than 13 young men eventually lodged charges against Groër, John Paul allowed him to become prior of an Austrian monastery, adding to perceptions that the pope was covering up for his friend.

By all accounts, it was anger over the Groër affair -- including the highly public criticism of his accusers by Krenn -- that energized the 1995 petition drive.

Fifty-three-year-old Dominican Christoph Schönborn succeeded Groër. Widely seen as a doctrinal conservative, Schönborn has earned good marks so far by emphasizing conciliation and dialogue.

In April 1997, Schönborn led a group of bishops who announced they were “morally certain” the charges against Groër were true. Just before John Paul’s June visit, Schönborn -- made a cardinal in February -- announced that Groër would leave the country.

Despite Schönborn’s youth, he has been mentioned as a papabile, a candidate for pope. He was the general editor of the new universal catechism before being made a bishop and has ties to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, widely seen as one of America’s most conservative Catholic colleges. Schönborn received an honorary degree there last year. He is the sponsor of a small theological institute in Gaming, Austria, that shares space with a branch Steubenville campus.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998