e-mail us

Cover story

A dramatic step toward reform

NCR Staff
Salzburg, Austria

Catholics gathered here in a special national assembly voted in overwhelming numbers for what amounts to a sea change in their church. Though their focus was on Austria, the decisions made over these four days, Oct. 23-26 -- and the process by which they were reached -- are likely to reverberate around the world.

Majorities surpassing three-quarters of the 260 or so delegates -- drawn from all walks of life and all regions of the country -- endorsed ordination for married men, freedom for couples to choose which method of birth control is right for them and allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments.

They also supported acceptance of premarital living arrangements and a more positive view of sex generally, the right of parish councils to make final decisions without a priest’s blessing, a greater local role in selecting bishops and an end to the condemnation of homosexuality. They voted for ordaining women as deacons but did not address the question of female priests.

According to observers in Salzburg, the Dialogue for Austria was apparently the first time anywhere in the world that a bishops’ conference has convened a national assembly of Catholics to debate church policies and then put those policies to a vote -- though similar events have taken place in some European dioceses. While the results carry no canonical force, they were widely interpreted in the Austrian press as dramatic evidence of the depth and breadth of support for reform.

Equally significant, many observers said, is that all factions of the Austrian church -- from the far right Neocatechumenate movement to We Are Church, the leading progressive reform group -- were official participants in the dialogue.

Delegates in Salzburg also adopted an aggressive social justice platform, calling for a strengthened safety net for all Austrians, legal protection of Sunday as a national day of rest from work, recognition of a “human right to work” and more compassionate policies for refugees and immigrants.

The results fell short of a complete endorsement of the 1995 petition drive demanding change in the church, the “Kirchenvolks-begehren” or “people’s movement in the church,” which garnered a half-million signatures. A stronger statement on optional celibacy, more in keeping with the petition, made it out of committee only as a minority report and thus did not come up for a vote.

There was no vote for admitting women to the priesthood. A statement that discussion on the subject should continue was endorsed by one of the working groups but did not come up for a floor vote. Spokespersons for We Are Church vowed in its final news conference to continue to press the issue.

Still, 11 of the 12 subpoints in the 1995 petition were endorsed in some form by the assembly. We Are Church members were clearly buoyed by the outcome. “I do not want to claim this as a success for us alone,” said Thomas Plankensteiner, the chief spokesperson for the group, in his concluding address to the delegates. “It is a success for the entire church.

“What has become clear is that we are not talking here about the demands of a radical fringe, but the desires of the heart of the church.” The loudest ovation of the weekend washed over Plankensteiner as he finished.

“This is no longer our petition,” Plankensteiner later said to the press. “It is now Austria’s petition, and I hope it will become our bishops’ petition. Some are already in our favor.”

Many Austrians on the pastoral front lines were also clearly elated. One pastor sought out NCR to say through a translator, “I have already been doing many of these things, you know. But now I won’t have to do it with my head down.”

Despite such claims, much remains unresolved in the wake of these four days. First and foremost is what the Austrian bishops will do with the enormous mandate for change that has been dropped in their laps. On that point, fissures were clear the last day of the conference, with progressive bishops underscoring the call for change and conservatives claiming that no action can be taken that contradicts the magisterium.

Bishops to visit Rome

The next flash point is likely to be the Austrian bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome beginning Nov. 16. The bishops agreed in advance of the Dialogue for Austria to take the results with them, but some asserted from the floor that they could not carry a message that ran contrary to the pope’s teaching.

Also unclear is the question of whether the Dialogue for Austria was a one-shot affair or whether it will be repeated on some sort of regular basis, similar to a synod. More than three-quarters of the delegates here voted for another assembly in three years, but the bishops were noncommittal.

In what many people suggested was the understatement of the weekend, on Friday, the opening day of the conference, the Austrian nuncio read a letter to the delegates from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, who said the pope was looking on the Dialogue for Austria “with great interest.”

Sodano went on to say that John Paul regarded the Dialogue for Austria not as “ a round table of informal exchanges but a kind of sacred experiment ... In distinction from a conversation of looser design, the Dialogue must aim at the commuinal finding and recognition of truth.”

On Saturday small working groups met to decide which propositions would come before the full assembly on Sunday for a vote, using a working document published in advance. Significantly, not a single one of the conservative proposals published as part of that document -- either on church or social issues -- made it out of a small group.

At his closing news conference, Johann Weber, the bishop of Graz, suggested that Dialogue for Austria-style meetings might spread to other countries. “I was at a meeting of European bishops recently, and I was surprised at how much interest there was in this,” he said. “Though we are a small country, Austria has led the way before, in the biblical and liturgical movements that eventually triumphed at Vatican II, for example.

“There’s a perception that synods are too rigid, and perhaps meetings such as this make sense,” Weber said. Weber was acting over the weekend as head of Austria’s bishops’ conference in the absence of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who was hospitalized before the proceedings began with a lung ailment.

Reform groups around the world seem poised to tout the Dialogue for Austria as a model for national-level consultations in other nations. “This is a key point,” said Christian Weisner, a We Are Church organizer from Germany who was in Salzburg as an observer. “If this can happen in Austria, why can it not happen other places? If Catholics here can vote on church policies, if reform voices here can be part of the process in an official way, why can that not happen in other nations?

“In that respect, I think this is a potentially historic precedent for how conversations about the future of the church should be handled,” Weisner said.

Deep sense of crisis

The Dialogue for Austria grew out of a deep sense of crisis in the Austrian church following the resignation of the immensely popular Cardinal Franz König of Vienna in 1986. Since then several developments have left many Catholics embittered: a sex scandal involving his successor, Hans Groër; John Paul’s appointment of several deeply unpopular conservative bishops; polarization in the bishops’ conference and a steady exodus out of the church.

The Groër affair has dragged on -- just three weeks ago, Groër performed a baptism in Austria in full cardinal’s regalia, despite a public pledge never to appear in Austria as a cardinal again. As an apparent result, the demand for reform has become more and more insistent.

In 1996, the Austrian bishops proposed a national dialogue as a way to heal these wounds. Initially, it seemed many bishops hoped to ignore demands for internal reform. The original working document made no mention of the issues from the Volks-begehren, and the bishops did not issue an invitation to We Are Church members to take part. Both decisions produced intense public criticism, and the bishops eventually reversed course.

Over the past year, delegates were selected for the Dialogue from each of Austria’s nine provinces and various lay and clerical organizations. The tone was set on Saturday morning when officials of the bishops’ conference handed out a draft of the concluding statement for the entire event and invited comment. The draft spoke only in generalities and said no “concrete results” could be expected. By the time the delegates met in their plenary session, anger over the draft had become so apparent that the presiding officer told them it would be tossed out. Much applause and rapping of tables -- a sign of approval -- greeted the announcement.

In a ringing show of support for retired Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck, 225 of the 260 delegates voted for a resolution calling for including resigned priests in all areas of church life and for speedier action on their requests for laicization in Rome -- the very points Stecher made in a widely published letter in December 1997.

The only real floor fight erupted over celibacy. The small group charged with the matter approved a resolution calling for the ordination of so-called viri probati, or “tested” married men, but not for making the celibacy requirement optional altogether. A resolution calling for optional celibacy came out of the group only as a minority report and, despite extensive wrangling, was never allowed on the floor for a vote.

Plankensteiner saw the outcome as basically positive for the reformers. “If we have the viri probati,” he said, “sooner or later the question of when they can marry will become unimportant.”

The relatively free exchange among laity, clergy and bishops during the floor debates produced some remarkable moments. At one point a leader of the conservative forces here, Matthaus Thun-Hohenstein, rose to defend the magisterium. He read from a letter written by the leader of the Austrian Lutherans in the late 1930s welcoming Hitler. Thun-Hohenstein then asserted that the pope had preserved the Austrians from similar errors.

Catcalls echoed around the chamber as delegates recalled Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna, who had welcomed union with the Nazis as “the oldest dream of the German state.” The next speaker rose and requested “10 minutes with Mr. Thun-Hohenstein so I may express my anger.”

During the discussion on birth control and sexual morality, three bishops -- Klaus Küng of Feldkirch, a member of Opus Dei; George Eder, archbishop of Salzburg; and Andreas Laun, auxiliary bishop of Salzburg; rose to oppose the report of the working group.

Eder said that “truth and love cannot be placed against each other.” Laun declared the report “in all points contradicts the teaching of the church. We cannot follow pastoral advice,” he warned, “if it goes the wrong way.”

Küng first echoed Laun saying, “What is against the magisterium cannot be accepted.” Then Küng -- former head of Opus Dei in Austria before being appointed to Feldkirch, where his nomination was so unpopular that people actually lined the path to the cathedral with their bodies during his ordination ceremony -- accused the delegates of dismissing the magisterium as unimportant. When a bell rang signaling that his time to speak had come to an end, Küng testily said, “Bishops must be allowed to speak what they want.”

The assembly listened politely, then voted by more than a three-quarters margin to adopt each of the three points in the report their shepherds had just opposed.

A member of the Feldkirch diocese rose to address Küng specifically. “What I want to ask you is why were you so positive yesterday in our small group? Everything sounded different then. Yesterday you affirmed the importance of conscience in the matter of contraception. Where is that today?

“I ask you, my friend Klaus, do not forget what you said yesterday.” Another round of rapping on the tables accompanied the statement.

No stronger than its arguments

Küng barely had time to recover when another speaker rose, this one an elderly priest who has served as a pastor in a small Austrian parish for more than 20 years. After saying that his practice has always been to give people the sacraments whatever their views on contraception or whatever their marital status, he stared at Küng and said, “Bishop Küng, the magisterium must explain its arguments. The magisterium is no stronger than the weight of its arguments.”

Clearly cowed, Küng on Monday morning asked Weber, whose affability and moderate stance on the key issues makes him quite popular, to apologize on his behalf for demanding more time to speak. For Küng, with a reputation of having ice water in his veins, it was a remarkable gesture.

Other bishops, however, were less willing to treat discretion as the better part of valor. During a Monday morning floor speech, Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten said, “Some of the propositions don’t correspond with the teaching of the church. We must examine the wording. The bishops did not participate in the votes, and we’ll have to look at everything. I would not be serious if I said I will go to Rome and say we agree with all of it.”

Before the event ended, conservatives were hinting that the Dialogue for Austria was not really representative of the national church. “Is this really what the Catholics of Austria think? It depends on how well-elected the delegates are. You can’t really say they effectively represent the thinking of the Catholics of Austria,” Archbishop George Eder told NCR.

“It’s almost impossible for it to be really representative, if you just consider that for the diocese of Salzburg there are 19 people. How can you ever represent all the groups in the diocese with 19 people.”

At his news conference, Weber, the bishop of Graz-Seckau, seemed to undercut this criticism. “It was a highly qualified group from all of Austria,” he said. “I am convinced it was a very good mirror of Austria. I do not think we can ignore what was said here.”

Observers said conservative bishops’ remarks about how the group was not representative were especially ironic given that the bishops themselves had responsibility for naming the vast majority of delegates.

One Austrian journalist said, “If anything, the conservatives were the ones overrepresented here.” Plankensteiner, though careful to be gracious in his post-event news conference, also pointed out that some of the speakers in favor of reform positions were from Krenn’s diocese of Sankt Pölten.

One speaker raised the issue of how representative the assembly was in another way, suggesting the group was top-heavy with church employees. Not enough “simple people” were present, he said.

Krenn picked up on the way in which the propositions were phrased, asking delegates what they thought was “important,” suggesting the votes were not really for change but simply for more conversation about change.

“It’s important, huh? Well, good, it’s important. To me that only means that it’s important to talk about what the teaching of the church is in this area,” Krenn said. “It doesn’t mean that so and so many have said it’s right.”

Despite such talk, most delegates seemed to believe that a real breakthrough had occurred in the life of their church. Weber seemed to sum up their sentiments in an interview with Die Presse, the leading daily newspaper in Vienna. “Austria is something of an incubator,” he said. “We are right now experiencing the birth pangs of a new form of the church. I am convinced the baby will be healthy.”

This story was reported with assistance from Hubert Feichtlbauer.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998