e-mail us

Cover story

Two bishops, two different worldviews

NCR Staff
Salzburg, Austria

An indication of the uncertain fate awaiting the results of the Dialogue for Austria can be glimpsed from the stark divisions that run through the country’s bishops’ conference, which consists of 16 prelates spread among nine dioceses and the military. The conference is said to be among the most polarized anywhere.

To get a sense of the depth of those divisions, NCR spoke with Kurt Krenn, the bishop of Sankt Pölten, and Helmut Krätzl, auxiliary bishop of Vienna.

Krenn, a boxing fan, is known for his verbal fisticuffs on Austrian television. He has flirted with the Austrian Freedom Party, a far-right political party with strong appeal to neo-Nazis. To this day, Krenn refuses to accept the charges of sexual abuse against Groër, which even the doctrinally conservative Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has said he believes. Krätzl, on the other hand, is the most liberal bishop in the Austrian episcopacy. His new book, Im Sprung Gehumt (The Interrupted Leap) discusses the failure of the church to realize the renewal promised by Vatican II.

Over the course of the Dialogue for Austria, NCR spoke to both men separately, asking them the same questions.

NCR: Is it acceptable for Catholics to hold the views advanced by We Are Church?

Krenn: The greatest part of those who signed the Volks-begehren are quite ordinary Catholic believers. But whether all the heads of that movement are in agreement with the teaching of the church, I doubt. ... This movement has nearly no religious substance at all. The Protestant reformers poured the blood of their hearts into fighting for what they thought was the pure teaching of the Good News. We Are Church is less religious than humanistic. They seek only power. Therefore, it is not nearly as dangerous as the Reformation. I’m more afraid of the Lefebvre people, who are pious and pray their rosaries but deviate in other ways from the teaching of the church. (Krenn refers to the followers of Bishop Marcel Lefebvre who was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II for ordaining bishops to carry forward his effort for restoration of the Latin Mass.)

Krätzl: I’m absolutely convinced that the protagonists of We Are Church are very faithful, loyal Catholics coming from the innermost segment of Catholicism and who have in mind the welfare and well-being of the church. None of their demands are incompatible with dogma, none of them contradicts a dogma. If we are honest, we must say that the whole dialogue really got started with the petition. The bishops said they would have done something anyway beginning with the turn of the millennium, but truthfully the whole thing began with petition. We also must admit that the cooperation of the We Are Church people here was very constructive. In my own dialogue group, Thomas Plankensteiner worked on the topic of remarried divorced persons with me and others, and he was very helpful, very constructive in articulating some of the sentences that were presented to the plenary session.

Is the Dialogue for Austria a valid model for ascertaining the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful)?

Krenn: I wish it was. But the sensus fidelium arises from a deep rooting in the faith. Only when one has embraced the whole truth of the faith does it permeate one’s thinking, and then it is possible to generate new insights. Faith comes first. Voting cannot create faith, it cannot ascertain something that has already been given. ... The First Vatican Council said that if the pope proclaims a dogma, the sense of the faithful will not be missing -- so the sense of the faithful should not be against the magisterium. It must accompany the general conviction of the faithful, while the magisterium is represented by individual persons.

Krätzl: I think this is a good method. One has to be cautious because there was not a truly representative selection of the whole people of God in a democratic sense. But I think the bishops must take into consideration very carefully that groups from the far left and the far right have been invited, have come together, have talked together and have found a common atmosphere of dialogue together. This is something the bishops must take very seriously. What we’ve had is not just the sensus fidelium, but the consensus fidelium.

What force should we attribute to the votes taken here in the Dialogue for Austria?

Krenn: Three hundred people cannot represent the church of Austria. Most of them were delegated by the bishops. I delegated 22 out of my diocese. I didn’t just appoint delegates of my own conviction. I tried to get a few others, too. Thus, all we are establishing here is what a certain group of people think is important. That’s all, not what’s right for the church.

Krätzl: Technically and according to the rules it was only an assertion of opinion, but if you consider the fact that there were clear indications of what the people wanted, and that these questions have been asked and dealt with in a similar way in diocesan synods in Germany and in other countries of Europe, I think there is a strong moral obligation on the part of the bishops to seriously deal with these questions.

Is the church in danger of alienating its members if it does not respond to widespread desires for reform?

Krenn: I’m of a quite different opinion. We will win the people if we are faithful to God. We don’t need flexibility in this. I think slowly but noticeably more and more Catholics would side with new positions, which I think are better than those adopted by the Volks-begehren.

Krätzl: If these questions are not addressed, the credibility of the church will be damaged. If the church cannot answer questions that are very important in the lives of people today -- such as contraception and remarried divorced people and sexuality and all these things -- if the church has no answers that you can live by, then the church will have failed the people. It is not in the spirit of Jesus Christ, who came to heal and to bring life in abundance, to put people down by placing commands and directives on them that they cannot fulfill. Again and again they tell us that we should talk about God and not about the structures of the church, but I think that with the structures of the church we show what kind of image of God we have. Thus if we are talking about a loving, a merciful, a forgiving, a healing God, we must change some of those structures.

What is the most important element of Vatican II that still needs to come to fulfillment in the life of the church?

Krenn: The problem with Vatican II is ignorance. Many people do not know all the documents, of which there were a great many, and it has become an ideological weapon. Everybody says, “I am in line with Vatican II. You are not.” And they do not bother to find out whether they are or whether I am perhaps more in line with Vatican II than those who criticize me. Many good and truthful things in church doctrine we do not know because we have presented them in an imperfect way since the council. This means catechism, research, also the media. The media must be more careful in talking about Vatican II. They should force some to admit that they cannot point to the passage where they think their activities are covered.

Krätzl: I think it was very important that through Vatican II the church started looking at itself and found out that it wanted to be a community, no longer just a clerical machinery only. ... The church opened itself to the outer world, to the secular world, to the other Christian churches, to the other religions of the world and even to the nonbelievers. That was very important. We started this dialogue that has caused anxiety for many people who were not prepared for it and who now feel that the church should withdraw again into its own shell. That is our problem, that is the situation we are faced with today.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998