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The moderates who sparked Austria’s revolution

NCR Staff
Salzburg, Austria

While broad historical forces create the potential for revolution, specific people light the fires. In the Catholic uprising on display at this weekend’s Dialogue for Austria, most observers credit Thomas Plankensteiner and Ingrid Thurner with being those key agents provocateur.

Plankensteiner and Thurner are the heart of We Are Church, the leading reform group in this country and the driving force behind the Dialogue for Austria. Talking to people here, the impression is unmistakable that much of We Are Church’s success boils down to the personal strengths of these two -- especially Plankensteiner, who has become the public face of church reform in Austria.

A high school theology teacher from Innsbruck in the far western region of the country, Plankensteiner wins high marks for a razor sharp intellect and for avoiding fiery rhetoric. His indisputable credentials as a moderate -- he’s a member of Austria’s center-right People’s Party, analogous to the Republicans in the United States -- make him, in many eyes, the ideal representative of ideas often painted as extremist.

Thurner, 54, and also from Innsbruck, had been involved in church affairs across the country for a quarter-century as a parish assistant and a member of diocesan and national church councils before joining forces with Plankensteiner. “For 25 years, I did everything a woman could do in the church, all without pay,” she said. By profession Thurner is an accountant, though now she devotes herself full-time to We Are Church.

During the Sunday liturgy in the Salzburg Cathedral, Thurner was one of a handful of delegates who took part in the opening procession. There she was, solemnly marching in ahead of all the nation’s bishops who wore full episcopal regalia. Thurner wore a simple purple stole, expressing in a quiet but unmistakable way the issue of women’s ordination and women’s role in the church.

Plankensteiner’s boyish looks make him seem much younger than 42. He has a gift for making a splash in the media, a point confirmed by the conservative Archbishop Georg Eder of Salzburg in an interview with NCR two days before the Dialogue for Austria began.

“We decided it was better to have Thomas Plankensteiner inside talking with us than outside demonstrating against us, with TV cameras and all the rest,” Eder said through a translator, explaining why the bishops agreed to sit down with a group that holds officially taboo views such as favoring women’s ordination. “Frankly, it was easier just to invite him in.”

Many Austrians say Plankensteiner’s deep faith gives him credibility. “As a teacher of religion, I found the church as it appears to young people today has so many credibility problems that is was standing in its own way,” he said. “People like me, out of conviction and joy in the faith, wanted to carry the message to the young people, but we found it was almost impossible. I came to see change as critical.

“Also, the social doctrine of the church had so many aspects that were gratifying and convincing to the world. These principles were preached to the whole world, and people said ‘But you don’t practice them in your own community.’ We have to have justice in the church so we can talk about justice to the world,” he said.

Thurner credited retired Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck with unintentionally leading her into the reform movement. “I worked in parish councils and parish institutions, and also as head of the Tyrolian council of lay people, and I found [under Stecher] that lay people’s opinions were welcome, and we initiated a number of actions,” Thurner said.

“But in other situations, it was always the priests, it was always the ordained officeholders who knew better and decided what they thought was right,” Thurner said. “I saw that something had to be done to ensure that other people would have the same experience we did.”

Plankensteiner is helped by the fact that his situation in the church is canonically spotless. Christian Weisner, head of We Are Church in Germany who attended the Dialogue for Austria as an observer, said of Plankensteiner, “He’s not gay, he’s not a married priest, he’s not divorced. ... He’s in a Catholic marriage and raising four children in the church. It’s very hard to discredit him.”

Thomas Hofer, an editor of the Austrian newsmagazine Profil and a frequent reporter on church affairs in the country, described Plankensteiner as “a moderate, even a traditionalist in a lot of ways. Because of this, the bishops can’t put him in a corner and dismiss him as some kind of communist.”

Of Thurner, Hofer said, “She’s not nearly as well-known among the general public. If you ask Austrians, 80 percent of them will tell you that We Are Church is Plankensteiner’s group,” he said. “But inside We Are Church, [Thurner] is very much a key figure -- she stands for the women’s issues above all.”

Weisner said, “It’s important that an intelligent, strong woman is making these arguments. But Ingrid also helps hold the group together. For example, she’s very good at creating liturgies that inspire and motivate people.”

Both Plankensteiner and Thurner said that they did not view We Are Church as a religious avant-garde. “When the leadership of the church recognizes that these demands come from good, faithful, churchgoing people, then it must have a bearing on future development,” Plankensteiner said.

Despite such claims, Hofer predicted We Are Church will have trouble holding onto popular support as time passes without the dramatic changes in church policy demanded here. “That’s the key point,” Hofer said. “What happens a year from now or two years from now when nothing really has changed is anyone’s guess. The bishops can say we listened to you, what more do you want from us? It’s not our fault Rome did nothing.

“People are already a little fed up with the whole thing,” Hofer said. “The danger for We Are Church is that people will simply tune them out, concluding they’re irrelevant. They’ve been heard, but so what?”

Even Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who has drawn praise as a conciliator despite his conservative views on doctrine, took a recent swipe at the group. In his new book he wrote that Protestants adopted all the demands of We Are Church 400 years ago and today they have the same problems Catholics do. Protestant leaders returned fire, saying that whatever other problems they may have, they’re turning people away from their seminaries because they’re full -- usually of women and married men.

The suggestion that We Are Church members are really Protestants who don’t realize it yet rankled Thurner. “People are always telling me I should go the Protestant church, go to the Old Catholic church, and I ask why can’t we achieve the conditions we’re seeking in our own church? Why should I have to get out of a church that’s my home, that’s my family, where I have many connections, to go to another one?,” she said.

Plankensteiner welcomed Schönborn’s comment. “I don’t regard Protestant as a dirty word,” he said. “If there are areas in which Protestant churches are more developed than we are, then by all means let’s learn from them. To defend policies on the basis that they’re necessary to maintain our differences with Protestants doesn’t make any sense.”

Schönborn’s comment was comparatively tame. Both Plankensteiner and Thurner have drawn much stronger condemnations. Plankensteiner’s children have fielded threatening phone calls at home. Less dramatically, both say the cause of church reform has taken them away from family and daily life far more than they expected or wanted.

Plankensteiner and Thurner hesitated to hold themselves up as role models -- though Plankensteiner, ever the teacher, was willing to offer one piece of advice0. “I can say that good arguments cannot be beaten. If you argue biblically, with biblical texts, and if you expose others who do not have these arguments, that by and large will always have a certain effect,” he said.

Despite future uncertainties and the clear ambivalence about the group that remains entrenched at the highest levels of the church, Thurner said she remains optimistic.

“It’s important to remember that so many things we would have considered impossible just 20 years ago have come about, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism,” she said.

“Since 1989 so many factors about our political life that we assumed would just go on forever have been set on their heads. It is a risky comparison, but I mean it very seriously when I say that if the Holy Spirit successfully could deal with the communists, he -- or she -- can deal with the Vatican.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998