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Can dialogue like that happen here?

Change in the Catholic church is usually like continental drift: You can only tell it happened long after it’s over. Thus when a moment comes along in which you can actually see change happening, when it’s spread out like a view of a valley from the top of a mountain, it’s important to stop and drink it in. Such is the case with the recent Dialogue for Austria.

Over four days in Salzburg, Austria, Oct. 23-26, two remarkable things happened. First, the bishops of that nation brought together a representative group of Catholics -- clergy and lay, young and old, from all regions of the country -- to debate, and then to vote on, the most contested issues in the church. No one was shut out, including members of We Are Church, the country’s leading progressive reform group.

The delegates handled the issues with respect and with a passionate commitment to the best of Catholic tradition, so deeply rooted in the Austrian soil. It was a stirring model of how conversations about the future of the church can be held.

Second, delegates voted in staggering numbers for change. As the debate unfolded, it was not members of a radical intelligentsia demanding the ordination of married men or women deacons or shared models of authority. It was pastors and abbots, teachers and theologians, parents and homemakers who declared that the church they love must become more compassionate and less rule-bound if it is to be revitalized.

The key issues were decided by overwhelming majorities, a reminder that while the church’s pundits and prelates may be polarized, the vast majority of ordinary Catholics are not. They clearly want responsible reform.

There are two groups of American Catholics who might pay close heed to the Dialogue for Austria. First are the reform groups here. They have been saying all along that they are not a fifth column seeking to bring down the church from within, but people of deep faith who want to see their church thrive. The Dialogue for Austria is dramatic proof of their point. When Thomas Plankensteiner said the desire for reform stirs in the very “Catholic heart of this country,” he spoke for many here as well.

The second group that should heed Austria’s example is the American bishops. The precedent was set in Salzburg that all those who love the church have a place in the Catholic family. It is a precedent with obvious and immediate implications for America.

In a month in which Mary Ramerman was fired in Rochester, N.Y., in part for wearing a half-stole at Mass, there was Ingrid Thurner processing down the center of the Salzburg Cathedral last Sunday with a full purple stole draped around her shoulders, walking at the head of her nation’s bishops. It was a strikingly visible symbol that she and her views belong in this church.

If Austrian Catholics can meet on a national level with their bishops to jointly discuss the future of the church, why can’t it happen here? And if in Austria such discussions include Catholics of all persuasions, including those seeking progressive reform, why can’t that happen here? The Austrians tried it and found themselves stronger for it.

“In these few days you have shown us the direction we must go,” said Bishop Johann Weber of Graz-Seckau, in his concluding address to the delegates at the Dialogue for Austria. “We cannot disregard it. It is not just a question of a few cosmetic changes. What we have talked about must be implemented in words and deeds.

“We will move only step-by-step,” the bishop said, “and sometimes we will be turned back. But when we go together, we will find it easier to move ahead.”

Why, indeed, can’t it happen here?

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998