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Krenn at the center of Austrian strife

NCR Staff

Conventional wisdom had it that after the dramatic crescendo of the Dialogue for Austria in late October, when a representative assembly of the nation’s Catholics voted in overwhelming numbers for reform, calm would return to the church in this beautiful Alpine nation.

Instead, Austrians find themselves cast in a national soap opera surrounding the ultraconservative Bishop Kurt Krenn of the Sankt Pölten diocese.

Over the past few years, Krenn has managed to make himself an avatar of all that angers Austrians about their church. (Almost 80 percent of the nation’s 8 million people are Catholic.) To progressives, Krenn is the chief opponent of church reform; to most lay leaders, he represents clerical arrogance; to most rank-and-file Catholics, he’s infamous as a villain in the “Groër affair,” a case involving sex abuse charges against the former cardinal of Vienna. Krenn seemed to many to embody the church’s strategy of denial and delay in response to those charges.

The latest row began in Rome during the mid-November ad limina visit of the Austrian bishops, when Krenn said in response to statements by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna that “liars should keep their mouths shut.”

The remark triggered an avalanche of criticism. Most prominently, Schönborn’s vicar general said on national television in early December that a demand for removal would be “logical” if Krenn does not change his ways.

On Dec. 8, a cross-section of priests and laypeople from across Austria, including the heads of of the country’s Catholic lay councils, Catholic Action, and the Pastoral Commission of Austria all called for Krenn’s removal in a letter to the apostolic nuncio. They wrote that Krenn had “made a mockery of the church through his public speech.” They said the bishop had created “increasing polarization.”

After an extraordinary gathering Dec. 9, the nation’s bishops issued a terse statement saying they were “fully aware of the seriousness of the situation” but they did not want to act in haste. They indicated they would talk again Jan. 4.

Few voices have spoken out in defense of Krenn. Among the bishops, only Christian Werner of the military diocese has publicly backed him; Krenn’s chief advocates among the laity are from the Freedom Party, a far-right political movement with historical ties to ex-Nazis.

Krenn himself has not backed down, even threatening some of his critics with penalties under canon law for inciting disobedience against a bishop - a charge one canon lawyer in Vienna dismissed as “ridiculous” in an interview with the Austrian Press Agency. People are calling for Krenn’s removal from office, the canonist said, not disobedience against him.

Krenn has so far rejected calls to resign, saying he is answerable only to the pope. Schönborn has appealed to Rome for some kind of action. Both men have ties to the highest levels at the Vatican, and the case rests with the Congregation for Bishops.

Mandate not obscured

The Dialogue for Austria took place Oct. 23-26 in Salzburg. Approximately 300 delegates from across the country debated church reform and endorsed a platform that included the ordination of married men, women deacons, local involvement in the selection of bishops, expanded roles for laity, and more compassionate treatment of divorcees and homosexuals (NCR, Nov. 6).

The new leader of We Are Church, the country’s most prominent reform group, said he’s not worried that the melee surrounding Krenn might obscure this mandate. On the contrary, it will “speed up the process of reform,” Hubert Feichtlbauer said in a Dec. 6 telephone interview with NCR.

If Krenn is forced to step down -- a result Feichtlbauer said is now “all but inevitable” -- it will send a signal to other conservative bishops “not to carry your resistance too far or this could happen to you.”

The bishops had pledged in advance to carry the results of the Dialogue with them to Rome, but conservatives began to distance themselves from it afterwards. Auxiliary Bishop Andreas Laun of Salzburg said delegates had approved resolutions “that depart in serious ways from church teaching,” while Krenn was typically more blunt, calling what had happened a “revolt against God.”

Schönborn, who had been in the hospital during the delegate assembly, also voiced reservations. With respect to female deacons, for example, he said he was “not sure what God’s will is yet.”

In Rome, John Paul gave the results a cold shoulder, warning against democratization or the idea that truth can come from “a church from below.”

Reformers said that John Paul’s remarks were about what they expected and that the real test of the Dialogue’s effectiveness will be what happens back home on the ground, where they expect to find more pastoral flexibility and openness to experimentation.

The bishops also presented the pope with a self-critical report acknowledging mishandling of the charges against former cardinal of Vienna Hans Hermann Groër. In 1995 accusations surfaced that Groër had sexually molested minors and novice monks. As the affair dragged on over several years without resolution, Catholics became increasingly disillusioned, and tens of thousands left the church.

Krenn has all along been Groër’s chief defender. Though several bishops, including Schönborn, announced last year they were “morally certain” Groër was guilty, Krenn suggested instead that the accusers should “examine their consciences.”

The bishops’ new report was supposed to be confidential, but it was quickly leaked. Krenn said in Rome that he rejected the report and that it had been prepared without his knowledge or support.

Schönborn said that Krenn had been “demonstrably informed” of the report. “Objectively, what he said was simply not correct,” Schönborn said. That triggered Krenn’s comment about liars keeping their mouths shut; Krenn also said, in response to Schönborn’s call for some kind of sanction, that a president of a bishops’ conference is not a “nanny.”

Though Krenn later claimed that the liars he had in view were journalists and clerical functionaries, not Schönborn, he was unrepentant in the face of demands for an apology. “What should I do, walk around in my underwear for six months?” he asked.

The floodgates burst

Barely had Krenn’s initial remarks been reported when Austrians started tripping over one another in the rush to denounce him. The floodgates burst when Schönborn’s vicar general, Fr. Helmut Schüller, said in a television interview that Krenn must either “adopt a constructive path, or a change in bishops would be a logical demand.” Schüller said priests are “truly fed up” with Krenn.

Krenn accused Schüller of overstepping his bounds, but Schüller in a subsequent interview said he was acting with the “full agreement of Cardinal Schönborn.”

The nation’s theological deans, several abbots of Austrian monasteries and representatives of many lay organizations all praised Schüller’s comments.

The special gathering of bishops on Dec. 9 did issue an indirect rebuke of Krenn on this score: It expressed “full confidence” in the official responsible for preparing the report Krenn had condemned.

While reform groups are calling for Krenn’s ouster, even many conservatives have deserted him. As the Vienna-based newspaper Der Standard noted in an editorial, Schönborn is himself a conservative, but an “enlightened conservative,” while the paper called Krenn a “reactionary.”

As the exchanges with Schönborn were unfolding, Krenn also found himself fighting on another front. The abbot of the monastery of Geras, located in Krenn’s diocese, suggested that Krenn had been involved in a dirty tricks campaign designed to implicate the abbot in a financial scandal involving misuse of public funds for construction at the monastery.

Abbot Joachim Angerer later backed off from suggesting that Krenn was involved but said that he had received threatening letters and phone calls, which Krenn had made possible by creating an “atmosphere of hate.”

Though Krenn has said he is “not isolated” and has “plenty of trust and support” in his diocese, evidence for that claim seems scant. Participants in an early December meeting of the Sankt Pölten priests council reported a “shouting match” in which many priests demanded that he resign, and Krenn responded with what a newspaper called his “familiar polemics.”

On Dec. 6, two prominent priests in the Sankt Pölten diocese, including the former head of the Cathedral Chapter, publicly called on Krenn to step aside. The two said they acted out of concern for the “sorrow of the faithful entrusted to us.”

Still defiant, Krenn gave an interview to an Italian newspaper in which he called the Dialogue for Austria a “failure” and criticized the theological understanding of its delegates. The contents of the interview were reported in the Vienna-based Die Presse on Dec. 7.

Krenn also said that the era of the former cardinal of Vienna Franz König had undercut the authority of the country’s bishops.

König, one of the leaders of the progressive group of bishops at Vatican II, stepped down from the Vienna post in 1985.

Vaticanologists will be watching how the affair plays out in Rome, given the personal connections both Schönborn and Krenn enjoy. Schönborn was a student in Regensburg, Germany, in the 1970s under Joseph Ratzinger -- later to become a cardinal and the church’s top doctrinal official. Schönborn retains a close relationship with Ratzinger. It was Schönborn whom Ratzinger tapped to head up the drafting of the church’s new universal catechism.

When Krenn was an auxiliary bishop in Vienna, he forged a personal friendship with Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s personal secretary whom John Paul recently made a bishop. Through Dziwisz, Krenn is said to have the pope’s ear. Krenn has often boasted of meals shared with the pontiff.

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  • We Are Church (international site)
  • Wir Sind Kirche (Austria, in German)

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998