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Krenn affair makes the case for reform

Among the capital demands of the Dialogue for Austria was reform in the process of selecting bishops. Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten -- who has called the Dialogue a “failure” and a “revolt against God” -- may himself be the best argument for that idea.

While the current calls for Krenn’s resignation began when he referred to a cardinal as a “liar”, it is perceptions of pastoral ineptitude and doctrinal extremism that have made him deeply unpopular with Austrian Catholics. Perhaps Krenn’s ties to John Paul will allow him to endure in office, though it seems more likely that some face-saving solution, perhaps moving him to Rome or to another diocese, will be devised.

Given the clear belief among his own flock that Krenn is unsuited to pastoral leadership, it is appropriate to question the system that put him in place.

In one sense that may be unfair, because most bishops are not like Krenn. According to the Catholic Almanac, there are 3,305 Roman Catholic bishops in the world today, and the vast majority are capable administrators who do not polarize and alienate the people under their care.

Yet if Krenn is not the norm, he is also not an isolated case. His appointment, like that of Wolfgang Haas in the Swiss diocese of Chur, or that of Jan Gijsen in the Dutch diocese of Roermond, or even that of Fabian Bruskewitz in Lincoln, Neb., illustrates that something is missing in the way the process is currently conducted.

Austrians knew Krenn would be disastrous; when he was an auxiliary in Vienna, or even when he was a professor of theology in Germany, his rigidity and ultraconservative stands were well-known. Foisting him onto Sankt Pölten was unfair - to the diocese, to the country, and even to Krenn himself, a man obviously devoted to the church who will, unfortunately, be remembered primarily as an embarrassment to it. Wiser discernment would have seen that his gifts would be best utilized elsewhere.

The current episcopal selection process provides for the collection of opinions about candidates by a country’s apostolic nuncio. This consultation, however, goes on in secret, so it’s impossible to know who is involved or what views they voice. Moreover, there is no guarantee their input will be listened to.

The Krenn case illustrates two points about this process. First, more than ideological purity must be at stake in naming a bishop. Pastoral suitability must be the paramount value. When the Holy See forgets that, it imperils the health of the church.

Second, there must some role for local input on episcopal selections short of actual balloting. While the church is not a democracy, neither should it operate on diktat. When people are clearly opposed to a selection -- evinced recently, for example, when Catholics in Lichtenstein protested Pope John Paul’s decision to inflict Haas on them after he was forced out of Switzerland -- that should make a difference.

No system is likely to be perfect. But looking first for pastors, and heeding the sense of the local church, could help avoid the sort of fiasco currently unfolding in Austria.

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998