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We bishops must hear the people


More than 300 Austrian Catholics gathered in Salzburg Oct. 23-26, 1998, for a meeting with their bishops called the “Dialogue for Austria” (NCR, Nov. 6). The delegates debated and approved by large margins “priorities” such as married priests, a greater local role in the selection of bishops and access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried persons. In this article, originally published in the Salzburger Nachrichten, Vienna Auxiliary Bishop Helmut Krätzl comments on the future of the dialogue.

Before the gathering of delegates in Salzburg, some demanded that only those who stand “on the soil of the faith that is always the same” be invited. But the pope, in his comments to the bishops on June 21 [delivered in Vienna during his 1998 visit to Austria], put it very differently: “It is the living faith handed down by the whole church that forms the basis of the dialogue for all partners.”

In Salzburg, representatives of all points of view finally met. People who took part in the discussions as well as the common prayer and worship that occurred were forced to forever abandon the notion that anyone present could possibly stand outside “the faith of the whole church.”

After the event, however, complaints began to be voiced that not all of those in Salzburg were “faithful” Catholics and that some of the priorities, at least in part, contradicted “the faith.” The words of the pope to the bishops on Nov. 20, 1998, during their ad limina visit [to the Vatican] encouraged this view, though in truth the pope said the same thing he did in Vienna, as citations show.

At first all the bishops agreed that Salzburg was a resource we could not afford to fritter away. The shrill tones that followed, however, even from some bishops, have led to the fear that the achievements of Salzburg will not be carried forward but instead will be destroyed by an exacting censorship. This reflects a deep distrust of the delegates, betrays a theological deficit and will bring harm to the church the depths of which are not yet visible.

What then is meant by “the faith of the whole church”? What type of obedience is required if one is not dealing with a defined doctrine of the faith? What joint responsibility do bishops, together with the people of God, carry for the development of doctrine?

First it is necessary to distinguish between solemnly defined truths of the faith and authentic, that is, binding teachings of the pope and the bishops, which are not infallible. “No doctrine is to be understood as infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such” (Canon 749.3). Such a doctrine is thus “unalterable,” “error-free” and is to be adhered to with the obedience of faith.

Not one of the 35 priorities adopted by large majorities in Salzburg touches such a solemnly defined teaching.

Other doctrinal expressions that do not possess the objective criteria of infallibility command not “obedience of faith” but “religious respect.” This means a readiness for agreement, an unhesitating initial confidence in the teaching. However the possibility of its further development, even its correction cannot be ruled out. Church history offers several examples of this. Vatican II corrected earlier decisions, for example, in its “Declaration on Religious Liberty.” Thus if some formulations in the priorities adopted in Salzburg seem to contradict expressions of the faith, it must first be determined which degree of obedience these expressions command.

As the bishops work with these priorities, they must do more than nervously check whether they all correspond with Roman statements; they must also become conscious of their joint responsibility for the development of doctrine. The carefully argued votes of the laity have a weighty significance for their deliberations, not because a majority vote must decide matters but because, as the council said, the “sense of the faith” held by believers plays an important role in the identification of truth.

“The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the Holy One cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful,’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals” (Lumen Gentium 12).

Among the bishops, one of us recently deplored that, based on the delegate assembly in Salzburg, the little country of Austria seems to want to go its own way. Such comments are no service to the church. As an example, he brought up the ordination of viri probati (“tested married men”). But this was also discussed at the synod in Rome in April 1998 by the Asian bishops who have been talking about it for 30 years. The same issue came up in the Synod of Bishops for Oceania in November 1998 and has for several years been discussed by the Swiss bishops. Where, therefore, is the isolation of “little Austria”?

What about the pastoral care of divorced and remarried persons? The Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1980 demanded a new approach to this question by a large majority. The three bishops of the Upper Rhine have urged a new path, and the diocese of Bozen-Brixen [Italy] has just published far-reaching pastoral instructions on the subject. It would actually be a service to the church for Austria to join with other bishops’ conferences on such an important subject.

What about the cooperation of local churches in the appointment of bishops? Suggestions in that direction are immediately interpreted as an affront to Rome. In truth the past few years have shown that ignoring the votes and warnings from the local churches can lead to episcopal appointments that harm the reputation of the church and the pope.

The theme of “responsible parenthood” was carefully formulated in Salzburg. “It is the right of the partners, after consideration of church instructions as part of a responsible examination of conscience, to choose which method of regulating conception is best in their concrete situation.”

This stands in factual opposition to statements in the encyclical Humanae Vitae and papal writings that have followed it; it is consistent, however, with the so-called “Maria Troster Declaration” of the Austrian bishops, the “Königstein Declaration” of the German bishops and statements from more than 20 other bishops’ conferences since the appearance of the encyclical.

Have all these bishops thus fallen away from the “faith of the whole church”? On the contrary, they wanted to take up their joint responsibility for the development of such an important doctrine. Humanae Vitae is a classic case in which a papal instruction has not been fully received in wide circles of the church, whether by all bishops, by moral theologians or in the actual practice of the faithful people of God. In such a case, isn’t more consideration necessary?

For me, the delegates assembly in Salzburg showed how people who think differently are still one in faith and in concern for the church. For me, the votes taken there were not just nonbinding expressions of opinion offered to us bishops but a remarkable process of common responsibility where we bishops could discern something of the sensus fidei of the people of God.

Those who treat non-infallible teachings as truths of the faith -- which the votes in Salzburg do not touch in the strict sense --and then use them to measure the orthodoxy of others do not promote unity but undercut it. They also destroy what came together in Salzburg against all human expectation.

Helmut Krätzl has served since 1977 as an auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Vienna. This article appears with permission of the Salzburger Nachrichten. English translation by NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999