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In Austria, hope for reform collides with church intransigence

NCR Staff

As a series of shocks once again rolls through the Austrian church, the future of reform efforts there seems increasingly to hinge on a tug-of-war between hope and exhaustion within the country’s battle-weary Catholic population.

In that sense, observers from both the United States and Europe say Austria -- albeit in an accelerated and more dramatic fashion -- is a microcosm for the fate of reform campaigns worldwide when hopes for rapid progress collide with the hard reality of ecclesial intransigence.

Fresh evidence of how deep the resistance to change can be emerged on March 26, when a confidential letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Austrian bishops was published by a news magazine that had obtained a leaked copy. In the letter, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer rejects many of the recommendations from last fall’s Dialogue for Austria, a national assembly of Catholics that last fall voted overwhelmingly for reforms such as decentralization and a greater role for women (NCR, Nov. 6, 1998, see below).

Ratzinger asserts that key recommendations adopted at the dialogue “raise doctrinal problems ... or are not fully consistent with the discipline of the universal church” (the full text of Ratzinger’s letter follows).

In the face of such blanket rejection, the question for reform forces now appears to be how to convince rank-and-file Catholics that keeping up the pressure for change is worthwhile. Progressive Catholics worldwide see the Austrian situation as an important test.

“Austria has been an incredible sign of hope,” said Simon Bryden-Brook, general secretary of the European Network, an umbrella group for reform organizations. “There’s no question that what happens there will be seen as an object lesson for all of us.”

A surge of optimism followed last fall’s Delegates Assembly of the Dialogue for Austria, which seemed to represent a breakthrough (NCR, Oct. 30 and Nov. 6, 1998). Expectations of progress, however, have been frustrated by near-total gridlock in the national church and have now been compounded by Ratzinger’s signal that Rome is closed to most recommendations adopted at the event.

Immediately after the dialogue closed, a national debate broke out over ultraconservative Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten whose acid tongue and adamant opposition to reform triggered widespread calls for his removal.

Krenn is said to enjoy Vatican backing and has refused to step down or to moderate his positions. In late March, Krenn gave an interview to an Austrian news magazine in which he said flatly that the very word dialogue “stinks,” cementing impressions that he is unmoved by his critics.

In recent weeks, the progressive vicar general of the Vienna archdiocese, the country’s largest and most influential, was fired by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Not only did the move hand a victory to Krenn, since the vicar, Fr. Helmut Schüller, had joined in calls for Krenn’s resignation, but the manner in which Schüller learned of his dismissal -- a note on his doorstep with no prior notice -- triggered wide outrage. One poll taken after the incident showed that only 23 percent of Austrians regarded their bishops as “trustworthy.”

Schönborn later explained the move by saying he wanted to assume greater control over the day-to-day running of the archdiocese.

Schönborn recently gave a speech in Frankfurt, Germany, in which he said the Dialogue for Austria reflected the “hermeneutic of suspicion” of the generation that produced the 1968 student rebellions in Europe. Suggesting that the moment for these aging radicals had passed, Schönborn said the more urgent task today is to rediscover trust in authority and in the church.

That Schönborn -- who had publicly praised the dialogue when it occurred -- chose a setting outside the country to deliver his critique provoked widespread public anger. One adviser to the cardinal publicly worried that he was leading the church “into a ghetto.”

Most recently, Schönborn was asked on Austrian television to comment on reports that an 85-year-old priest had engaged in sexual misconduct. His curt response -- “This does happen,” in German, the rough equivalent of “So what?” -- likewise came in for broad criticism.

In Austria, where Catholics are almost 80 percent of the population, church affairs are treated as important news stories. On the Sunday evening TV news show “To The Point,” which is similar to “60 Minutes,” the five highest-rated programs of the past year have all concerned the crisis in the Catholic church.

Amid such turmoil, momentum from the dialogue has been effectively stalled, with the polarized bishops’ conference unable to agree on a course of action. Polls show growing frustration among Austria’s Catholics. The number of those officially abandoning church membership is steadily escalating.

“There’s no question that some people are running out of patience, that they’re fed up,” said Hubert Feichtlbauer, chair of the country’s main reform group. “They say this is a system that can’t be saved. It’s especially difficult to get young people interested because many of them just don’t care what the bishops say.”

That growing sense of futility was symbolized when the former vice chancellor of the country, Erhard Busek -- one of Austria’s most prominent Catholic laymen -- announced in February he was abandoning all his functions in the church. “It’s over for me,” Busek declared, saying he despaired of reform.

“The élan from the dialogue has been dampened,” one Austrian journalist said in an interview with NCR. “The sense is that the church is all talk and no practice. It’s getting worse, and it does pose a real problem for the reformers.”

Despite expressing sympathy for such weariness, Feichtlbauer said that since the Austrian reform effort really began in 1995, “it would be ridiculous to give up after just three years.”

Austrian observers say there are glimmers of hope for renewal on the diocesan level, where at least three bishops have taken up the dialogue process and signaled a willingness to experiment with changes in pastoral practice.

Most notably, Bishop Paul Iby of the Eisenstadt diocese has launched a comprehensive dialogue process designed to culminate in 2,001, with all the recommendations from the Dialogue for Austria as part of the conversation.

“This is what we must hope for in the short run,” Feichtlbauer said. “Not so much change on the world or national levels, but that individual bishops who see the need for change will be emboldened to act.”

The new Ratzinger letter may move some bishops to become more outspoken. Moderate bishop Johann Weber of Graz, for example, told reporters in the wake of the letter’s publication that bishops must be more than the “executing aides” of the Vatican. They must have real authority to adapt to the pastoral situation in their dioceses, he said.

Weber also said he thought Ratzinger’s letter will increase the anger many Austrians feel toward Rome. “It is unavoidable that there will be some tensions between the world church and individual people. But in recent times the mutual trust has been exhausted.”

At the very least, Fiechtlbauer said the Ratzinger letter helps explain Schönborn’s much harder line since the dialogue closed. “The Vatican is obviously displeased with his performance,” Feichtlbauer said. “The message is you made a mistake by allowing it to go this far.”

Fiechtlbauer said his group will be calling on Austrians to send faxes and E-mails to Ratzinger’s office to protest the letter.

Fr. Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said that although Austria is half a world away, events there are nevertheless important for American Catholics.

“Contrary to accusations one occasionally hears about the American church going into schism or having these peculiar ideas about women, Austria helps demonstrate that these are truly global issues, not American idiosyncrasies. Indeed, in Austria they’ve surfaced in even more acute form,” McBrien told NCR.

In that light, McBrien said, “We have a stake in what happens there.”

Feichtlbauer is scheduled to appear at the November Call to Action conference in Milwaukee, where he will discuss the lessons of the Austrian experience.

“We can’t let the church drag out these reforms for 350 years the way they did on the Galileo case,” Feichtlbauer said. “But neither can we abandon hope so quickly. We must carry on.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999