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Vatican stance toward Austria needs teeth

It may well be, as veteran Austrian journalist Hubert Feichtlbauer reports (see story), that his country’s Freedom Party does not represent a resurgence of Nazi sentiment. It may also be that party leader Jörg Haider -- while giving voice to a worrisome anti-foreigner hysteria -- is no more extremist than the heads of other far-right parties scattered across the continent (or, for that matter, than American demagogues such as Pat Buchanan).

One can forgive the Austrians their frustration that the European Union has moved so swiftly to isolate their country, that world opinion has been so hasty to declare Austria a pariah state, when similar excoriations have not fallen upon France, Italy, Spain or other nations where extremist parties of both left and right have wormed their way into governing coalitions over the years.

To some extent, the parliamentary system invites the participation of fringe parties when electoral spoils are evenly divided between two or three major players. Even Israel -- having withdrawn its ambassador from Vienna, understandably concerned with anything that looks like a rebirth of Nazism -- has had its own version of extremist parties in various governing coalitions.

One can also sympathize with the argument that the Freedom Party did not seize power through a putsch -- it won at the ballot box. Comparisons with Hitler’s 36 percent of the vote in the 1932 German elections are wildly overstated, since Austria in 1999 (unlike Weimar Germany) is economically prosperous, fully integrated into Europe, and has 50-plus years of democratic tradition.

And yet.

And yet, for all those nuances and expressions of Realpolitik, the reaction of the European Union to the developments in Austria is not only welcome but essential for the future of the human rights movement worldwide.

The Freedom Party may not be working for a Fourth Reich, but it clearly fosters views that are perilously xenophobic. As Feichtlbauer reports, one case in point is a statement made by a party official to the effect that Austria’s government was secretly distributing free hormone pills to immigrants so they would produce more children than native families. It is the kind of dark conspiratorial lie that extremists have always spread to rally the frightened and the alienated.

The official, Thomas Prinzhorn, was handpicked by Haider to be his party’s top candidate. Even though the country’s president later refused to seat Prinzhorn in the cabinet for having made such an outrageous remark, Haider has stood by his man, refusing to discipline him or to repudiate the views he expressed.

Had the European Union not reacted to the Freedom Party’s entrance into the government, had it pretended that things in Austria were business as usual, it would have signaled to extremist parties elsewhere that no moral consensus exists to prevent them from targeting minorities and exploiting fears and thereby riding to political success.

In that light, the muted comments from the Holy See on the Austrian situation are especially troubling. The Vatican has refused to endorse the European response; instead it has stressed the “great realism” of its own diplomacy and said it will wait to see what the new government actually does. The official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, which usually follows the lead of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, ran a front-page editorial calling the European reaction “exaggerated.”

The irony is that no one has been more insistent than John Paul II that the European Union must be more than an economic alliance, that it must be a community of moral values. In the first major test of that notion, it is striking -- and disappointing -- that the Holy See seems bent on undercutting the effort.

The Vatican should recall its nuncio and freeze diplomatic ties with Austria. It should do so until the Freedom Party either exits the government, or clearly repudiates positions that imperil the human rights of minorities in the Austrian community. The Vatican should state that it is acting in tandem with the European Union, supporting its efforts to build a political and social order based on justice.

Cutting ties would not be to abandon those Austrians who find the Freedom Party abhorrent. It would instead be a service to the cause of genuine freedom.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000