VIENNA - There is open rebellion among the clergy of Austria’s Catholic Church. One highly placed man of the cloth has even warned about the risk of a coming schism, as significant numbers of priests are refusing obedience to the Pope and bishops for the first time in memory.
The 300-plus supporters of the “Priests’ Initiative” have had enough of what they call the Church’s “delaying” tactics, and they are advocating pushing ahead with policies that openly defy current practices. These include letting non-ordained people lead religious services and deliver sermons; making communion available to divorced people who have remarried; allowing women to become priests and to take on important positions in the hierarchy; and letting priests carry out pastoral functions even if, in defiance of Church rules, they have a wife and family.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Vienna’s Archbishop and head of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, has threatened the rebels with excommunication. Those involved in the initiative are not, incidentally, only low-profile members of the clergy. Indeed, it is being led by Helmut Schüller -- who was for many years Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Vienna and director of Caritas -- and the cathedral pastor in the Carinthian diocese of Gurk.
The issues that supporters of the initiative want addressed may be revolutionary, but they are by no means new: they constitute basic questions that have been around for a long time but have never been addressed by Church officials.
Initiative supporters are demanding that parishes openly expose all things forbidden by the Church hierarchy, thus putting a stop to hypocrisy and allowing authenticity of belief and community life to emerge. The appeal for “more honesty“ made to the world’s youth by Pope Benedict XVI in Madrid last week left a sour taste in many mouths in Austria, where some say that honesty is a quality the Church hierarchy has more of a tendency to punish than reward.
Open pressure and disobedience
Particularly affected are some 700 members of an association called "Priester ohne Amt" – loosely, priests without a job – who have a wife and children that they stand by, but wish in vain to practice their ministry. Priests who break ties with loved ones, on the other hand, are allowed to continue working.
According to initiative founder Schüller, only openly disobedient priests and joint pressure from priests and laity alike can force the hierarchy to budge. Although the problems have been out there for decades, he says, the Church keeps putting off doing anything about them. Cardinal Schönborn stated that the critics would have to “give some thought to their path in the Church” or face unavoidable consequences. On the other hand, Anton Zulehner, a priest who is one of the most respected pastoral theologians in Austria, believes that this time the Church is not going to get away with diversionary tactics.
Twenty years ago, Austria, nominally at least, was 85% Catholic. Today, in the city of Vienna, Catholics account for less than half the population, and rural parishes are melting away. Various scandals have rocked the Church in Austria, among them child abuse charges against former Vienna Archbishop Hans-Hermann Groer, and the nomination of a series of reactionary priests to the rank of bishop.
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