Austrian priests defy Catholic Church, clash with Cardinal Schönborn looms

August 31, 2011

(Clouds over a Catholic chapel in the Alps near Innsbruck, October 31, 2008/Dominic Ebenbichler)

Dissident Austrian priests defying their Catholic Church with calls for married clergy, women priests and other reforms enjoy wide public support, according to a new poll on a dispute that could lead to their dismissal. Three-quarters of people polled in the traditionally Roman Catholic country backed the priests’ “Call to Disobedience,” a manifesto that Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn compares to a football team refusing to play by the rules.

The revolt, openly supported by 329 priests, threatens a split in the Austrian Church weeks before Pope Benedict’s Sept 22-25 visit to neighbouring Germany. Benedict, 84, grew up in Bavarian villages close to the Austrian border.

Rather than simply appealing for reforms, the dissidents declared they will break Church rules by giving communion to Protestants and remarried divorced Catholics or allowing lay people to preach and head parishes without a priest. Schönborn has hinted they would be disciplined if they do not back down in the coming weeks. “This cannot go on,” he told the Vienna daily Der Standard. “If someone has decided to go down the path of dissent, that has consequences.”

Dissident leader Rev Helmut Schüller, who as Vienna vicar general was Schönborn’s deputy from 1995 to 1999 and once led the Austrian chapter of the international Catholic charity Caritas, has said he has no intention of giving up. He says many priests are already quietly breaking the rules anyway, often with the knowledge of their bishops, and his campaign aims to force the hierarchy to agree to change. About 8 percent of Austrian priests have supported his movement.

Paul Zulehner, a leading Catholic theologian, said the Church must act urgently if it wants to avoid a confrontation. “It could come to a crash, to a split,” he told Austrian radio.

Read the full story here. Click for the “Call to Disobedience” in German and English.

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