Vienna Cardinal Schönborn offers scant hope to dissident Austrian Catholic priests

September 14, 2011

(Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna, March 25, 2011/Heinz-Peter Bader)

The leader of Vienna’s Roman Catholic community urged his flock on Wednesday to step up their religious fervor rather than hope for sweeping changes demanded by dissident priests such as letting women join the priesthood or ending celibacy rules. In the midst of a revolt backed by hundreds of priests in the traditionally Catholic country, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn published an open letter (here in German) acknowledging the need for a new spirit at a time that church membership is shrinking.

“The deep-seated changes surrounding us demand adequate structures and a change in mentality from the Church in Austria. We should thus not hope to solve our problems by rule changes that only the global Church can make, if at all,” he wrote. Schönborn said Catholics should help him foster smaller but committed groups of the faithful rather than demand reforms — such as allowing women and married priests — to maintain the old network of increasingly empty churches.

The missive seemed to offer scant comfort to the dissidents led by parish priest Helmut Schüller who have issued a “Call to Disobedience” manifesto, sparking interest around the world but threatening a split with Church leaders. After celebrating Mass at his packed church in the flat farmland outside Vienna last Sunday, Schüller told reporters he hoped the campaign would persuade Schönborn to push a reform drive with Pope Benedict and the Vatican.

“The Church is going backward,” said Schüller, who was Schönborn’s deputy from 1995 to 1999 and who once led the local chapter of the Catholic charity Caritas.

The dissidents — whom polls show have broad public backing — declare 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. They have opposed the current drive to group several parishes together because of the shortage of priests.

Schönborn has hinted they would be disciplined if they do not back down in the coming weeks, but made no threats of that kind in his open letter on a diocesan website.
Renewal requires brisk give-and-take “and the matter of reforming the Church can become a common path in the common search for the will of God,” he wrote.

“There have been enough splits, almost always in the name of reforming the Church,” he wrote. “Some say today that a split has already taken place. I don’t see it that way.”
The dispute has come to a head just before Pope Benedict’s Sept 22-25 visit to neighbouring Germany. Benedict, 84, grew up in Bavarian villages close to the Austrian border.

Catholic reform groups in Germany have made similar demands to those expressed in Austria. A prominent retired Irish bishop, Edward Daly, called on Tuesday for an end to compusory celibacy for priests, saying it is pushing new recruits away.

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