(Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna September 24, 2010. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)

The leader of Austria’s Roman Catholic Church has faced down calls for radical change from priests and lay people, saying dialogue was useful but calls for disobedience should be challenged.  “We are in talks and will remain in talks because I and the bishops are still convinced that a lot can and must be cleared up by dialogue,” Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said on Friday after a four-day meeting of bishops.

Catholic rebels in Austria have been making increasingly strident calls for “disobedience” and changes in the Church, after record numbers of Austrians deserted it last year, many of them in response to allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Some lay people say they will start celebrating Mass when a priest is unavailable, and hundreds of disgruntled priests have publicly challenged Church teaching on celibacy, ordination of women, and giving communion to Protestants and remarried Catholics.

Schönborn, a former student and close associate of Pope Benedict, told a news conference he did not look kindly on such open revolt. To speak of celebrating the Eucharist without having a priest conduct the sacrament “is an open break with a central truth of our Catholic faith” that goes far beyond merely questioning Church structures, he said. Addressing the priests’ call, he said: “Disobedience is a fighting word that cannot go unchallenged.”