By Michael Frank / Süddeutsche Zeitung / Worldcrunch
This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung.
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 so-called 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 nonordained 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. (See photos of Pope Benedict XVI in Spain.)
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Vienna's Archbishop and head of the Austrian Bishops' Conference, has threatened the rebels with excommunication. Incidentally, those involved in the initiative are not 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.
The initiative's 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 (Priests Without a Job) who wish in vain to practice their ministry because they have a wife and children and stand by them. Priests who break ties with loved ones, on the other hand, are allowed to continue working. (See photos of President Obama's meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.)
According to the initiative's founder Schüller, only openly disobedient priests and pressure from both priests and laity 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. 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 while rural parishes are melting away. Various scandals have rocked the Catholic Church in Austria, among them child-abuse charges against former Vienna Archbishop Hans-Hermann Groër and the nomination of a series of reactionary priests to the rank of bishop.
Read the original story in German.