Bishop Egon Kapellari of Graz-Seckau, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna and Archbishop Alois Kothgasser of Salzburg arrive for the Austrian bishops’ meeting Nov. 7. CNS photo from Reuters

When dissident lay Catholics in Austria recently called for the right to celebrate their own Masses, there were complaints that the Church’s liberal lobby was going a bit far. 

The country’s Catholic bishops rejected the call for “priestless Eucharists,” and there were warnings of impending schism. But prominent Austrian Catholics are confident the latest confrontation will calm down, and that disaffected Church members will hold back from pressing impossible demands. 

“It’s clear structural reforms are needed here, and that laypeople will have to help — the bishops all seem convinced of this,” said Josef Pumberger, editor of Austria’s Catholic Kathpress newsagency. “But its also clear that certain things are against Catholic theology and Church law and won’t be accepted here, such as celebration of the Eucharist by laity. So the bishops are also drawing a clear line between what can and can’t be discussed.” 

Pumberger spoke to Our Sunday Visitor as reactions continued to last month’s statement by Austria’s bishops’ conference, urging dissident priests and lay Catholics to “show goodwill and a sense of compromise,” and avoid demands that “contradict the Church’s identity and put its unity seriously at risk.”

Pumberger said he believed Church leaders were ready to discuss lay initiatives and negotiate with discontented priests. 

“Current conflicts over liberal change in the Church could still drag on for years, and few dissenting Catholics will be satisfied with the bishops’ statement,” he told OSV. “But most Catholics seem unwilling to risk a full-scale division. It’ll be a question, in the end, of coming up with rational arrangements acceptable to both sides. Breaking with the hierarchy isn’t the way to go.” 

Long-term conflicts

Conflicts over radical reform have been a feature of Catholic life in Austria for two decades, and intensified after the 1995 resignation of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna amid sexual abuse allegations. 

Some experts say the demands reflect anxieties about religious decline in the Church, which traditionally makes up 78 percent of Austria’s population of 8.1 million, but has seen a steady drop as Catholics leave by discontinuing the traditional Kirchenbeitrag, or Church tax, amid media hostility and economic recession. 

Calls for change have been led by Wir Sind Kirche, or “We Are Church,” a lay movement founded in 1995 that calls for a “fraternal church” and “full equality of women,” as well as a “free choice of celibate or non-celibate lifestyle” and “positive evaluation of sexuality.” 

In a Nov. 5 appeal, the movement said all Christians shared Christ’s priesthood from baptism, “without distinction as to sex.” It added that the shortage of priests has been “caused by the official Church’s approval of outdated rules” and should be remedied by allowing laypeople to “assume responsibility.” 

The appeal was the latest challenge to the Church, after a “Call to Disobedience” last July, signed by 250 of Austria’s 4,200 priests, which urged Catholics to campaign for women priests and “priestless Eucharistic liturgies,” as well as in support of Communion for non-Catholics and remarried divorcees. 

Bishops’ response

Both initiatives were rejected by the bishops’ conference in its November declaration. 

The Austrian Church was committed to renewal initiated by the 1962-5 Second Vatican Council, the bishops insisted, while the country’s nine Catholic dioceses were “taking opportunities to innovate” in response to “real and serious problems,” and were confident they would “find answers to the questions asked today.” 

However, the summons to disobedience, they added, had “triggered alarm and sadness,” and “left many Catholics shaking their heads.” 

“Some demands allied with this call for disobedience are simply unsustainable — the call for a Eucharist without the Blessed Sacrament openly breaches the central truth of our Catholic faith,” the bishops said. “Disobedience is a word of struggle which nothing can hold back. Whoever openly and willingly takes over the duty of celebrating the sacred liturgy in the Church harms the community and himself, and shows a reckless attitude.”

‘Overwhelming support’

We Are Church’s chairman, Hans Peter Hurka, told OSV that 505,000 Austrians had signed its founding petition in 1995, adding that recent opinion surveys suggested 80 percent now backed its demands. He added that, while the bishops had pledged to hold a dialogue with Catholic clergy, they had disappointed liberal Catholics by rejecting calls for a fresh discussion of the Church’s New Testament guidelines. 

“The overwhelming support we have is just seen as irrelevant by the bishops — they don’t seem to realize the train has already left and they’re still standing on the platform,” he said. “The situation is now beyond Church control and the dangers of a schism are very real.” 

However, in its declaration, the bishops’ conference said the duty of obedience had its source “in the Bible and living tradition of the Church.” 

Actions vs. words

With most Austrian parishes founded two or three centuries ago, at a time when virtually all village inhabitants attended their own church, it’s clear that structural reforms are needed to take account of pastoral priorities and reassure a sceptical public the Church is keeping up with changing times. 

Catholic Church leaders can refer individual cases of “blatant disobedience” to the Vatican, as did Bishop Manfred Scheuer of Innsbruck recently when Austrian TV showed lay Catholics celebrating the Eucharist in a private house in his diocese. But they wouldn’t be unable to cope with mass disobedience. 

Much will therefore depend on whether the latest wave of dissent gains mass support, and on whether it becomes international in scope, thus forcing the Vatican to react. 

In February, a memorandum demanding the ordination of women and married men and an “open dialogue” on the Church’s “structures of power and communication” was signed by 311 theologians from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. 

But Pumberger told OSV it’s unlikely to become a full-blown crisis. 

“Although the media constantly highlight the conflicts, things are often different in real life, where people tend to distinguish between what they say and what they actually do,” he said. “Most priests want to keep their jobs, remain in the Church and find solutions acceptable to everyone. They’re well aware that sects which break away stand little chance of survival in the long term.” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.