Oakland, Austria

Bad Catholic reporting respects no boundaries.

Time Magazine’s website has reprinted a story from the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) that reports on the travails of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria. With an estimated 1.1 million readers the Munich-based daily has the largest circulation of any German language newspaper.

Now I take as much delight in the misfortune of others as the next man, schadenfreude being an appropriate word to trot out given the subject of this posting, but while the SZ’s “A Clergy Rebellion in Austria’s Catholic Church” offers a great pitch with a screaming lede, it doesn’t deliver.   The facts to support the claims made by the story are not presented.  What we have instead is an Austrian Catholic Oakland; there is no there there.

The article starts off with a bang.

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.

Strong stuff this.  Priests in ‘open rebellion’ with a ‘significant number’ refusing to kowtow to the pope with the threat of ‘schism’ waiting in the wings.  It is almost too strong, leading to suspicions that it is being ‘sexed up’ a bit.  And what about the “We are the church” movement in Austria that has pushed for women in the priesthood, an end to clerical celibacy, and a “positive” attitude towards sexuality?  Is this a new group?  Maybe the “first time in memory” comment is a bit much.  But let’s see what the SZ will do.

The 300-plus supporters of the 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 non-ordained 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.

The build up continues but it is beginning to wobble.  The priests are not in rebellion but are threatening to rebel by ‘advocating’ for a change in church discipline and doctrine like past reform movements — or is this the same group with a new name?  The language is odd too.  Shouldn’t the rebels be the ones pushing for ‘practices’ that defy current ‘policies’?  The construction given by the SZ privileges the position of those seeking change.  More questions: What are these delaying tactics that have so upset the Priests’ Initiative?  And these “300-plus supporters”, are we speaking of priests or priests and lay supporters en toto?  How many Austrian priests are there?  Is 300 a lot or a little?  Where did these priests pick up their wives and children — should the Episcopal Church be sending out recruiting parties?

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Vienna’s Archbishop and head of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, has threatened the rebels with excommunication.

Excommunication! A great world that also appears in the caption to the photo accompanying the Time story, but what exactly did the cardinal say?  More appetizers are being offered, but so far we have not been fed the main course.

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.

Is the SZ saying these issues have never been addressed, or is the Priests’ Initiative claiming the question of women’s ordination, clerical celibacy, the role of the laity in the celebration of church offices, and eucharistic discipline ‘have never been addressed’ by the church?  Or, are the answers given to these questions by the church  not pleasing to the SZ or the Priests’ Initiative?  How can something be revolutionary but not new?

Take the issue of women priests: In his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Pope John Paul II said the Catholic Church would never ordain women to the priesthood. The following year the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith held Ordinatio Sacerdotalis had been “set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium,” and “must always be kept, everywhere and by all the faithful, because it belongs to the deposit of faith.”  Is the Priests’ Initiative disputing the CDF’s position that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is de fide?

To get some sort of handle on what exactly the Priests’ Initiative wants, an interested reader would need to look elsewhere.  (If you are that interested reader try the Vienna daily Der Standard.)

The momentum continues to build as more demands from the Priests’ Initiative are presented and a paragraph offering the two sides to the story is inserted.

According to initiative founder [Fr. Helmut] Schüller, only openly disobedient priests and joint pressure from priests and laity alike 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. Cardinal 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.

And at this point the story takes an odd turn and closes.

Twenty years ago, Austria, nominally at least, was 85% Catholic. Today, in the city of Vienna, Catholics account for less than half the population, and rural parishes are melting away. Various scandals have rocked the Church in Austria, among them child abuse charges against former Vienna Archbishop Hans-Hermann Groer, and the nomination of a series of reactionary priests to the rank of bishop.

Wait a minute, we were promised rebellion, schism and excommunication.  None of these have been delivered.   Nor has any sort of context been given.  Why are the Austrian clergy, or some portion of the clergy, estranged from their bishop?  What are these oft mentioned diversionary tactics ?

We know how Catholic Austria was, how Catholic is it today?  Are there less Catholics attending mass, or are more Austrians opting out of paying the state mandated church tax?  How are Catholics being counted and who is counting them: the Church or the taxman?  Have the clergy abuse scandals taken their toll on membership?  The mention of the former archbishop would suggest this is the case.  And how should one understand “reactionary priests”?   Is this the Austrian version of the ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ or are we being given another episcopal villain to hiss.

To get a better sense of what is going on in Vienna, look at the Reuters story by Religion Editor Tom Heneghan that presents the facts of the dispute without touting for one side over the other.  For a detailed, and fascinating analysis of the Austrian Catholic Church check out the US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks on Aug 30.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    This critique of coverage on this issue is excellent. One of the fondest wishes and strongest demands of modern Catholic “reformers” mentioned here is usually to allow already ordained priests to marry or priests that left the priesthood to marry be allowed to return to ministry. It would have been interesting to see some historical context on this and some mention of the policies in the vast Eastern Christian world where the Orthodox, Coptic, etc. have basically the same policy as Rome on the matter of priests who break their vows to marry. This policy, based on the fact that you really can’t trust someone who breaks solemn vows, goes back to nearly aspostolic times.

  • Martha

    “as significant numbers of priests are refusing obedience to the Pope and bishops for the first time in memory.”

    If they mean “for the first time in memory” in the world ever, they’re forgetting a little thing called the Reformation. Or if you want to go earlier, the Great Schism of 1054.

    I doubt this is even the first time in Austrian memory, even.

    “These include letting non-ordained people lead religious services and deliver sermons”

    This is a hot topic within the Anglican Communion as well – see the Anglican Diocese of Sydney (Australia, for you Americans) and lay presidency of the Eucharist, with a lot of disapproval – even by liberals, yes, liberals! – of letting this happen; in fact, there’s a wonderful piece up here which hammers Sydney for being simultaneously both too conservative – against women’s ordination and leadership – and too progressive – for lay presidency.

    So I think the Austrians might be in trouble even with groups outside the Roman Catholic Church with some of their demands.

    And who exactly is this “highly placed man of the cloth”? A dean? A monsignor? A bishop? Or just “the guy in a dog collar I met in a café when having a kleiner brauner and some really excellent sachertorte”?

  • Martha

    “they constitute basic questions that have been around for a long time but have never been addressed by Church officials.”

    I forgot this pearl, but you covered the point excellently.

    Yeah, I mean, it’s true: in the entire history of the Catholic Church, no-one anywhere ever said a word about priests and marriage (or priests and concubinage), who can and who can’t confect the sacraments, women being ordained to any level of holy orders, or the position of the divorced.

    *eyes rolling so hard they are in danger of falling out of the sockets*

    You see what I mean about being willing to accept a very low level of religion reporting as long as it’s not actively being gross idiocy or abusive?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    According to the Reuters story, some 8% of priests support the dissent, but by my calculations, there are something Austria has over 7200 priests, of which 300 is a bit over 4%.

    I also question the poll Reuters cites, because it apparently doesn’t control for people actually being Catholic, much less whether they qualify as active Catholics.

    Finally, Reuters claims that 87,000 people “left the Catholic Church” in 2010. What is the source for that? Most Catholics don’t “leave” in any formal sense: they just quit going to Mass and stay on the books. I’m not saying it’s not true, given the collapse of the Christian Faith in Austria, but how do they come up with 87,000?

    What is the reference to Oakland? I assume it’s something to do with sexual abuse?

  • Dave

    And the point of the Klimt graphic would be what, distortion of reality? (The woman would be seven feet tall if standing.)

  • http://www.dannyhaszard.com Danny Haszard

    Not to diminish the serious sin of the RCC but Please examine the Jehovah’s Witnesses who go door to door and come on our property.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses pedophiles.
    Many court documents and news events prove that Jehovah’s Witnesses require two witnesses when a child comes forward with allegations of molestation within the congregation. Such allegations have customarily been treated as sins instead of crimes and are only reported to authorities when it is required to do so by law, (which varies by state).

    It has also been shown that child molesters within the organization usually have not been identified to the congregation members or the public at large. These people engage in a door to door ministry, possibly exposing children to pedophiles.

    The Watchtower corporation has paid out millions in settlement money already.
    – Danny Haszard abuse victim

    Danny personal blog

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I think the Oakland reference draws on the Gertrude Stein quote concerning it; “There’s no there there.”

  • dalea

    The coverage has foundered here, as usual, on statistical matters. The numbers tossed around lack focus and context. What percentage of all priests are the 300 plus? What are the ages of the priests? If they are overwhelmingly older, 60′s era priests, that would mean one thing. But if they are overwhelmingly younger priests, that could point to an important problem coming up. The failure to ask such questions makes the stories not very helpful. Also, it would have been of interest to know if the priests are diocesan or belong to orders. The story requires some sense of who these priests are and how they fit into the overall church structure to make sense. We are just left with an emotional mess here.

    …and rural parishes are melting away.

    Is this part of global warming? Couldn’t resist.

  • Martha

    Dave, I thought the point of the Klimt was (1) pretty (no harm in that!) (2) Austrian artist (3) the “positive attitude to sexuality” and “married with families priests and women priests and laity in positions of leadership” demands.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Thank you, Brett. I was confused as there was a ginned-up sex scandal in Oakland.

    But then, I’m easily confused.

  • fr xavier lobo

    i fully support this cause and earnestly pray that church opens it’s eyes wide to see the reality around rather than bury it’s face into the sand of tradition n orthodoxy.
    if it fail it is time for another revolution coupled with revolt by mass marriages of willing celibate priests n mass ordinations of married men n women.
    let a group of priests together decide in a planned manner taking the like minded faithful into confidence to ordain willing married men and women. then start functioning parlally and independently.
    what can the church do excommunication? don’t bother n carry on n pass it on to posterity to the extent that every father or mother of the family is a priest and priesthood will no more be a profession selling spiritual goods for a price. it should b a service within the larger or smaller family.

  • http://HolyCatholicChurchInternational Rev.Fr.Stephen Kato

    It is time the Church listens to the Voice of the Holy Spirit and follow scripture. 1 Timothy 3:2-7 is clear, a Church leader must have one wife.

    Rome is not heaven nor the Pope above Christ. A mere threat of excommunication doesn’t replace the Immense Love of God.

    Let us face facts and signs of times…we are “murdering” souls for a long time!

  • Julia

    The very last line in the wikileaks US embassy report said the number of paying members in the Austrian Catholic church is declining.

    Like Germany and some other European countries, Austrian citizens can authorize part of their taxes to be given to a church of their choice.

  • Julia

    From the Reuters article:

    Reformist Austrian Catholics have repeatedly challenged the conservative policies of Benedict and his late predecessor Pope John Paul in recent decades, creating grass-roots protest movements and advocating changes the Vatican refuses to make.

    This makes it sound like Popes prior to John Paul would have acquiesced in making the advocated changes in “policies”.
    These aren’t recent “policies” instigated by conservative Popes; they have been the rules since the Church began, although celibacy of parish priests was not strictly enforced in the first 1,000 years.

    As to married clergy: in the East, married men may be ordained, but ordained men cannot marry, even if widowed. If the rules in the West are ever changed, that’s likely the rule that would be adopted, not allowing unwed priests to marry.

    As to laymen running parishes: in my diocese and all over the US, there are already parishes without resident priests which are led by lay people. The priest visits for Mass on most Sundays. In the absence of a priest, there is an official scripture-reading service with previously-consecrated communion. I would guess that Austria already has or could have such an approved rite.

  • Jay

    1. The SZ reporter writing a “trend” story with his own opinion substituting for actual data is a dog-bites-man journalism story.

    2. As Passing By notes, what does it mean to ask questions of church polity to people who aren’t church members? Does this mean Bavarians should pick the mayor of Berlin or the prime minister of Austria?

    3. Finally, it seems like the story is aggregating a lot of church problems into one list — some which help the “reformers” and some that hurt. For example, their Cardinal stood up to the Pope in a position that was locally popular — so is that ani-reform? Similarly, a leading reformer priest has been having sex outside outside of wedlock for 25 years (which might even get him fired in the Episcopal Church) — does that help the reform cause?