Austria’s perilous journeyChrista Pongratz-Lippitt
- 21 February 2009
Christoph Schönborn has been one of the most outspoken cardinals during the recent turbulent weeks in the Church. It is not the first time that he has tried to steer the Vatican on to a less dangerous course. But on this occasion his own country's faith appears to be seriously in jeopardy
For a man with a reputation for keeping a steady hand on the tiller, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has been so active during the recent storm over the lifting of the excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops that his actions could be seen by some as just as likely to rock the boat as keep it on course.
One of the beneficiaries of Pope Benedict XVI's act of mercy was Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier of whose reputation, we are told, the Pope was unaware. The ensuing furore echoed around the globe, but was especially intense, for obvious reasons, in the German-speaking world.
To their credit, several German-speaking cardinals spoke out immediately, and Cardinal Schönborn was one of the first to criticise the Vatican on the way it had handled the Williamson case, saying: "A mistake has obviously occurred here. Someone who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated to an ecclesial office. One cannot but voice a certain criticism of the Vatican for not looking into the matter more closely."
Confronted shortly afterwards with the announcement of the appointment as auxiliary bishop in Linz of Gerhard Maria Wagner, who claims that Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for the sins of New Orleans' homosexuals and abortionists, Cardinal Schönborn, who is Archbishop of Vienna, published a moving and unambiguous "Word of Comfort and Encouragement" to the priests and church employees in his diocese in his monthly newsletter, Thema Kirche.
"I can imagine that many of you don't feel too good at the moment. Neither do I," he wrote. "Once again we are confronted with occurrences that cause grief and indignation. They make us shake our heads and seem incomprehensible. And once again the Church has been made to look stupid and so have we. And again we ask, ‘Is this really necessary? Have we deserved this? Are we to be spared nothing?' At a time when the Church should really be dealing with the crucial worries that face people today such as the financial crisis and unemployment, it is confronted with debates about a small group of people who refuse to recognise the Second Vatican Council, or at least crucial parts of it, who think the Pope and the Church are on the wrong path and who consider themselves as the true Catholic Church. And on top of that we are now faced with the uproar concerning the new auxiliary in Linz. This is all a bit much and can give rise to a feeling of hopelessness."
Last Sunday Fr Wagner asked the Pope to accept his withdrawal from consideration for the office, and the Pope accepted his request.
Cardinal Schönborn's handling of the present Austrian church crisis precipitated both by the mooted appointment of Wagner and the revocation of the excommunications, illustrates to his admirers how competent the president of the Austrian bishops' conference has become as a troubleshooter. But of course, he has had plenty of practice since he became Archbishop of Vienna in 1995.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s a series of disastrous episcopal appointments triggered the worst church crisis in Austria since the Second World War. Within a few years a number of ultra-conservative bishops were appointed by the Vatican without the usual consultations with the local church. Some, like Bishop Kurt Krenn, the former Bishop of Sankt Pölten, even needed police escorts to enter the cathedral where they were to be ordained as the path was lined with protesters lying down in the road. In 1995, Cardinal Schönborn's predecessor, and one of the controversial appointments of the 1980s, the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, was accused of sexually abusing a minor, which led to the so-called "Groer Affair". As Cardinal Groer himself, and the Vatican and Pope John Paul II, remained silent, Archbishop Schönborn and the other Austrian bishops had to face the crisis alone.
In March 1998, the new Cardinal Schönborn, Bishop Egon Kapellari, now Bishop of Graz, and two other Austrian bishops, who have now retired, publicly declared they had reached the "moral certainty" that the allegations against Groer were "in essence" correct. They felt obliged to declare this openly, they said, as the Church's pastoral work would otherwise "be burdened with the crippling suspicion that the reputation of a cardinal is more important than the well-being of young people."
Three months later, in June 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Austria for the third time. Cardinal Groer was whisked away to Germany during the Pope's visit. Cardinal Schönborn welcomed the Pope on Vienna's notorious Heldenplatz, where Hitler addressed jubilant crowds after the Anschluss when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. "Conflicts are shattering our Church ... many feel that their bishops do not understand them and are ignoring their concerns ... and this has shattered their trust in the Pope and the bishops," he said. Austrian Catholics prayed throughout the visit that Pope John Paul II would speak out on the Groer Affair, but the Pope tossed the ball back to Cardinal Schönborn, who had to admit openly that he and the Austrian bishops would have to "cope with it all now".
Again in 2004, when the sex scandal in the seminary at Sankt Pölten made world headlines, Cardinal Schönborn openly admitted that the scandal could have been avoided if the Vatican had listened to the Austrian bishops, who had warned Rome months before that "things were going badly wrong" in the Lower Austrian diocese, according to Cardinal Schönborn on Austrian TV. He expressed his dismay at the Vatican's delay in acting, saying: "It is most upsetting that the Vatican has not acted until now. I cannot hide my distress and anger and do not see why Austrian Catholics should have to put up with this."
The cardinal's own pastoral course has been accommodating. Recent episcopal appointments of auxiliary bishops have taken the normal course and the bishops appointed have gone quietly about their jobs and caused no conflict. Growing concern about the drastic shortage of priests and the clustering of parishes prompted Cardinal Schönborn's former vicar-general and head of Caritas Austria, Monsignore Helmut Schüller, to form the "Austrian Priests' Initiative", which is in favour of making priestly celibacy voluntary, ordaining proven married men and recalling priests who have left to get married, so that each parish can still have its own pastor.
While Cardinal Schönborn is always quick to emphasise that the Austrian Church cannot go ahead with such reforms on its own as they concern the whole Church, he has remained open to dialogue with the group. Leading members of the Priests' Initiative went to Rome recently in an attempt to discuss their concerns with the various Vatican dicasteries. When they received a last-minute cancellation of an appointment with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they telephoned Cardinal Schönborn who in his turn picked up the telephone and made an interview possible after all.
Cardinal Schönborn has so far been vindicated in his handling of the current crisis, but it is by no means over. The deep rift between ultra-Right Catholics and Wagner supporters on the one hand, and ultra-progressives calling for radical reforms including the ordination of women priests on the other, will be difficult to heal. Deep down the old wounds left by the scandals mentioned are still festering. While a recent parish survey showed that parishes with charismatic priests who involved the laity were flourishing, one of the priests interviewed was quick to point out that the slightest church scandal would reopen these old wounds and lead to a new exodus from the Church.
Although it may sound strange to English ears, Austrian Catholics can officially leave the Church. While 96 per cent of the world's Catholics do not have to pay compulsory church tax, the remaining 4 per cent, namely Catholics in the German-speaking countries, have to pay a certain percentage of their income tax to the Church. In Austria the figure is 1.1 per cent, in Germany it is between 8 and 9 per cent. If Catholics fail or refuse to pay, they can be summonsed and visited by the bailiffs who will then confiscate their property. Such cases are rare in Austria today but still possible. The only way for Catholics to avoid paying church tax is to go to their local municipal authority and declare in writing they wish to leave the Church. This is registered on their baptism certificates and the parish where they were baptised is notified. From then on they may no longer receive the sacraments or a Catholic burial.
In Austria compulsory church tax was introduced by Hitler in 1939 in the hope that it would tempt Catholics to leave the Church.Immediately after the war, Catholics did not mind having to pay church tax as it made the Church independent of political power, and so the bishops' conference decided to retain it. In the 1950s, 95 per cent of Austria was Catholic but by the 1970s, as in other affluent countries, secularism, consumerism and individualism began to take their toll and those Catholics who were not particularly attached to their faith, known in Austria as Taufschein Katholiken ("baptism-certificate Catholics") began to opt out.
Now, on average, about 35,000 Catholics leave the Church every year. But church scandals such as the Groer Affair, the Sankt Pölten sex scandal and the present serious crisis cause these numbers to rise rapidly. This time, even regular churchgoers are reported to be leaving the Church and, once again, all the skills of its leading figure will be needed to steady the ship.
"Crises are always also moments in which decisions and clarifications are called for. Crises can be opportunities - not comfortable ones, free of suffering, but in the final effect salutary opportunities, even if one cannot see them as such in the middle of crisis itself," Cardinal Schönborn wrote in Thema Kirche. Most of Austria's Catholics are hoping he is right.