Saturday, September 3, 2011

It's Crunch Time For Austria's Cardinal Schonborn

It's truth time for Cardinal Schonborn.  Is he the shepherd of all his flock or just the 25% that toe the Vatican line?


Here's another update on the state of affairs in Catholic Austria.  Cardinal Schonborn is slated to meet with the leadership of the priest movement on September 10.  The problem for Schonborn is he already set the tone for this meeting when he threatened the excommunication of it's leadership.  I suspect the leadership is far beyond being threatened by excommunication.  The following is an article from the British publication The Tablet.

Austrian abbots say Schönborn alone cannot prevent schism in Church

Christa Pongratz-Lippitt - 3 September 2011- The Tablet

THE HIGHLY influential Austrian abbots said this week that talk of schism in the Austrian Church could not be damped down, nor the current conflict resolved, by a meeting between the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, and representatives of dissident priests.

The Church has been in turmoil since more than 300 priests led by Mgr Helmut Schüller called for disobedience on matters such as priestly celibacy and Communion for re­married divorcees (see The Tablet, 9 July). Having told the members of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative on 10 August that he could not allow their call to be left as it stood, and that they should back down or leave the Church, Cardinal Schönborn gave the priests time to “reflect” before a second meeting, behind closed doors, planned for 10 September.

But the Austrian abbots and provosts said the positions are now so hardened that a second round of talks could not possibly solve the problems. There are roughly 40 abbots and provosts in Austria and half of all parishes have Religious as parish priests.

The head of the Conference of Religious Superiors in Austria, Abbot Maximilian Fürnsinn, of Herzogenburg Abbey, said a church summit is called for as certain of the reforms the Priests’ Initiative is pressing for, such as allowing older married men to say Mass, could be taken up and were at least worthy of discussion. Abbot Martin Felhofer of Schlägl Abbey said: “This can no longer be solved by the Cardinal [Schönborn] alone. Everyone – ­bishops, abbots, Religious and representatives of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative – must sit down and discuss the problems together.” (In a Church which brags about not being a democracy, this notion of collegiality and debate amongst peers will never happen--even under Schonborn.)

While Cardinal Schönborn was in Madrid for World Youth Day – where he was apparently repeatedly asked about the Priests’ Initiative by his fellow bishops – and subsequently in Rome for this year’s Schülerkreis meeting, the initiative has continued to make almost daily headlines in the Austrian media.(I bet he was, and I bet he was given a lot of advice about how to deal with his 'dissenters').

Four priests have left the Initiative, but 86 more have joined so that it now numbers 400 priests – roughly one in 10 – and 12,000 active supporters. In his many media interviews within the last three weeks, Mgr Schüller has confirmed that he has received support from all over the world, in particular from Brazil, the US, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy and Mexico. The international reactions showed that the Vatican was “obviously” faced with problems worldwide and that “our concerns are certainly not Mickey Mouse issues”, Mgr Schüller said on 25 August. He admitted that the Initiative had also come in for some very sharp criticism. “Some want to throw us out of the Catholic Church altogether and even go so far as to curse us. They call us schismatics and rebels who are destroying the Church,” he told the weekly News magazine.

Cardinal Schönborn returned to Vienna on 29 August and sources close to him say he is extremely worried. It is rumoured that he has little alternative but to suspend the leading rebels, but there are fears that this may lead to a schism as the latest poll (by the Oekonsult Institute commissioned by the Austrian Press Agency) shows that 76.5 per cent of Austrians back the Initiative. (That 75+ percent thing would make me extremely worried--especially if I really thought I had a shot at the next papacy.  This kind of thing would not be good for my resume.)

Bishop Egon Kapellari of Graz, the number two in the Austrian bishops’ conference, told Profil in Cardinal Schönborn’s absence that questions like mandatory priestly celibacy or women’s ordination which the Priests’ Initiative wanted to see discussed were “tasks which lie before us and which we have to master in the long term but which cannot be adequately answered in the short term”(I wonder if this tepid statement about priestly discipline will result in Graz dealing with the Bishop Morris solution.)


Cardinal Schonborn certainly does appear to be facing an Archbishops' worst nightmare.  I have no trouble believing his World Youth Day was far from a celebration of Catholic orthodoxy, and more about a battle strategy for his upcoming meeting with his frustrated priests, and this meeting will have serious consequences for the 76 percent of his equally frustrated laity.  If Schonborn follows through on his threats to excommunicate the leadership of this movement, he may receive accolades from his fellow bishops and the Vatican, but he will have also more than likely precipitated a schism in his flock.

Mathew Fox has stated the schism isn't coming from the left, it is in fact, coming from the right.  If one looks at the numbers amongst Austrian Catholics, it certainly does look as if the laity think the schism is being precipitated from the right.  I can also hear the orthodox stating that this 76% figure needs clarification, that this is most likely inclusive of a whole bunch on non practicing Catholics and so is not representative of Austrian Catholics who take their religion seriously.  They could be right about this on a superficial level, but completely wrong on a deeper level.  In order to accept this argument I would have to make a conscious decision that those who have left off practicing their Catholicism, have done so for shallow selfish reasons.  Unfortunately I know way too many very deeply serious Catholics who left off practicing Catholicism for very deeply serious reasons.  They have not stopped being deeply serious spiritual Christians.

Christianity in the 21st century is at a crossroads.  The chasm between traditionalist/conservatives and evolutionary/progressives is seen through out organized Christianity.  The self identifier "spiritual but not religious" is the fastest growing self identifier in the Western Christian world. It has picked up a great deal of steam in this country since 9/11/01.  A rational person might stop and wonder what kind of message about organized religion is being sent by this trend.  It might just have something to do with religious identity being perceived as divisive and exclusionary, something the global community can't afford to tolerate in an age of global interdependence.  It's interesting that in Austria, the frustration is not with Catholic dogma, but with the exclusionary and divisive aspects of the disciplines associated with the Catholic priesthood.

I wrote a couple of years ago that Cardinal Schonborn was a man to watch. I've written quite a few articles about him.  Readers can put his name in the search engine to find some of them.  There are strands of energy and consciousness swirling around him and he is now facing a major defining moment.  I can't help but wonder if he will act from the courage of his true convictions, or from the cowardice of obedience.


The following is an editorial in today's edition of the Tablet.  It makes some very fine points about the Austrian situation:


Austria’s moment of truth

3 September 2011

Those who attended the World Youth Day celebrations in Madrid seem to have found it truly inspirational. It was a genuine encounter with the Risen Lord mani­fested through his Church, under the leadership of Pope Benedict. If problems that the Church faces worldwide can be tackled in this spirit, then certainly there is hope. This applies particularly to the unfolding crisis in the Austrian Church, which if not handled with delicacy could become a catastrophic schism and quickly spread. It is fortunate that the man with the responsibility to defuse it, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, is one of the Church’s most able leaders who is inevitably being looked at as a possible successor to Pope Benedict.

The reason the protest movement – called the “Austrian Priests’ Initiative” – is so potent is precisely because of the truth of so much of what it is saying. The priests are drawing attention to the wide and growing disconnection between the norms of official church teaching, and everyday Catholic life as lived by many of the clergy and laity. Issues raised include birth ­control, Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, priestly celibacy and the treatment of homosexuals. This distance between theory and practice is undeniable, from whatever perspective it is viewed. For some, the messy compromises of pastoral practice have been stretched to breaking point.

They are right that what Catholics hunger for, and not just in Austria, is a Church of integrity, without hypocrisy, ­doublespeak or pathological denial. That is surely what the joyful young Catholics in Madrid were seeking too. A Church which can only function with its blind eye turned permanently to the telescope, seeing only what is convenient to see, is not in good shape.

The immediate danger for Cardinal Schönborn, therefore, is that efforts to suppress the Priests’ Initiative simply by asserting church discipline would place him on the wrong side by making him defender of the indefensible. On the other hand, leaders of the Priests’ Initiative must be careful not to place their cardinal – in many ways their friend – in an impossible position. Any hotheads looking for a quick showdown must cool off. Rome will not be rebuilt in a day, yet the history of the Church shows repeatedly that ideas rejected by one ­generation can become the orthodoxy of the next. What is lacking at the moment is evidence that the Church is able to move on, amid too many signs that it would prefer to go backwards.

Bishop Egon Kapellari of Graz urged the priests to be patient, as the issues being raised were “tasks which lie before us and which we have to master in the long term”. As it happens, no one is better placed than Cardinal Schönborn to find ways of overcoming the present impasse, which has become a threat to the Church’s unity.  

The pastoral pragmatism and Nelsonian blindness that held things together may have worked for a while, but the next generation want something better, something more honest. It is not fair to leave them with no other choices than to leave the Church in indifference or despair, or to opt for a quirky and fastidious traditionalism. That is not what the young people in Madrid were looking for.


  1. "non-practicing Catholics" in Austria: Might they not be waiting (and hoping) Catholics?

    What if this fissure leads to a huge reawakening? Then how would the hierarchy respond?

    Stay tuned.

  2. More Austrian turmoil can be found on the same Web site as the Austrian priests' Appeal to Disobedience. It shows a Jan 2011 letter and resolution from the Austrian Lay Initiative to the Pope ("Dear Lord Bishop of Rome") on the bishop appointment process and its questioned validity. The resolution reviews the history of process and policy, calls for an explanation of the present approach, and concludes that appointments _must_ be made with participation of the clergy and laity.
    The letter ends by indicating that, if no response is received, the validity and effectiveness of bishop appointments will be questioned. (Caution - Foregoing based on Google translation)
    Call to Disobedience (Pastor Initiative)
    Resolution and Letter to Pope (Lay Initiative)

    The letter appears to contain no deadline but offers potential for a noteworthy collision if it is invoked as Cardinal Schonborn and associates try to respond to the Appeal to Disobedience.

  3. Interesting that the questioning of authority is not coming from the States, where we are told that our "individalism" is antithetical to Catholicism. Instead, it is coming from a country known, at least in the past, as acceding to authority. Are our American clergy that cowed? Where are the leaders here? It would be a blessing if one of our bishops decided to write a book before he retired, about reforming the medieval mess that our church has become. I am not holding my breath.

  4. I don't think the hierarchy will respond in a positive way to the requests of the Austrian priests. There will be a quiet but serious push back by the Archbishop. He has no choice but to maintain the status quo, which is his job description. I see some priests leaving & others staying. Probably the ones who leave may find more happiness, peace, & satisfaction than those who stay, finding their careers in a shambles. Maybe 200 years from now this may be seen as the seed of a new Church. The Vatican system will continue to push out these "lost children", who are not really "lost" but true prophets and martyrs.

  5. Searcher, I would agree with your assessment except for the 76% lay agreement thing. This isn't just about the 400 priests although they are leading this parade.

    I can't help but wonder if part of this isn't about the fact that before Cardinal Schonborn, Austria had the known and protected pedophile Cardinal Groer. Even Schonborn was angry about the fact Sodano and company protected Groer. I strongly suspect this situation has a lot to do with the lines in the priests' letter about hypocrisy and double speak. I'm curious as to how Schonborn will address that when he himself was taken to the Vatican woodshed over his comments about Sodano.

  6. "The reason the protest movement – called the “Austrian Priests’ Initiative” – is so potent is precisely because of the truth of so much of what it is saying."

    Ignoring, except, that tricky little matter of there being no justification whatsoever for the admission of "remarried" "divorcees" to communion?

    Or, have they just kept the details of their revelation a closely-guarded secret?

  7. Invictus - as I read and pray the gospels, I can't find justification for denying Communion to any one.

  8. 1 Corinthians 11:27 is the obvious one. 23-30, for complete unambiguity.

  9. Seems to me if you set yourself above the law, you are setting yourself up as its judge. The creator of the law is its rightful judge, who is full of mercy and does not desire sacrifice. Too, as we judge, so shall we be judged.
    As we forgive, so shall we be forgiven. In the end each is only an unworthy servant.

  10. I think that the Austrian priests who are "lost" to the Roman church will be "found" by another community or establish their own, creating a future opportunity for some kind or kinds of inter-community organizing. Maybe this is the start of something new & spirit-led.

  11. Invictus, at the risk of feeding the troll, I'll respond one last time. I am much more comfortable with the "erroneous" assumptions of many of the contributors here than I am with your carefully correct comments. The tone is not one of salvation (or evangelization, if you prefer). It is instead the smell of one who knows he is the holy one in the midst of the sinful masses. It is what Jesus condemned as wrongful prayer. Concerning this, as a fellow sinner, I am very comfortable in saying to you "Repent, and be saved."
    But stop pretending to yourself that these responses contain some righteousness. Until you come to the sinners to listen, as Jesus did, you'll never get to the very end of the relationship when you can say "go and sin no more."

  12. Invictus, first Corinthians is not a Gospel. I can find no justification in the Gospels, in words attributed to Jesus, which deny the 'breaking of bread' to anyone. That includes both Judas and Peter at the first breaking.

  13. Ignore my tone, ignore everything I say, have said, and ever will say, ignore it completely.

    If only you would listen faithfully and lovingly to the Church Christ gave us, and the Bible she formed for us, I would be overjoyed at being so ignored.

  14. Your comment in the article, Colleen:
    (That 75+ percent thing would make me extremely worried--especially if I really thought I had a shot at the next papacy. This kind of thing would not be good for my resume.)

    I would think that if the Vatican really is OK with the smaller, purer church idea, that schism might be a boost for the resume. If they are merely looking at what wealth goes with the excommunicated, then maybe not so much. It would depend on the 'property settlement' as it were.

    In politics, it all depends on the spin. ;)

  15. Your right Veronica. I keep trying to make an insane situation sane. No doubt Schonborn could actually enhance his chances by losing 75% of his flock in defense of orthodoxy. Unless as you say, the property settlement went with the dissenter.

  16. I am so pleased to know that someone is facing up to the truth of what the Vatican is doing. We need change that will take us forward, face up to realities in the 21st century and stop defending the indefensible.