Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Chronicles Of Austria

Which course will Cardinal Schonborn choose?  The one that dead ends at the Vatican or the one that leads to an open Catholic future?

In case readers haven't noticed, I find the Austrian situation most interesting, and will continue to try and keep current with the latest information.  The following is edited from an article posted today on the National Catholic Reporter. It contains some new information which can't exactly excite Cardinal Schonborn.

.....Schönborn was reportedly to meet the Priests’ Initiative leaders again Sept. 10.
But the leaders of Austria’s Conference of Religious Superiors of Men want that meeting to be public and encompass a larger group. Because there is talk of schism, they say, the controversy can no longer be solved by Schönborn alone.  (The standard secret or closed meeting would hardly be a good idea.)

There are about 40 male religious superiors in Austria, and their opinions carry weight because religious priests account for about half of all parish priests in Austria.
The head of the male superiors, Abbot Maximilian Fürnsinn of the Augustinian Monastery of Herzogenburg, says a church summit is called for because certain of the reforms the Priests’ Initiative is pressing for -- such as “allowing older married men to say Mass” -- are “at least worthy of discussion.”  (One would certainly think so.)

Abbot Martin Felhofer of the Premonstratensian Abbey of Schlägl said, “Everyone -- bishops, abbots, religious and representatives of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative -- must sit down and discuss these problems together.” (He forgot to mention the laity.)

The director of Caritas Austria, Franz Küberl, told Austrian state radio Sept. 3 that the church reform debate was not confined to Austria. The same issues are being discussed in many countries. He was in favor of ordaining women deacons, he said, and as far as obedience was concerned, the main thing “surely” was to obey the Gospel.  (One would certainly think so.)

The head of Austrian Catholic Action, Luitgard Derschmidt, said that she fully understands that the members of the Priests’ Initiative “have had enough” and that Catholic Action shares many of their concerns. Austrian Catholic Action is the umbrella group for seven Catholic lay organizations that represent approximately 500,000 lay Catholics.

They were “not so much calling for disobedience but rather for a higher obedience to conscience and to God,” Derschmidt said. Mandatory priestly celibacy was a rule that could be relaxed, she said, adding that that many Catholic theologians see no reason why women could not be ordained. (That's a clever way of framing this initiative, and it puts a number of things in perspective, such as Rome is not God.)

The most recent polls taken among Austrian Catholics show that 90 percent want this controversy solved without there being winners or losers.
The polls also show that only 14 percent of Austrian priests think they are duty bound to obey church leaders and only 14 percent of Austrians accept the argument that women can never be ordained as Jesus only ordained men. (These are serious numbers--especially the priests attitude towards obedience to Church leaders.)

But 70 percent believe the church and its leaders are “an important moral authority.”
Ninety-six percent say that the exodus from the Austrian Catholic church would be “huge” if members of the Priests’ Initiative are suspended......

........The initiative decided to make their “Call to Disobedience” public in June, Schüller said, because parish priests have been expected to live schizophrenic lives for so long that it was wearing them out.
The hierarchy tolerates widespread disobedience at the grass roots, he said. For instance, it is a well-known fact that Catholics, even many of the young who go to World Youth Days, widely use contraception although it is forbidden by church law, he said. As a result, birth rates in Catholic countries like Poland and Austria are among the lowest in Europe if not in the world, but the bishops refuse to discuss such problems openly, thus leaving parish priests to teach one thing but practice or tolerate another, Schüller said. (This isn't really schizoid, it's plain ole hypocrisy and I can see where it is wearing out good priests.)

Since June, Schüller’s group has been in touch with similar groups in Ireland and the United States, he said. From the beginning, the group has had close contact with like-minded priests in Germany, where there is a similar initiative that is, however, more hesitant to go public than the Austrian initiative, according to Schüller.
(If the German priests go public, this initiative will snow ball.  I also think it will find some of it's most ardent supporters in the South, like in Brazil.)
He has received thousands of e-mails from all over the world, he said. Most have been supportive, but there has also been some harsh criticism, with people accusing the priests of promoting a schism and telling them to leave the Catholic church.

Schönborn’s call for “reverence and obedience” triggered a heated, nationwide debate on obedience and disobedience in the church, which has a sad history in Austria.
It was pointed out, for example, that in April 1938 the Austrian bishops called on Catholics to vote for Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. Most obeyed the bishops, but a few, like Franz Jägerstätter, refused. Jägerstätter did not leave the church. He was, moreover, many years later beatified for his disobedience.
(Jagestatter understood that in the context of  Nazism blind obedience was just another name for fear driven moral cowardice.)

Maybe the Spirit of Vatican II isn't quite dead yet.  Seems to me there was something in the documents of Vatican II that talked about the primacy of acting from one's well formed conscience--and that didn't mean acting from a conscience that was well formed to make one decision.  That one decision being to blindly follow the Vatican no matter the level of idiocy, willful ignorance or plain old hypocrisy.  

I have a couple of reasons for my interest in this story.  The first is I like Cardinal Schonborn.  There is something human about him.  He's human enough to let his frustration show, like he did with Cardinal Sodano. Curious enough to seek out his own information as he has with Medjugorge.  Open enough to broach the topic of gay unions in the context of actual love rather than lust. He has shown himself to be approachable and that more than anything has probably given his priests a sort of permission to act publicly on this initiative.  He is now faced with a situation in which he will need to demonstrate all these qualities, but eventually he will have to decide which Schonborn will take ascendancy, the one who went meekly to the Vatican woodshed or the one who had the courage to confront Sodano; the one who was the prime author of the Catholic catechism or the one who speculated on gay marriage.  The one who is considered a serious papal contender or the one who takes Medjugorge seriously.

Reason number two is I have thought for some time, and even written about it, that once a significant group of priests gave voice to Catholic frustration their voice would be echoed everywhere Catholic and that most definitely includes the South.  Catholics sometimes forget that the JPII/Benedict papacy made the elimination of Liberation theology a major issue, but that wasn't all they did down South.  JPII also eliminated the Base Community movement in Brazil precisely because it was purportedly confusing 'the roles of laity and clergy.'  Should German priests go public we shall likely see many more falling dominoes.

But there are other signs that the Vatican is losing it's grip on it's power and prestige along with it's grip on all things Catholic.  In this time of economic crunch, European governments are beginning to think the previously unthinkable.  Do cash strapped countries really need to have diplomatic relationships with an increasingly irrelevant Vatican?  Closing embassies saves money. An increasingly belligerent and right wing Vatican can be a political liability--especially a Vatican that actively interferes in the selection of an ambassador in order to fit it's own political agenda.  The US ambassador to the Vatican is an example of this process.  President Obama had a whole list of heavy weight Catholic politicians and diplomats to choose from except none of these democrats passed the Vatican orthodoxy test.  So our Ambassador was chosen not for his diplomatic resume, but for his position on abortion.  This is not a knock on Ambassador Diaz.  It's a statement of fact.

Cardinal Schonborn is a smart man.  He is aware the Vatican is losing a great deal of prestige along with huge numbers of baptized Catholics all over the globe, not just the West.  He is aware of the fact that spirituality is not a nebulous concept and that the spiritual search is replacing religious certainty for millions and millions of people.  He's being given an opportunity to define himself once and for all.  Will he be just another Roman Catholic Vatican yes man and lose a huge percentage of his flock, or will he be a truly prophetic leader and begin charting a new course for the Catholic church?  We don't have long to wait to find out. 


  1. A quote relevant, in some way, to the situation;

    ( from a First Nations TV series, Blackstone, said by the late Gordon Tootoosis;

    " Leadership is submission to duty, not evebation to power."

  2. Whhops;

    "Leadership is submission to duty, not elevation to power."

  3. Quoted from the article:
    He has received thousands of e-mails from all over the world, he said. Most have been supportive, but there has also been some harsh criticism, with people accusing the priests of promoting a schism and telling them to leave the Catholic church.

    Emphasis mine. I get quite a chuckle out of this. Presumably the same people telling this group of Catholic dissidents to leave the RCC are the same ones accusing the dissidents of schism; certainly that would follow the pattern I've seen elsewhere. My conscience says that by issuing orders to leave, they are just as guilty of promoting schism if that is in fact what it is. Personally, I think most people of the RCC are understanding enough to consider people can have a disagreement and still be members of the same family or community. It is the upper hierarchy that has trouble with this concept.

  4. Challenging authority isn't as Austrian as Mama and Apfelstrudel. There must be a more practical explanation.


    See: http://econ.ucsd.edu/~elib/pews.pdf

    Written by economists Eli Berman, Laurence Iannaccone, and Giuseppe Ragusa in 2007 it examines the topic from a perspective outside that of theology or internecine political church dispute. (For those not familiar with economic methods such as regression analysis parts of the paper might be a bit of struggle.)

    They conclude that the decline in church social services once provided by nuns may be the unexamined underlying factor that best explains the decline of the RC Church. Interesting. Very interesting.

    Read Section 3 The Impact of Catholicism: Theory and Data especially section 3c Catholic Social Services

    Are the "secular" temptations of greater prosperity and greater participation by women in the workforce responsible for declining fertility? Or "These inferences may not be warranted if, as we conjecture, rapid fertility decline in Catholic Europe is not so much due to economic development as it is due to the loss of Church-provided family-friendly social services. If our conjecture is borne out by further analysis it has important public policy implications. Religious groups may strongly support social service provision in some times and places, but very different institutional arrangements may be required to support their continued provision in changing or different cultures."

    Why did so many clergy leave post Vatican 2? A less desirable Theology? Unfulfilled promise of more reform to come? Desire to marry? Encroachment by the public and private sectors in areas once the provenance of charitable organizations for spiritual reason? (schools, hospitals, daycare etc.)

    The non-theologian's 1 Groschen and 1 pfennig for today.


  5. Sorry! The title of the article cited above is:

    FROM EMPTY PEWS TO EMPTY CRADLES:Fertility Decline Among European Catholics is a paper well worth reading.


  6. Hardly matters which decision this Cardinal makes, authoritarianism begins to crack with this type of current descent. Benedict will call it secular anarchy, but it is rally thinking people who will not suffer more tyrannical dogmatism. Could be we will see two or more Popes over parts of the Catholic Church, but a better form would be a broadly elected leader who understands the downfall of the authoritarian mind set --- That is loss of all believable authority.

    Yes, we are getting there. Seems like things are moving away from the tyrannical curia in Ireland, Germany, Austria, Australia, much of the US and Canada and a large amount of south America. Seems Catholicism may follow the Jewish lead of having many reformed churches with a few cultish believers of the past dogmatism.

  7. T'pel your observation is right. I too have wondered how these holier than thou Catholics and their constant drum beat for us to leave, can't see that they too are fomenting schism. Except I know all too well how the dynamic works.

  8. p2p: it's too late tonight but the link sounds very interesting and I will read it tomorrow.

    Dennis, we are seeing mindless, "becasue we've always had it' authoritarianism crash and burn all over the globe. There is a big message there, but the people who really need to hear it, won't. Wasn't it Jesus who kept saying "eyes to see and ears to hear"?