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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