Catholic rebels gather pace

A group of priests opposing the Vatican’s principles finds more and more support, according to its head and a new survey.

Former Caritas Austria President Helmut Schüller’s Preachers’ Initiative made headlines in June by “calling for disobedience” towards the Vatican. The group explained it rejected the Church’s refusal to let women work as priests in Roman Catholic parishes. The group headed by Schüller, a former vicar general of the Diocese of Vienna, also called on Austria’s bishops to abandon the celibate.

The initiative warned extensive reforms were needed to avoid a further drifting apart of the Austrian Roman Catholic Church and the people as more and more Austrians quit their memberships. It was reported in January that 87,393 people left the Church last year – 63 per cent more than in 2009, the previous record year.

Schüller heads the parish of Probstdorf, a small town in the province of Lower Austria, today. GfK was asked by national broadcaster ORF to check how many priests support his group’s ideas. The agency found that 31 per cent of Catholic priests unreservedly backed the visions. Around 28 per cent describe themselves as opponents of the group’s proposals. Detail figures show that many of those in support were in favour of debating the various points in detail. Around one in three of Austria’s priests are “radical reformers”, according to researchers while four in 10 could be considered as “moderate reformers”. Around 500 priests were interviewed.

Schüller’s initiative also demands the Vatican to allow priests to give Holy Communion to people who married a second time at registry offices after getting divorced following church weddings. He told the Kurier yesterday that “50 to 60” priests joined the Preachers’ Initiative after it presented its “appeal to be disobedient” this summer. Only eight left it due to the controversial choice of words, according to Schüller. The ex-Caritas Austria head said the group currently had 370 members. A vast majority of 86 per cent of Austrians generally support the group’s ideas for reforms, according to a poll by Karmasin in September.

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna and highest representative of the Austrian Church, said today the strong support among priests for the reform movement was a “common phenomenon”. He is quoted by Die Presse as saying: “We, the bishops, often feel misunderstood in Rome (in the Vatican), the priests think the same about their relationship with us.”

Schönborn recently refused to rule out that Schüller and some of his most outspoken supporters could be expelled, but also expressed hopes that such a drastic move would not be needed. He admitted that the Church had to be reformed, but made clear that he saw no chance to agree with any of the suggestions made by the group formed and headed by Schüller.

GfK said 68 per cent of Catholic priests see an “urgent need for reforms” of the Church. Around 65.1 per cent of Austria’s populace of 8.5 million were Catholics last year, down from 89 per cent in 1951. The share dwindled from 84 per cent in 1981 to nearly 74 per cent in 2001. The most recent declines have been linked with news that hundreds of former Catholic boarding school pupils informed officials that they were abused by clergymen in the past decades. Federal branches of the Catholic Church in other European countries like Germany and Ireland experienced similar developments in the past few years.

Karmasin found in April of this year that 41 per cent of Austrians admitted to attending mass only on holidays like Easter and Christmas. With 35 per cent, more than a third never go to church. Nearly one in two (45 per cent) told the agency in March 2010 that their trust in the Church had been shattered due to the most recent cases of sexual and physical abuse. Another 27 per cent revealed they generally had no trust in the Roman Catholic Church of Austria.

A growing disinterest in being part of the Church may also have to do with the so-called contribution, commonly known as Church tax. Every member of the Catholic Church must pay a certain amount every year. Students, jobless people and elderly people living on minimum pension rates do not have to make the contributions.

The Catholic Church of Austria took in 395 million Euros this way in 2009, according to the Kurier. A lion’s share of these payments will be used in the coming months and years to financially compensate victims of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of priests, Catholic boarding school teachers and carers, according to reports.

Several independent organisations have been established to represent the abuse victims in possibly upcoming court cases. Many of the groups claimed a committee headed by former Styrian People’s Party (ÖVP) chairwoman and Governor Waltraud Klasnic would act in a biased manner due to the strong ties between the former politician and the Church. The so-called Klasnic Commission was established by Schönborn in 2010.