Anger as archbishop gives church away

Members of a small parish in Vienna are outraged by Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn’s decision to hand over the church to the city’s Serbian-Orthodox community for free.

Neuleuchenfeld parishioners harshly criticised Schönborn for his decision made public last year. Now the Vatican decided to reject their appeal. It promised to rule on the issue by 30 September before ignoring its own deadline. News that the Vatican approved the cardinal’s decision emerged yesterday (Mon).

Newspaper Die Presse reported Schönborn planned to meet representatives of the Neuleuchenfeld parish shortly. The highest representative of the Austrian Catholic Church had reportedly made clear already that the decision was final. He argued the move with a decline of Catholic membership figures and pointed out that his community had 172 parishes in Vienna while there were just three Serbian-Orthodox churches in the city. The denomination has around 150,000 members in the Austrian capital. Approximately 750,000 residents of the city are of the Roman Catholic faith.

Schönborn allegedly regards the Vatican’s verdict as an approval of his controversial reform path – and eyes up providing other denominations with more Christian churches as more and more people quit their memberships. The increasing exodus strains the Austrian Catholic Church’s coffers since every registered member is asked to pay an annual contribution. The amount depends on people’s income. The fee is widely known as church tax and a key argument for economically challenged citizens to leave the Church. Another significant reason for increasing membership cancellation figures are the various sex abuse scandals clerics have been entangled with in past years.

The Austrian Church achieved 395 million Euros from the mandatory contribution in 2009. Germany and Switzerland are the only other European countries with an obligatory fee for Roman Catholics. Students, unemployed people and elderly citizens on low pensions do not have to pay the contribution in Austria.

An elderly member of the parish set to be administered by Vienna’s Serbian-Orthodox Church told the Kurier after attending a morning mass today: “They will have to drag me away from these steps.” Schönborn asked the Neuleuchenfeld parish to partner up with another Catholic community situated in the same district, Ottakring. Reports have it that the Polish-dominated Neuleuchenfeld parish has prospered recently despite much negative news around Austria’s Catholic Church of the past months.

A spokesman for Schönborn argued today that the Viennese Diocese was finding it increasingly hard to manage and maintain its parishes. A vicar revealed churches in the southern district of Favoriten and in Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, which borders Ottakring, could be asked to pool resources in the near future. He vowed to consider points of view brought forward by the parishes’ heads.

The number of young Austrian men interested in becoming priests is in sharp decline, according to newspapers. Another aspect Schönborn is currently kept busy with is the growing popularity of a movement founded and headed by former Caritas Austria head Helmut Schüller.

Schüller, who heads a small Lower Austrian parish, revealed earlier this month that “50 to 60” priests joined his Preachers’ Initiative after it declared being “disobedient” towards the Vatican in June. Just eight left it after the disputed decision to act more actively against restrictions by Roman Catholic officials. The initiative has around 370 members at the moment, according to Schüller. Around 86 per cent of Austrians back the group of priests’ ideas, according to a poll by Karmasin.

Schüller’s movement wants 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. They also reject the Church’s refusal to let women become priests. Schüller – a former vicar general of the Diocese of Vienna – made clear that the Preachers’ Initiative also wanted to abandon the celibate.

Schönborn claimed last week he was open for suggestions about how the Austrian Church could be reformed in its struggle to remain popular especially among young people – but criticised Schüller’s group for choosing the term “disobedience” for describing their stance towards Vatican rules. The archbishop said the word was a “term of fight” and therefore burdened with a negative connotation.

The Preachers’ Initiative welcomed a well-known priest in their ranks last week when Wolfgang Pucher said he supported the movement. Pucher, who has engaged with homeless people in the city of Graz for years, told Die Presse: “I have been actively considering most of their demands for some time.” Pucher explained he gave Holy Communion to divorced people and did not keep laymen – especially priests expelled after marrying – from holding sermons.

Nearly eight in 10 Austrians describe themselves as Catholics but only 65 per cent of residents of the country are registered members of the denomination (1981: 84 per cent). The Church announced at the beginning of this year that 87,393 people cancelled their memberships in 2010. This was a new annual record for post-war Austria and an increase of 63 per cent compared to figures recorded for cancellations in 2009, the previous record year.

Research group GfK Austria recently interviewed 500 Catholic priests. Its survey showed that 68 per cent of them see an “urgent demand for reforms” while not all back the ideology of Schüller and his Preachers’ Initiative.