Küng tackles Schüller group

Another top-tier representative of the Austrian Church has warned the Preachers’ Initiative from consequences.

St. Pölten Diocese Bishop Klaus Küng wrote in a letter to members of his diocese that he would feel “sorry” if actions had to be carried out against fellow Catholics. He expressed hopes for “not being forced to do so”. Küng underlined the “strong connection” between belief and obedience.

His statements can be seen as a warning to the Preachers’ Initiative of Helmut Schüller. The statements come only days after Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn – the highest representative of the Roman Catholic Church of Austria – told Italian daily La Stampa that the time had come to “clarify the various issues. We might take disciplinary measures, but I hope that this is not necessary.”

Schüller established the Preachers’ Initiative in 2006. The movement consists of more than 400 Austrian priests. This means that one in 10 of the country’s Catholic preachers are part of the group which calls for an abolishment of the celibate to increase the number of young men interested in becoming priests. The initiative also wants the Vatican to allow laymen and women to hold sermons.

The initiative has been causing a stir since June 2011 when it appealed on preachers to be “disobedient” towards the Vatican. Schönborn admitted that the Austrian Church was in need of reforms – but harshly criticised the group’s decision to use such a term to describe their attitude. Schüller said the Austrian Church was in a “crisis of leadership” – and encouraged bishops willing to change things to reveal their opinion.

Almost nine in 10 residents of Austria were members of the Church in 1951. This share dwindled to 65 per cent in 2011 when 5.41 million Catholics resided in the country. Austria registered a post-war record of 58,600 membership cancellations in 2010. The number of people leaving the Church decreased by 32 per cent from 2010 to 2011.

Schüller described the current situation in the Church as “strange”. Speaking to magazine profil, the parish priest of Probstdorf said that cleric seminar students of today were claiming that the problems highlighted by the Preachers Initiative would not exist. Asked to elaborate what he disliked about the state of the Roman Catholic Church of Austria, Schüller told profil: “The bishops are acting like landlords in feudal times. Leaving the Church would mean to leave it in the hands of people who we do not want to be responsible. (…) I am convinced that some bishops disagree with the Church’s official guidelines.”

Schüller worked as general vicar for the Diocese of Vienna before being sacked by Schönborn in 1999. The archbishop controversially informed Schüller about his decision to lay him off in a short letter. It is still unclear why Schönborn fired Schüller who caused controversy with his strong engagement for asylum seekers and foreigners in his role as president of Caritas Austria.

“It is true that the dispute is intensifying,” Schüller told profil about the current conflict. He added: “Our network is expanding. We have more and more contacts to Church representatives in other countries including France, Ireland and Germany. (…) There are tendencies that worry me. Slovakian priests were sanctioned for showing support for our programme. They were threatened with being made redundant.”