Austrians at odds about Schönborn

One in five Austrians consider Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn as a reactionary clergyman.

Public opinion research group Karmasin found that 20 per cent of people think that Schönborn, the highest representative of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria and head of the Conference of Bishops, has a conservative attitude.

The poll – for which 500 people were interviewed – also shows that, with 47 per cent, almost half of Austrians categorise Schönborn as neither reactionary nor progressive. Around 17 per cent regard Schönborn as progressive.

Researcher Sophie Karmasin told magazine profil – for which her agency conducted the survey – that she did not expect the Church’s reputation to improve due to Schönborn’s decision concerning the controversy in Stützenhofen. Karmasin added that the archbishop’s decision to issue a warning towards the Preachers’ Initiative was unlikely to have a significant impact either.

Florian Stangl, a homosexual resident of the small Lower Austrian town of Stützenhofen, received a majority of votes in the recent Catholic parish community council election. Gerhard Swierzek, the local priest, said he planned to leave the town. Swierzek – who tried to veto the nomination of Stangl due to his sexual orientation – explained he did not want to hold masses there any longer.

Swierzek’s statements followed a disputed decision by Schönborn. The archbishop decided to overrule the local preacher’s verdict and allow Stangl, 26, to join the community council. After meeting Stangl in person, Schönborn admitted having been “impressed by his personality”.

The initial developments in Stützenhofen seemed to indicate the rise of conservatism among some Catholics. Schönborn’s interference was seen as a shimmer of hope to win back moderate Austrians who turned their backs on the denomination due to the hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clerics – and the conflict between the Conference of Bishops and a group of priests who declared themselves disobedient.

Probstdorf parish priest Helmut Schüller founded the Priests’ Initiative six years ago. Last June, the group – which consists of over 400 Austrian Catholic preachers – said they were disobedient towards the Vatican with immediate effect. Schüller hoped this decision would cause an increasing interest in starting reforms in the Church. He appealed on Austrian bishops who shared his group’s opinions to say so in public. Schüller said he was convinced that some bishops disagreed with the official policies of the Vatican and the Austrian Church.

Schüller’s group wants the celibate to be abolished. The movement also demands a regulation ensuring that priests must not hold masses at more than one parish. Too much stress allegedly caused the recent suicide of an Austrian preacher. Furthermore, the Priests’ Initiative calls on the Pope to finally allow laymen and women to hold sermons in Catholic Churches.

Various reform groups all over the world have expressed similar demands as the group formed by Schüller for years. The controversy around the Austrian group erupted only after the preachers declared their disobedient attitude towards superiors.