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Online Edition: Vol. IV, No. 8: December 1998/January 1999

Austrian Assemby Shows a Church in Crisis

In an extraordinary event, a national council of lay Catholics convened by Austria's bishops voted on various points of church doctrine. An overwhelming number of delegates endorsed ordaining married men to the priesthood, permitting couples to use artificial contraception, condoning premarital sex, freeing parish councils from the pastor's authority, and allowing laypeople a say in the selection of bishops. Although delegates voted to allow the ordination of women deacons, the question of women priests did not make it to the floor.

Austria has been the site of significant dissent and turmoil in recent years. In 1986, Cardinal Franz König, the archbishop of Vienna , viewed as a "progressive," resigned. His successor, Cardinal Hans Groer, was intensely disliked because of his orthodoxy, as were a number of other bishops appointed by the Vatican. Cardinal Groer resigned in 1995 following allegations of child molestation that he did not deny. His replacement was Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a Dominican theologian who was an editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Capitalizing on the negative publicity generated by these events, in 1996 the Austrian group, "We Are Church", circulated a petition endorsing change in Catholic teachings on marriage, homosexuality, contraception, and women's ordination, which garnered more than a million signatures. (By contrast, a similar attempt in the U.S. got only 37,000 after two years of strenuous promotion.)

In 1996, the Austrian bishops proposed a national dialogue as a way of healing wounds caused by these events. That proposal resulted in the Dialogue for Austria event, which quickly became a forum for airing a wide variety of grievances against church teachings.The assembly in Austria was given special attention by Vatican officials. The first session opened with the reading by the Austrian nuncio (papal ambassador) of a letter from Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, saying that the Pope was looking on the Dialogue for Austria with great interest, and that he regarded it not as an informal round-table discussion but as a "sacred experiment".

The votes are not binding on the Church, but there is no doubt that they reflect the sympathies of some bishops as well as laypeople. Although the Austrian bishops had promised to communicate the results to Rome during their ad limina visits November 16th, several bishops have said that they cannot support anything contradicting Church teaching.

But some participants were quick to interpret the results as the beginning of a transformation of the Catholic Church into a kind of parliamentary democracy. Austria's leading daily paper, Die Presse, carried an interview with Bishop Johann Weber of Graz who led the conference (Cardinal Schönborn, president of the Austrian bishops' conference, had been hospitalized the day before). Bishop Graz suggested that Austria is "leading the way" and that other countries might want to emulate the Dialogue for Austria meetings. "There's a perception that synods are too rigid, and perhaps meetings such as this make sense", he said.

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