Vatican, There Are Fears over the Rebellion of the Austrian Priests

By Guido Horst
Vatican Insider
January 28, 2012

Benedict XVI and cardinal Christoph Schonborn

Monday afternoon (23rd of January), in the Vatican there was a meeting between the top figures of the Austrian Episcopal Conference and the representatives of the Roman Dicasteries to discuss the movement led by Hellmut Schuller.

This movement is supported roughly by three hundred clerics and it openly disobeys the Roman Catholic Church with theories bordering on heresy, moreover now it wants to spread abroad creating an international net open to priests of other nations and continents.

For Pope Benedict and the Roman Curia it is time to take action against this separatist movement. Schuller himself, in several interviews, did not deny his will to disengage from Rome and he added that there are priests from other countries like France, Germany and Australia wanting to join the initiative.

The Austrian bishops were represented at the meeting by Christoph Schonborn, Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, by Alois Kothgasser, Archbishop of Saltsburg , by Egon Kapellari and Klaus Kung, bishops of Graz and St. Polten. Representing Rome were the clerics of the Vatican Secretariat of State, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of the Roman Congregations of Bishops and priests. The objective of the Vatican was, among other things, to examine closely, asking specific and careful questions, the scale of the possible apostasy, which may lead to a schism of the Church.

From all points of view, the suggestions in Schuller’s “Pfarrer-Initiative” (Priests’ initiative), released in June 2011, really are ‘potentially explosive’. The ‘Appeal to disobedience’ , which has been translated in 10 languages, literally reads: “The Roman refusal to take up long needed reforms and the inaction of the bishops not only permit but demand that we follow our conscience and act independently”.

Appealing to people’s conscience has become almost a habit in the Church and the ‘ Priests’ initiative’ wants not only to show itself in opposition with the Pope and the Bishops, but also to play on this slogan now ‘in fashion’ especially as an expression of dissent . It is not by chance that the ‘Appeal to Disobedience’, in regards to priests suspended from service or living in sin, says “We express solidarity with colleagues no longer permitted to exercise their ministry because they have married, and also with those in ministry who live in a permanent relationship. Both groups live in accordance with their conscience – as we do with our protest”

For some Austrian newspapers Hellmut Schuller, already vicar general of the Cardinal Archbishop Schonborn and president of the Austrian Caritas, is a star. Schuller enjoys the approval of the Austrian Catholics who are opposed to the Roman Curia and also of various groups of clerics from other countries.

The Archbishop of Vienna hesitated to take canonical action against the dissident priests fearing that, seeing Schuller’s success in the media, an official and therefore public recognition of the existing conflict could deteriorate the situation into a clear and manifest schism, which is present but hidden so far. This is what the cardinal of Vienna said during the talks in the Vatican.

All the dithering has meant that the issue looms very clearly and concretely ahead and it is now up to the Vatican to solve it. In the Roman Curia, at this point, many complain that Catholic priests should no longer be forced to accept that a latent schism might be brewing and ready to burst within the Austrian Church. To keep the conflict outside the reach of the media and of the public opinion is not helping, especially considering that this disagreement is long lived. Followers need clear guidelines, even if that means losing many of them.

Pope Benedict is worried about the rebellion of the priests in Austria. The meeting last Monday was kept very private. Neither the papers nor the Vatican news agency released the news. There was a wish to avoid giving the impression that it is always up to Rome and the Vatican to take action against ringleaders. Maybe the local Bishops, who serve in Austria, should define and clarify the situation with their priests. That said, Cardinal Schonborn, once he was back in Vienna, said he felt somewhat relieved. Since the ‘Priests Initiative’ has declared its will to become international and spread beyond the Austrian borders, the issue doesn’t involve only Austria anymore and therefore the proverbial hot potato is passed into the hands of the Vatican.

The Archbishop of Vienna has clearly distanced himself from the ‘Priests’ initiative’ criticizing both form and matter of the appeal, he defended the vow of celibacy and the need for priests to obey the Pope. But he has not taken any canonical action nor has he announced any intention to do so in the future. The problem is not limited to the lack of obedience of the priests to the Pope and the Bishops, but involves more important matters like the meaning of the Holy Communion, of the ordination to priesthood and of the Church itself. These issues, especially after Helmut Schuller’s success in the media, hold the Catholic followers in an almost incessant state of confusion. The reason for the split centres on the ‘perception’ priests have of their mission and of the basic principles of the Church.

The authors of the ‘Appeal to disobedience’ never denied wanting a separate Church. The text says “We will not deny Communion to faithful of good will, especially remarried people, members of other Christian churches, and in some cases those who have officially left the Catholic Church”.

It goes even further, “We will avoid as much as possible celebrating multiple times on Sundays and feast days, and avoid scheduling priests travelling around or priests unknown to the community. A locally planned Liturgy of the Word is preferable to providing guest performances.”

The reason behind this statement is quite extraordinary,“We will use the term “Priestless Eucharistic Celebration” for a Liturgy of the Word with distribution of Communion. This is how the Sunday Mass obligation is fulfilled when priests are

in short supply”.

This consideration should have set off the alarm bells of all the clerics and especially of Cardinal Schonborn, who is a true dogmatist. If a mass with a “Priestless Eucharistic Celebration” is absurd in secular terms, it is theologically heresy.

In truth the Austrian bishops have distanced themselves from Schuller’s initiative both in theory and practice, but are avoiding taking canonical action, even though already for a long time the matter has not been limited to the ‘Appeal to disobedience’, which by the way is mentioned in the 1373 code of the Canon Law, but also involves a possible schism of the Church, at least according to the 751 code of the Canon law because there is a clear ‘ refusal to submit to the leadership of the Pope’.

If this is truly the situation, the bishops should (it would be their duty) talk to the members of the ‘Priests’ initiative’ and ask them to choose between the decree they have drafted and the Church’ doctrine and regulations.

However the Austrian bishops are refraining from such “showdown in the spotlight of the media”, using the words of Schonborn’s spokesperson, because on one hand a media war against Helmut Schuller would not bring him nor the supporters of the ‘Priests’ initiative’ back to the fold- as they say in St. Stephen’s square in Vienna - and because on the other hand the laicization of Austria, once Catholic, is now at an advanced stage , so advanced in fact that a disciplinary action of the Bishops against a schismatic, or in other words heretical priest would not be understood by most believers. In this situation perhaps it could be said that the schism is only the product of excuses and inertia.








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