Disgruntled Roman Catholics in Austria have not only been breaking bread at their weekly masses – they have also been breaking with tradition.
A total of 329 priests – one in ten of all priests in Austria – are openly supporting the call for reform that they say is needed to breathe life back into the church.
The movement calls for male priests to be allowed to marry, ending the church’s celibacy rule. The would-be reformers also want women to be able to enter the priesthood and urge greater acceptance of divorce.
The group wants women, as well as men, to be ordained
Rather than simply appealing for reforms, the group has declared it will break ecclesiastical rules by giving communion to Protestants and remarried divorced Catholics. It will also allow lay people – men and women – to preach and to lead head parishes without a priest.
The dissidents’ main spokesman is Father Helmut Schüller, who claims that a shortage of priests makes reform essential. In the entire southern state of Carinthia, not one single priest will be ordained this year.
“We’re presenting suggestions for how we can continue, when we have no replacements,” said Schüller. “How we can find people from our own ranks – for example our own parish members who can simply continue on? We’ve been thinking about this for years.”
It might be too early to call it a schism but unlike the congregations in Austrian churches, the number of “disobedients” is on the increase.
One woman, a religion teacher who wished to remain anonymous, claims she has right on her side when she breaks church law.
“One can only change a law by breaking the law,” she said. “When we come to a law that is spelt out the way it is now – that does not address our requirements and our rights but actually restricts them – then I believe I have the right to violate it.”
Schönborn has said that Catholics should stick to the rules
Head of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, says he is shocked by the open call to defy church doctrine. In a letter he told the rebels they should leave the Church if they do not wish to play by the rules.
Calls for a more liberal church are not new in Austria, says religion commentator Markus Veinfurter, who claims there are no signs that the establishment will listen. “They are all raising the same issues,” said Veinfurter. “But there is no movement in the church whatsoever, as far as the hierarchy is concerned.”
A public opinion poll shows most Austrians, 76 percent of those surveyed, support the priests’ demands and their disobedience.
“Where does it lead?” said Veinfurter. “I think people will go on leaving the Church, people, even those from the innermost part of the church will lose their allegiance. Maybe in a few years time the bishops will be on their own.”
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