In a 15-page pastoral letter, which Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna admitted was the "outcome of intensive dialogue with Rome," the Austrian bishops insist that renewal of faith in full communion with the pope and the church's magisterium, and with special emphasis on church unity, is the only way out of the stalemate between the bishops and the Austrian Priests' Initiative, which demands far-reaching structural church reforms.
The pastoral letter, titled Jahr des Glaubens or "Year of
Faith," has a special chapter on the ongoing deadlock in the Austrian
church since the Austrian Priests' Initiative, which has more than 400
members, published its "Appeal to Disobedience" in June 2011.
initiative, which has the support of a large number of Austrian lay
Catholics, calls for radical church reforms, including the ordination of
married men and women.
Schönborn, president of the Austrian bishops' conference, presented
the pastoral letter at a news conference in Vienna in the first week of
October, before he headed to Rome for the 2012 Synod of Bishops, which
has the theme "the new evangelization" or reviving Christian faith in
increasingly secular societies.
The synod coincides with the opening of a
special "Year of Faith," which runs from Oct. 11, 2012, to Nov. 24,
2013, which also has focus on "the new evangelization."
In announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI said, "The church
is well aware of the problems facing the faith" and recognizes that
without a revitalization of faith rooted in a personal encounter with
Jesus, "then all other reforms will remain ineffective."
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a "note" Jan.
7 outlining the aims of the special year. Critical to renewing one's
faith and being a credible witness is having a firm and correct
understanding of church teaching, it said.
According to Schönborn, after intensive talks with Vatican
authorities, the Austrian bishops had agreed to use the Year of Faith to
state their "position on the controversial issues under discussion in
Austria with absolute clarity."
"And that is what we have done at Rome's request -- but also from our
own, personal conviction," Schönborn said at the news conference.
The chapter in the bishops' pastoral letter titled "Reform Backlog?" begins: "We do not want to conceal what we are repeatedly being told in
private and in public, namely that there is widespread dissatisfaction
with the church situation and particularly with "church leadership,"
that is, with us bishops and with Rome. Behind this dissatisfaction,
there is usually deep concern about a way forward for the church and
about its future. Pope Benedict XVI showed how well-informed he was
about these concerns in his impressive sermon at the chrism Mass on
Maundy Thursday [April 5], in which he went into the "Appeal to
Disobedience" by a group of priests in Austria. Many people in our
country are under the impression that "no progress is being made," that
"we're not moving forward" and so the catchphrase "reform backlog" has
established itself. On the other hand, we bishops have been saying quite
clearly for more than a year now that an "Appeal to Disobedience"
cannot be left uncontradicted. Does this mean that we will now remain in
a sort of "no-win situation for everyone involved," in which we
continue to goad one another with more and more accusations? We see the
Year of Faith as a chance being offered us by the Lord to find a way out
of apparent or real deadlocks together."
The bishops go on to say that they share the concerns behind certain
demands for reform.
"Many Catholics are above all worried about the
shortage of priests. In some parts of our country this is being felt
more and more acutely. More and more people, whether they belong to the
church or not, find it difficult to understand why the conditions for
priestly ordination cannot be changed in such an emergency and why
'proven married men' (viri probati) cannot be ordained. They
think that we bishops should put pressure on Rome to reform the present
stipulations. What most people overlook, however, is that the Second
Vatican Council decided in favor of retaining mandatory priestly
celibacy in the Roman Catholic church and that all the episcopal synods
since the council have confirmed this. Should this not be seen as a sign
from the Holy Spirit?"
They then add, "We are convinced that God is calling men to the
priesthood today. The question is only whether the humus in which such
vocations can grow is there and is being nurtured."
Citing the priest shortage and the drastic reduction in regular
church attendance, the bishops appeal to Austria's Catholics to become
more mobile, amalgamate with neighboring parishes, travel farther to
celebrate the Eucharist, and above all renew their faith.
The bishops repeat that they can understand that the faithful are
impatient and expect and demand reforms, but point out that some of the
changes could only be made at the cost of church unity and that they "as
bishops are bound to preserve and promote that unity."
At the press conference, Schönborn emphasized that this statement did
not mean that the bishops were no longer in dialogue with the priests
who had signed the "Appeal to Disobedience."
"We remain in dialogue but some demands can only be made at the
expense of church unity and that cannot be our [the bishops'] aim," he
The Austrian bishops did not think that their differences with the
Priests' Initiative would lead to a schism, Schönborn said. He suggested
that all those involved should take a "step back" (he used the English
words) and take a critical look at the deadlock with the aim of finding
out what they had in common.
In his archdiocese, Schönborn said, he would continue the policy of
not appointing to leadership posts priests who had signed the appeal.
One cannot represent the bishop and at the same time support an appeal
against the bishop, Schönborn said.
The bishops had chosen not to write a shorter pastoral letter, he
said, so that they could go into problems more deeply. The letter was to
have been printed in full in all nine diocesan newspapers, which have a
readership of approximately 460,000.
"My wish would be for as many of
the faithful as possible to study [the document] in their parishes,
families and in prayer groups during the Year of Faith," Schönborn said.
Msgr. Helmut Schüller, head of the Austrian Priests' Initiative and
initiator of the "Appeal to Disobedience," said that the letter showed
church leaders were playing faith and the wish for reform against one
"'Renewal can only come from faith, and wishes for reform obviously
cannot.' That is something I reject," said Schüller, a popular media
personality and once Schönborn's vicar general.
While the Priests' Initiative wanted consensus, he said, "consensus
must be built on a necessary altercation beforehand, otherwise it is a
dead consensus. And if the majority of the people of God are excluded
from finding the consensus, then the consensus is not very genuine."
He also said that it was "historically untrue" to say that Vatican II
had decided in favor of retaining mandatory priestly celibacy, pointing
out that Pope Paul VI had specially requested that the topic not be
discussed at the council.