Vatican letter demands action on Austrian dissident priests’ group the day after Papal blast

The cardinal has a long history of ambivalence on the issues in the group's manifesto, and has been at the centre of several scandals in which he has appeared to support the aims of the homosexualist movement in the Church.
Sat Apr 7, 2012 - 4:16 pm EST

ROME, April 7, 2012 ( - According to inside sources, the head of the Austrian Catholic Church and cardinal archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, was not informed ahead of time of Pope Benedict XVI’s intention to criticise a group of dissident priests in his sermon at St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday night. Today it was revealed that Schönborn received a letter from the Vatican demanding action, after ten months of “discussion” between the cardinal and the group calling itself the “Austrian Priests’ Initiative.”

The group issued a manifesto last year demanding the Church change teachings on the ordination of women and married clergy and the reception of Communion by non-Catholics and divorced and remarried persons, and calling on their fellow clergy to disobey the Vatican.

Schönborn said on Friday that he now wants a “clarification” on the group’s demands.


“There must be a clarification here about the ‘Call for Disobedience’. We bishops have said this from the beginning, the word ‘disobedience’ cannot be allowed to stand. I think we need a clarification, a public statement and I think we need to address this matter soon.”

Shortly after the group grabbed headlines in Austria with its manifesto last year, Cardinal Schönborn told Der Standard, “This cannot go on. If someone has decided to go down the path of dissent, that has consequences.”

Nonetheless, since then, the signatories of the group have remained in good standing with the Church and a spokesman for the cardinal has denied that any ultimatum or sanctions have been declared. The cardinal is said to be interested only in “discussing” with the priests “the needs of Catholics”.

Moreover, the Cardinal himself has also publicly called for the Church to acquiesce to the group’s agenda. He has admitted that the call for “reform” is common among clergy in Austria, and said that the Church does need some reform. He told Die Presse, “We, the bishops, often feel misunderstood in Rome; the priests think the same about their relationship with us.”

The cardinal has a long history of ambivalence on the same issues brought up in the group’s manifesto, and has been at the centre of several scandals in which he has appeared to support the aims of the homosexualist movement in the Church.

In 2010, Cardinal Schönborn criticised the Church for what he characterised as its refusal to accept homosexual relations. Schönborn told the far-left UK Tablet magazine that the Church should also consider allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion since “many people don’t even marry at all any longer.”

“We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships. A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous,” Schönborn said.

It remains to be seen what Rome’s reaction to his polite request for “clarification” will be, with the Pope’s patience publicly wearing thin. On Holy Thursday, the day the Catholic liturgical calendar focuses on the priesthood and its origins in apostolic times, Pope Benedict, in a rare move, publicly criticised the group, asking whether they were motivated by a desire to reform the Church or merely to pursue their own personal agendas. 

Pope Benedict devoted the bulk of his sermon on Thursday night to the situation, saying, “Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

The German language news service has revealed that the letter was sent to the cardinal after several weeks of behind-the-scenes activities, with Rome demanding action. says that “several well-informed sources” have confirmed that Rome has asked the Austrian bishops to “do something” about the dissident priests.

In 2011, the group claimed to include 317 priests and 52 deacons, a number that makes up approximately 15 per cent of the Catholic clergy of Austria. In August last year, a survey found that over 70 per cent of Austrians support the group’s aims. According to the Oekonsult polling institute, 86.8 per cent said they believe that the celibacy rule “creates problems” for the Church. Another study showed that 31 per cent of Catholic priests “unreservedly” support the group, with only 28 per cent opposing.

The group, claiming to be motivated by the “spirit of Vatican II,” has demanded that the Church allow women’s ordination and the ordination of married men; that non-Catholics and divorced and remarried persons - according to the Church people in unrepented adulterous liaisons - should be admitted to Holy Communion without question and that laymen should be permitted to preach and lead “communion services”.

The group’s leader, Monsignor Helmut Schueller, who was vicar general of the Vienna archdiocese under Schönborn from 1995 to 1999 and once led the Austrian chapter of the international Catholic charity Caritas, has gone on lecture tours, telling similar groups around Europe that he will not recant.

The Catholic Church in Austria is mired in a crisis, in which 87,000 Austrians have formally renounced their ties to the Church in 2010 alone, mainly in response to the scandals of priests sexually molesting young men and boys. While over 85 per cent of the country is nominally Catholic, recent research has shown that 41 per cent attend Mass only at Easter and Christmas and 35 per cent never go to church.

Once widely regarded as a “conservative,” Cardinal Schönborn was close to Pope John Paul II and was one of the authors of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, but he has been a thorn in the side of Benedict’s papacy for some years.

Recent history between the Austrian bishops and Benedict’s papacy has not been a happy one. In 2009, the Austrian bishops were called to a series of emergency meetings with the pope, in which Benedict frankly asked them to drop their effective opposition to his attempts at reform.

Pope Benedict had previously attempted to place in the scandal-plagued diocese of Linz his hand-picked choice of bishop Gerhard Maria Wagner, but the choice was blocked by the bishops who refused to countenance Wagner’s fidelity to Catholic teaching, labeling him an “ultraconservative”. Pope Benedict asked the bishop to maintain “full fidelity to Vatican II and the Magisterium of the post-conciliar Church.”

On the same day as those meetings closed, however, Schönborn handed the pope a petition, that he called an “initiative of the lay faithful,” demanding the abolition of compulsory celibacy for priests, the return to ministry of priests who have already left to be married, the opening of the diaconate to women, and the ordination of married men to the priesthood. The cardinal denied at the time that he agreed with the petition’s demands, but said that he believed the Vatican should know what the laity of Austria are thinking.

Schönborn has been at the centre of several scandals, many of which revolve around the aims of the homosexualist movement within the Church. In 2006, it was revealed that the rector of his cathedral had instituted a para-liturgical ceremony to bless “couples, fiancés and people in love” including homosexual partners. Speaking to the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, the rector, Fr. Anton Faber, said he regretted that “today there is no possibility in the Church to bless a union of people with homosexual feelings.” 

Faber told Die Presse that his action had the full approval of the cardinal and the other Austrian bishops and that he and a group of fellow priests were engaged in a campaign for acceptance within the Church of the homosexual disorder. His actions, he said, “are based on solid Catholic ground and are in a 100% concordance with the directives of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference.”

In 2008, Schönborn refused to intervene when it was revealed that the cathedral museum was displaying an exhibition of works by Marxist atheist artist Alfred Hrdlicka, depicting, among other things, Jesus Christ and his Apostles as homosexuals and the Last Supper as an orgy. Catholics and others around the world reacted with horror at a news report by Gloria TV News, showing some of the works, but they were never removed from the museum.

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