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Cardinal Christoph Schonborn

May 30, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Should the Church speak out in public – and also in political – debates? This question rushed back into the minds of those who followed the presidential elections in Austria at the end of April and the end of May.

Austrians elect their president directly every six years. The winning candidate must receive more than 50% of the votes in the first round; otherwise a second ballot is held between the two most successful candidates. This term’s candidacy came down to Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party (Grünen) and Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Van der Bellen won in the second round with roughly 2,250,000 votes, against Hofer who lagged behind by only 30,000 votes. Even given Van der Bellen’s victory, the country is divided.

For the Church, debate centred on statements by Van der Bellen concerning essential issues of life and morality, all of them crucial for the discernment of a Catholic voter. 

Regarding gender theory, Van der Bellen responded in an interview with the Austrian Catholic news website “Kath.net” that “equal rights for people, independent of their gender or sexual orientation, have become natural and a given”, while citing article one of the Austrian constitution as his reason. Because the Christian ÖVP lost ground in the political sphere, the red-green government could further push their agenda on life issues. When requested by the woman, abortion is legal in Austria, even without a medical reason, up to the 16th week of pregnancy. As a member of the Green party, Van der Bellen is likely to hold to this course of legislation, or possibly to push for wider use of abortion and state financial support for it.

Against this backdrop, the Church saw itself confronted with a dilemma: should it give advice over  the election, or should it stay silent out of respect for Church-state separation? For informed Catholics who know their faith and their social responsibility, as well as their duty to work for the common good, the positions of the candidates has provided the answer to this question.

But owing to the modern media jungle in which they live, Catholics remain confused about their identity. Hence, guidance from their pastors is sorely needed. Just prior to the second election round, auxiliary bishop and moral theologian Andreas Laun of Salzburg voiced his concern about the fact that “Catholic Action” (Katholische Aktion Österreich) had supported Van der Bellen publicly. Laun explained: “I am speechless when confronted with the publicity for Van der Bellen, which on the one hand shows how little people think critically in general, and on the other hand, how indifferent they are towards their faith!”

“In regard to all delicate and dangerous questions, from the defense of human life to questions about God, and then on to gender theory, he takes the wrong side,” the bishop added.

Without urging Catholics to vote for a specific candidate, Laun simply stated facts that can be found in the party platform of the Green Party, or that can be taken from Van der Bellen’s public statements. That his positions are irreconcilable with Catholic moral doctrine is not difficult to see.

Laun’s words did not remain unchallenged. The Archdiocese of Vienna published a press statement by Card. Christoph Schönborn, President of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, in which he criticized Laun by name and backed away from endorsing any specific political option.

Cardinal Schönborn explained: “The Catholic Church has gone without given political voting suggestions in the past, and our experience has taught us that this makes sense, even though – or especially because – in 2016, for the first time in the history of the Second Republic, a Catholic candidate is taking part in the election of a President.”

The head of the Austrian Bishop’s Conference wanted to state publicly that the Catholic Church will not endorse a candidate in the election.

With regards to the media campaign launched against Hofer, Laun pointed to the fact that Catholics should look beyond labels like “Nazis” and “right-wing populists” and should not be “brainwashed” in voting for an open enemy of the Catholic Church. The bishop quoted Cardinal Robert Sarah about the “silent apostasy” that slowly creeps into the minds of the Catholics, who “call themselves Catholics but cease to be Catholic.”

In his statement Schönborn urged Catholics to “be true to their style when entering public debate” and “not to judge those that think differently.”

“A good decision in the election cannot base itself just on the core issues of the Catholic Church like the defense of human life, but must also take into consideration many other components like the attitude of the candidates toward the weakest members of society, among them, immigrants,” says the statement.

One wonders whether an appeal to Catholic tolerance is appropriate, given that the candidate himself will not tolerate Catholic stances in public debate when it comes to central questions of morality. In addition, the archbishop did not repudiate the public endorsement of Van der Bellen by Katholische Aktion.

At the same time, the reader also wonders why the head of the bishops’ conference stabs one of his own bishops in the back for simply wondering out loud whether Catholic voters had the right criteria in mind when choosing their candidate. Given the aggressivity against the Church by politicians in general, one only hopes for a unified public position from the Church in favor of Catholic doctrine. Maybe this is exactly the “brainwashing” that Laun was speaking of.