From the editor’s desk
Austria’s moment of truth3 September 2011
Those who attended the World Youth Day celebrations in Madrid seem to have found it truly inspirational. It was a genuine encounter with the Risen Lord manifested through his Church, under the leadership of Pope Benedict. If problems that the Church faces worldwide can be tackled in this spirit, then certainly there is hope. This applies particularly to the unfolding crisis in the Austrian Church, which if not handled with delicacy could become a catastrophic schism and quickly spread. It is fortunate that the man with the responsibility to defuse it, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, is one of the Church’s most able leaders who is inevitably being looked at as a possible successor to Pope Benedict.
The reason the protest movement – called the “Austrian Priests’ Initiative” – is so potent is precisely because of the truth of so much of what it is saying. The priests are drawing attention to the wide and growing disconnection between the norms of official church teaching, and everyday Catholic life as lived by many of the clergy and laity. Issues raised include birth control, Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, priestly celibacy and the treatment of homosexuals. This distance between theory and practice is undeniable, from whatever perspective it is viewed. For some, the messy compromises of pastoral practice have been stretched to breaking point.
They are right that what Catholics hunger for, and not just in Austria, is a Church of integrity, without hypocrisy, doublespeak or pathological denial. That is surely what the joyful young Catholics in Madrid were seeking too. A Church which can only function with its blind eye turned permanently to the telescope, seeing only what is convenient to see, is not in good shape.
The immediate danger for Cardinal Schönborn, therefore, is that efforts to suppress the Priests’ Initiative simply by asserting church discipline would place him on the wrong side by making him defender of the indefensible. On the other hand, leaders of the Priests’ Initiative must be careful not to place their cardinal – in many ways their friend – in an impossible position. Any hotheads looking for a quick showdown must cool off. Rome will not be rebuilt in a day, yet the history of the Church shows repeatedly that ideas rejected by one generation can become the orthodoxy of the next. What is lacking at the moment is evidence that the Church is able to move on, amid too many signs that it would prefer to go backwards.
Bishop Egon Kapellari of Graz urged the priests to be patient, as the issues being raised were “tasks which lie before us and which we have to master in the long term”. As it happens, no one is better placed than Cardinal Schönborn to find ways of overcoming the present impasse, which has become a threat to the Church’s unity.
The pastoral pragmatism and Nelsonian blindness that held things together may have worked for a while, but the next generation want something better, something more honest. It is not fair to leave them with no other choices than to leave the Church in indifference or despair, or to opt for a quirky and fastidious traditionalism. That is not what the young people in Madrid were looking for.
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