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“Occupy the Church”: Austria’s Catholic Rebellion Gathers Strength.

Two recent reports from Austria show clearly that the Catholic rebellion is gathering strength: survey research shows that two thirds of the country’s priests support calls for urgent reform, and that lay Catholics have announced plans to ignore Church rules that restrict the celebration of Mass to ordained priests. Instead, they will conduct worship and communion themselves where priests are not available. Meanwhile, in Australia, a separate story from Melbourne illustrates how on a much smaller scale, Catholics elsewhere are also willing to defy episcopal control.

Survey: Two Thirds of Austrian Priests Back Priests’ Reform Initiative.

When the Austrian Priests’ dramatic “Call to disobedience” hit the news back in June, there was some uncertainty over just how much support they had. We now have a reliable estimate by a reputable, professional research organization. GfK was commissioned by national broadcaster ORF to check how many priests support the group’s ideas. The answer is remarkable:

  • 68% of Austrian priests see “an urgent need for reform”;
  • in spite of the strong, provocative language of the call, 32% back it “unreservedly”;
  • only 28% oppose it.
Detailed figures show that many of those in support were in favour of debating the various points in detail. Around one in three of Austria’s priests are “radical reformers”, according to researchers while four in 10 could be considered as “moderate reformers”. 
It’s worth recalling, here, just how far-reaching the proposals are.  They want to see women admitted to the priesthood, an end to compulsory celibacy for priests, and for priests to distribute communion to people who have been divorced and remarried. In themselves, these calls are not too extraordinary: many progressive Catholics around the world would agree with the aims. This initiative though, goes well beyond simply pleading for a change in the rules. It is explicitly framed as a “call to disobedience”, and instead urges that where there is a shortage of priests resulting from the continued refusal to ordain women and married men, priests should in effect embark on a work to rule, leaving lay people to fill the gap if necessary, by saying Mass for themselves. They also urge that in the absence of a change in the rules on communion, priests should simply disregard them.
Austrian Lay Catholics Prepare for DIY Mass
In a parallel move, lay Catholics who met over the weekend announced plans to do precisely as the priests’ initiative has urged: for lay people fill the gap in parishes where no priest is available. In support of the plan, they claim that they are placing God’s word in the Bible ahead of mere Church rules.

A manifesto adopted by dozens of activists at the weekend said lay people will preach, consecrate and distribute communion in priestless parishes, said Hans Peter Hurka, head of the group We Are Church.

“Church law bans this. The question is, can Church law overrule the Bible? We are of the opinion, based on findings from the Second Vatican Council, that this (ban) is not possible,” he said Monday.


Austria’s bishops are themselves meeting in a four day session this week. Responding to this will present them with a major challenge. Already, the church is losing members at an alarming rate – last year, over 87 000 Austrian Catholics formally left the Church, an increase of 63% over 2009. The proportion of Austrians who are Catholic is down to just 65%, compared with 89% in 1951. Research earlier this year showed that many of the remaining Catholics admit that they attend Mass only infrequently, and have little or no trust in the Church hiearachy.
  • 41 per cent of Austrians attending mass only on holidays like Easter and Christmas.
  • A further 35% never attend Mass.
  • 45% told researchers that their trust in the Church had been “shattered” by the sexual abuse revelations.
  • A further 27% had no trust in the Church to begin with.
Together with the decline in numbers, will go a decline in revenue. Churches in Austria are funded by the state, in proportion to their signed up members. In 2009, the Church got 395 million euros from the state.  To compound further the loss of revenue, an increasing proportion of those funds are being used to pay compensation to the victims of abuse.
The overwhelming majority of Austrians support the priests’ initiative. Attempts by the bishops to stifle it will simply alienate still further an already disaffected Catholic population. Accommodating them, however, is beyond their power, as the rules in question are set by the Vatican, not by national bishops.

DIY Catholicism, elsewhere.

Austria is not unique in facing these conflicts: Dominicans in the Netherlands proposed priestless Mass back in 2007,  but were warned by their order not to slide into schism. In country after country, the majority of Catholics do not agree with Vatican rules on sexuality, or on the rules for priestly ordination, or many other matters of church discipline. What sets the Austrians apart, is not the simple desire for reform, but the willingness by laypeople and priests to move ahead on implementing reforms without waiting for institutional approval. On a smaller scale, we have seen this kind of DIY Catholicism elsewhere as well – as in the example of the womenpriests’  movement, and in a handful of parishes which are already hosting their own Masses, independently of episcopal control.
The latest example could be that of a parish in South Melbourne, Australia.
Having been told he must retire, Father Bob McGuire calls for public support in helping him stay on as Parish Priest in South Melbourne, saying ‘we’re like Occupy the Church’. 

Despite wanting to stay on and continue his work, Father Bob McGuire has been told by Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart that his tenure as Parish Priest at Saint Peter and Paul’s Parish will end early next year.

The priest, named in July as Victorian of the Year, says he’s concerned that he won’t be able to continue his work with the local community.

“If it was me I wouldn’t give a rats, but it’s not me – it’s us, it’s the village and it’s the church in the village,” says Father Bob.

– ABC, Melbourne

I don’t know too much about the detail of Fr Bob and South Melbourne, but my impression is that there are strong similarities with the case of St Mary’s, Brisbane, and several parishes in the US, where bishops mistakenly thought they could simply silence troublesome priests in the accustomed way, by episcopal decree – and found instead that the congregations themselves chose to relocate to independent premises, with their preferred priest or with none, rather than submit meekly to the unwanted exercise of naked church power.
The Austrian rebellion is not going away any time soon – and may well expand further afield.

12 Responses

  1. Terence,

    I don’t view the developments in Austria as good news for anyone, least of all Catholic Austrians.

    If 76% percent of the population never goes to Mass or only goes for Christmas and Easter, I think the issues in the populace run much, much deeper than the Church’s teachings or its controls.

    My guess is that the loss of faith being experienced in the Catholic Church is not a denominational phenomenon. My guess is that the loss of faith crosses all of Christianity, and most faiths.

  2. I agree, David, that the issue of loss of faith in Austria goes much deeper than the issues discussed here, and apply also right across Europe, ,much of which can be described as a Post-Christian society.

    Personally, I suspect that the replacement of authentic Christian values with naked materialism and consumer culture is the root cause of the economic crises now facing the West, as well as the riots that afflicted the UK this past summer. – but the bigger picture is not one that I feel competent to get into.

    Whatever the reasons for the long-term decline, we must recognize it as a fact – and seek to strengthen the Church that remains. Empowering and enabling wider participation is one way to do that.

    • Terence,

      I have not thought through the issue of how the Catholic Church should respond in a Post-Christian era.

      My own experience is that the laity have been greatly empowered over the last 50 years, and that empowerment has not reversed the trends. Rules allowing participation have also been greatly relaxed. Anyone is free to walk through the doors of the worship space, allowed to freely participate, and to receive most sacraments without question.

      Yet, in spite of that empowerment, 76% of all Austrians who call themselves Catholics, go to Mass no more than 2 times per year. In my opinion, these people may say they left the Church because of doctrine, sex abuse, etc., but the facts don’t bear out their rationales. Loss of membership is relatively even across denominations, liberal and conservative. In fact, the most liberal denominations seem to be losing members at at faster rate. These liberal denominations, for the most part, are not picking up the losses of the conservatives.

      I am of the opinion that opening up the Church to more liberal initiatives, like gay marriage, will actually accelerate the losses. If gay marriage were to happen, do you really think that would attract more Catholics? I doubt it. But, it would almost surely cause the conservatives to leave or become disenfrachised. Look at the divisions created by the gay clergy debate among the American Anglicans.

      It seems to be a much tougher question than the Occupiers suggest.

  3. David, “empowerment” is much more than simply leaving all people free to walk through the door, participate, and act as readers or eucharistic ministers.

    At the very least, it should include participation in decision-taking, the selection and appointment of the peoples whose incomes we provide, and access on a basis of equality to the ordained priesthood. The culture of clericalism that has created the caste divisions in the church are clearly contrary to the Gospels: it has developed over many centuries of the papal/episcopal power grab – and is finally being resisted, just as so many secular totalitarian regimes have been resisted over the past century.

    • Terry,

      For the 24% of the Austrian Catholics who go to Mass your empowerment issues might be a concern. But, I would guess that empowerment is only a concern to a small percentage regular churchgoers.

      Both my wife and I are actively involved in our Church’s affairs. The problem that we have at our Church is not getting enough lay involvement, not too much. If a Catholic were so interested, one could minister 80 hours a week in relative freedom. For the most part, clericalism is not a non-issue. When it is an issue, it is usually just an inconvenience.

  4. David, your observations are accurate. Denominations are losing membership across the spectrum, with liberal leaning ones losing membership at a faster rate. I suspect the liberal exodus reflects less of an emotional connection with the idea of formalized religion.

    Those are the observations, but what are the implications? Well, the implications are pretty profound for main stream denominations. What they are selling and how they are selling it, is not being bought. I sometimes think the divide between the progressive wing and traditional wings is more about what strokes one’s ego than any kind of universal truth. Traditionalists seek to maintain a strong emotional connection and progressives seek to integrate knowledge with faith. One likes high theater coupled with a black and white morality which ramps up the emotions, and the other would prefer a lecture hall where very little is stated which might ramp up emotions. In their own way, both are essentially fear based.

    In reality neither approach actually challenges people to look at themselves in any serious way. Nor do they provide real spiritual experiences with real impact on our world. I seriously doubt many people are truly happy espousing either one, but it’s better than nothing in that they serve to soothe -at least to some extent-existential fears.

    The answer will not come from main line denominations, including Roman Catholicism. The answer will come from the marginalized fringes in both science and comparative spirituality. When that happens we will look back at what Jesus ACTUALLY TAUGHT and go: “Oh my God, he knew what he was talking about!”

    • Colleen,

      I would like to think about your response in some detail.

    • Colleen,

      The premise of the post seems to be that Catholics should Occupy the Church, change its structures, and more fully participate in the life and doctrine of the Church. The hope is that the Church will be made better and that we will see a return of the disenfrachised. Essentially, the underlying argument is that what is being sold is not being bought, so we should change what we are selling.

      The hard reality is that all denominations are in the same or worse position than the Catholic Church. The Christian movements that seem to be gaining the most ground are the “theology-lite” evangelicals. On the whole, the evangelicals are not interested in universal truths or even forming denominations. The focus is on individualized spirituality, usually led by a dynamic personality.

      In my opinion, the marginalized fringes of science and comparative spirituality “denominations” are only attractive for a small segment of the population. These folks are often atheists attempting to construct a God without a religion, and a religion with a church.

      I am convinced that nearly every major Christian denomination has the “answers” to Christian living if a person is willing to commit himself or herself to exploring the faith more deeply. But, in a world where we are given so many choices of truth, why would people pick a hard truth over an easy truth?

      For example, the Catholic Church speaks a hard truth about the reality of abortion. The easier truth is that a child only becomes human upon birth. Given an unplanned pregnancy, what woman would choose the first truth over the second? If the Church wants to retain this woman, should it change to the easier truth?

  5. I’ll take your last question first because by answering it, I will answer some of the rest. The Church would go a long way forward on abortion if it admitted a woman does not get pregnant by herself and start holding the male part of the equation equally culpable. It’s the same for almost all other of the Church’s sexual morality, the emphasis is on women’s reproductive rights, or denying gays sexual rights. The heterosexual male is left to his own pristine devices sans a little lip service about priestly celibacy. This is not flying at all with Western women or our younger generations. The globe is overflowing with the sexual abuse of men on women and children and yet all we hear from our pulpits concerns birth control, abortion, and gay sex.

    What if we taught that sexual expression is most holy when it is engaged in by two consenting persons, both respecting each other’s right to say no, who consider themselves in love, and without any power differential what so ever at all. No gender qualifiers. No notions of a male right to marital ‘relationships’, but a major emphasis on equality within the relationship. When I have taught sexual morality from this perspective, it’s amazing how teenage boys react because most of them have never considered their sexual activity from a power relationship, or that they may be engaging in a great deal of coercion in order to get what they want. Nor have they really thought about the consequences. In their minds pregnancy is about women not men, about girls not boys. In my scenario it’s not. It’s about two people, not one girl and if the male has been coercive he holds the higher moral culpability for the pregnancy and any other consequences there from.

    The harder truth is not how abortion teaching effects girls and women, it’s that it doesn’t particularly effect boys and men. The really hard question then, is do we have the guts to teach abortion as the mutual sin it is? Will we call men baby killers as easily as we do women? Will we take on the military for passing out condoms as quickly as we demand our right to deny birth control for women? We will castigate heterosexual men for free and easy sex with the same impugnity we do gay men? As long as our male teachers won’t take the really hard course, the fair course, the sensible course, the exodus will continue because the hypocrisy is too obvious. And that’s just with sex.

    • Colleen,

      Your post points to a fundamental problem with the Church’s teaching in today’s world – the difficulty of interpreting and applying it to the circumstances faced on a daily basis.

      You ask, “Do we have the guts to teach abortion as the mutual sin it is?. I have never heard a pastor suggest that women are more culpable than men nor have I ever read Catholic clerics who have suggested that men do not have responsibility in the reproductive realm.

      Among all of the institutions or groups teaching sexual morality, the Catholic Church may actually demand the most of men and their responsibilities. There is no double standard. Men are not permitted to have sex outside of the marital relationship. Period. There is no such thing as “women’s reproductive rights”. Men and women are equally responsible for all aspects of sexual activity. I have never heard a pastor castigate a woman or women for having an abortion.

      From my own experience, the “exodus” of which you speak is almost exclusively among my friends who don’t like the teaching. I can’t remember the last time that I heard someone say that they agree with the teaching, but that they are leaving because of the hypocrisy. More often than not, the “hypocrisy” is expressed as you have expressed it.

      That said, if the Church put more emphasis on the pastoral concerns of the people and less on the doctrinal rationales, the Church’s perceived standing in the world could be greatly enhanced without any loss of doctrinal integrity. For example, the Church provides countless energies to AIDS victims. Yet, the news that gets to the press, and to the people, is that the Church is opposed to the use of condoms. While that is doctrinally accurate, condom use or non-use is not a criteria for determining whether a person receives Church assistance.

  6. […] From The Open Tabernacle: Two recent reports from Austria show clearly that the Catholic rebellion is gathering strength: survey research shows that two thirds of the country’s priests support calls for urgent reform, and that lay Catholics have announced plans to ignore Church rules that restrict the celebration of Mass to ordained priests. Instead, they will conduct worship and communion themselves where priests are not available. Meanwhile, in Australia, a separate story from Melbourne illustrates how on a much smaller scale, Catholics elsewhere are also willing to defy episcopal control. […]

  7. […] of what’s happening right now in the Austrian Catholic church.  At Open Tabernacle, Terry Weldon compares the We Are Church movement in Austria, which has the strong support of a sizable proportion of […]

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