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Austrian Bishops Respond to Catholic “Rebellion”: Continuing Dialogue Promised

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna has responded to the Austrian rebels with a promise of dialogue, not discipline: jaw-jaw before war-war: but has firmly rejected calls to “disobedience”.

Last week the Austrian branch of “We are Church” issued a statement of support for the Austrian priests’ earlier “call to disobedience, and at the same time urged laypeople to start making up for clergy shortages by consecrating and distributing Holy Communion, as well as preaching and presiding at Mass.

This call immediately preceded a four-day meeting  of the Austrian bishops, at which the priests’ rebellion was already due to be discussed. The bishops have now concluded their meeting, and have released a statement in response, which is well worth reading and considering carefully.

Part of the response is entirely predictable – a rejection of the principle of disobedience, and for lay people to celebrate the Mass themselves.

The bishops said that some demands connected to “this call for disobedience at the initiative of priests and laity are simply unsustainable” and breach “the central truth of our Catholic faith.”

USCatholic.org

I’m not sure that this is correct – I would have thought that the “central truth” of our Catholic faith was to follow the example of one Jesus Christ – who was notably wary of slavish adherence to religious rules and religious leaders.  Just consider, for instance, the words from the Gospel reading two weeks ago, and in particular its closing lines:

You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 

Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ. 
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

No, the “central truth” that is being breached here is not that of the Catholic faith, but of clerical (and especially episcopal) power, that has been gradually claimed for themselves in a two millennium long power grab. What the call for lay celebration of the Eucharist does, is to return to the practice of the earliest church, when communities chose from amongst themselves people to lead their liturgies. These served as part-time ministers, not full-time professionals – and bishops did not even exist.

The issue of “disobedience” specifically is another matter – but it cuts both ways. It is true that priests take vows of obedience to the bishops – but the bishops in turn are supposed to be responsive to the needs of the Church. The overwhelming evidence from research the world over, is that (collectively) they are not.

But inside the statement, there is also encouragement. It is clear that the Austrian bishops have recognized the seriousness of the crisis, and while they reject the rebels’ outright defiance, they have some sympathy with their fundamental aims. They have attempted to show a conciliatory tone, and to demonstrate some common ground. They too, are anxious for reform and renewal. They also emphasise a flexible understanding of “obedience” itself, which does not have to be blind and slavish:

“As bishops, we are all naturally concerned about our church’s real and serious problems –Austrian dioceses are facing up to the situation and taking opportunities to innovate,” said a statement issued at the end of the Nov. 7-10 meeting.

In their statement, the bishops said the duty of obedience had its source “in the Bible and living tradition of the church” and did not mean “being blind or slavish.” They said debates were under way in each diocese and they were confident they would “find answers to the questions asked today.”

USCatholic.org

That’s in the formal, prepared statement, as quoted by US Catholic Magazine. Behind the scenes, we can be sure that there will be much more, continuing discussion (not for public dissemination). This was explicitly promised by Cardinal Schonborn, in a press conference following their meeting.

“We are in talks and will remain in talks because I and the bishops are still convinced that a lot can and must be cleared up by dialogue,” Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said on Friday after a four-day meeting of bishops.

Equally interesting, as always in discussions of ecclesiastical politics, is what is not said: there is absolutely no mention of disciplinary sanctions against the rebels, imposed or threatened.

The bishops find themselves in an impossible situation. It is clear that they have substantial sympathy with the aims of the Austrian reform movement, but they are unable to comply with the demands with themselves falling into direct conflict with their own superiors in Rome. As the view from the Vatican, and that from ordinary Catholic households, continues to drift further and further apart, the challenge to Austrian bishops in attempting to straddle the divide will be repeated, in many other countries.

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