Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna is not playing “a game of chicken” with priests calling for reforms in church practice. He is interested in getting the priests to work with him to bring new life to Viennese parishes, his spokesman said. “The situation is not as dramatic as the Austrian media make it seem,” said Michael Prüller, archdiocesan spokesman on Sept. 6. “There has been no discussion of sanctions, no ultimatum, no talk of punishment,” Prüller said.
The leaders of the Initiative of Parish Priests launched a Call to Disobedience in late June, urging priests to join them in saying a public prayer for church reform at every Mass; giving Communion to everyone who approaches the altar in good faith, including divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment; allowing women to preach at Mass; and supporting the ordination of women and married men. The initiative’s membership has grown from about 300 priests to about 400, and polls taken among Austrian Catholics showed overwhelming support for the changes the priests support.
Cardinal Schönborn met on Aug. 10 with the four priests of the archdiocese who are on the presiding council of the initiative, and he plans to meet with them again soon. In late June, in a written response to the priests’ Call to Disobedience, Cardinal Schönborn said he was shocked by the idea of urging priests to disobey church discipline, but he wanted to discuss with members of the initiative ways to meet the needs of Viennese Catholics. He also said that if the priests really believe they have a profound conflict of conscience in following church teaching, they should consider whether or not they want to continue as Catholic priests.
Many people read the cardinal’s statement as an ultimatum, but “this is nothing like that,” Prüller said. “There will be an ongoing debate, and there has to be an ongoing discussion of the underlying issues.” The cardinal’s intent in meeting with members of the initiative “is more a game of convincing and winning them over, and not a game of chicken,” he said. “We don’t send spies to all the parishes to make sure all the rules are kept,” Prüller said, but he added that if a priest is violating church law, the situation will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, the president of the Austrian conference of superiors of men’s religious orders has called for a “church summit” to involve all Austrian church leaders—not just Cardinal Schönborn—in discussing ways to respond to the priests’ initiative and consider possible reforms. But the cardinal remains convinced that his plan for renewal and reform, aimed at helping each Catholic discover his or her mission as a member of the church, is “more likely to solve the problems in the long term,” Prüller said.
In the Archdiocese of Vienna many priests are pastor of three or four parishes “and have no time for pastoral work.”
“People need to recognize that everybody is called to pastor others, to serve,” Prüller said. “We have to address the real needs of people in the 21st century,” he said, and that probably will mean larger parishes where people are encouraged to form small groups, “which are more vibrant and better at supporting each other in the faith” and at reaching out to others.