By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Perhaps the best way to express what’s happened in Austrian Catholicism over the last twelve years is to imagine living through the anguish of the American sexual abuse crisis, twice, in a small country of just over 8 million, where all traumas are particularly local.
In the papal plane on the way to Vienna this morning, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the heartache of the Catholic church in Austria, telling Catholics here, “I know you’ve suffered.”
“I’d like to say thank you to all those who suffered in these recent years,” the pope said.
t“I know that the church in Austria has lived through difficult times, and I’m grateful to everyone – laity, religious, priests – who, during all these difficulties, remained faithful to the church, to its witness to Jesus, and who in this church of sinners nevertheless recognized the face of Jesus.”
Benedict said that today he sees “new momentum” in the Austrian church.
“I would not say that all the difficulties have been solved,” the pope said. “Life in this century, in all centuries, remains difficult, and the faith too always lives in difficult contexts. I hope that I can be of some help in healing these wounds. I also see today that there’s a new joy in the faith, a new momentum in the church. As much as I can, I want to encourage this willingness to go forward with the Lord, to have faith that the Lord remains present in his church, and thus, that with the faith of the church, we too can arrive at the goal of our lives and contribute to a better world.”
The comments reflect the bitter controversies that have rocked Austrian Catholicism since 1995.
In that year, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna was forced to resign, following charges that he had molested novice monks while a Benedictine priest in the 1970s. Perceptions that the church was slow to respond to those accusations fueled deep discontent, and unleashed a powerful reform movement. On Good Friday 1995, two Catholic schoolteachers in Innsbruck named Martha Heizer and Thomas Plankensteiner went on local TV to demand reform in the church, asking other Austrians to join them.
Within weeks, a national campaign emerged called Wir Sind Kirche, or “We Are Church,” which collected almost a million signatures of support in Austria, and later over two million in Germany. That wave of energy crested in an unprecedented national assembly of Austrian Catholics in 1997 called the “Dialogue for Austria,” where delegates voted to endorse a sweeping reform program, such as local participation in the naming of bishops, an end to mandatory priestly celibacy, and reversing the church’s ban on birth control.
Predictably those ideas went nowhere in Rome, but they continued to generate wide ferment here.
Austria was gripped by crisis anew in 2004, when more than 40,000 pornographic images were discovered on computers in the seminary of the Sankt Pölten diocese, including sexually compromising photos of seminarians and staff. The truculent bishop of Sankt Pölten, Kurt Krenn, who had been among the most vocal defenders of Groër and a harsh critic of the Wir Sind Kirche movement, was eventually forced to step down.
Paul Zulehner of the University of Vienna, perhaps the country's foremost sociologist of religion, predicted the pope's acknowledgment of the church's difficulties would be much appreciated.
"I think it's an important gesture," Zulehner said. "It will be very encouraging."