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Strong support for Schüller

A vast majority of Austrians approve a controversial group of Catholic priests’ demands.

Pollster Oekonsult said yesterday (Tues) 87 per cent of residents of the country welcome Helmut Schüller’s plan to go international with his Preachers’ Initiative. Schüller, who once headed Caritas Austria, established the initiative around half a year ago. The group says the Roman Catholic Church should allow preachers to ignore celibacy. The preachers also support liberal Catholics' appeal for women to hold sermons.

Oekonsult also found that 86 per cent of Austrians know the group organised by Schüller. The Probstdorf parish priest claims that 400 Austrian Catholic preachers joined his initiative in past months. He recently appealed to the Conference of Austrian Bishops to stop ordering more parishes to merge.

Diocese decision-makers argued that such reforms were needed due to a decreasing number of priests. Most of the country’s dioceses struggle finding sufficient numbers of young men interested in becoming preachers to take over from deceased or retired priests. Around 87 per cent of Austrians think that the Church must not force more parishes to merge, according to Oekonsult’s latest public opinion investigation.

Liberal and modestly conservative leaders of the Austrian Church – who were recently summoned to the Vatican to discuss the various problems in their home country’s dioceses – do not deny that the denomination must evolve and start a reform procedure. At the same time, Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn pointed out that he disliked the decision of the Preachers’ Initiative to describe their attitude as disobedient. Schönborn, the Austrian Church’s highest representative, also said that no changes would be made to celibacy rules.

Schüller recently said that this year would be his group’s year of internationalisation. He claimed that leaders of the Church "are finally taking us seriously" and explained that the Preachers’ Initiative "receives a lot of approval from Catholic reform movements all over the world." Schüller criticised the Vatican for bearing resemblance to an "absolutist monarchy" in its approach to the decisive subjects of the 21st century.

Austria’s Catholic Church is fighting on several battlegrounds these days. It had to cope with a record number of membership cancellations in 2010 when 58,603 people left. The number declined by 32 per cent in 2011 but experts rule out that a substantial turnaround can be achieved in the long run due to the waning importance of the denomination and other religious groups. While some critics said the Church must stop charging its members, conservative politicians appreciate the idea of introducing fees for every citizen regardless of their beliefs. They argue that everyone benefits from the Church’s achievements from organising events to renovating monasteries and chapels across the country – which are often touristic attractions.

Theologians refuse to rule out that the current wrangles and the increasing popularity of the Preachers’ Initiative could lead to a splitting of the Austrian Catholic Church. Schönborn is interested in carefully opening the denomination to critical, young residents of industrialised areas who planned to turn their backs on it while Andreas Laun represents the Church’s ultra-conservative circles. Laun, the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Salzburg, gives interviews on internet platform Gloria TV on a regular basis. The under-fire online broadcaster with offices in Vienna has engaged in an aggressive campaign against a gynaecological clinic in the city which offers abortion services to women. Gloria TV has managed so far to fend off its critics’ legal actions by being registered in Moldova.

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