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Dealing with the Austrian “Priest's Initiative”

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 31, 2011

There could hardly be a more appropriate sequel to my previous commentary (On the Crisis of Theology and the Need for Rulers) than the new threat of open disobedience by the Priest’s Initiative in Austria. Claiming the support of 329 priests, this group states that it will proceed to give Communion to those who have divorced and remarried, end priestly celibacy, bring married priests back into ministry, promote the ordination of women, and permit lay people to preach and lead Communion services.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna—the very man who coordinated the development of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—has threatened that such disobedience will have consequences, but has apparently not yet followed through with his plan to meet with these priests to avert disaster. Of course, whether or not this matters depends very much on one’s definition of disaster. There is only one way to resolve situations like this without completely disrespecting the rights of the faithful, and we may pray—in fact, we ought to pray—that Cardinal Schönborn will have the courage to do what needs to be done, and that he will enjoy the full support of both the Vatican and his brother bishops.

In my previous essay, I emphasized the need for bishops to rule if they are to restore order in Catholic theology; the same thing applies to restoring order in the ministry, and in particular those aspects of the ministry which ought to reflect a sound Catholic theology firmly rooted in the teachings of the Church. It may, then, be fortuitous that a group of clearly Modernist priests is finally threatening to defy both Church doctrine and Church discipline openly, which saves a bishop the painful and arduous task of sifting through various complaints to try to determine which of his priests defy the authority of the Church only when he is not around.

The welcome clarity of this situation consists in the fact that it cannot be papered over without immense and obvious harm to the faithful. That doesn’t mean it won’t be, but in general internal Modernist dissent has been characterized by a strategy of avoiding the contradiction of one’s own bishop to his face. When a priest actually directly challenges his bishop, and does so publicly, it is much harder for a bishop to pretend that things are really not all that bad.

In the present case, barring public repentance, it is impossible to retain any of these priests in active service without signaling to the entire Church that Catholics may believe and do whatever they want. That’s why the only way to resolve the problem is to give the priests who support the Initiative a direct and personal choice of either taking an oath of obedience which repudiates the Initiative or being excommunicated (or, at the least, removed from active ministry). Anything less is a victory for those who wish to overthrow the Church herself.

The argument that it is better not to precipitate a schism, or better to avoid the loss of so many active priests, will not hold water in this instance. That is a very good argument where there is widespread ignorance and consequent inadvertent failure to represent the Church as the Church requires. Under such circumstances, a patient plan of improvement might have some merit (though the lack of a plan of improvement, which has too often been the case, causes such an irenic approach to fail miserably). But where there is open, public defiance, a line must be drawn and, if necessary, heads must roll.

That’s what it means to rule, and ruling is not only a good in its own right but also a great contribution to teaching and sanctifying. In the absence of effective rule, teaching is inconsistent or false, and the Catholic processes of sanctification are derailed. Since the faithful have a right to receive the teachings and the sacramental rites of the Church in their proper and correct forms, the bishop who properly exercises his duty to rule performs a signal service to all the Christian faithful. And a bishop who does not exercise that duty betrays them.

Paradoxically, it is often the case that the damage done by doctrinal and disciplinary divisions can be minimized only by making those divisions deeper and more pronounced. Past policies of ignoring the teachings and actions of ministers who do not accept the authority of the Church have simply resulted in widespread laxity and confusion, with a general drift of the members of the Church into the most unfortunate attitudes and sentiments of the surrounding secular culture. Only by ruling some positions entirely out of order can this process be reversed, so that Catholics know what they are expected to believe, and how they are expected to respond to Christ’s call to holiness.

This call to holiness ought to be manifested in everything the Church does, yet it is undermined almost completely by priests who refuse obedience to the Church’s Magisterium and to the disciplinary authority of their superiors in the hierarchy. The failure to rule decisively in such matters shows not only a contempt for the rights of the faithful, but for their very souls. As I have argued elsewhere (see, among other writings, Repairing the Scandal the Catholic Way), this same contempt for the faithful lies at the heart of the sexual abuse scandal. It is not to be taken lightly.

Cardinal Schönborn, his brother bishops, and the Pope behind them are unmistakably called instead by the Priests’ Initiative to show their profound respect for the rights of the faithful. In other words, they have no moral choice but to rule. In this case, even if it involves the loss of all 329 priests, ruling is the only way to strengthen the Church’s priestly identity, which is the key to her salvific power.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Oct. 12, 2011 10:25 PM ET USA

    A good point is made in this article. Yes,the cardinal's position is simplified now. The 329 priests have made their position crystal clear: now he is quite free to make the position of the Church in Austria also very clear. Either he signals his acceptance that these priests are actually leading the church in Austria and not himself, or he acts to correct them. Either way these priests are already lost to the Catholic Church: better they go off and start their own sect.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Sep. 05, 2011 12:51 PM ET USA

    These same Bishops didn't have any trouble knowing how to discipline the "rebels" and "revolutionaries" who tried to exercise sacred traditions and liturgy of the past 2000 years! "Shape up or ship out" they said to the Traditionalists! Now they are unsure how to deal with these priests. "Oh my! What shall we do? We don’t want to offend anyone. Let's think about this for another few years until someone else gets my job, then he (or perhaps, "she") can deal with it. Now, they reap what they sowed

  • Posted by: Doorman - Sep. 03, 2011 6:33 PM ET USA

    Can all the priests, and designate Austria a Mission Territory, open to all evangelizers. That means any faithful priest, from anywhere in the world can go there and begin re-evangelizing the country. It should all be well in a century or two if this was done. Maybe it would only take about 50yrs.

  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - Sep. 03, 2011 12:22 PM ET USA

    Finally, there's a column in print that says the Catholic hierarchy needs to hold radical religious to account! I've been talking about this since the 1970's, when Liberation Theology was the battle cry of the day. The word "scandalize" doesn't begin to explain the damage that has been done to the children born to practising Catholics since the mid-1960's. I hope Cardinal Schonborn reads your column. Maybe you should email it to him.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 03, 2011 7:53 AM ET USA

    Bravo, Dr. Mirus. If your recommendations were done years ago the Chuch there would not be in this condition now. Let's see what the good Cardinal will do. Too bad he didn't do it in 2006 when he got the letter sent to him by Cornelius!!!

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 02, 2011 11:39 PM ET USA

    Did any of you happen to watch the YouTube video of a couple of Masses in Austria? I don't have the links, but if you google Austria clown mass biergarden I think you will find them. You will be appalled. And at the biergarden "Mass," the narrator says that Cardinal Schoenborn had given them permission for this abomination. Drinking beer at tables under umbrellas, smoking, and the clown "Mass" is equally abominable. My priest son says the priests are definitely "gay." Weird liturgies=gay

  • Posted by: mwean7331 - Sep. 02, 2011 9:22 PM ET USA

    I and, I believe, most of the laity, would have more respect for the Bishops if thy would be more assertive with the dissident clergy ( and this case is only one of many)and if necessary dismiss these men from the piresthood. As to losing 329 "Priest" isn't quality better than quantity in this case? we are talking about Jesus' flock they are leading. Everytime I read of a priest wanting to run the Church his way I wonder what they were thinking when they took the oath of Obedience TO GOD

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 02, 2011 9:00 PM ET USA

    "They literally took me by the scruff of the neck and said: 'Something must be done for these young seminarians!' It was useless my saying that I was 65 and retired..." AB Lefebvre is speaking about his abduction from retirement by frustrated seminarians and professors to to start a seminary. He went from legendary missionary retiree to alleged schismatic for his efforts. He always knew that good priests are absolutely essential. They will prove the catalyst for the stark realities we now face.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 01, 2011 5:52 PM ET USA

    Suggest that Cardinal Schonborn request 10 good Nigerian priests. He will be amazed what happens in his metropolitanate.

  • Posted by: Defender - Sep. 01, 2011 1:00 PM ET USA

    You are right, there really isn't any choice left. Since the priests have deliberately made it a public issue, the cardinal needs to act in the same manner and quickly.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Sep. 01, 2011 11:47 AM ET USA

    On the whole, this is a very informative post that makes many good points. I would point, however, that Modernism cannot be struck at its roots by disciplinary measures. Saint Pope Pius X tried that approach at the beginning of the last century and it failed completely. I believe that the stage has been set for effective disciplinary action now by the teaching and witness of Blessed John Paul II which has provided a marvelous context for disciplinary action. Please God, the cardinal will act.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Sep. 01, 2011 10:55 AM ET USA

    Excellent analysis. The key is, "even if it involves the loss of all 329 priests." The Cardinal must be willing to lose everything to re-establish discipline and order.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 01, 2011 10:20 AM ET USA

    When the current financial crisis first hit in the fall of 2008, it manifested itself first in the realization that certain "assets" (later called "toxic assets") on corporate financial statements were essentially valueless. Readjustment is difficult, but the truth is those "assets" didn't overnight become valueless, they were always over-valued. We're not "losing" 329 priests, we never had them to begin with!

  • Posted by: - Sep. 01, 2011 9:54 AM ET USA

    In 2006 I was visiting Austria and assisted at Mass in a suburban parish in the Vienna diocese. I was so appalled by the manifest abuses at that Mass that I wrote the pastor and Cardinal Schonborn about the abuses. I got no reply from either party. Not much "ruling" going on in that diocese, so this sad affair doesn't surprise me.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 31, 2011 10:34 PM ET USA

    Superlative! (Moment of silence) It might indeed prove expeditious to start from scratch in this case also. One might recall the political refrain: "It's the economy, Stupid." In this case, "It's the salvation of souls, Prelates." The words of God to St. Catherine: "Unless you are engrafted into Him you are rebels against Holy Church, like members that are cut off from the body and rot. It is charity that binds you to true humility—the humility that is found in knowing yourself and Me."