Austrian Catholics Opt Out

Scandals, taxes and a right-wing Pope contribute to a growing disenchantment with a church that is still the state religion

Inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, pews are empty | Photo: Melinda Perez

The Austrian Catholic Church has fallen on hard times, facing a declining membership that mirrors a similar phenomenon around the world. In September 2007, Austrian Catholic leaders were hopeful that Pope Benedict XIV’s visit to the Alpine republic would inspire the membership and bring in new energy.

However, according to the Catholic press agency Kathpress, the exact opposite occurred: some 53,200 registered Catholics have left the Church, decreasing the country’s Catholics to 66% of the population from nearly 90%, fifty years ago.

What triggered this decline in such a predominately Catholic country?

Many blame the current pope’s general conservatism, a reversal of a liberalizing trend that had begun in the 1960s under John XXIII, for the loss of appeal among ‘liberal’ Catholics. Worse, the Pope’s appointment of Austrian priest Gerhard Maria Wagner as auxiliary bishop of Linz in January 2009, a person many consider a bigot, caused outright riots. Father Wagner became notorious for 2005 comments following Hurricane Katrina that God had “punished New Orleans” for their relaxed attitude towards sexual promiscuity. In other statements, Wagner declared homosexuality as “curable,” and called the Harry Potter novels “satanic.”

The Austrian Church had also lost face in 2004 when two major cases of paedophilia by members of the clergy were uncovered in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, including compromising photos showing priests kissing and caressing students at a seminary. A few months later, a collection of child pornography was uncovered at the Church.

Bishop Kurt Krenn, the conservative head of the St. Pölten Diocese, dismissed the whole situation as “boyish pranks,” setting off a storm of outrage. Even a cardinal, Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna, has been accused of sexually abusing more than 2,000 young men over the course of several decades.

Although he died in 2003 before he could be prosecuted, the failure of the Church to handle these issues accelerated the loss of faith.

A final factor is simply economics: In the current climate of instability, many Catholics resent having to pay the church taxes required of registered believers, about 1% of the person’s income.  To avoid it, members have to withdraw from the Church.

In individual cases, reasons for leaving are varied.

Austrian Jennifer Kernreiter left the Church two years ago, claiming she finds it had become too ‘traditional.’ Priests should be allowed to marry, she says, wondering aloud if this might not help prevent the scandals. While she doesn’t like the tax, she would not have left the Church for this reason alone.

University student Hans Molen* recently decided to leave the Church out of concern for the scandals he sees in so many local parishes. His strongest motivation, however, was the fee. At the age of 18, every Austrian who is self supporting must begin to pay the Church Tax. Having avoided the fee collectors for several years, by the time he turned 23, he was €500 in debt.

Canadian Jake Van Dyk, in Vienna since 2005, sees a society that has moved on from traditional views.

“Contemporary churchgoers want religion to be more relevant to their daily lives,” he says. Molen agrees, saying that in any event, religion is a private matter.

“You don’t need to go to church to believe,” Molen claimed, pointing out that he respects the Church and still considers himself a Catholic. Even though no longer a registered Church member, he attends on some occasions.

Former Catholic and committed student of the Bible, New Yorker Nilda Perez, had some guesses as why such an exodus is taking place.

“In Europe, the Church is out of favor,” she said, “European society over several decades has shifted to a more secular view. Also, the Roman Catholic Church has placed tradition and ceremony over Christian substance.”

However, the logic of some of the arguments is not always easy to follow.

Van Dyk, referring to a 2002 critique of the Church by Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life, pointed out that most of “the hymns [are] over 200 years old. […] It is difficult for people to relate to that.” In fact, in both North America and Europe, Catholic liturgy was rewritten and translated from Latin into local languages following the Second Vatican Council in 1962, and hymnals revised to include many new pieces.

Perez described a dichotomy between the essential ideas of Christianity and the Church’s male leadership – although this has defined its teachings from the earliest years.

“They pay very little attention to the word of God [today],” she said, “instead they value the thoughts and ideas of the ‘MEN’ that run the church.”

* Name changed at the student’s request

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