Denial Of Love

A popular priest admits a long-term relationship; Catholics cry hypocrisy; a rule-bound church is out of ideas

Fr. Josef Friedl living with woman

Fr. Josef Friedl admitted living with a woman; in May his future will be decided | Photo: Diocese of Linz

Austria’s Roman Catholic Church is in trouble again. And, once more, the issue is sex. But while past scandals have sprung from allegations of carrying on among priests and priests-to-be – including the revelations in the mid 1990s that the Vienna Archbishop Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër himself may have been a pedophile – the focus this time is on heterosexual love and marriage. And all the mixed messages.

Taking its cue from the conservative leadership of German Pope Benedict, the Austrian Church continues to insist on celibacy for the priesthood, and forbids birth control and abortion.

Austrians think the Church is out of touch. A recent Gallup poll conducted for the Viennese daily Österreich reported that 87 percent of Austrians now support Catholic priests’ right to marry with only eight percent opposed.

This, of course, runs counter to dogma. So Bishop Ludwig Schwarz of Linz really had no choice recently but to relieve Upper Austrian pastor Josef Friedl of his duties as a deacon, or the bishop’s personal representative, for violation of his vow of celibacy.

Friedl, who had become famous for offering Arigona Zogaj shelter, had publicly announced/confirmed/admitted on Mar. 5 in a panel discussion that he was living in a relationship. As Friedl has decided to stay with his partner, a religion teacher, an upcoming conversation in May with Bishop Schwarz will resolve if he is also in danger of being dispensed of his job as a priest. Does the 66-year-old pastor wish he had kept his private life hidden?

“In this regard, I regret nothing!” he told the Austrian daily Die Presse.

This incident was particularly ironic as, two years ago, in June 2007, an Evangelic priest named Gerhard Höberth was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, with a dispensation that allowed him to keep his wife of 27 years and four children.

“I do feel a little guilty sometimes,” Höberth admitted in an interview with Der Standard following the event. “It’s just a very complicated situation.” And very hard to explain to members who resent the Church’s continuing refusal to acknowledge the rights of its priests to the most basic human right – that of conjugal love and family life.

These contradictions have stirred wide debate in Austria and extensive reports in the Austrian news magazine profil, including interviews with seven priests who had resigned their duties in order to marry. Several have continued to practice priestly functions privately, as Catholic doctrine recognizes ordination as permanent: Once a priest always a priest, at least in the eyes of God.

But there was more. The Vatican then appointed Gerhard Maria Wagner the new auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Linz, despite his comments that homosexuality was a disease that could be cured and that AIDS and Hurricane Katrina were examples of “divine retribution.”

No wonder that many Austrians believe the church, in Austria and in Rome, is simply no longer in touch with reality. And as a result, many are leaving. For decades in decline, the number of Austrians who call themselves Catholic has dropped to less than 70%, compared to over 90% a few decades ago. However, a significant part of this is due to immigration of non-catholic populations, as the actual recorded decline in membership was 40,596 people in 2008, up from 36,858 the previous year, according to the Archdiocese, 0.00075% out of total membership of 5.6 million.

Many point to Pope Benedict’s statement during his recent trip to Africa, that condoms were not the answer to combating the spread of AIDS.

“When we are faced with incurable diseases like AIDS, one can’t just explain it with some kind of allegory,” says Michael Bailey, a freelance translator in Vienna and one of the many who chose to leave the Catholic Church following its latest missteps. He shares the common view in Austria that the church definitely has to evolve and adapt itself to the latest world developments.

“And how could a bishop be a good marriage adviser if he himself is not allowed to marry and create a family?” asks Bailey – one of the longest-standing puzzles for many Catholics for which they feel the Church has no answer. Indeed, there are around 700 priests in Austria without a formal position in the Church as a result of violations of their vows of celibacy.

There are other reasons Austrians mention as explanations for why they leave the church. One of them is the Austrian church tax, which more and more people consider a payment extorted for a service they rarely use.

“I don’t pay for the movies if I don’t go there,” said Ana Weiss, a Gymnasium student in the 23rd district, summarizing a widely held view. But how could the Roman Catholic church give up on that? Official data says the church tax in Austria, amounting up to €200, brings the church around €375 million every year. How much an individual tax payer should pay depends on their monthly income. The tax is largely considered to increase the church’s dependency on the state, as it is the government that decides how high the tax should be.

So the Church is fighting back. In one of his latest endeavors, the head of the Austrian church, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn raised a cry that the time of Christianity in Europe may be coming to an end – presumably to rally believers back around their faith. Addressing pilgrims on Easter, Schönborn said that, “the time of Christianity in Europe is coming to an end. A Christianity which achieved such great things like this cathedral or the wonderful music we will hear today.”

The statement may have backfired, as many interpreted it as an indirect attack on Islam – inappropriate in an era of ecumenism and intercultural values – and the many Muslim migrants who come to the old continent.

Other comments about sex and marriage were even more off the mark to many, particularly considering his vow of celibacy and purity.

“The Church can help people acquire the right attitude towards sex, which is not an isolated thing of all consuming importance,” said Schönborn in one of his Easter statements. “The quality of the entire relationship is what is important in a male-female partnership.”

Maybe so. But one can excuse the cynics who might ask: “How does he know?”

Altogether, these weapons seem ineffective for those Catholics who consider the Church’s attitudes outdated and out of touch.

And even without other recent mistakes – like the Pope’s reinstatement of outcast orthodox British bishop Richard Williamson who has denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers and the scale of Jewish deaths under National Socialism – cynicism is growing about the Church in general in this modern age, more than two millennia after its founding.

In an Easter offensive, Cardinal Schönborn authorized 1,600 large posters and 600 “city lights” billboards of €300,000. One of the most prominent messages read:  “Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter, a feast day of joy for mankind.”

“A lie,” wrote someone in sprawling spray paint on one of the posters in the Vienna city center. A small thing, perhaps, but in the context of wider disillusionment one measure of growing lack of respect.

Often even those who want to believe are frustrated. Many liberal Catholics – most visibly the group of priests and laity “We Are Church” who supported Friedl – generally complain that the Pope barely acknowledges them, and their more progressive vision of the church.

“Let’s admit the reality – one third of the catholic priests here (in Austria) are in the same situation like Friedl,” said We Are Church spokesman Hans Peter Hurka. “For us the service to God is mission, a vocation and our partners in life are helping us in this mission.”

In Austria, that seems to have added to widespread anger and frustration that has simmered since at least 1995, when a major scandal erupted over pedophile priests, anticipating similar scandals in the United States, Mexico and elsewhere. Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, the archbishop of Vienna at the time, was found to have molested youths two decades earlier, unleashing a wave of protest that fed into the general disillusionment over the Church’s unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of the lives of contemporary Catholics in the areas of divorce, birth control and abortion. Now the perceptions became that it was not only increasingly irrelevant but hypocritical as well.

Which is not to say that Austrians have now become agnostic. But they are critical, and the statistics reflect a growing number who appear to be seeking a way to God outside the established church.

For this, Pope Benedict is surely partially to blame, being much more “hardline” than his popular predecessor John Paul, credited with playing a role in the end of communist in Eastern Europe.

“Don’t leave the Church!” Benedict exhorted Austrians on his last trip here in 2008. But the crowds that were embarrassingly small – evidence that even a charismatic Pope cannot fix an institution that is growingly irrelevant to many believers.

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