Cardinal Franz König

Archbishop of Vienna who championed reform and encouraged inter-faith contacts
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Franz König, priest: born Warth, Austro-Hungarian Empire, 3 August 1905; ordained priest 1933; Bishop of St Pölten 1952-56; Archbishop of Vienna 1956-85; named a cardinal 1958, president, Vatican Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Believers 1965-80; died Vienna 13 March 2004.

Arguably the most influential Catholic leader in Central Europe, as Archbishop of Vienna for three decades from 1956, Franz König presided over a Church that underwent rapid change after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Measured, intelligent, articulate and open, he enjoyed enormous prestige within Austria, prestige his successors have not enjoyed.

But it was in the worldwide Catholic Church - helped by his knowledge of 10 foreign languages, including English, Italian, French, Spanish and Russian - that he had his greatest impact. Regarded as a "liberal", he played a key role, with his theological advisor the Jesuit priest Karl Rahner, in championing reform at the Second Vatican Council - including on religious freedom and reconciliation with the Jews - and encouraging ecumenical and inter-faith contacts.

He tried - unsuccessfully - to moderate Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned the use of artificial contraception. "My impression was that he did not really understand or did not realise that the result would be so many, many problems for families and for the Church," König later recalled of his discussions with the pope.

Born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sharing its wider Central European perspective, König did much to bring the embattled Church behind the Iron Curtain into the European mainstream, most notably by promoting the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla into the papacy in 1978 (he had first met him in 1961 and been immediately impressed).

The last surviving cardinal named by Pope John XXIII, König had twice been a candidate for pope himself (in 1963 and 1978). But he was disappointed about how Church reform was halted, even reversed, under Pope John Paul amid growing centralisation and what he regarded as stifling of theological debate.

He was disturbed by Pope John Paul's nomination of ultra-conservatives to Austria's dioceses, including Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, who succeeded him in Vienna when he retired in 1985 (Groër eventually had to resign in disgrace after reports of his molestation of seminarians became widely known; he died last year). König was not even consulted on the appointment, while his favoured successor, Bishop Helmut Krätzl, was ignored. "It was a mystery for me," he declared diplomatically, but he was hurt.

And as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's theological watchdog, put the phrase "Wojtyla's Restoration" into wider circulation in the mid-1980s, König elegantly countered Ratzinger's pessimism over the future of the Church and the world: "Putting the accent on the word 'restore' sounds very much like nostalgia for the past. The Church of the past looked with fear at everything new in history," he declared. "Today we have to look to the future."

Born the eldest child into a peasant family in the Lower Austrian village of Warth in 1905, König soon lost his father and his mother married again, eventually having nine children. After gaining excellent marks at grammar school in Melk, König left for Rome in 1927 to study at the Gregorian papal university and later at the Biblical Institute, where he specialised in old Persian languages and religion. He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1930. Ordained priest in Rome in October 1933, he served for the next four years as a curate in the St Pölten diocese (at the same time gaining his doctorate in theology).

After working as a chaplain and teacher during the Second World War (during which he did what he could to oppose the Nazis), König became a professor in Krems in 1945 and a university professor in Salzburg in 1948. His many publications included a three-volume work Christus und die Religionen der Erde ("Christ and the World's Religions", 1951).

In August 1952 he was consecrated bishop of St Pölten, before being appointed to the Austrian Church's senior position four years later.

In a move considered bold at the time, he participated in a 1964 conference in Bombay, India, with representatives of three non-Christian religions. From 1965 to 1980 he was president of the Vatican's Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Believers.

In February 1960, König was surprisingly granted a visa by Yugoslavia's Communist authorities to attend the funeral in Zagreb of the Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac. But his car was involved in a serious crash on the way and he awoke in a hospital room decorated with a huge portrait of the Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito. Staring for days at the portrait, König later recalled, made him realise that "the archbishop of Vienna should take care of what's going on behind the Iron Curtain".

Dispatched by Pope John XXIII, König in 1963 became the first Catholic prelate to visit the Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who had taken refuge at the US Legation in Budapest after the Soviets crushed the 1956 uprising. Subsequent visits - including one with a Vatican passport in the name of a "Monsignor Finke", his mother's maiden name - ultimately led to Mindszenty's departure to the West.

After his unprecedented 1963 journey to Hungary, König also visited Poland and Romania and later the Orthodox Church of Serbia. He met a range of other Church leaders, including the Coptic Pope Shenouda III in Egypt, the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and the Catholicos of Armenia's Apostolic Church. In March 1980 he visited China to find out how possible a reconciliation with the government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Church would be.

At home in Austria he worked hard to overcome the traditional gulf between the conservative Church and the anti-clerical Socialists. "I am not the bishop of the People's Party nor of the Socialist Party," he declared in 1975, "not the bishop of the business-owners nor of the trade unionists, not the bishop of the peasants nor of the townspeople, I am bishop of all Catholics."

He was not afraid of getting involved in political issues, even joining an anti-abortion street protest in 1977. Even in retirement, he remained intellectually and even physically active. He was always known as athletic, water-skiing on Lake Michigan in his sixties and jogging to keep fit when enclosed in the 1978 conclaves.

Despite his international travels and reputation, König remained a pastor. As archbishop he visited all his diocese's 660 parishes, as well as schools, factories and offices. He stressed that a pastor is one sent by Christ to serve.

Felix Corley