Religious Affairs Correspondent
The crisis in the Catholic Church in Austria will intensify today when the organisers of a petition in favour of women priests will announce that more than 400,000 people have signed it. That figure, equivalent to every third Mass-attending Catholic, represents an extraordinary rebellion by the laity in a traditionally conservative country.
The petition also calls for an end to compulsory priestly celibacy; a more relaxed attitude to questions of sexual discipline, including birth control and the acceptance of divorced and remarried people; and a greater local voice in the appointment of bishops.
A leading conservative bishop, Karl Krenn of St Poelten, further inflamed opinion last week when he compared those who signed the petition in favour of Church democracy to the Austrians who voted for union with Hitler's Germany in the referendum of 1938. It was immediately pointed out that the Catholic bishops of the day had unanimously and publicly urged their countrymen to vote for Hitler when they had the chance. Bishop Krenn has been attacked by fellow bishops and by the opposition Green Party, which has urged the Vatican to sack him.
Bishop Krenn is now one of the chief targets of the rebellion, but the crisis was started by another Vatican appointee, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Hans Hermann Groer.
Cardinal Groer was accused before Easter by former seminarians of sexually abusing them when they were in his care. He has refused to respond to these allegations at all. His silence has puzzled some church members and enraged many. The signals from the Vatican have been confusing: a coadjutor bishop with the right of succession to Cardinal Groer has been appointed, but the Cardinal appears to remain in good odour. He accompanied Pope John Paul II on his visit to Slovakia which ended yesterday.
The organisers of the petition in Austria had hoped for 100,000 signatures. It has been displayed outside churches in sympathetic dioceses (it is banned in Bishop Krenn's) for the past four weeks. Some newspapers have also offered readers a chance to write in, so supporters of the petition point out that not all who signed it will be devout Catholics. But they believe that about 95 per cent of the signatories are.
"There were all these little old women coming out of the churches saying they would never vote for women priests, but as the weeks went by and the silence from the Vatican went on and on, they just got angrier and angrier and finally they did sign up for women priests along with all the other things they really wanted," said one Catholic observer of the process.
Rumours that the Vatican will intervene decisively continue. A leading Austrian theologian, Professor Paul Zulehner, told Austrian radio yesterday that the Vatican was planning to remove both bishop Krenn and Archbishop Groer in the near future.
A lighter touch was added by Fr Leonhad Lechner, the parish priest of Schieblingkirchen, who told his congregation on Sunday that he was resigning to live with his mistress. "Celibacy was no longer a form of life which could keep him happy," according to a church source.