John L. Allen Jr. June 6, 2017
Twenty years ago, Catholicism in Austria was in crisis, with bitter internal divisions exacerbating the toll of centuries of intense secularization. Today things seem far calmer, and, despite it all, the Church in Austria still retains a unique capacity to bring diverse people together and put them into serious conversation about things that matter.
VIENNA/LEIBNITZ, Austria - Two decades ago, no spot on the Catholic map was more battle-scarred, more apparently up for grabs, than Austria, where the Church seemed on the brink of either falling apart or being reborn as something fundamentally different.
In 1995, frustration with a sexual abuse scandal around Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer of Vienna exploded into the formation of a KirchenVolksBewegung - a “People’s Movement of the Church.” Within weeks, organizers had gathered three-quarters of a million signatures on a petition demanding five reforms, including the ordination of married men, women deacons, local selection of bishops, expanded roles for laity, and more compassionate treatment of divorcees and homosexuals.
It inspired a similar uprising in Germany known as Wir Sind Kirche, “We Are Church,” that became a global liberal Catholic reform brand.
The movement climaxed with a “Dialogue for Austria” in 1998, held in Salzburg. It amounted to a national parliament of Austrian Catholics, and bishops pledged to carry whatever recommendations came out of it to Rome. It was three days of high drama, with intense floor debates among abbots and pastors, lay theologians and bishops, social justice activists and Catholic politicians. When the time came to vote, it was a resounding win for the reform positions.