Austrian priests defy Catholic Church, face showdown

Wed Aug 31, 2011 3:33pm EDT
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

PARIS (Reuters) - Dissident Austrian priests defying their Catholic Church with calls for married clergy, women priests and other reforms enjoy wide public support, according to a new poll on a dispute that could lead to their dismissal.

Three-quarters of people polled in the traditionally Catholic country backed the priests' "Call to Disobedience," a manifesto that Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn compares to a football team refusing to play by the rules.

The revolt, openly supported by 329 priests, threatens a split in the Austrian Church weeks before Pope Benedict's Sept 22-25 visit to neighboring Germany. Benedict, 84, grew up in Bavarian villages close to the Austrian border.

Rather than simply appealing for reforms, the dissidents declared they will break Church rules by giving communion to Protestants and remarried divorced Catholics or allowing lay people to preach and head parishes without a priest.

Schoenborn has hinted they would be disciplined if they do not back down in the coming weeks. "This cannot go on," he told the Vienna daily Der Standard. "If someone has decided to go down the path of dissent, that has consequences."

Dissident leader Rev Helmut Schueller, who as Vienna vicar general was Schoenborn's deputy from 1995 to 1999 and once led the Austrian chapter of the international Catholic charity Caritas, has said he has no intention of giving up.

He says many priests are already quietly breaking the rules anyway, often with the knowledge of their bishops, and his campaign aims to force the hierarchy to agree to change. About 8 percent of Austrian priests have supported his movement.