February 13, 2009 / 4:49 PM / 9 years ago

Austrian Catholic Church holds meeting amid bishops uproar

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s Catholic Church will hold a crisis session on Monday to discuss an uproar over a new provincial bishop and the Vatican’s readmission of a banned bishop who denies the Holocaust, officials said on Friday.

Faced with rising numbers of Catholics quitting the Church and protests from clergy, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn called all diocesan bishops to the one-day meeting to “give our best to overcome the crisis.”

Austrian Catholicism is in turmoil because Pope Benedict, one week after readmitting arch-traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, named an auxiliary bishop in Linz who said Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was God punishing New Orleans for its sins.

The two appointments, both apparently without consultation with local churches, sparked doubt about Benedict’s leadership and concern the Church was turning increasingly conservative.

Schoenborn said the uproar had caused “irritation and resignation” and the Church needed “damage control” for the sake of its future, according to the Catholic news agency Kathpress.

Four times as many Catholics have officially quit the Church in Linz so far this year as in early 2008, the Austrian Press Agency APA reported, and departures have also been running higher than usual in Vienna, Salzburg, Tyrol and Lower Austria.

On Tuesday, 31 of the 39 deans (senior priests) of the Linz diocese passed a declaration of no confidence in Wagner, who has condemned the Harry Potter books as satanic, said homosexuality was curable and ruled out lay participation in Church affairs.

TIMING Fueled UPROAR

Schoenborn’s spokesman Erich Leitenberger said the timing of Wagner’s appointment fueled an uproar unleashed by the lifting of excommunications against Williamson and three other bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX).

“The proximity of those two events has for some people created the impression there was a masterplan, that the Church wanted to roll back the Second Vatican Council,” he said, referring to major Church reforms from the 1960s.

“This is of course nonsense,” he told Reuters.

Leitenberger said Wagner had been given the order not to give any further interviews to stop fanning the flames.

The liberal lay Catholic movement We Are Church urged Austrians not to quit the Church but also not to contribute money to it. It announced it would set up “solidarity accounts” for contributions to be held “until the situation improves.”

Like bishops in Germany and Switzerland, Austrian bishops reacted allergically to the readmission of Holocaust denier Williamson and several-- including Schoenborn, a close ally of the pope -- said he should have no official place in the Church.

In one of the bluntest criticisms from a prelate, Salzburg Archbishop Alois Kothgasser said on Tuesday the SSPX bishops seemed to be heretics who had shut themselves out of the Church.

He also said the Church must not shrink into “a sect ... with few but strictly obedient members” -- a veiled criticism of Pope Benedict, who once suggested the Church might have to reduce to a hard core to survive the secular modernist age.

(Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris)

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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