New York Times
September 7, 2007
Muted Expectations as Benedict Heads to Austria
By IAN FISHER
ROME, Sept. 6 — For all the reverent round-the-clock coverage, a papal trip is not really aimed at the general public. Popes travel to talk to believers — and that will be the case too when Benedict XVI arrives in Austria on Friday.
But the three-day visit to Austria, an overwhelmingly Catholic country with a strained relationship with its faith, highlights a central — and difficult — question of Benedict’s papacy: Which believers, exactly, does this pope talk to?
“We are good Catholics, of course,” said Martha Heizer, vice president of We Are Church, a group that neatly symbolizes the troubles that Roman Catholicism faces in Europe. “We are in the church and stayed in the church.”
Planning for We Are Church began in Austria in 1995 and the organization has since grown into one of the largest and most vocal Catholic groups. The group asked, but Benedict will not meet with its leaders on this trip to discuss problems facing Austria in particular, but many other once solidly Catholic countries as well: declining Mass attendance, lingering anger over pedophilia scandals, an unmet desire for renewal of church life.
The problem is that We Are Church is a liberal group that embraces marriage for priests and ordination of women — two positions that earned the group condemnation from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a letter he wrote in 1998, seven years before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI. The group, he wrote, has “an understanding of morality which directly contradicts Catholic teaching.”
And so Austria is one key battleground in the larger war over the soul of a church evermore in decline in Europe. That struggle explains why, to some degree, excitement over the visit from a fellow German-speaker seems muted in Austria, so much so that the Vatican has lowered expectations over how big the crowds might be.
At the heart of the struggle is how to reconcile competing visions for rejuvenating the church.
In a papacy that seems increasingly conservative, Benedict seems intent on achieving this by engaging more traditional believers like himself.
This summer he loosened rules on saying the old Latin Mass, aimed partly at mending a rift with ultra-traditionalist Catholics on the church’s right wing. He also repeated his contentious belief that Catholicism is the only true church, a statement many in the church’s left and middle worry will hurt ties with other denominations.
Many liberal Catholics generally complain that the pope barely acknowledges them, and that their vision of the church could also help revive it. In Austria, that seems to have added to anger and frustration that has simmered since at least 1995, when a major scandal over pedophile priests erupted there, a painful preview of later scandals in the United States, Mexico and elsewhere that gave birth to We Are Church.
“In the beginning of his papacy the pope was for many people ‘simpatico,’ ” said the Rev. Rudolf Schermann, who edits a Catholic magazine in Austria that has pressed for changes in the church. But more recently, he said, the view has grown more skeptical, with the feeling that Benedict is unlikely to veer far from his view of church tradition or consult with those unlike him.
“The people of Austria are believers, but not without criticism,” Father Schermann said.
To be sure, the problems of the Austrian church, and of the churches around Europe, run deeper than the question of which wing of the church the pope engages. For decades in decline, the number of Austrians who call themselves Catholic has dropped, in a recent survey, to 74 percent, along with the numbers of those paying a state-administered “church tax” of $340 a year.
Colliding with this larger cultural shift away from Catholicism, anger exploded in 1995 over charges that Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, the archbishop of Vienna at the time, had molested youths two decades earlier.
“Don’t leave the church!” Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, exhorted Austrians on his last trip there in 1998. Even then, crowds far smaller than expected embarrassed the Vatican.
Since 2004, defections from the faith have reportedly risen again, after some 40,000 pornographic images, including those of children, were discovered at a seminary near Vienna.
On the eve of the pope’s trip, there has been no disguising the difficulties of the Austrian church. The nation’s leading cleric, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, contended recently on Vatican Radio that “after very difficult times,” he saw a “great awakening” in Austria among those who understand that “our society needs the Gospel, prayer, faith.”
One unanswered question is whether Benedict will acknowledge the scandals, or even offer some apology for them, something Catholics of all leanings say they would like. Many expect some gesture.
“What the pope wants to do is simply to establish again a trust in the Catholic church, to say, ‘These terrible things happened but the church is aware of this,’ ” said Andreas Englisch, the Vatican reporter for the German newspaper Bild and author of books about John Paul and Benedict.
On whether Benedict might change his mind and reach out to groups like We Are Church, on this trip or anywhere else, Mr. Englisch and others are far more skeptical.
“He loves talking to people with a different opinion,” he said. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he engaged in public forums with nonbelievers like the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Marcello Pera, former president of the Italian senate.
“But he is talking to someone else — it is out of the church,” Mr. Englisch noted. Dissenting inside the church, he said, is a more difficult question for Benedict, who often speaks of church doctrine as truth, not negotiated but accepted.
Some experts question whether Benedict really intends to freeze out liberal groups. The Rev. John Paul Wauk, professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, noted that Benedict met with his old liberal rival, the Rev. Hans Küng, in the early days of his papacy and that he maintained ties with a left-leaning Italian group, the Community of St. Egidio.
Beyond that, Father Wauk said, he is not sure a papal trip is the best venue for discussing dissent in the church.
“He is there to teach the faith of the church,” he said. “That’s his role. In a public manner, the pope’s vocation as pastor of the church is not academic dialogue, one-on-one, which clearly Cardinal Ratzinger was comfortable with.”
But many point to his session with Dr. Küng, for years a harsh critic of Cardinal Ratzinger, as the only known meeting with a liberal.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Küng declined to comment directly on the meeting, instead speaking generally about the coming visit.
“I still hope that the pope would address the real issues of the church in Austria: the tremendous lack of priests, the exit of hundreds of thousands of people, the decay of this church, and to give constructive practical answers, and not only exhortations.”
If in fact it is the pope’s strategy to ignore the liberal wing, not everyone is certain he is mistaken, either on doctrine or strategy. Like Cardinal Ratzinger, many conservative Catholics argue that some liberals stand against church doctrine and deserve isolation. Some liberals worry not about their orthodoxy but whether their time may be passing.
The Rev. Paul M. Zulehner, director of the Institute of Pastoral Theology in Vienna, noted that a recent survey showed the most excitement about the pope’s visit among Catholics under 20. He said the young were more conservative, and were not joining groups like We Are Church.
“Liberals are decreasing in numbers,” he said. “They are elderly people. They are people like me. They were involved and very hopeful that the church could make changes. But the church is not now a church of changes.”