Thursday, September 06, 2007

New York Times
September 7, 2007
Muted Expectations as Benedict Heads to Austria

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.”


Anonymous said...

It would appear that Mr. Fisher views the world from a political stand point, or at the very least the Church. Unfortunately, those who look at the Church from the view of politics (whether liberal or conservative) are not able to truly know it. They look from the outside in and then make a judgment without true understanding. Benedict is not ignoring the left wing of the Church because there is no left wing (nor a right wing either). Just because these people say they are Catholic does not mean that they are in communion with the Church. By their very actions in opposition to the Church they proclaim that they are not actually in communion. Finally, these groups are not being ignored. As Mr. Fisher pointed out, the group was condemned by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1998. Also, there is a time and a place for everything. As Fr. Wauk said, a papel trip is probably not the best time to engage in this kind of dispute. There are other venues for that in which the Pope is very much involved.

AnnieElf said...

Thank you for your comments. You are quite right on all points.

trailbee said...

Not being a Catholic, but having read this article, I can't say whether or not Mr. Fisher is correct. However, as an outsider I see him bringing up the topic of Roman Catholics who are feeling betrayed & dispossessed and who are now being asked to put aside their grievances and show the world a united church, while disgruntled. What I'm wondering about is that if a visit from the Pope, their Shepherd and spiritual Father, is not a good time to bring up certain grievances, and they are not being properly addressed in Rome, where and when is a good time to bring up an uncomfortable topic and look for redress? What I am seeing is a church slowly being shreded from the inside because of its doctrine, "not negotiated but accepted." Well, it's not being accepted any more, and this is where the problem lies. The Church is willing to trade - souls in need of faith and emotional sustenance for non-negotiable tenets. It is a trade the Roman Catholic Curch cannot afford! What to do?

trailbee said...

My addendum:1-Church, not curch-hate when I do that, sorry.
2-This is my perception:I feel that the Pope is in an unenviable position.He shepherds a faith which is based on one tenet and cannot be changed, except backward. Many of the faithful cannot either understand this, or will not support it and need, sincerely need, something else, which will never be forthcoming. They also are true Roman Catholics and wish to remain so, without being designated 'rogue,' or 'reform' but are asking for an 'updated' faith. It is an unsolvable dilemma.

Anonymous said...

Trailbee -

You are right; the Pope is in an unenviable position. The Church's primary concerning is the salvation of people, the communion of all people in God. While seeking this the question that unavoidably comes up is, "How is the communion of all people in God achieved." The answer to this question, of course, has many parts, but one of those parts is very relevent to this discussion, namely, the faith. Is it possible for the faith to be "updated?" I guess it depends on what someone means by updated. If what is meant is changing the faith so that something different is now taught by the Church, then the answer has to be "no." However, if what is meant is expressing the one same faith in a way that is accessible to the people of a particular time, then "yes." The ways in which particular doctrines of the Church have been expressed throughout its history are many, but there is no actual change to the doctrine. It must be this way. I do not think it is possible for someone to honestly say they are a Christian and also hold that doctrines can be changed. A doctrine is a truth revealed by God. Where does our belief come from? God or man? If one things that our belief comes from man then, of course, doctrines may be changed, but the Church is explicit that our beliefs do not come from man. Rather the teaching of the Church is that our beliefs come from God and since He is unchanging that would have to mean that the truths He has revealed are also unchanging.

Mr. Fisher said that "many liberal Catholics complain that the pope barely acknowledges them, and that their vision of the church could also help revive it." However, I think this is wide open for much criticism. In my experience the greatest places and communities of Church renewal, that are living and vibrant, are the ones that hold firmly to orthodox (right) teaching. These vibrant communities are not made up of a bunch of people from before Vatican II, rather they are composed of the youth. Concerning the youth, Rev. Zulehner, in Mr. Fisher's article, had said that the group of people most excited about the Pope's visit to Austria were those under the age of 20. It has also been my experience that "liberal" Catholics are not primarily concerned with the Church, but with social issues and wish to conform the Church and, therefore, God to the ideas they have formed about these issues. I think the Pope's encyclical Deus Caritas Est gives a beautiful of who we must live God's love in the world.

Mr. Fisher noted that Benedict approaches "doctrine as truth, not negotiated but accepted." In other words, Benedict will be unbending, but doesn't this hold true for those in the Church who have dissented from the truth? Are they not also unbending? The particular group that was mentioned was We are Church. Mr. Fisher said this group advocates the ordination of women, which is something the Church cannot do. A compromise will not be met. Women will not be ordained under any conditions whatsoever. In order for an agreement to be reached one side will have to admit their wrongness and change their teaching. This is not a bad thing. It points to the reality of the matter, namely, that these two views are contradictory. Benedict is simply acknowledging this. If Benedict were to seek a solution in which the views of We are Church are accepted then he will have made of the Church something else. It will no longer be. That is not a revival. That is a destruction with something new and different rising in its place. Some may thing this would be a great thing and may judge Benedict harshly for being unbending (I am not saying that you are; you certainly have not given that impression, Trailbee), but let them not judge to harshly. One may despise his belief, but you cannot fault him in being consistent in carrying out the implications of that belief, which is more than we can say for a lot of people today.

trailbee said...

We are the children of our time. We take God's gifts, grow, create and progress.I wonder if every past 'modern/contemporary' society felt the way the current 'liberal' group does, with no hope for change. The agony and anger and disappointment must be great for those who need a more 'modern' faith. Thanks, Q.

AnnieElf said...

And a privately mailed comment from another

I found certain passages hard to figure out since the writer used words that were not correct for the context. However I found the overall text to be interesting and correct. As for Faith (upper case "F") being updated I agree that it cannot. When the writer states, "However, if what is meant is expressing the one same faith in a way that is accessible to the people of a particular time, then 'yes'.", the person is actually saying that the procedure of teaching the Faith may change in place and time. Therefore the Faith is not updated then either.

I believe that one's personal faith (lower case "f") may be updated as one grows and develops spiritually. Christ actually gave very few doctrines. And what He gave was simple for the mentality of the humans at that time, i.e. obey the Ten Commandments, strive to achieve the beatitudes, render to government what is governmentand to Our Lord what is Our Lord's. Men expanded on what He did give. Thus the field of Theology.