Austrian bishops tend to controversies unsettling their flock

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn


The diocesan bishops of Austria have published a pastoral letter responding to the two controversies roiling the local Church over the past several weeks: the scandal surrounding Bishop Richard Williamson and the appointment of Fr. Gerhard Maria Wagner as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Linz.

The first issue address by the 10 Catholic bishops of Austria is the situation concerning the rehabilitation of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

Bishop Richard Williamson, one of four bishops leading the SSPX, made comments diminishing the extent of the Holocaust prior to having his excommunication lifted by the Pope at the end of January.

In their pastoral letter, the Austrian bishops call on the SSPX to send a “clear signal” that it will seek reconciliation and unconditionally accept the Second Vatican Council.

Summing up the local Church’s reaction to the recent events, the 10 bishops, led by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, wrote that recent events have caused “worry and anger inside and outside the Church.”

“We owe to the people a word of clarification, but also want to express the hope that as with every crisis there are opportunities,” they said, exhorting readers to focus on Christ.

The bishops said that Pope Benedict XVI “has unequivocally stated that the Lefebvrist Bishop Richard Williamson has disqualified himself by the denial of the Shoah and that he must clearly take back in public his untenable denial of mass murder of the Jewish people.”

Members of the SSPX are sometimes called “Lefebvrists” after their group’s founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Characterizing Pope Benedict’s lifting of the excommunications as “a hand outstretched to those who are separated from the Church,” they noted that the SSPX bishops cannot automatically hold office in the Church.

“Rather, the Lefebvrist community must give a clear signal on their part that they take this outstretched hand, and actually seek reconciliation. The prerequisite is of course, the unconditional acceptance of the Second Vatican Council. “

Echoing other commentators who blame poor communications for the controversy, the Austrian bishops added:

“We hope that the inadequate communication processes in the Vatican will also be successfully improved so that the worldwide service of the Pope does not suffer damage.”

The bishops also addressed Fr. Gerhard Maria Wagner’s request that his appointment as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Linz be rescinded. They said the appointment had caused “significant tension” in the diocese.

Fr. Wagner’s selection provoked his detractors to highlight his comments about Hurricane Katrina being God’s punishment on New Orleans for its sins.  However, some analysts believe that the opposition to Fr. Wagner was due to his orthodox liturgical and doctrinal stances.

“It is not just about differences of opinion in terms of structures and methods, but ultimately the question of sacramental identity of the Catholic Church,” the bishops wrote. “This especially concerns the ordination for priests and deacons in relation to the general priesthood of all the baptized.”

They emphasized that the local church’s conversation with the Universal Church should be undertaken “on the basis of the Second Vatican Council.”

They also gave more background about the controversy over Fr. Wagner’s initial appointment.

“The theme of episcopal appointments is therefore important because since the mid-eighties in Austria it has been associated with a number of problems,” they said. “For many, the controversy over episcopal appointments led to the painful conflict, and they have triggered splits in the church. It is precisely in this area sensitivity is most appropriate.”

The bishops reaffirmed their support for bishop selection procedures “if this procedure is really followed.”

Before the Pope makes any final decision on an episcopal appointment, “reliable and thoroughly tested basic information must be provided on which he can rely.”

Noting that a number of bishops will be appointed in Austria in upcoming years, the Austrian bishops wrote that the faithful are “legitimately concerned” that the candidate search and selection be “carefully undertaken and with pastoral sensitivity.”

“This can ensure that bishops are appointed who are not ‘against’ but ‘for’ a local church. We bishops will make every possible effort to support the forthcoming episcopal appointments in the sense of monitoring these procedures in close cooperation with the relevant Vatican offices.”

“Trusting in God's help, we will overcome the crisis of recent weeks,” the bishops’ pastoral letter affirmed. Saying mistakes should be learned from, the bishops exhorted drawing near to the center of faith by beholding Christ, “who does not desert his church and whose word and deeds must be a measure of our words and our deeds.”