Austria: another view

Abbot Gregor Henckel-Donnersmarck, abbot of Stift Heiligenkreuz near Vienna, is “saddened” by the results of the poll of Austrian priests. “I see the poll as a symptom of a false image of the church on the part of those who initiated the poll and those who participated in it. … To treat revelation in the matter of a plebiscite is fundamentally false,” he told Die Presse.

He said: “Priests are lacking in ecclesial consciousness, the willingness to give oneself in obedience. Everyone wishes the best for the Church and I do not wish to speak of a schism. But not everyone is sufficiently ecclesially indoctrinated. I say this fully realizing that this means to be lovingly permeated with the teaching of the Church.” Further: “I always say, in dubio pro papa – in doubt, for the Pope.”

The abbot believes that the media are partially responsible for the increasing divergence between priests and Roman teachings. “There is a colossal presence of the public media, and this pulls many into its wake.”

The abbot said, “It disturbs me that, even in the consciousness of theologically educated priests, the theological basis for celibacy and our understanding of ordained ministry is no longer there.”

Die Presse, print edition for June 30th, excerpted and translated by AWR


  1. “To treat revelation in the matter of a plebiscite is fundamentally false” – this may be a (partially) true statement. But to ignore the sensus fidelium is likewise fundamentally false. If a plebiscite is an adequate way for the Spirit to be revealed in the election of a Pope, why not in other matters as well?

    1. Alan, the sensus fidelium is the sense of the faithful, not the unfaithful. The pope can’t change something just because the current generation believes it, there needs to be evidence of it in the early Church’s believing community. Administration of the Church shouldn’t be placed on the same level as the Church’s doctrines and moral teachings, there is a hierarchy of truths.

    2. The sensus fidelium is a very specific concept, and we should keep in mind exactly what this term means. It is, above all, a supernatural inerrancy in matters of faith among the faithful as a whole, not as a mere majority (or even super-majority) of Catholics on a given issue.

  2. “If a plebiscite is an adequate way for the Spirit to be revealed in the election of a Pope, why not in other matters as well?”

    Such as in the discernment of an abbot?

    Fr McDonald, I don’t see the matter of mandatory celibacy one of faith, but of governance. Additionally, in the Christian tradition, it is a monastic virtue. However, we in the West insist our clergy live it largely without the benefit of a supportive community. Lacking priests living in common, the only feasible alternative is creating celibate and accountable communities of lay people in which the priest is a part. Do you see that happening? I don’t. Not on any large scale.

    What the Austrian clergy seem to be suggesting is that we have Rome attempting to put new wine into old wineskins.

    And agreed on the limited “power” of the pope. Too bad we can just get Scriptural and engage Acts 15, the Church’s early believing community, turning matters over the the Holy Spirit.

    My cynical sense is that the Catholic hierarchy can’t bring themselves to trust God. I feel sorry for them.

  3. I understand what sensus fidelium means – and also that you get into a convenient loop if you insist that any disagreement with the hierarchy makes one unfaithful, and therefore not part of the sensus fidelium.

    1. …and also that you get into a convenient loop if you insist that any disagreement with the hierarchy makes one unfaithful, and therefore not part of the sensus fidelium.

      It may be “convenient” as you say, but how exactly is it untrue? Now, I wouldn’t say ANY disagreement (I might disagree with my Bishop, for instance, on whether Friday evening is the best time for a liturgical commission meeting…), but I think when one has a serious disagreement with the Church’s teachings….not just a disagreement “with the hierarchy”….there is a corresponding serious question of whether that view can be considered part of the sensus fidelium. It is one’s beliefs that are part of the sensus fidelium, not the individual themselves.

  4. And remember, the option of choosing bishops by a combination of group discernment *and* by lot has the warrant not only of Scripture but Tradition, and there are secular models as well (the complex selection of the doge in aristocratic Republic of Saint Mark (aka Venice) being a notable example).

  5. “In dubio pro papa” a motto worth quoting. Abbot Gregor Henckel-Donnersmarck’s analysis is convincing to me and seems supported by the history of the western Church since 1965. The clergy he discusses above are undoubtedly providing little effective formation in the faith of the Church to the laity.
    The beginnings of this may be found in the Austrian bishops “Maria Trost” Declaration advising Austrian Catholics that they could, in good conscience, act contrary to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical HV and still “receive Holy Communion without having confessed.” As I said earlier, this declaration was withdrawn by the Austrian bishops twenty years later. Cardinal Franz Konig, the late Archbishop of Vienna signed the 1968 declaration. This suggests that the anti-Roman views that we are hearing in Austria today may be the fruit of the pastoral leadership the Austrian laity and many vowed religious have received there for years. Perhaps a different kind of episcopal leadership will produce different fruit.

    By the way, the Belgian bishops issued a response to HV in 1968 that was similar to the Austrian, basically assuring Catholics there that the use of contraception was up to them. Dissent has not born good fruit in my mind.

    1. Robert, I really want to ask, what would you have said to those “dissenting Catholics” who believed in freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, and democratic government, back when one Pope after the other was condemning sharply all these heresies contrary to the Catholic faith? Or when the Popes taught for centuries that taking pleasure in the sexual act within marriage is a sin and must be confessed? Or when Popes and clergy taught that a physically abused wife must stay in the relationship to preserve the sacramental bond? I’m not claiming that the Pope or magisterium is wrong about any current teachings, because we don’t know the future and nobody knows if any current teachings will be changed. But you seem way too confident that every current teaching of the magisterium is correct and will never change. We all know that some past teachings of the Popes were wrong and were later corrected – including teachings proclaimed repeatedly and very emphatically. I’m tempted to ask whether you ever put money in the bank and accept interest – something condemned for centuries as immoral by several Popes. Hold to your beliefs – fine. But please, be just a little less confident, and a little less ready to condemn everyone else. God is bigger than the magisterium.
      Fr. Anthony

  6. Setting up straw men (people) has been written about before by commenters on this blog and I find this all too often in polemics against the hierarchy and revealed truth and legislated practice even on this intellectually based blog. I think in responding to the story above where it is written,
    “The abbot believes that the media are partially responsible for the increasing divergence between priests and Roman teachings. “There is a colossal presence of the public media, and this pulls many into its wake.”

    The abbot said, “It disturbs me that, even in the consciousness of theologically educated priests, the theological basis for celibacy and our understanding of ordained ministry is no longer there.”

    Even benign blogs like this one can do what the abbot writes. We’re talking about canon law, Christian charity, a deeper understanding of celibacy, a dogmatic teaching concerning women’s ordination, and a whole lot more. We’re not talking about the hierarchy micro managing people’s personal lives to the point that when I preach that Jesus Christ said turn the other cheek, that some literalist out there will not defend his family when a burglar intent upon raping and stealing, breaks into his home, he does nothing because Fr. McDonald taught him to turn the other cheek. So if we want to talk dissent, forget the pope, talk about Jesus Christ and some of His radical teachings on love and perfection, enough to make a scrupulous person go insane; the wife who has an abusive husband glad to leave her husband and live on the street in dire poverty because it’s a virtue to live in poverty. Or to abandon wife and children to follow Jesus as he has taught us to do so, will be okay for the wife and children since God will take care of them. Sounds like irresponsibility to me and that these teachings. So even Jesus, not to mention, papal teachings on sex and sticking with an abusive spouse need nuancing perhaps in a good homily that works ex opere operato rather than using these teachings to promote disregard and contempt for Christ and His Church altogether thus leading people to secular liberalism and the dictatorship of relativism as well as the primacy of individualism.

    1. Fr. Allan, what does your comment refer to? I’m having difficulty catching your point. Where specifically is there setting up a straw man? Where is there a polemic against the hierarchy? If you’re referring to my comment (I’m not sure), I think I just stated facts about what past Popes taught. In my view this is factual, not polemical. Please clarify what you mean, what specifically you’re replying to, what specifically you disagree with. I do want to understand your point.

      1. On the blog, without pointing fingers at anyone, situations are described that on face value are true. Stay with you spouse although he’s beating you; sex even in marriage is at least a venial sin, etc. But Scriptures also says you can handle snakes and if they bite you, you won’t die, or something like that, let the dead bury the dead, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect etc. All of these teachings need to be nuanced and in a pastoral way that a short blog comment cannot accommodate. Hearing confessions, though, I do know that some marital sex is quite harmful, selfish and cruel. Is that not a sin? And I know that some priests did counsel some women to stay in a marriage that was abusive for the good of the children and the material good of the wife, this was wrong headed, but I suspect the motive was good. But today, we have people divorcing at an alarming rate and sometimes priests suggest that divorce is fine, rather than challenging the mentality. So the straw man is setting up truths that are not nuanced and then implying it is okay to disregard legitimate authority because they make foolish statements about this, that or the other.

      2. Fr. Allan, thanks for this helpful clarification. Speaking for myself, I do not mean to say it is OK to disregard legitimate authority. If I gave that impression, I failed to write clearly. What I do mean to say is that Church authority should not be idolized as if we could know that every official statement and action is inspired. Further, in areas that by nature are at least somewhat ambiguous, those defending church authority should be less ready to judge and dismiss others’ good-faith opinions. I’m really not dissenting myself, but I’m ‘defending’ the dissenters in that I think we all need more respect and charity toward them.
        My point in listing the egregiously false teachings of past Popes (the initial defensive response to the Enlightenment and the rise of modern democracies was pretty bad) was not that this proves the Pope is wrong on birth control or women’s ordination or celibacy. Rather, my point was that we should be more respectful to the progressive voices on those issues because history shows there is a chance, however slight, that they’re right.
        I think we need more humility on all sides in our Church. I wish I were better at that.

  7. The crisis in the Church is one of mismanagement. It does not serve God’s people for liberals, traditionalists, or even the magisterium itself to depict it as a crisis of teaching and doctrine.

    We have lack of supervision and accountability of priests for their immoral and illegal behavior. We have bishops, cardinals, and perhaps even two popes who have placed concerns for money, their own status and their pride above the welfare of children by condoning and facilitating deep immorality among our priests.

    It is not the devil who is exposing this; it is God himself, who has no need of money, and no regard for human status and pride even that of the hierarchy! And God will continue exposing this immorality and mismanagement until our bishops, cardinals and popes repent.

    We should all stand firmly with God in condemning both the immorality and the mismanagement that has allowed evil to thrive in sacred office.

    Although it is becoming apparent that JPII and B16 are terrible managers, both are great priests, and teachers. And in regard to teaching, not only in their articulation of the essentials but also of the optional parts of our traditions.

    Even though I welcome married priests, and think we should discuss optional celibacy, JPII and B16 articulations of the spirituality of celibacy are essential if we are going to discern God’s will.

    Let us respect these popes as priests and teachers but challenge them as managers.

  8. The references to the alleged inconsistent teachings of the popes on various topics have been debated by Catholic apologists quite convincingly for generations. The Catholic Truth Society and Catholic Answers have pamphlets on each of them. Their responses were enough for scores of converts from Protestantism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) including Belloc, Chesterton, and Hahn. I’m familiar with Noonan’s claims on a changing Church and find them unconvincing including the topic of usury which failed to note that the function of money changed with the commercial revolution. In other words it is not the Church’s teaching on usury that changed but the function of money that changed when money began to fructify.
    My point above is not simply ultramontanist but that the rebellion of the Austrian (and other) hierarchies dates to Paul VI and that we are witnessing the fruit of that rebellion today. I don’t believe that we can lay the primary blame on Rome because the clergy, religious, and professional laity had their own significant role in this pastoral failure. The Church’s response is not capitulation but renewed clerical discipline and evangelization. It is my belief that the reformed translation of our worship will aid is this effort.

    1. Robert – thanks for your well-considered response. You have given me good points to think about.
      I hope you’re right about the reformed translation, but I think much depends on whether or not it turns out to be a decent or accurate translation. We’re all waiting because we just don’t know what’s going on.

    2. Robert, you say that you don’t believe we can lay the primary blame on Rome, but do you think Rome (or her representatives) deserves secondary or tertiary blame? If Rome does, wouldn’t it be of secondary or tertiary importance to understand exactly where Rome or her representatives erred, in teaching, in judgment, etc.?

  9. Father McDonald,

    I _think_ I comprehended the gist of what you were trying to say in that last, long paragraph, but may I suggest it needs proofreading? At least one sentence in there isn’t, and it’s rather confusing. I mention this because it’s clear that the point you’re trying to make is important to you, and I want to be sure I understand what you really intend to say.

  10. Fr Anthony – one reason I keep coming back here despite this site driving me nuts sometimes is that in many ways your views are like a mirror image of mine. As I have commented before, you certainly seem to be obedient, but you don’t seem to mind (or, to be fairer, you don’t judge) if others aren’t. To that extent, you remind me a little of my niece who is very good at encouraging her sisters to misbehave but who can, when it is time for parental punishment, evade it by rightly claiming she didn’t actually do anything herself. To continue the family analogy, I must admit that I myself share some of your attitudes – it hit me over lunch today. If the SSPX had not disobeyed, Summorum Pontificum probably would not have issued, and I would likely not have come back to the church and my wife likely would not have converted. Thus, we benefit from the disobedience of others and I recognise that must cut both ways.
    That said – a major concern I have here with disobedience to Scripture as interpreted by 2,000 years of Tradition is this, which I suspect (as a simple layman) gets to the heart of the divisions in our church.
    Personally, I do not see why we do not have women priests. Following my understanding of the Church’s logic, all priests should be orthodox Jewish men since all the apostles were too. However, Pope John Paul II has made it clear that the Church has no authority to ordain women. Further, even if a viable case could be made, is that enough? A viable case is not enough – (ctd.)

  11. (ctd.) the case would have to be overwhelming since the Church could not take the slightest chance that the sacraments might then be invalid.
    What upsets me is that, in parallel with a call for women priests seems to go an argument against transubstantiation and an argument that the Real Presence is throughout the Mass when the faithful are assembled. That quite simply is not Catholic teaching.
    But the two arguments go together so often. Why? Again, I am a layman but it seems to me that those who do not believe in transubstantiation or the unique role of the priest at the Mass would have less issue with women priests since, in their view, there is not likely a risk of the Real Presence (reduced to God’s ominpresence perhaps) not happening. Or, are there those who think women priests so important that they discard transubstantiation and the traditional role of the priest to further their aim? Either represents a radical departure in our understanding of our faith: if Vatican II had intended us to change so totally our beliefs, it would, I think, have been a little more express in that regard. So, one reason I may tolerate (rightly or wrongly) disobedience from the right is they wish to continue to believe what the church has taught. One reason I am suspicious of disobedience from the left is that they propose what the Church has never taught. I can’t shift the feeling that somewhere behind their arguments, whether on liturgical translations or otherwise, lies a desire for women priests and/or a denial of transubstantiation.

    1. Ceile De,
      I appreciate the honesty in your comments and I think you’ve pointed out a major problem in inter-Catholic dialog (sometimes it is so much more frustrating than inter-denominational, yes?) We suffer by our own power of association. Your description of the proponent of women priests somehow also being opponents of transubstantiation or Real Presence is a natural association to make, but its hardly accurate case by case. There are those in favor of women’s ordination who would never deny the Real Presence, and there are those, influenced by arguments from Orthodox theologians, who argue that too much focus on transubstantiation obscures the larger liturgical procession of the Church into Heaven, and yet remain opponents of women’s ordination.

      What is so frustrating is how often our associative powers mislead or hinder our ability to hear the arguments and reasoning. They lead to over-simplified caricatures of liberals or conservatives, either of which can seem villainous to the other side. Your own toleration for disobedience from the right betrays that kind of simplification. The SSPX engage in a tolerable rebellion because they’re holding onto tradition. Come on! Can you imagine the Church operating with those simplifications in the 4th and 5th centuries? We’d all be Arians!
      We need to discipline ourselves to avoid making hasty associations which serve only to make us deaf to our brothers and sisters

  12. Brendan – I was trying to express what I realise are my own prejudices. Let me give an example of why I am more suspicious of the dissenters of the “left” (a term I still struggle with as politically, but not religiously, I am on the left). Making clear one’s prejudices from the start can help avoid a feeling of having been deceived later. I’m sure people on the other side have their examples but let me give mine.
    In the 1970’s we were told that now that the priest is facing us, it’d be disrespectful to the Tabernacle for the priest to have his back to it. So, the Tabernacle was moved to somewhere “prominent”. Then, we were told, with no Tabernacle behind the Altar, we did not need to genuflect entering our pews. Then, we are told that we need not kneel for Communion or receive on the tongue (or in some cases wrongly told we may not do so) as we are a “resurrection people” or something. Then we are herded towards EMHC’s because we are all “priests” now even when it is clear there are enough priests to distribute (and we all know the line for EMHC’s runs our first but it seems impolite to point it out – I even went to one once because I felt embarrassed for her). And then, lo and behold (or maybe I am just hearing it now), it turns out that a lot of the liturgists promoting these changes do not believe in transubstantiation but rather in a vague “Real Presence” that ultimately renders both priest and consecration irrelevant. Now, if they had made that agenda…

  13. ..clear at the start…and said very clearly that they wanted to remove Tabernacles because they did not believe in transubstantiation, there would have been a lot more argument but a more honest argument. But shifting away from transubstantiation was never explained to me from any pulpit I heard as being the reason. It certainly makes more sense than the reasons offered up at the time. But it makes me suspicious – what are the end goals of those promoting change. So, I try to practice the charity and belief in others’ good motives but I think we need to see everybody’s whole agenda. I prefer the EF strongly over the OF: that means I do, yes, favour obedience to the Holy Father *even when I do not like what he says*. But that doesn’t mean I also have, for example, a secret anti-semitic agenda or want unbridled clericalism (it was the clergy, after all, who ruined our church interiors in the 1970’s). In short (I know I am rambling on), changes and issues cannot be seen in isolation from broader agendas. Going forward, it means if someone proposes X, I may agree if I am comfortable it is not a stalking horse for Y. That goes for both sides.

    1. Actually, the suggestion for separate Eucharistic chapels is found in the 1967 document Eucharisticum Mysterium (my commentary here:

      It’s good to keep in mind that we were not always given accurate or good theological reasons in our parishes, that sometimes both good and poor formation was “misremembered.” I see nothing familiar in the catechesis re-presented above, but I don’t doubt that liturgical reform was bungled in many places.

    2. Agreeing with Todd here. I can accept that someone told you those reasons, but they’re not the reasons that we find in the documents. For example, there are specific instructions about genuflecting to the tabernacle (not the altar). My hope is that, with the more accessible channels of communication we have now, that there will be less misinformation and fewer poor interpretations about liturgical changes.

  14. On Austria:
    The non-traditional approach toward the Pauline liturgy is evident in this recent celebration of the Eucharist which grants no ground to the cappa magna or thurible but does highlight several US flags, the ashtray, and little episcopal discipline in matters liturgical:

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