Austrian Church update: members leaving, initiative forming UPDATED 1-12

The Austrian government collects a church tax (the church prefers to call it a “contribution”) from each Catholic citizen, which necessitates keeping exact count of who is (still) a member of the Catholic Church. Each January brings the dreary annual news of how many Catholics unregistered from their church in the past year. The numbers are always in the thousands – for example, in 2006 and 2007 it was between 36,000 and 37,000.

In 2009 the Austrian Catholic Church was rocked by Pope Benedict’s controversial nomination of Fr. Gerhard Maria Wagner as bishop. Fr. Wagner had said, among other things, that the Harry Potter series is “satanic” and that Hurricane Katrina was “divine retribution” for homosexual activity in New Orleans. Pope Benedict XVI withdrew Wagner’s nomination. The numbers leaving in 2009 reached a new high, over 53,000.

And on to 2010. This was the year of – oh never mind, you already know. It was feared last summer that the numbers leaving the Catholic Church might climb to 75,000. Cardinal Schönborn in Vienna recently said it could be up to 80,000. Today the numbers for 2010 came out: a record high of 87,393.

In Salzburg there is “Rebellion in Kirchenbasis” – 14 parishes have united behind an initiative calling for optional celibacy, the acknowledgement of existing relationships of priests, the ordination of women to the diaconate, the readmission of priests who have resigned, and greater use of laypeople in ministry. This is a response to the official plan to consolidate 24 city parishes in Salzburg into 6 or 7 “pastoral units,” made necessary because 10 out of 27 priests in the city will be retiring within three years.

UPDATE 1-12: Austrian sources are speaking of an annual loss in tax income to the Catholic Church of 6-10 million euros – roughly between 7.75 and 13 million dollars. Experts project that within 20 years, less than half of the Austrian population will belong to the Roman Catholic Church.



  1. But everything is wonderful in the Austrian church, just ask the bishops!

    Closer to home, I really, deeply wonder about some of these guys. A very few years ago a priest sat at my dining table and told me he doubted there is a real shortage of priests in the United States, and cited some numbers from a very small study of a small diocese as proof.

    It seems reasonable to think that pretty soon the Austrian Church tax won’t be collected much. I do wonder how many folks unregister but still attend Mass now and then.

  2. Lynn;

    I know nothing about the inner workings of how this “Church Tax” is levied, but i suspect that if such a thing were done in the US, there would be a sharp and sudden decrease in the number of “registered Catholics” while the numbers in the pews would probably go pretty much unchanged. The initiative for “optional celibacy” (what in the world does that mean? Girlfreinds? Boyfriends? Sex on the side?) seems to be unrelated though.

    1. Jeffrey, I don’t know how you missed it and maybe you don’t mean this as a genuine question, but in case you do — “optional celibacy” is a well-known expression coined to contrast with “mandatory celibacy.” It does not mean choosing minute by minute, but rather a fundamental life decision. Those who experience a genuine call to celibacy embrace that calling with the support of the Church, and those who are called to marriage are not barred from ordination because of this. Celibacy as a genuine charism would not disappear from the Church, but would most likely persist in smaller numbers among those who are genuinely called to it rather than compelled to accept it as a condition for priestly ministry.

      Part of the reason why the “mandatory” celibacy rule is so difficult to sustain is that there are numerous and growing numbers of exceptions. It has not escaped the notice of the laity that married priests from the Anglican church or the Lutheran Church or even other churches are ordained to serve in the Latin rite as priests without foregoing marriage. The eastern rite churches are also truly Catholic, yet they permit a married clergy.

      The men who have served as Catholic priests with devotion and distinction, and who have left to get married are many. We would not face the priest shortage we now face if celibacy were not mandatory. So the question is raised on the practical plane very sharply by pastoral needs going unmet. On the theological plane, it is also not beyond question.

      1. I guess I missed it because I would expect them to use the term “married priests”. “Optional Celibacy” sounds as though the discipline of celibacy can either be chosen or not upon becoming a priest.

        Perhaps off the subject, but I have always wondered not so much what would happen with Priests getting married (a rather simple issue), but what would happen when they get divorced. Pretty difficult to go to the tribunal and claim that you didn’t understand the nature of the Sacrament…

      2. Jeffrey

        The real problem with making celibacy an option rather than a mandate is practical: bishops right now have the ability to move priests around at will (this not the case in denominations with married clergy). Once you have a priest with spouse and dependent children, bishops and laity will have to adjust to a very different situation regarding their priests. It’s certainly not impossible, but it would require an enormous change in culture. Ordaining celibate women would be, as a cultural and practical matter, far easier to digest. (I and not talking about doctrine here, just make a practical comparison.)

  3. Jeffrey,

    I suspect you’re correct about what would happen here, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

    I also imagine that ‘optional celibacy’ refers to married priests, though in practice it probably means ‘all of the above’.

  4. I strongly suspect that eventually, sooner than later, the church taxes will be abolished in Austria and Germany. This decision will likely arrive regardless of church service attendance or popular sentiment about Christianity. Secularity, combined with court challenges of church-state unions, will likely move one or both countries to abolish church tax.

    Already there has been a notable challenge to the church tax laws in Germany. A German high court ruled that Scientology does not qualify as a beneficiary of the church tax. The plurality and often non-institutional nature of “spirituality”, including new religious movements such as Scientology, challenge historical German Catholic/Lutheran demographic and geographical divisions, for example. Spirituality and religion are now individualized.

    Sweden recently disestablished the state church. Church tax was abolished and Swedes are no longer obliged to be baptized in the state church or maintain nominal membership in a parish. To my knowledge, this has not changed Sunday service numbers. Would a disestablishment of Catholicism in Austria, for example, have a significant effect on actual Mass participation? I’m doubtful.

    1. Rome depends the most, financially, on the Church of the United States and Germany — the latter because of the church tax and the population density. Austria is a smaller country, but if all the church tax countries fold up it will indeed make a difference to the income of the Holy See. The funds will be difficult to replace.

      Beyond this issue, the prospects of Pope Benedict “re-evangelizing Europe” seem to grow more dim daily.

      Here is what I think should not be overlooked. The situation was one in which substantial numbers of people did not go to church or feel themselves to be active Catholics but still felt the Church was benign and/or worthy of support. They wanted the buildings kept up, the charities maintained. The institutional presence of the church in their society was not an occasion for moral opprobrium. They paid the church tax. They self-identified as Catholics.

      Recent revelations and mismanagement, however, convinced them that the church is corrupt and unworthy of support. They no longer wish to self-identify as Catholic or support Catholic institutions even passively. This is what is happening. It’s a crisis of the wider society, formerly passively supportive, now passively (or actively) hostile.

      Recall that if they do not register as Catholic, they still have to pay the tax. It is not as though there is a monetary compensation for renouncing their registration. The tax simply goes to other charitable organizations, secular ones.

      1. I think your analysis is exactly right. Sad, but true.

        (I didn’t know that they still pay the tax, but that it is directed to other organizations. Interesting.)

  5. “if such a thing were done in the US, there would be a sharp and sudden decrease in the number of “registered Catholics” ”

    But in Austria citizens have been paying this church tax since 1939, so this is a sharp and sudden decrease compared to what the same people accepted previously. In a Catholic population of 5.5 millions, 87000 leaving is significant. Why now and not before? They cite the sexual abuse scandal, and that’s very believable.

  6. It’s certainly a growing decrease. I wonder what the numbers were prior to the last few years? It might not be so sharp and sudden, after all, although I imagine the sex abuse scandal accelerated things as you suggest.

    1. Well, the Austrian unemployment rate is about half that of the USA, so it’s not because of a large-scale depression….

  7. Another breakaway section will be just that. Without the Holy Father, the Magesterium, they will cease to be Catholic, no matter how they label themselves. But when all hell breaks loose on the world all eyes will be on the Pope. Austrians should think a little deeper before they react.

  8. The church tax was established as part of the Concordat between the Vatican and the National Socialists. There was also a Concordat with Mussolini. The National Socialists came to power in large part because the Catholic bishops instructed the German (Catholic) labor unions to vote for him. Everyone in Austria and Germany knows that.
    In Germany, a tax of 7 percent is levied on Catholics and Lutherans. In Austria, it’s called a church “contribution” although it’s mandatory. The Austrian “contribution” is ca. 1.5 percent. One way to get the official Church to listen is to withhold money.
    “Optional celibacy” is understood to mean that one could choose celibacy or not. Orthodox and Protestant churches get along fine with married clergy and Rome accepts married priests from other denominatios. In Austria, ca. one quarter of priests live openly with their significant others.
    One reason people are leaving is because they’re no longer forced to stay. In some towns, as late as the 1950s, at least one family member was required to be present at Sunday Mass. The Church exerted considerable power over the people.
    When bishops say stupid things and when seminaries are like brothels (Sankt Poelten), people leave. Bishop Kurt Krenn was interviewed on Austrian TV by a panel of two or three men and one woman after the scandal broke. When questioned about the seminarians who were obviously “French” kissing, he informed everyone that the seminarians “could kiss anyone they liked”. The woman on the panel asked him if it would be acceptable if they kissed a woman. Krenn looked as if he were about to lose his lunch. His was the only diocese that did NOT have an Ombudsmann for victims of clerical sexual abuse. Then there was that “Last Supper” painting in the cathedral gallery….

  9. The “Kirchenbeitrag” – Church donation – is 1.1% in Austria but not more than EUR 200.
    At the time of Emperor Josef II (1780s), brother of Marie Antoinette (she was baptized Maria Antonia), the Church supported itself. BTW, Josef closed all non-productive monasteries. In 1933, a contract was concluded between the Holy See and Austria whereby taxes would be collected and the various dioceses would submit funds to the Vatican. In 1939, the Concordat between the Vatican and Hitler established a Kirchensteurer (Church tax) in Germany and a Kirchenbeitrag (Church donation) in Austria.
    The American Church is vastly different in character from the European Church, or perhaps I should say that it has exhibited a different face in this country. The first bishop of Baltimore, John Carroll of Carrollton, established a lay-clerical bill of rights which was effectively eliminated by the time of Vatican I. Had Bishop Carroll’s vision for the American church survived, we might not have experienced the horror of the clerical sexual abuse fiasco because the laity would have had a greater say in the day to day operations of their parishes (and would have owned the deeds to the property) and priests would have had greater access to their bishops.

  10. I apologize to Samuel Howard for this late response. I haven’t checked this site in a while.
    Samuel, you might find this link of interest:

    It describes what I call Carroll’s “lay/clerical bill of rights”. You’ll see that it was a courageous stance and in some ways anticipates Vatican II. Carroll called it the “Constitution for the Clergy”. Among the initiatives:
    · a substantial voice for the laity
    · the right of clergy to choose their bishop
    · a sense that democracy is good for the Church
    · a written constitution for the clergy with a clear definition of authority and its limits
    · a preference for public debate and dialogue on Church issues
    · ecumenism
    · a warning that foreign and papal interference will diminish the credibility of Church leaders
    Carroll was also in favor of using the vernacular in the Liturgy.

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