OXFORD, England — When discontented Austrian priests mark the first anniversary of their "Call to Disobedience" in June, it will highlight the difficulties facing Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna in holding his disparate Catholic community together.
In the nearly 17 years since Cardinal Schonborn became the spiritual leader of the Vienna Archdiocese, he has had to face organized dissent from clergy and laity seeking several church reforms including admitting women to the priesthood. Both supporters and critics agree the cardinal has responded in a pastoral spirit.
"There's no doubt he's under strong pressure," said Herman Bahr, treasurer of Austria's Laity Initiative launched in 2009 as a "loyal opposition."
"He's also a kind and generous man, who's in too strong a position to be pulled by either side. Although he can't tolerate open defiance, he clearly favors change himself," Bahr said.
Bahr's comments came in reaction to an April 5 Holy Thursday homily by Pope Benedict criticizing — without specifying the European country — a group of priests who issued a call to disobey certain aspects of church teaching.
In Austria, there's little doubt that the pope was referring to the "Initiative of Parish Priests."
In an April 19 interview with Catholic News Service, Paul Wuthe, spokesman for the Austrian bishops' conference, predicted the dissenting priests would modify their stance after the pope's intervention.
However, Father Hans Bendorp, a representative for the priests' initiative, denied there would be any change in their stand. He said the priests planned to request an audience with the pope in response to the homily.
"We're taking responsibility for renewal in the church," Father Hans Bendorp said.
"Although our bishops can be sympathetic, they always give stereotypical answers and insist the issues we're talking about can only be decided by the whole church," he added.
Such polarization has posed challenges for the 67-year-old cardinal, who studied at Regensburg, Germany, under then Father Joseph Ratzinger after joining the Dominican order in 1963. Cardinal Schonborn was widely viewed as a papal candidate after Pope John Paul II's death in 2005.
Cardinal Schonborn's career looked impressive when he succeeded Cardinal Hans Herman Groer in September 1995 following his resignation amid allegations of sexual abuse.
Appointed professor of dogmatics at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland in 1975, he joined the Vatican's International Theological Commission five years later. He served as editorial secretary for the Catechism of the Catholic Church beginning in 1987. He belongs to several Vatican congregations and councils today and he also sits on the recently created Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.
The Austrian prelate, born the second of four children into a noble family, has not shied away from controversy either.
In 1996, he said in an interview on Austrian television that a person with AIDS might use a condom as a "lesser evil," and in 2009 he criticized the pope's lifting of an excommunication order on Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X.
In January 2010, the cardinal apologized to a bishop in Bosnia-Herzegovina after preaching at the shrine of Medjugorje without his knowledge. Two months later his spokesman issued a clarification after he called for priestly celibacy to be re-examined in the light of recent abuse scandals.
That element of critical loyalty may have helped Cardinal Schonborn respond to demands for change at home, which have surfaced repeatedly since 1995, with the most recent being the priests' initiative urging women clergy, "priestless eucharistic liturgies" and Communion for non-Catholics and remarried divorcees.
In a November 2011 statement, the Austrian bishops said the summons to disobedience had "triggered alarm and sadness," and called on the priests to avoid demands which "contradict the church's identity and seriously risk its unity." But some experts say the demands reflect anxieties about steadily falling numbers in the church, which traditionally makes up 78 percent of Austria's population of 8.1 million.
This might explain why the pope's Holy Thursday homily, though critical of the group for "disregarding definitive decisions of the Church's magisterium," appeared conciliatory in tone.
"We would like to believe the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the church, that they are convinced the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures," Pope Benedict said.
"But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal?" he added.
In a website statement, the priests initiative said it could not "in good conscience" withdraw its call, adding that "disobedience to various existing strict church rules and laws" had "for years been part of our life and work as priests."
"We are, however, aware that 'disobedience' can be understood as an offensive word," noted the group, which claimed 405 priests, nearly a tenth of Austria's 4,200 clergy, and 73 deacons as members by mid-April.
"Therefore we are willing to explain that we do not mean general disobedience for opposition's sake, but the graduated obedience where we first owe obedience to God, then to our conscience, and lastly also to church order."
Jesuit Father Paul Zulehner, one Austria's leading social scientists, cited survey evidence that two-thirds of Austrian priests and lay Catholics now "broadly support" the priests' initiative.
He also defended Cardinal Schonborn's readiness to talk with the group and pastoral approach to Catholics seeking to change church doctrine.
"Many of the best young and engaged priests are backing this campaign. Although there's no Martin Luther-threatening-schism here, they're showing a new way to reform the church by switching from words to actions," Father Zulehner told CNS.
"But the cardinal points out that, on many issues, we're all actually saying the same things. The themes and issues highlighted by the priests' initiative are open, and we can and should be talking about them," he said.
Like other priests, Father Zulehner was struck when Cardinal Schonborn overruled one of his parish rectors and approved the March 18 election of a 26-year-old practicing gay Catholic to a parish council in Stutzenhofen.
Wuthe, the Austrian bishops' spokesman, agreed that the vast majority of Austrian Catholics had reacted positively to the unusual gesture, which had "explained the church's teaching" but also highlighted "respect for homosexuals in the church."
"The cardinal said he'd asked himself what Jesus Christ would have decided in this situation," Wuthe said. "He'd concluded this person was in the right place, and was truly trying to live as a Christian according to the Gospel in his own circumstances."
It was, Wuthe explained, a measure of the cardinal's style, as well as of his capacity to follow his judgment, sometimes in unexpected directions.