Saturday, 22 July 2006

Church Tax and Leather Chasubles

The state of the Catholic Church in Austria reminds me a bit of the Church of England. It is the custodian of an impressive historical and cultural patrimony but, as an institution, it is suffering from alarming decline. About 17% of Austrian Catholics are ‘Mass-goers,’ though Vienna is statistically the most ‘secular’ part of the country.

To my mind one of the great problems is that, due to the present arrangement between Church and State, people are obliged to pay Church Tax (about 1% of income). If someone decides not to pay, they have to make a written declaration and are, in the eyes of the local Church (though not of Rome), effectively excommunicated – they have ‘left’ the Church and cannot therefore receive the Sacraments. In fact, there is even a special burial service for non-tax payers, which is directed more to the consolation of the bereaved (who presumably have paid their tax) than suffrage for the departed. This must lead to many tricky pastoral situations.

Recent scandals have also rocked people’s confidence in the Church: most notably the resignation of the Archbishop of Vienna, Hans-Hermann Cardinal Groer, in 1995 over allegations of pedophilia, and the thousands of pornographic images found on the computers of St Pölten seminary in 2004 (leading to the departure of Bishop Krenn).

You would expect Austria to be a fairly conservative place, full of nostalgia for the days of the Habsburg Empire and maintaining an oldie-worldie way of life, especially in the many rural and mountainous areas. So it might seem surprising that Austria is the birthplace of the ‘We Are Church’ movement, which promotes the ordination of women, the ending of priestly celibacy, the free choice of birth control methods and the declericalisation of the Church. Its 1995 Kirchenvolks-Begehren (Petition of the People of the Church) on these matters claimed half a million Austrian signatories.

These groups prove that the spirit of Joseph II is (sadly) well and truly alive in modern Austria! My visit revealed a telling sidelight on the reforms of this eighteenth century Emperor (his portrait can be seen above). Obsessed with making the Church (and especially the religious houses) more ‘useful’ and ‘practical,’ he passed laws covering the smallest ecclesiastical detail. He even decreed that leather vestments should henceforth be used, which were supposed to last longer than cloth ones. In actual fact, they required extra care and the examples I saw at Melk and Klosterneuburg looked in pretty bad shape. The thought of wearing a leather chasuble in the present hot weather is not a pleasant one! But that’s what happens when change happens for change’s sake, without proper consideration.


Blogger Jeffrey Smith said...

I would not have wanted to be a mouse in the corner to hear what his mother would have said. The great Maria Theresa restrained his nonsense as long as she lived.

4:30 am  

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