With his gentle mien and deep blue eyes, the Rev. Helmut Schüller does not seem even remotely disobedient in person. He has the calm, reliable presence of the best parish priests whether in his vestments or, as on a recent afternoon, in street clothes.
But as one of the organizers behind a group of more than 400 priests and deacons who in 2011 issued an “Appeal to Disobedience,” Father Schüller, 60, has developed a reputation as one of the leading rebels within the Austrian church. That is no small feat in this small Alpine nation, which might well be the unruliest country in the Catholic world, a laboratory of liberal ideas and reform initiatives.
Among the seven points in the appeal, the group said it would “take every opportunity to speak up publicly for the admission of women and married people to the priesthood.” The group was rebuked by Pope Benedict XVI in a sermon last year, and Father Schüller was formally stripped of the honorific “monsignor” a few months later.
But unlike many priests who have found themselves in deep disagreement with the Vatican, he prefers to continue working from within the ranks of the priesthood. Once the vicar general of the archdiocese of Vienna, Father Schüller now works as a regular parish priest in Probstdorf, about half an hour’s drive east of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna’s old town.
The Preachers’ Initiative began, Father Schüller said, with a small group of priests, talking about the problems faced by their parishes, about the lack of successors to take their places, and about the fusing of congregations in response to declining numbers of priests and parishioners.
He almost seemed weary when the subject turned to ending mandatory celibacy, as though the news media always wanted to talk about sex when less lurid topics like the liturgy, ecumenism and allowing lay people to preach in parishes without enough priests were equally pressing.
“The church is built on the congregation,” Father Schüller said. “You can’t reduce the churchgoer to a consumer, receiving a service.”
The election of the first pope from Latin America last week was greeted with excitement, a sign of change and tangible evidence that the global church had become a reality. While Pope Francis may plan to concentrate the efforts of his papacy on the fast-growing regions and the problems that preoccupy the poorer parishioners there, he will more than likely have to deal with new challenges from the dissenters in his own backyard, like Father Schüller.
Calls for a larger role for laypeople in church decision making, women in the priesthood and an end to mandatory celibacy for priests have grown in liberal corners of Europe and the United States. Pope Francis will have to deal with the divergent demands of a world church.
“In countries with extreme hunger and violence, where children are stolen, these questions are not paramount,” said Hans Peter Hurka, chairman of the lay initiative We Are Church in Austria. “But as soon as those needs can be met these questions come very, very quickly.” But he cautioned against the attention that has focused on Father Schüller. “It’s not just about one person,” Mr. Hurka said.
Experts trace the roots of Austria’s dissent as far back as the Reformation, which swept across Austrian territories only to be brutally repressed by the Habsburgs under the Counter-Reformation, turning the country Catholic again but leaving lingering resentment and distrust of church hierarchy and diktats. “We’ll make you Catholic again,” is an old expression still occasionally used for putting someone back in line.
Helmut Schüller felt the call of the church from an early age, perhaps influenced by his birthday on Christmas Eve. Born and raised here in Vienna, he was enchanted by the otherworldly quality, the sounds of the organ and the mellifluous prayers. He became an altar boy.
Under the beloved Cardinal Franz König, many Austrians were particularly enthusiastic about the changes under the Second Vatican Council. After decades of retrenchment, it is hard to remember the burst of fresh ideas that accompanied the council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, and the years immediately following.
Among the students who decided to enter the priesthood during this era of intellectual ferment was Father Schüller. The church was an intellectually stimulating place at the time, with debates not just on theological matters but about the future of the church and the questions of social justice raised by the movement known as liberation theology.
He was ordained in 1977, still expecting the reforms and modernizations in the church to continue. The following year the church would have three popes, following the back-to-back deaths of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I, who was succeeded by Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who took the name John Paul II. “At the beginning I was fascinated,” Father Schüller said of John Paul II. “The great subject of Eastern Europe was the focal point.”
In addition to the new emphasis on the states behind the Iron Curtain, other shifts became apparent. There was a backlash against liberation theology and a move away from the spirit of reform embodied by the Second Vatican Council. The expectations of a modernized church were met instead by a traditionalist countermovement. The Vatican sent extremely conservative bishops to Austria, including Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër as the replacement for Cardinal König, creating significant discord.
Father Schüller occupied himself during these years working with youth and with the Catholic charity Caritas, where he happily spent roughly a decade, becoming the country director in 1991.
Even his role at the charity was not without controversy. He was outspoken in his support of migrants and asylum seekers and for his trouble was one of a group of prominent Austrians who received letter bombs in the mail.
The spark that turned discontent into organized opposition came in 1995, when Cardinal Groër was accused of sexually abusing seminarians. Cardinal Groër never admitted guilt or faced charges, but thousands of Austrians left the church as a result of the affair. The abuse accusations against Cardinal Groër also led to the founding of We Are Church, which collected more than half a million signatures in a petition for a referendum on change in the church.
“Since 1995 the church in Austria has never quite found peace again,” said Heiner Boberski, a religion correspondent for the newspaper Wiener Zeitung and author of books about the Vatican.
In this moment of upheaval, Christoph Schönborn succeeded the disgraced Cardinal Groër as archbishop of Vienna. He asked Father Schüller to take over as his vicar general, a kind of chief operating officer for the diocese. Father Schüller had developed a reputation as a strong manager at the head of the charity and would have preferred to stay there for his entire career, but answered the call when it came.
The following year, in 1996, Father Schüller became the head of a new group handling allegations of abuse. He described the process of learning more about child abuse as significant for his overall understanding of the church, almost an awakening. His confrontation with sexual abuse also began to crystallize certain ideas about the centralized power of the church that had never found an outlet before.
“It’s not just sexual abuse, but a systematic abuse of power,” Father Schüller said. “It threw a harsh light on the system.”
Cardinal Schönborn abruptly fired Father Schüller as vicar general in 1999. The day-to-day problems of his parish church increasingly shaped Father Schüller’s thinking. In April 2006 he co-founded the Preachers’ Initiative, calling for church reforms.
“He’s very open to new ideas from us,” said Maria Tödling-Weiss, 42, who works with Father Schüller on the church board in Probstdorf. “He always says, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
“It’s about church from below,” he says, lifting his palms upward from the table, a gesture quite literally uplifting, “or church from above.” At that he presses downward. There is no question on which side he comes down.