The Brandsma Review

Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland

Issue 120, May-June 2012

The Austrian Pfarrerinitiative, Inspiration for Association of Catholic Priests

IN PERFECT TIMING for the 500-year Jubilee, an Austrian priest is seeking a place in ecclesiastical history as a revenant of Martin Luther. This man is named Helmut Schüller and he is parish priest (pastor) in a small place northeast of Vienna. His Pfarrerinitiative (Pastors/parish priests’ Initiative) demands the introduction of Mass without priests, the ordination of married men and the ordination of women. They explicitly proclaim disobedience against Roman authority, which in the opinion of their exponents has not accepted the problems of the Church of today. The Pfarrerinitiative was founded six year ago. A large number of already long deceased priests is to be found on the membership list and most of the surviving membership is also drawn from the same endangered generation, a generation which for decades intended to throw all Catholic tradition overboard so as to oblige the Church to fit the spirit of the age. Whether dead or not quite dead yet, the Pfarrerinitiative appears to be an insurrection of the Dead.

Who is this Helmut Schüller then, the leader of this insurrection? He was born at Christmas sixty years ago. His younger brother is an editor with Austrian state television, which guarantees Schüller a sympathetic echo in the media. Their father was police chief in Lower Austria, one of the nine Austrian Bundesländer. Helmut Schüller was ordained to the priesthood in 1977. In 1986, he became an assistant to Monsignor Leopold Ungar, president of Austrian Caritas (equivalent of Trócaire in Ireland or CAFOD in England & Wales). Schüller succeeded him as director of Viennese Caritas in 1988 and as president of Austrian Caritas in 1991. At this stage, Pope John Paul II named him a chaplain to His Holiness with the title Monsignor.

When Christoph Schönborn became Archbishop of Vienna in 1995, he appointed Schüller as his Vicar General. Hardly four years later, Schönborn—elevated as cardinal in the meantime—dismissed his Vicar General on the grounds of “profound differences of opinion”. The dismissal caused a huge sensation at the time, because the Cardinal did not personally inform his alter ego, but posted the dismissal letter through a slit in his apartment door during the night, a fact about which Schüller did not neglect to inform the media. As a priestly companion of Schüller has reported, it has also greatly affected him that when an auxiliary bishop was to be appointed in the Archdiocese of Vienna during the years he served as Vicar General, a cathedral canon of a similar age received preferment. Since his dismissal as Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Vienna, Schüller has been a parish priest outside Vienna and a collaborator in the university chaplaincy. In addition, he has been chairman of the board of Fairtrade Austria for the past four years.

Inflexible position

One was familiar with Schüller up to the end of his career as Vicar General as an eloquent, sometimes beautifully poetic speaker representing Catholic teaching whose focal point—not surprising due to his function in Caritas—was always social issues. After his fall, he became more and more inflexible. Very soon after his dismissal, he gave an interview to the magazine for employees of the Archdiocese of Vienna in favour of accepting the “term solution” (Austrian law since 1974 permitting abortion in the first three months of pregnancy). He justified these conclusions–surprising to many Catholics—by stating the Church may not “annul by extra-parliamentary means what has come about democratically”.

Schüller had already once given his own peculiar political commentary. In the early 1990s, an apparently mad man, a Socialist party member who had become a Nazi—one might see him as a precursor of the Norwegian Anders Breivig—sent letter bombs to people in public life. Schüller also received one of these exploding letters as president of Caritas. As the Austrian police were looking for the perpetrator, this
criminal investigator’s son beamed in a newspaper interview that the letter bomber might be a Christian fundamentalist.

In the following years, these positions are becoming more marginal from year to year: In connexion with the worldwide abuse of children by Catholic priests, Schüller stated in a newspaper interview that the resignation of the Pope might become necessary.

A month later he philosophised in a newspaper interview, in which he characterised the Church with reference to the Pope as a “feudal system, in which the chief responsible party is controlled by nobody”.  “The Church stands on a war footing with modernity, she still has not arrived in the modern world”, he opined, “in any case, she has attempted to prevent modernity”. For a long time, anarchy has governed the Church, according to Schüller, describing his future vision for the Church with the words: “the centre will probably not be in Rome, perhaps a new, de-centralised world Church will come into being”. In the same interview, Schüller announced he would return his nomination decree as a monsignor to Rome and inform them that he no longer found this title useful.  But he still uses the title to this day.

Holy Thursday sermon

Although his “call to disobedience” demands the penalty of inderdict under Canon 1373 which he has drawn on himself, the responsible bishop, Cardinal Schönborn, has undertaken nothing against this preacher of disobedience and heresy. Schönborn’s inertia has summoned the Holy Father himself into the business in recent weeks.

In his homily on Holy Thursday in St Peter’s Basilica, the Pope reproached the disobedient priests for their stubbornness and insubordination to ecclesiastical authority and reminded them of their ordination promises. Remarkably, Schüller’s reaction to the Pope’s words was to feel honoured at the mention in the sermon and he invited the Pope to a conversation, which the Holy Father has not yet accepted.

At Easter, Schüller gave another newspaper interview, in which he called his own ordinary, Cardinal Schönborn, to disobedience. He actually said: “Schönborn could do a lot to move the Church, if he had the courage, to work with other bishops and cardinals to open up the Church. If a few cardinals like Schönborn got together and acted against the Vatican, development in the Church would look wholly different”.  He had this to say about the Roman authorities: “The Vatican system is a catastrophe…the Vatican is a bureaucracy which immediately nips every opening in the Church in the bud”.
As is now known, the Pope has asked the Austrian bishops to take steps against Schüller and the Pfarrerinitiative in a recent letter. Nothing has been done so far. In Luther’s time, there was still an emperor, who could summon Luther to the Imperial Diet at Worms. Today there is no longer an emperor…

Ralf Siebenbürger is a journalist based in Vienna.  He has been president of Una Voce Austria and Una Voce International and he is active in supporting Catholic student associations in several European countries.

In the same issue:


The Dutch Catechism and the Credo of the People of God
Dangerous Canards Are a Threat to Unborn Children

Paul Fournier
Ralf Siebenbürger
Prof. James R. Lothian
Rev. Prof. Brendan Purcell
Hibernicus & Nick Lowry
Rev. John Ogilvie SJ
Fr Bernard J. McGuckian SJ
Rev. Roland Colhoun

Also: Straws for the Camel’s Back including ‘Abbot Hederman Misinterpreted’, ‘Dancing with Dinosaurs’, ‘Orthodoxy Out!’, and ‘Death of a Pro-Life Heroine’; More Hurling Shots from the Ditch; a Letter to the Editor from Dom Philip Scott OCSO; and another list from Francis Book Sales.



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