Close on the heels of the pope’s rehabilitation of a group of schismatic bishops, including one who denied the Holocaust, a second scandal has compounded a searching debate within the church over whether Pope Benedict XVI’s focus on doctrine and perceived insensitivity to political tone are alienating mainstream Catholics and undermining the church’s moral authority.
On Sunday, a priest known for such provocative statements as blaming the sins of New Orleanians for Hurricane Katrina asked the pope to rescind his appointment as an auxiliary bishop in Austria.
The affairs have engendered a storm of criticism of the church hierarchy and led to frantic efforts to mollify angry and confused parishioners around the globe, while the latest controversy has raised concerns that the actions could be part of a disturbing pattern.
The Vatican expert George Weigel, in a recent essay in First Things, a American religion journal, criticized the Vatican for its “chaos, confusion and incompetence.”
In Vienna on Monday, 10 Austrian bishops convened a crisis session to deal with the fallout. Erich Leitenberger, a spokesman for the Vienna archdiocese, said church officials around the country had been inundated with letters, phone calls and e-mail messages, including some from parishioners saying they were leaving the church.
Austria, a majority-Catholic country with a complicated Nazi past, had been reeling from the pope’s revocation of the excommunication of four schismatic bishops from the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Richard Williamson, who has denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers as well as the scale and genocidal intent of the Holocaust.
While that firestorm was still raging, Benedict ignited another by appointing the Rev. Gerhard Maria Wagner, known for his Katrina comment and for saying that homosexuality was curable, as the auxiliary bishop of Linz.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the highest ranking Catholic official in Austria, said Monday that the decisions about the schismatic bishops and Wagner were unrelated, and that they were “made on different tracks.” But their proximity intensified the rancor among more-reform-minded Austrian Catholics.
“The displeasure grew exponentially,” Leitenberger said.
Outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Elisabeth Felbermair, 28, said she was relieved that Wagner was stepping aside. “Thank God he’s going,” she said, calling his views “too reactionary.” She said she would probably leave the church, though for personal reasons not directly related to the controversies of recent weeks.
For many Catholics, the issues are larger than Wagner. As the Austrian newspaper Die Presse said on its front page on Monday: “His name stands for a battle over direction: Should Linz be more faithful to Rome or should the church be more democratic and more liberal?”