An Austrian theologian is pressing bishops to find more priests – married men and women – instead of closing and merging churches for lack of clerics.

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Pastoral theologian Paul Zulehner denounced on his blog December 25 that he has it “on reliable information” that 75+ year-old priests in the archdiocese of Vienna are being urged to “resign their parish” immediately.

That’s because archdiocesan authorities in the Austrian capital are pushing for parishes “to be integrated into a larger pastoral network”, Zulehner claimed, warning that the new merged parishes could contain up to 50,000 Catholics each.

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Zulehner recognised that the parish mergings in Vienna and other places are being driven by the shortage of priests and vocations.

But the theologian added that instead of injecting new life into a dying Church, “studies show” that parish mergers do nothing more than upset parishioners, “downsize” the Catholic institution and trap the Church in structures of the past, and as such “do not open a path to the future”.

Zulehner recalled, too, that the Vatican recently stopped a similar streamlining of churches in the German diocese of Trier over concerns for possible cuts to pastoral attention there.

All of those reasons led the theologian to call for an immediate moratorium on the parish reforms underway in the Vienna archdiocese.

Why it matters

What alternatives are there, then, to closing churches to cover the priest shortage?

According to Zulehner, parish mergers are not only against pastoral reason, but also “negligent, irresponsible and contradictory of all efforts by Pope Francis”.

A moratorium on parish amalgamations in Vienna and other places would create the possibility, the theologian explained, “to look for pastorally less destructive alternatives based on the proposals of the Amazon Synod and, with a high probability, also the expected papal letter” on that same Synod.

As well as calling for the “strengthening of creative, innovative and differentiated spaces of evangelization”, the Amazon Synod also pushed for the ordination to the priesthood of married men “in order to sustain the life of the Christian community”.

The Amazon Synod also called for official ministries for women such as Lector, Acolyte or “women community leadership”, “among others [ministries] to be developed”.

Those are the kinds of “bold, forward-looking proposals” the Pope expects of bishops, like Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn, instead of the “affront to the people of God” caused by mere parish closures and mergers, Zulehner said.

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