Primacy of conscience, true equality, freedom of expression… Austrian Catholics have drawn up a “charter of fundamental rights in the Church”.

Driving the news

Explaining the “charter” of Austrian Catholics presented February 2 in Vienna, journalist Klaus Prömpers said the document contained a total of fifteen rights in all.

Those rights include the freedom of Catholics to exercise a well-formed conscience; their right to be treated as true equals regardless of gender, nationality, race, language, origin, sexual orientation, marital status, age, wealth, political or theological beliefs; and the right of the faithful to belong to and participate in a Church community.

The charter also recognises the priesthood of all the faithful in accordance with their personal gifts and charisms; the freedom to speak and to dissent, respectfully; the right to transparency on the part of Church leaders; and the claim of all believers on the sacraments, on the marital status they desire, and on participation in Church decisions; among other rights and responsibilities.

Go deeper

Prömpers said the principal point of the charter of Catholics’ rights – drawn up by a diverse group of Austrian Catholics, including reform-oriented priests and laypeople – was “to raise up the talents of individual baptised Christians in the Church and to give the Church a greater influence in the world”.

He added that the goal with codifying Catholics’ rights was not “to forcefully tear down all the walls that the Church has built up over the centuries”, but to try to “gradually expand” the space the Church permits the people who belong to it and that the institution occupies in wider society.

“One at least wants to open the church doors in order to get more people back into the Church”, Prömpers explained.

Back into, that is, “a Church that has reformed and that also gives individual Christians… more opportunities for participation”, the journalist added.

Why it matters

As to how the charter could be put into practice, Prömpers gave the example of the appointment of bishops.

He explained on that point that a first step could be the publication of transparent criteria by which prelates are selected, and then only in some future moment the direct election, on the part of the laity, of their pastors.

In the context of the new charter of Catholics’ rights, Prömpers said he was looking with “great excitement and expectation” as to how the assertion of the dignity of rank-and-file Catholics was playing out in the German “synodal path” that began formally in Frankfurt over the weekend.

With changes coming soon to the Austrian episcopate – with the eventual retirement of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna and a new bishop in Gurk-Klagenfurt – “one does not want Rome and the hierarchy to simply make these changes happen, but one rather wants to have a say and to articulate what is expected of the future of the Church in Austria, also with a view to the German-speaking neighbour”, Prömpers explained.

For the record

The charter of the Austrian Catholics became public just as Austrian theologian Christian Bauer was calling for an Austrian “synodal path” precisely after the model of the German reform process.

Bauer said the “move away from a clerical to a synodal frame of ecclesiastical practice” inherent in the German synodal path was fully in line with the theology of Pope Francis.

The pontiff, Bauer said is seeking to move the Church to “repentance from structures contrary to the Gospel” and towards self-evangelisation.

With his insistence that “synodality is the path that God expects of the Church in the third millenium”, and his conviction of “Church reform as a witness to the Gospel”, Pope Francis is pointing the way beyond the binds of “male or clerical rule” to a “truly participatory, diversity-friendly, post-clerical and gender-sensitive Church” that overcomes abusive power structures, Bauer added.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.