An Austrian priest theologian has asked the new head of the Bishops’ Conference of that country for a permanent “Church parliament” of laypeople and clergy.

– “Austria’s Church needs considerably more synodality”

“Austria’s Church needs considerably more synodality, and this not as a one-off event but as a permanent institution: well-managed, institutionalised synodality, that is”, theologian Paul Zulehner wrote in an opinion piece in the Der Standard newspaper June 21.

“Why should the Church in Austria not set up a kind of ‘church parliament’ in which all discuss and decide together? The bishops should ex officio only have to take care that the decisions remain on the Gospel track”, Zulehner explained.

Now is the perfect time to implement that kind of synodality, collegiality and lay-clerical co-responsibility, the theologian explained, just as the Austrian Bishops’ Conference is changing leaders with the retirement of Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn – after 22 years in the post – and the appointment of Archbishop of Salzburg Franz Lackner.

According to Zulehner, new Bishops’ president Lackner has an aptitude for collaboration, as demonstrated by the apostolic visitation the latter carried out in the Diocese of Gurk-Klagenfurt in December 2018.

That investigation turned out to be a success in getting to the bottom of allegations against former Gurk bishop Alois Schwarz precisely because Lackner turned for help in his work to “sensitive” people like Bishop of Feldkirch Benno Elbs, Zulehner recalled.

Not only is the right person in place at the helm of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, then, but the “dramatic” sociological data on Church life also urges reform, the theologian pleaded.

The mass exodus of Austrians from the Church and the increasing disillusionment of Catholics who are staying “can only be overcome with broad participation” on the part of the faithful in the pews, Zulehner said.

“Only if many Church members are able to help shape and decide will they identify [with the institution] and become involved in the future”, the theologian warned, adding that “Pope Francis clearly recognised this when he focused on expanding synodality”.

– “It is no longer enough to reform within the framework… the framework itself must be reformed”

Explaining what a hypothetical Austrian “Church parliament” might be able to consider and decide on, Zulehner explained first of all his conviction that “it is no longer enough to reform within the framework” of the existing Church institution”.

“Rather, the framework must be reformed and the depth of the Gospel must be regained”, the theologian stressed.

As an practical example of a possible future Church parliament debate Zulehner put forward that of the ordination of “proven” married people, and not just men.

The ordination of married men was one of the proposals on the table at last October’s Amazon Synod in the Vatican, and many Church figures read into Pope Francis’ reluctance to close the door on married priests in his post-Synod exhortation, Querida Amazonia, an invitation to keep working for new models of priesthood.

The pontiff’s studied non-outright ‘no’ to the question of the ordination of viri probati, and his very gesture of holding a regional synod at the Vatican, signified for Zulehner that “the argument that important questions can only be solved in step with the world Church no longer stands up under Pope Francis”.

With the reforms that it needs and that people want on married priests and the role of women, the Church in the Amazon “will find its way”, the theologian promised. “And so will the Church in Austria”.

“The previous centralism is a main cause of stagnation”, the theologian warned by way of a conclusion, adding that that centralism, too, is the reason why, in the words of the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, “the Church is two hundred years behind” the times.

“Perhaps one day Pope Francis can write ‘Querida Austria!‘ – and praise us for our courage in going forward”, Zulehner reflected.

Novena’s full coverage of the Austrian Church:

New Austrian Bishops’ head open to rethink of doctrine on homosexuality, commissioned book on gay blessings

More on Novena on synodality:

“A bit depressed”, German bishop rethinks parish mergers after “massive Roman intervention”

German Bishops’ vice-president insists women priests debate “not over”, wants to take issue to “European Synod”, Pope


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