Druckansicht - Donnerstag 16. Dezember 2010
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The History of the Catholic Church in Austria




Christian faith has shaped the history of Austria and is a reality in most people's lives. The first evidence of the existence of Christianity in the Austrian region dates back to around 174. The last census in 2001 showed that 5.915.421 Catholics (not inclusive of the members of the Eastern Churches) live in Austria which make up about 73,6% of the Austria population. The Catholic Church is the biggest religious denomination which is legally accepted in Austria. The Catholic Church in Austria comprises two Archdioceses (Vienna and Salzburg), seven dioceses (Eisenstadt, St. Pölten, Graz-Seckau, Gurk-Klagenfurt, Linz, Innsbruck, and Feldkirch), and one military diocese. In contrast to other countries, the relations between state and church are very good. State and church are separate institutions but they cooperate with each other in certain areas for the people and the common good. The concordat is an expression of the constructive relations between church and state. Church life in Austria is very much shaped by the Second Vatican Council.





In the era when Christianity first began to spread, the greater part of what is today Austria belonged to the Roman Empire. The first evidence of the existence of Christianity in the Austrian region dates back to around 174; Christianity was widespread by the 3rd century. The martyrdom of St. Florian with forty other Christians in Lauriacum (Lorch near Enns, Upper Austria), dates back to the time of the Diocletian persecution in the year 304.


In the confusion of the great migration, St. Severin worked in the Danube area as a missionary and died there in 482. After the migrations, the western part of what is now Austria was christianized by the early Bavarians. In this period, many monasteries were founded in the western part of Austria. The diocese of Salzburg was founded in the 7th century thanks mainly to the efforts of St. Rupert (approx. 650-718).


The dioceses of Salzburg (archdiocese from 798) and Passau were the starting point for the Christianization of the east and the south of Austria. In the late 8th and early 9th centuries, the first churches and monasteries were founded in the east of today's Austria, among them the monastery of St. Hippolytus in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, and St. Rupert's Church in Vienna.


The ecclesiastical structure was destroyed by the Magyar invasions in the 10th century. Only after the Battle of Lechfeld (955) was the Church structure rebuilt, starting once again from Salzburg and Passau, and the first parishes were founded in Austrian lands. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, regional sovereigns in particular founded numerous monasteries, which developed into centers of Christianization. The main monastic orders established an Austrian territory from these times were the Augustinian Canons, Benedictines, Premonstratensians and Cistercians. In spite of many earlier attempts, it was not until the 15th century that the first separate bishoprics could be founded in Austria (1469 Vienna, 1476 Wiener Neustadt).


The Reformation penetrated to Austria in the 16th century, whereby the ruling house remained Catholic but the provincial diets turned Protestant. By 1570, most of Austria had become Protestant. From 1590 the Catholic renewal based on the Council of Trent gained ground, in which new religious orders such as the Jesuits, Capuchins, Barnabites and Servites played a leading part. By the end of the Thirty Years War, the Counter-Reformation had carried the day.


Austria was now uniformly Catholic, and during the 17th and 18th centuries a magnificent and very typical Catholic Baroque culture spread through-out the land. From 1750, the state began to exert ever more influence over the church. "Josephinism," as this new political and religious movement (circa 1765-1790, and, in a broad sense, until 1850) later came to be called, took its name from its foster-father, Emperor Joseph II (1780--1790). During his reign the dioceses were reorganized, and the structure then established has remained much the same to this day. At the same time, a large number of parishes were founded. All contemplative orders were rescinded and their assets transferred to one great fund, the so-called "Religionsfonds." The Catholic Church was now controlled by the state, and the priests were engaged as civil servants.


A concordat agreed between the Austrian Empire and the Holy See in 1855 marked the first setback of Josephinism. In 1870, however, Austria revoked this concordat.


The eighteen-sixties and seventies were marked by the struggle of liberalism against the influence of the church, which eventually resulted in legislative measures: the National Basic Law on the General Rights of Nationals was enacted. It is still in force to this day as part of the Austrian Federal Constitution and forms the Basis for individual and corporative religious freedom. The Catholic Church has the right of public worship, and is independent in terms of confession," doctrine, preaching and pastoral care, as well as the management of all its other internal affairs. Any heteronomous regulation discriminating against or extending unfair privileges to one particular church in the sense of a state church is prohibited. As a result of the conflict of cultures and the gradual severance of the alliance between throne and altar, the church stood both internally and externally as a solid power when the monarchy came to an end. After the proclamation of the Republic, the church called upon its adherents to remain loyal to the new political system and to cooperate actively in its establishment. The Catholic Church created an extensive chain of Catholic Associations. The liturgical movement, which originated at Klosterneuburg Monastery, gave rise to a reform of the liturgy in Austria.


With the conclusion of the concordat of 1933, which is still in force today, the supremacy of the state in church matters - and hence the last flourishing of Josephinism - was abolished once and for all. The concordat regulated the legal status of the church within the state, the education of the clergy, religious education in schools, the church's right to its own schools, church weddings, pastoral activities within the armed forces and religious holidays, as well as the property and financial matters of the church. The state recognized marriages bound by canon law. Catholic schools were promised government grants as soon as economic conditions improved.


During the Nazi Regime in Austria (1938-1945), the church was subject to oppression and persecution by the National Socialist regime. The state withdrew its recognition of the concordat. The Reichskonkordat concluded in 1933 was not extended to embrace Austria, thus the church had no legal protection in this period. Catholic schools and organizations were dissolved, and civil marriage became obligatory.


In 1939 the Nazi Regime introduced a church tax, to be collected by the church itself. All payments the state had hitherto made to the church for personnel and material requirements were discontinued, and the assets of the Religionsfonds confiscated and transferred into the ownership of the German Reich. Many priests and laymen were persecuted, sent to concentration camps and executed.


After the liberation of Austria, the Austrian church organizations were restored, but the Catholic associations, which had been dissolved by the Nazis, were only partly reactivated. Relations between the church and the state in general, and between the church and social democracy in particular, began to improve. This was largely due to the fact that the two main political parties, the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP, successor to the Christian-Social Party) and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ); were not hostile to each other but formed a coalition government. The Catholic lay organizations (Katholische Aktion, Katholische Jugend) gained many new members. Pending matters between the state and the church were gradually addressed.


In 1957, the coalition government recognized the Concordat of 1933 in principle and requested negotiations with the Holy See to review the radically changed situation. In 1960, two partial agreements were concluded: one decreeing the elevation of the Apostolic Administrative District of Burgenland to a diocese, the other regulating financial issues. The church was to receive an annual sum of 100 million Austrian schillings (= EUR 7,267,283; indexed) in compensation for the confiscation of funds and loss of rights in the National Socialist era. 90% of the assets of the former "Religionsfonds," comprising church properties (real estate) confiscated by the state in the 18th century, became the property of the Republic.


In 1962, a further contract concerning educational issues was concluded between the Republic of Austria and the Holy See. The relevant clauses of the 1933 Concordat retained their validity. Religion was to remain a compulsory subject in state schools, although pupils were granted the right to opt out a request. The state undertook to pay 60% of the personnel expenses for teachers at state-recognized Catholic private schools. Since 1971, these costs have been defrayed wholly by the state.


In contrast to other countries, the relations between state and church are very good. State and church are separate institutions but they cooperation with each other in certain areas for the people and the common good. The concordat is an expression of the constructive relations between church and state. Church life in Austria is very much shaped by the Second Vatican Council.


Under the partial agreements of 1964 and 1968, the Apostolic Administrative District of Innsbruck-Feldkirch first advanced to the status of a diocese, Feldkirch later becoming a separate diocese. As far as the recognition of marriages was concerned, the concordat regulations were not reintroduced and civil marriage remained compulsory rather than becoming optional again as the Catholics would have wished.


The implementation of the decisions of the Second Vatican Council involved a number of reforms, particularly in the liturgy (replacement of Latin by vernacular languages in the Mass), and new forms of pastoral practice. Even before the Council, various movements and forces in Austria, the Liturgical Movement and the Catholic Bible Movement, for instance, had addressed problems which were later to become issues dealt with in the Council, and the Catholic Day in 1933 witnessed the celebration of the 'first large-scale Prayer and Song Mass. The sharing of responsibility with laymen, even in internal church affairs, was successfully introduced within the framework of the Katholische Aktion initiative. After the Second World War, relations between church and state unfolded in a way similar to that in which they had been discussed and outlined at the Council.



Dr. Paul Wuthe

Head of the Austrian Catholic Media Office of the Austrian Bishops' Conference

Press Adviser to the Apostolic Journey of Benedict XVI. to Austria in 2007


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