Catholic News Service photo
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna.
Catholic News Service photo
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna.
VIENNA  -- The head of the Austrian bishops' conference backed the excommunication of members of the dissident "We Are Church" movement for "celebrating" Masses without a priest.

"If someone takes a clear stand against something as central for our church as the Eucharist and propagates an idea far beyond our faith, this is a serious step outside the church's fellowship," said Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schonborn. "But we are all under one common roof, and the door is always open to the return of those affected."

The cardinal spoke after the excommunication "latae sententiae" (automatically) of Martha Heizer, We Are Church's chairwoman, and her husband, Gert Heizer. Bishop Manfred Scheuer of Innsbruck announced the excommunication May 21.

Cardinal Schonborn told Austria's Kathpress news agency May 23 that he believed Bishop Scheuer had been "mild and circumspect" in handling the case and had "tried everything" to dissuade the Heizers from their actions.

The Heizers said they were shocked to be placed in the same category as violators of confessional secrecy and sexual abusers.

"We have a law, and according to the law, we must be held accountable," the Heizers said in a May 21 statement. "But we have never accepted this process of nonjudicial criminal proceedings and do not consequently accept this verdict. We will continue to work with great energy for reform in the Catholic Church, especially when this procedure shows how much renovation is needed."

Formed in 1995, We Are Church is linked to similar lay-led groups in other countries, including Germany, Ireland and the United States. Its website calls for a "fraternal church" and "full equality of women," as well as a "free choice of celibate or noncelibate lifestyle" and "positive evaluation of sexuality."

The group is one of several demanding change in the Austrian church, where a "Priests' Initiative," which claims several hundred clergy members, issued a call for disobedience in July 2011.

In a May 22 statement, Bishop Scheuer said he had felt compelled to act because the Heizers had been holding "private celebrations of the Eucharist without priests."

He added that he believed the couple understood the consequences of their actions and would have 10 days to create conditions to have the automatic penalty of excommunication suspended.

"In its very nature, the Eucharist is a celebration by the whole church, so there can be no such thing as a 'private celebration of the Eucharist,'" Bishop Scheuer said.

"I consider it a defeat that we have not succeeded in persuading the Heizers to rethink and avoid this procedure. An excommunication is not a victory, but always a defeat for the church."

The Innsbruck Diocese's spokesman, Michael Gstaltmeyr, told Austria's national broadcaster, Osterreichischer Rundfunk, May 23 the excommunication had not been decided by the Vatican, but by Bishop Scheuer's diocesan court, although preliminary investigations had also been conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

He added that excommunication meant the denial of ecclesiastical rights, including sacraments and Christian burial, but not "exclusion from the church, since baptism cannot be taken back."

Catholics traditionally make up 73 percent of Austria's population of 8.5 million. Numbers have declined over the past two decades amid media hostility and demands for radical reform.