End of an Era?

Catholic swing vote jolts Austria’s major parties.

The September 28 national elections in Austria shattered the weakened, feuding Grand Coalition that had governed for decades. One out of every seven Austrians who voted in 2006 for the two major parties—the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) or the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP)—defected. The main beneficiaries were right of center: the Freedom Party (FPÖ) doubled its share of the vote, while the Alliance for Future Austria (BZÖ), an antiimmigrant splinter group founded in 2005, made signifi cant gains; together they now represent almost 30 percent of the electorate.

After the previous government collapsed in July 2008, Gallup polls were predicting a 7 or 8 percent loss for both SPÖ and ÖVP. The figures proved to be accurate, but the secular media had problems interpreting them: “decline of the Austrian social-democratic movement,” the era of major parties over (Der Spiegel); “deep-seated discontent with the country’s outgoing governing coalition” (Wall Street Journal); graying European leftists whispered about a resurgence of the far right.

During the week before the election, Catholic news sources reported and debated an incident that may have precipitated a rebellion of “values voters,” who in secularized Austria are in the minority but form an infl uential swing group.

On Monday evening, September 22, Wilhelm Molterer, head of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), declared in a televised panel discussion with young people that homosexual marriage would be legalized after the election, regardless of the outcome. This was, to say the least, a startling announcement from a Christian-Socialist party leader in a nominally Catholic country.

The moderator, Roman Rafreider, asked the party chief to explain. “There must be no discrimination against homosexual partners,” Molterer went on to say. He also bragged that he himself had called for an end to discussion of the matter among ÖVP strategists.

Rafreider, however, was just getting started. He reminded the panelist that “the Church says homosexuality is an illness that should be cured.” Molterer replied, “Herr Rafreider, that puts you in the nineteenth century. I live in the twenty-first century.” The journalist objected that he was just repeating what the Church says. Molterer retorted, “Well, excuse me, is that a standard for me?”

An astonished Rafreider said, “I thought it was.” “Well then maybe you thought wrong,” the ÖVP chief continued. “I respect every individual’s decision because he answers for it based on his own conscience, and that’s my standard. Do you really believe that I need Bishop Laun for that?”

The televised exchange with Molterer sent shock waves through Catholic circles in Austria. His perceived attack on the Church elicited statements from at least three members of the hierarchy and rebuttals from other Catholic politicians, and had an appreciable impact on election results.

On Tuesday, the Austrian Catholic Internet news service KATH.NET asked the ÖVP for clarification. Through his media spokesman, Jürgen Beilein, Molterer said that in his remarks during the broadcast he had not intended to “relativize the Catholic Church, its ordained ministers and its values.” Beilein explained: “Within the context of the discussion…the Vice Chancellor wanted to emphasize that for him personally the conscientious decision is the primary thing in this issue and that nobody should claim to be perfect. Admittedly his comments were formulated somewhat pointedly….” The spokesman acknowledged the Christian-Socialist roots of the People’s Party and cited the many Christians who are politically active in it.

Auxiliary Bishop Andreas Laun of Salzburg responded with a commentary published by KATH.NET on Wednesday. It begins: “I am getting many concerned inquiries with the question: Where does the Austrian People’s Party stand today? How does it differ from the Socialist Party of Austria on sensitive issues of social policy? The ones mentioned in particular are the defense of human life, the family, and ‘homosexual marriage.’”

After quoting Molterer’s controversial remarks (“homosexual partnership is coming,” “Is the Church a standard for me?” and “Do you really think that I need Bishop Laun?”), the Salzburg Auxiliary continued, “Well, he certainly doesn’t need me, I grant him that. It would be enough for him to look it up in the Catechism and to ask serious specialists, who could explain to him the complexity of the phenomenon of homosexual inclination, regardless of the spirit of the age, ideology and political expediency….”

“More and more voters say that, precisely because of homosexual marriage and the pro-life issue, they have lost their political home in the ÖVP.” Bishop Laun concluded with a plea for “politicians in all parties” to care first and foremost “about the welfare of the people of this country and, for the sake of the common good, to listen only to reasonable, well-founded arguments, whatever the source, whether they come from a political opponent or even from Auxiliary Bishop Laun. The quality of good arguments, after all, depends neither on the century nor on the religion of the person who presents them. But I will say one thing: The probability that an argument will prove to be good and true increases considerably when it comes from a Catholic who knows his faith and takes it seriously….”

While Bishop Laun reasserted the Church’s right and duty to speak about contemporary moral issues, Bishop Klaus Küng of Sankt Pölten, who heads the Austrian Bishops Conference’s committee for the family, restated Catholic moral doctrine in an article dated September 25. He wrote that he was “surprised and put off” by Vice Chancellor Molterer’s remarks about homosexual marriage. “It would be good to ask him whether he really meant it in the way it came across.” Bishop Küng then called the Church’s teaching about people with homosexual inclinations “highly nuanced.”

“It emphasizes that homosexually inclined persons should be treated with respect and distinguishes morally between homosexual inclination and homosexual behavior. It unequivocally rejects any comparison between a homosexual relationship and a marriage between a man and a woman. Marriage is ordered to fidelity and offspring; children need a father and a mother.” He noted the lack of professional consensus about the causes of homosexuality or the possibility of a “cure”; recent magisterial statements merely observe that “there is no proof that homosexuality is inherited.”

An op-ed piece by Gernot Steier, a member of the brand-new political party, Die Christen [The Christians], recalled that Christian-Socialist policies must be founded on “respect for human dignity and a Christian view of man.” The former presupposes a defense of the right to life; in this regard Steier criticized the People’s Party for failing to act. “In the 22 years that the ÖVP has been part of the ruling coalition, not one of the promised measures to offset the Fristenlösung [Austrian abortion law] has been implemented.”

A Christian view of man, Steier continued, includes the conviction that God created man and woman to be complementary, that homosexual inclinations are intrinsically disordered and that homosexual activity is a sin (“And there is a big difference between tolerating a sin and legally recognizing and promoting it….”)

“Molterer has mustered the ÖVP to campaign for legalizing homosexual marriage, even though his party’s base is not in favor of it,” noted Steier. “Many ÖVP mayors, who would then have to marry homosexual couples, have protested to the party leadership, because they cannot reconcile that with their consciences. Yet Molterer himself, as he says, put an end to critical discussion. Just as the [ÖVP’s] discussion about the abortion law was ended in 1995.”

By Friday, September 26, Molterer was compelled to release a statement to the media. “Religion is a part of society; it offers values that must be respected…. If in recent days a statement of mine has been misunderstood, I deeply regret it.” He insisted that the “values” enshrined in Christian social teaching are still the “basis” of his political work. Yet Molterer did not retract his plan to introduce homosexual marriage after the election.

That same day Bishop Elmar Fischer of Vorarlberg asked Austrian voters to make sure to consider, with every vote they cast, which candidate supports Christian values, especially traditional marriage and respect for human life from conception.

Bishop Laun, meanwhile, published an article in the Salzburg diocesan newspaper emphasizing that the Church’s social teaching is not a matter of faith but of reason. “Those who vote solely on the basis of their traditional affiliation or gut feeling will not see why they should listen to any authority or any voice of reason instead of to a clever demagogue who sets out ideological bait…. God protect Austria—through responsible, informed voters!”

On Sunday, September 28, Austrians voted. As in every election since 1983, the parties on the political right and center-right, combined, won a clear majority. The Austrian People’s Party lost 8.7 percent of the votes that it had garnered in the previous parliamentary election.

On September 30, Dietmar Fischer, director of the Austrian branch of Human Life International, called for a new “bourgeois” (i.e., non-socialist) coalition, implying that the People’s Party no longer had a mandate to help form the next government. And he claimed that the regional breakdown of the election returns shows why.

“In those very provinces where ÖVP offi cials are the strongest advocates of registered homosexual partnerships, the party lost the most votes…. 11.6 percent in Steiermark, 7.3 percent in Lower Austria and 6.4 percent in Vienna.” This was not mere coincidence or part of a general trend. “More than 80 percent of the ÖVP losses occurred in Steiermark, Lower Austria, Vienna and Upper Austria (where Wilhelm Molterer headed the local ballot). No wonder the right-leaning ‘bourgeois’ parties BZÖ and FPÖ won a disproportionate number of votes in those same provinces: Christian voters decisively cast their votes against homosexual marriage.”

Statistical analyses subdivided Catholic voters into regular churchgoers and those who attend Mass sporadically: in comparison to 2006 the ÖVP lost 7 percent of its voters in the former sub-grouping and 9 percent of those in the latter. Even lukewarm Austrian Catholics abandoned their formerly “mainstream” Christian-Socialist party rather than support the legalization of homosexual unions.

Half of the churchgoing Catholic voters in Austria still cast their ballots for the ÖVP on September 28, 2008, but it cannot afford such losses again. Within 36 hours after the polls closed the executive committee of the People’s Party replaced Wilhelm Molterer with the Minister of the Department of Agriculture, Josef Pröll, as ÖVP party chief.


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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.