Austria Table of Contents

During the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Habsburgs were the leading political representatives of Roman Catholicism in its conflict with the Protestantism of the Protestant Reformation in Central Europe, and ever since then, Austria has been a predominantly Roman Catholic country. Because of its multinational heritage, however, the Habsburg Empire was religiously heterodox and included the ancestors of many of Austria's contemporary smaller denominational groups. The empire's tradition of religious tolerance derived from the enlightened absolutism of the late eighteenth century. Religious freedom was later anchored in Austria-Hungary's constitution of 1867. After the eighteenth century, twelve religious communities came to be officially recognized by the state in Austria: Roman Catholic; Protestant (Lutheran and Calvin); Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Russian, and Bulgarian Orthodox; Jewish; Muslim; Old Catholic; and, more recently, Methodist and Mormon.

The presence of other communities within the empire did not prevent the relationship between the Austrian imperial state and the Roman Catholic Church--or the "throne and the altar"--from being particularly close before 1918. Because of this closeness, the representatives of secular ideologies--liberals and socialists--sought to reduce the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in such public areas as education.

A relatively complicated series of treaties (or concordats) between the Republic of Austria and the Vatican defined the role and status of the Roman Catholic Church. After 1918 the Roman Catholic Church maintained considerable influence in public life. For example, many members of the church hierarchy explicitly supported the Christian Social Party (Christlichsoziale Partei-- CSP). Members of the Social Democratic Workers' Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei--SDAP) responded to this partisanship in the interwar period by being explicitly anticlerical. Some Roman Catholics were committed to a form of "political Catholicism," which was anti-Liberal and anti-SDAP. Because of these sympathies, they supported the authoritarian regime that erected a one-party "Christian Corporate State" in 1934.

After the Anschluss in 1938, the Roman Catholic Church initially pursued a policy of accommodation with the National Socialist German Workers' Party (National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei--NSDAP, or Nazi Party), but by 1939 it began to assume an oppositional stance. In the decades after World War II, the Roman Catholic Church abstained from publicly and actively supporting any one political party. An exception to this restraint was the church's involvement in the controversy surrounding the legalization of abortion in Austria in the early 1970s. For its part, the Socialist Party of Austria (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs--SPÖ) developed more accommodating attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church than were common before World War II.

According to the 1991 census, a majority of Austrians (77.9 percent) belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. This is a decline from the 1971 figure of 87.2 percent. The number of Protestants also declined in the same period. The number of Lutherans, or members of the Augsburg Confession, declined from 5.7 percent in 1971 to 4.8 percent in 1991 according to the census, and Calvinists, or members of the Helvetic Confession, declined from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent in the same years.

In 1938 the Jewish population of Austria numbered more than 200,000, most of whom lived in Vienna. After the Anschluss, the community was almost wiped out by emigration and the Holocaust. By 1990 the community amounted to about 7,000 and consisted largely of postwar immigrants instead of Austrian-born Jews.

Owing to the influx of foreign workers from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, the Islamic and Serbian Orthodox communities experienced considerable growth in Austria in the 1970s and the 1980s. However, many of these foreign workers do not officially register with their respective religious organizations, and accurate information about the size of these communities is not available.

The influence of the Roman Catholic Church, although still formidable because of its historical position in Austrian society and network of lay organizations, receded in the postwar period. The form of nominal Roman Catholicism many Austrians practice is called "baptismal certificate Catholicism." In other words, most Roman Catholics observe traditional religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and rely on the church to celebrate rites of passage, such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, but do not participate actively in parish life or follow the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on central issues. This trend can be seen in the low rate of regular church attendance (less than one-third of Catholics) and the high rates of divorce and abortion in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Within Austria there are regional patterns of religious conviction. Generally, provinces with strong conservative and agricultural traditions, such as Tirol and Vorarlberg, followed by Lower Austria and Burgenland, have higher percentages of Roman Catholics than the national average, and parish churches still fulfill a social function in many smaller communities. Religious affiliation is lower in urban centers, however, and Vienna has the lowest percentage of any Austrian province.

The decline in the number of Austrians professing religious affiliation and the increase in the number who have no religious affiliation--4.3 percent in 1971 and 8.6 percent in 1991--may be interpreted as an increase in the secularization of Austrian society. Renouncing church membership and being without religious affiliation was one of the anticlerical, historical traditions of the SPÖ. In general, Austrians without religious affiliation tend to be associated with the SPÖ, whereas "active" Catholics tend to be connected to conservative parties and hold conservative political views.

The increase in the number of Austrians without religious affiliation should not be interpreted as an exclusively political gesture, however. Recognized religious organizations in Austria finance themselves by "taxing" their members directly with a socalled church tax, which amounts to approximately 1 percent of their income. Austrians who do not actively participate in their religious communities frequently officially withdraw from them in order to avoid paying this tax.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress