Austria is a secular State. The Austrian Federal Constitution of 1920 contains no preamble due to its underlying positivistic concept. The first Article reads: ‘Austria is a democratic republic. Its law emanates from the people.’ This formulation not only refers to the democratic and republican principle, it is also seen as a rejection of a transcendent legitimacy. Nevertheless, the system is characterized by a principal openness to religion — which is not banned from the public space and reduced to privacy and spiritual practice. Therefore, the legal order provides for legal recognition of Churches and religious societies as incorporated bodies with public-law status.
There is no general State funding for Churches and religious communities. State payments to religious communities exist only on the basis of indemnity for financial losses caused during the Nazi occupation. This obligatory compensation concerns the nationalization of Church funds and the cancellation of State grants to the Catholic, Protestant and Old Catholic Churches as well as the pillage and destruction of cultural objects (synagogues, cemeteries, cultural objects, etc.) of the Israelite Religious Society. Moreover, as far as recognized Churches and religious societies are concerned, there are other forms of direct and automatic financing, like grants for social services and in the field of schooling and indirect financing in the form of tax exemptions.
Austria has a population of 8.5 million (2015). In 2013, 63.1 % were members of the Roman Catholic Church and 3.6 % of the Protestant Church, consisting of a large Lutheran majority and a Reformed minority. The number of Orthodox Christians showing the most increase in recent years due to immigration is estimated at 5 %. The same is the case with the 5 % Muslims – mostly Sunni – of which more than half are of Austrian nationality, and the 1 % Alevites, the majority of which also have the Austrian nationality. The number of Jews is estimated at 0.15 – 0.2 %, while the members of the legally recognized ‘Free Churches’ number 0.3 % and the number of Buddhists is roughly the same. Approximately 20 % of the inhabitants of Austria profess to have no confession.
Over the last decades the religiousness of Austrian people has changed significantly. In 2008, according to their self-assessment two-thirds of the population (61 %) described themselves as religious; one-third (30 %) declared they were not ‘religious persons’; 4 % considered themselves convinced atheists; 5 % said they simply ‘did not know’. In 1999, 75 % still regarded themselves as being ‘religious’, 18 % as ‘not religious’ and 2 % as ‘atheist’. The decrease is primarily due to the erosion processes amongst younger Austrians (under 30 years), the proportion of those assessing themselves as ‘religious’ declining from 66 % in 1999 to 43 % in 2008 (P. Zulehner & R. Polak, ‘Von der “Wiederkehr der Religion” zur fragilen Pluralität’, in Die Österreicher/-innen. Wertewandel 1990–2008, eds. C. Friesl et al., 2009). On the one hand, these findings are consistent with the developments in religious practice and on the other hand, with the idea of God. Only a quarter of respondents give their consent to believing in a personal God, while about 50 % affirm the existence ‘of a higher being or a spiritual power.’ 11 % decidedly exclude the existence of God or another spiritual power (Ibid.). Regarding religious practice, 17 % participate in weekly worship and 31 % never go to church (Ibid.).
Like elsewhere in Europe, the mid-1960’s saw a change in the attitude towards the Churches as institutions. This had different reasons: the Catholic Church was caught up in the identity crisis of all major institutions and was not able to use the Second Vatican Council in a decisive way as a chance for renewal. These developments became particularly evident in the public debate on the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.
The long tradition of direct political influence of the teachings of the Catholic Church was terminated in the 1960’s. This was particularly evident in the controversy concerning the introduction of the legal possibility of a first-trimester abortion. Nevertheless, the Churches, though their influence declined more and more, have been able to keep their position as important dialogue partners within civil society. Their participation in public discourse is accepted insofar as they rank among those associations of civil society that create contexts for social and political communication. They are seen as participants in public dialogue by means of which citizens can be guided towards responsible action. Religious communities, therefore, are not only involved in the process of forming opinions regarding State legislation relevant to them in the broader sense – such as family law, monument protection, data protection, registration law and the question of inclusion of religion in the national census – but they are also represented on several advisory councils and committees, acting as co-operating partners of the State in various matters.
The social significance of the Churches, however, has become more and more concentrated on the largely positive valuation of Church activities in the area of social welfare. They are primarily seen as reminders of social problems, concerning asylum and immigration laws as well as development cooperation and ethical issues related to new technologies, in particular in the field of bio-sciences. This tendency to recognize the significance of the religious dimension on the part of the State without valuing religion as such and acknowledging religious communities as important groups in civil society, similar to other non-governmental organizations, is sometimes criticised by more traditional Church circles. They complain that in public the Churches are mainly or even exclusively regarded positively by virtue of their commitment to charitable works.
Since the 1990’s there have been some further dramatic changes in public perception of the Churches. The Catholic Church was shaken by the abuse accusations scandal surrounding the Archbishop of Vienna, Hans-Hermann Groer, which led to his resignation in 1995. The conflicts surrounding this affair resulted in the so-called Kirchenvolksbegehren (‘Church Referendum’) in the same year. The initiative Wir sind Kirche collected more than 500,000 signatures for a ‘fundamental renewal of the Church’ to ‘restore prestige and acceptance of the Catholic Church.’ The initiative is still active today. A grievous consequence of the ‘Groer-Crisis’ and other cases of abuse by Catholic priests that have been made public was a surge of mass exits from the Church.
In the 1990’s, social developments took place, which influenced the religious landscape significantly and resulted in new legislation concerning law on religion. A consequence of these developments is that the relationship between State and religion is challenged not only by the traditional moral and ethical differences, but also by cultural differences in the way of life.
Also in this decade, Europe-wide attention was drawn to the emergence of so-called New Religious Movements. In several cases the administrative body hesitated to confer public-law status on some of these groups for reasons pertaining to socio-political considerations. The problems with New Religious Movements led to the Act on the registration of religious denominational communities of 1998 which introduced a second legal status for small religious communities which do not enjoy the ‘privileges’ granted by law to legally recognized Churches and religious societies. This Act is not applicable to philosophical communities (Weltanschauungsgemeinschaften), a fact which has been widely criticized. The Act was initiated by the Ministry for Family and Youth and was part of measures against threats arising from sects and sect-like organizations. As a response to such threats, a public-law institute for documentation and information on sects and similar institutions was also established by law in 1998.
In the first decade of the 21st century, law on religion was increasingly influenced by the religious pluralisation of Austrian society caused mainly by immigration. The result was the instrumentalisation of law on religion by aspects of integration policy and even security policy. This became particularly clear in the preparation of the new Act on Islamic Societies of 2015, which replaced the Act on Islam of 1912. The drafting of this act was essentially determined by the competent Ministry for Integration.
At present, two issues with medium- and even long-term effects are of great relevance for the relationship between State and religion.
The first issue is the implementation of the Act on Islamic Societies of 2015. This Law, on the one side, has brought about the long overdue summing-up and clarification of the legal position of Islam in Austria. An innovation is the introduction of a course of Islamic theological study at the University of Vienna. On the other side, there was, and partly still is, severe criticism of this Law, in particular because it shows a certain mistrust towards Islam for instance when Muslims are expressly reminded to comply with the State’s legal order. Moreover, in some areas this Law differs significantly from the other special laws concerning religious communities. Two examples should be mentioned here. Firstly, the law against Austrian tradition includes two different religious societies, namely, the Islamic Religious Society in Austria and the Islamic Alevite Religious Society in Austria. This inclusion of those Alevites which designate themselves explicitly as ‘Islamic’ has been criticized because it disregards the fundamental differences between Islam and Alevism. Secondly, the Law determines that the financial means for normal activities aimed at satisfying members’ religious needs must be obtained from within the country.
The second issue is the on-going reform of teacher training, in primary schools the integration of the training of religious instructors as one of the additional focal points in the education of teachers, and in secondary schools the combination with the training in another school subject. The reform will have profound consequences for those concerned and thus for the future of religious education in public schools as one of the most important factors of public visibility of Churches and religious societies in Austria. Pursuant to constitutional law the respective legally recognized Churches or religious societies are responsible for religious instruction in public schools and private schools with public status. Teachers of religious instruction in State schools are employed either by the State or by Churches and religious societies. Although teachers employed by the religious community have no employment contract with the State, they are paid by the Bund or the Bundesländer.
For the future, on the one hand, it is to be expected that the importance of the Churches and religious communities in civil society will increase, notwithstanding the further ongoing secularization. On the other hand, it is unlikely that in the near future it will come to a fundamental reform of the Austrian law on religion, which for good reasons is repeatedly demanded.
Richard Potz (Vienna University).