The history of Austria is closely tied to the history of Roman Catholic Christianity in Europe. The faith took hold in the area over several stages, from its tentative beginning during imperial Roman occupation in the first and second centuries CE. At the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries, Bavarian, Irish, and Anglo–Saxon missions to the region began the process of popular conversion in earnest. The Benedictine missionary St. Boniface (672/673?–754), who was born in Wessex and known as the apostle of the Germans, created a network of bishoprics throughout southern Germany to manage the affairs of the church. Two of these, Salzburg and Passau, played key roles in promoting the Christianization of the Austrian lands and those of the neighboring Slavs as well.
   By the end of the 10th century, the Catholic church had a durable and articulated organizational structure in Austrian territory. This encompassed parishes—at first associated with castles, then later with urban settlements—along with substantial monasteries that grew in both size and number after the 11th century. As was true throughout medieval Europe, the church in Austria set the intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic norms of the time. It also was a serious competitor with secular authority throughout the Austrian territories, with the holdings of major abbeys and bishoprics extending to enclaves within the lands of lay territorial rulers as well. Salzburg and Passau had an especially pervasive presence.
   The 16th-century Protestant Reformation shook the Austrian Catholic church at its roots. While the Habsburg rulers of the Austrian territories remained officially true to the cause of Rome, the nobility of the Austrian provinces, with the exception of the Tyrol, became staunch supporters of Lutheranism. They asked for, and won, many concessions from their rulers, including the right to hold Protestant services, at least in the confines of their homes. The process of re-catholicization, or Counter-Reformation, as it is somewhat inaccurately known, began during the reign of Emperor Ferdinand I. It was he who in 1555 called to Vienna the Jesuit catechist and educator Peter Canisius (1521–1597), with whose help the restoration of Roman Catholicism to the Habsburg lands got under way.
   This initiative, however, was somewhat blunted when Ferdinand ordered that the Habsburg Austrian patrimony be divided after his death in 1564. In 1583 his grandson, Emperor Rudolph II (1552–1612), transferred the imperial government to Prague. The first serious reversals of Protestantism in the Austrian lands took place, therefore, not in Vienna but in Styria, where Ferdinand’s youngest son, Archduke Charles (1540–1590), and his Bavarian wife Archduchess Maria (1551–1608) were deeply committed to the reestablishment of Catholicism. By the middle of the 17th century, the Habsburg Austrian lands of the time were almost fully Catholic. The victory changed the landscape of Austria itself. It was roughly between 1650 and 1750 that some of Austria’s most notable religious edifices were either built or, more often, expanded and remodeled in the exuberant Baroque style. The cloister of Melk on the Danube in Lower Austria is only one of many spectacular examples. The process took somewhat longer in Salzburg, which was still a princebishopric with an altogether separate seat in the German imperial estates. By the mid-18th century, however, it too was fully under Catholic ecclesiastical control.
   Influenced by the Enlightenment and the general need to develop a productive population, Joseph II renewed the attack on the position of the Roman Catholic church in the Austrian lands from a somewhat different angle. Joseph believed that the church should serve as an arm of the state. If it had a mission at all, it was to minister to the everyday moral needs of his subjects rather than to prepare them for the afterlife. By the emperor’s death in 1790, the number of cloisters had dropped by a third, from over 2,000 to 1,324, although the number of dioceses and pastoral positions increased substantially. Both he and his far more religiously conventional mother, Maria Theresa, curbed clerical influence in lay affairs generally. Public education was an especially important concern. When the papacy temporarily abolished the Jesuit order in 1773, the empress confiscated their property and used the income from it to develop a secular primary school system theoretically open to all her Austrian subjects. The general conservatism of the post-Napoleonic Habsburg government led to a renewal of Catholic influence in public life. The Jesuits were returned to the Habsburg lands by the Austrian Emperor Francis I (1768–1835). A Concordat with the papacy in 1855 gave the church the power to review educational materials for items that were in conflict with its teachings. However, the idea that the church had a social, as well as an evangelical and contemplative mission, endured. The Christian Social movement of the last third of the century had the common man at the center of its concerns and was often quite critical of more traditional members of the Austrian Catholic hierarchy, who were often close to the throne. All wings of Catholic thought in Austria were deeply hostile to doctrinaire Marxism, so that in the first half of the 20th century the church became more conservative on social issues. Fidelity to Catholicism was a central tenet of the Austro-Fascist governments of chancellors Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg. Under the leadership of Franz Cardinal König, post–World War II Austrian Catholicism once again reemphasized its social mission. It also adopted more flexible attitudes toward other religious persuasions. The fate of Roman Catholicism in the Soviet bloc was also one of König’s central concerns.
   The Austrian constitution recognizes the right of all faiths to practice their beliefs, the Catholic church being only one among them. Nevertheless, the church still has a complex and extensive institutional presence in modern Austria. This is supported by lay contributions raised by the state as part of the general tax system. Nevertheless, the general secularization of life in the second half of the 20th century, and a rash of clerical scandals, have tempered the influence of Roman Catholicism in Austria markedly, though a substantial part of the population acknowledges its general moral ideals. Between 1981 and 2007, the proportion of Catholics in the Austrian population had dropped to 74 percent. In 2007, only 15 percent of all Austrian Catholics still attended Sunday services regularly, and only one in five prayed daily. Around 1,180,000 declared themselves to be observant, even though officially they numbered 4,900,000 in 2007.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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