New bishop fails to get everyone’s blessing

Huonder hopes to shake off his conservative image Keystone

The Vatican confirmation of a new Catholic bishop for the large Swiss diocese of Chur earlier this week has met with mixed reactions.

This content was published on July 10, 2007 - 08:54

There is concern that the choice of Vitus Huonder, a former close aide to a controversial ultraconservative church leader, could create tensions within the Catholic community.

Several groups have called on him to show openness towards all movements with the Catholic Church, while the Swiss Bishops Conference welcomed Huonder and assured him of their support.

Huonder, who claims he wants to be the bishop who "restores faith in people's hearts", gave a news conference on Monday attempting to strike a moderate tone in which he talked about women priests, ecumenism and the Chur diocese.

"I have a conservative approach when it comes to looking after the faith," he commented, adding that it would be wrong to describe his relations with other people as conservative.


Regarding the right of women to become priests, Huonder said women had always played an important role in the church.

"But the church has clearly explained its opposition to women being ordained as priests," he said. "We shouldn't focus entirely on women joining the priesthood as that will lead to a dead end; the ordination of women is not possible and the church's decision must be respected."

For the new bishop, huge progress has been made in promoting unity among the Christian churches. "We no longer fight against each other – on the contrary, we march towards each other."

The diocese of Chur covers central and southeastern Switzerland, as well as the region of Zurich, with about 780,000 Catholics. It is the second biggest bishopric in the country.

According to Huonder, this diocese has problems like all the others in Switzerland: "Religious belief has disappeared from people's hearts in many places, but a minority of strong believers also exists."


Huonder's appointment has raised concerns in Catholic circles.

The Union of Critical Catholics, an association which was founded after the appointment of the controversial, ultraconservative bishop Wolfgang Haas in the 1990s, expressed its surprise at the choice.

Union member Christine Bucher criticised Huonder's previous staffing record as vicar-general, when he appointed "problematic characters" to certain offices.

But the main thing will be to see how well he responds to the needs and wishes of believers, she commented.

This suspicion stems from the fact that the new bishop, who is seen as a Vatican loyalist, was Haas' deputy.

After wide criticism within the local Catholic community, Hass was replaced by the Vatican and appointed bishop of Liechtenstein in 1998.

Church officials in central Switzerland said the Catholics wanted to give the new bishop a chance, but they won't tolerate a step backwards.

They hoped Huonder would be open to all movements within the church.

Representatives for the Zurich region said they hoped the new bishop would reply to the concerns of Catholic followers in the same spirit as his predecessor, Amédée Grab.

At the same time they criticised the procedure for Huonder's nomination, which he said lacked transparency.

In Switzerland the diocese of Basel can appoint its own bishop without referring to Rome.

The dioceses of Chur and St Gallen take part in selecting a candidate, but the Pope confirms the choice of bishop. The other dioceses have no right of participation.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Catholic Church in Switzerland is divided into six dioceses.
The biggest number of faithful live in the diocese of Basel, which covers much of northern and northwestern Switzerland.
The bishopric of Chur covers central and southeastern Switzerland.
It represents around 780,000 Catholics as well as more than 650 priests and 1,300 members of a church order.

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In brief

In Switzerland, 42 per cent of the population profess to be Roman Catholic.

Most Catholics live in former rural cantons, while Protestants are concentrated in cantons with major urban centres, mirroring the influence of the Reformation.

Switzerland is home to two offshoots of the Catholic Church:
the Old Catholic Church that split from Rome in 1870 after some priests did not accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility and the Society of Saint Pius X - traditionalists who refuse the teachings of the Second Vatican Council but recognise the pope.

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Religious adherence in the Swiss population (2000):

Catholic: 42%
Protestant: 35%
Old Catholic: 0.18%
Orthodox: 2%
Other Christians: 0.19%
Jews: 0.24%
Muslims: 4.26%
Other religions: 0.8%
No religious affiliation: 11%
Unknown: 4.33%

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