VIENNA The head of Vienna's Roman Catholic community ruled out sweeping changes demanded by dissident priests and said there could be "serious conflict" if they defied Church teaching on celibacy or give communion to remarried divorcees.
Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said he would not lead his diocese into a schism with leaders in the Vatican by letting priests flout Church rules after a group of priests issued a "Call to Disobedience" manifesto to try to press reform.
In weekend interviews with Austrian radio and television, Schoenborn backed celibacy for priests, limiting ordination to men and preserving marriage as a life-long commitment.
"If in our diocese here I would step out of line with the community of the Catholic Church then I would lead our diocese into a schism. I am not ready for this and I think no Austrian bishop is ready for this," he said on Saturday.
Late on Friday, he again warned dissident priests that they faced consequences if they stuck to their revolt.
"If it comes to actions that clearly contradict Catholic teaching on faith then it can lead to serious conflict," he said, adding it was not too late to reach common ground in a second round of talks due later this year.
"All possibilities are open. I am counting on dialogue and cooperation," he said.
Dissidents led by parish priest Helmut Schueller have issued the manifesto and say they hope the campaign will persuade Schoenborn to push reforms with Pope Benedict and the Vatican.
The dissidents, who have broad public backing in opinion polls, say they will break Church rules by giving communion to Protestants and remarried divorced Catholics or by allowing lay people to preach and head parishes without a priest.
They oppose the current drive to group several parishes together because of a shortage of priests.
"We are now really going to step on the gas," Hans-Peter Hurka, head of the Catholic reform group "We are the Church," told newspaper Der Standard this week, announcing plans to have hundreds of demonstrators march on bishops' offices.
"It is like in Egypt. There will be a revolution of Church people in Austria. We will make St. Stephen's Square (before the cathedral in Vienna) into Tahrir Square," another activist, Anton Achleitner, said, referring to the square where Egyptians staged protests that ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.
The dispute has come to a head just before Pope Benedict's September 22-25 visit to neighbouring Germany. Benedict, 84, grew up in Bavarian villages close to the Austrian border.
Catholic reform groups in Germany have made similar demands, and a prominent retired Irish bishop, Edward Daly, called on Tuesday for an end to compulsory celibacy for priests, saying it was pushing new recruits away.
(Reporting by Michael Shields; editing by Elizabeth Piper)