The Christianization of the Austrian lands took place as part of the general Christianization of southern Germany, which began in the sixth and seventh centuries. Major Catholic monastic orders, particularly the Benedictines and Cistercians, played key roles in the cultural, educational, and economic life of the medieval Austrian lands. The most important Austrian bishopric was in Salzburg, though Passau, today in modern Germany, was very influential as well. Both establishments had extensive territorial holdings throughout the Austrian lands, which often frustrated the efforts of secular rulers to consolidate their domains. Gurk in Carinthia played a similar role to the southeast.
   As was true in Germany as a whole, the Protestantism of the Reformation made deep inroads into Austrian Catholicism. With the exception of the Tyrol, the Austrian provinces were either predominantly, or close to predominantly, Lutheran by the end of the 16th century. Led by the Habsburg dynasty itself, the Counter-Reformation made the Austrian lands almost totally Catholic once again by the end of the 17th century. The Jesuit order played a crucial role in this process. Its educational programs were especially influential, and the brotherhood would have heavy input into instructional activities until well into the 18th century.
   Guided in part by the notions of the European Enlightenment, 18th-century Habsburg rulers, particularly Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, had several reasons to revise religious life and practice in their lands. Monasteries routed potentially productive members of society into contemplative pursuits, and restrictions on Protestants and Jews also limited their contributions to the economy of the empire. By the latter third of the 18th century, the state was taking a far greater role in the education of the young, and both Protestants and Jews had been given a carefully spelled out degree of toleration.
   Some reversal of these changes took place in the 19th century, as a concordat signed with the papacy in 1855 reasserted Catholic control over education, particularly in the primary grades. However, the rights of Jews and non-Catholics, as Protestants were called, to religious freedom were increasingly accepted. The Fatherland Front of the 1930s under chancellors Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg steered Catholicism along an exceedingly right-wing course, from which its leaders strained to extricate it after World War II. But the guarantee of freedom of religion and conscience made to the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy after 1867 is part of the Austrian constitution today.
   With the several branches of Eastern Orthodox Catholicism counted separately, there were 18 officially recognized religious communities in Austria in 2004. Nevertheless, Austria has remained overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, with religious affairs administered by two archbishoprics, in Vienna and Salzburg. The numbers of parishioners are dropping dramatically, as are figures for those studying for the priesthood. Recent controversies in the church over abortion; sexually abusive clergy, some of whom stood high in the hierarchy; and the general secularism of the modern age are thinning the ranks of Austria’s once dominant faith. In 1995 alone, 40,000 Austrians broke their ties with the Roman confession. There are currently around 6 million declared Catholics, of whom roughly 18 percent attend church services regularly. From 90 percent of the Austrian population in 1950, they are now around 75 to 76 percent. Protestants are less numerous too, though their decline has not been so dramatic. There are around 8,000 Jews, most of whom are in Vienna, but they are very secularized. The number of Muslims grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century.
   See also Ausgleich; Islam.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.


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