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PARIS (Reuters) - Dissident Austrian priests defying their Catholic Church with calls for married clergy, women priests and other reforms enjoy wide public support, according to a new poll on a dispute that could lead to their dismissal.
Three-quarters of people polled in the traditionally Catholic country backed the priests' "Call to Disobedience," a manifesto that Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn compares to a football team refusing to play by the rules.
The revolt, openly supported by 329 priests, threatens a split in the Austrian Church weeks before Pope Benedict's Sept 22-25 visit to neighbouring Germany. Benedict, 84, grew up in Bavarian villages close to the Austrian border.
Rather than simply appealing for reforms, the dissidents declared they will break Church rules by giving communion to Protestants and remarried divorced Catholics or allowing lay people to preach and head parishes without a priest.
Schoenborn has hinted they would be disciplined if they do not back down in the coming weeks. "This cannot go on," he told the Vienna daily Der Standard. "If someone has decided to go down the path of dissent, that has consequences."
Dissident leader Rev Helmut Schueller, who as Vienna vicar general was Schoenborn's deputy from 1995 to 1999 and once led the Austrian chapter of the international Catholic charity Caritas, has said he has no intention of giving up.
He says many priests are already quietly breaking the rules anyway, often with the knowledge of their bishops, and his campaign aims to force the hierarchy to agree to change. About 8 percent of Austrian priests have supported his movement.
Reformist Austrian Catholics have repeatedly challenged the conservative policies of Benedict and his late predecessor Pope John Paul in recent decades, creating grass-roots protest movements and advocating changes the Vatican refuses to make.
Paul Zulehner, a leading Catholic theologian, said the Church must act urgently if it wants to avoid a confrontation. "It could come to a crash, to a split," he told Austrian radio.
The survey published this week by the Oekonsult polling group showed 76 percent of Austrians queried supported Schueller and his colleagues. Some 85 percent said the Church should not do anything to drive away its reform-minded members.
While the poll was not limited to Catholics, 70 percent of the respondents said the Church and its leaders were "a very important moral authority" for them. Some 66 percent said they liked Schoenborn personally.
Schueller is now a parish priest and university chaplain in Vienna. If he is dismissed, 97 percent of those polled said, a "very large wave" of people leaving the Church would follow.
A record 87,000 Austrians left the Church in 2010, many in reaction to sexual abuse scandals there.
In the past year, over 800 people have registered complaints of molestation by priests after the sexual abuse scandals rocking the Church in Ireland, Belgium and other European countries also broke out in Austria.