A 2000 year old religion long at the heart of the established power structure can sit uneasily in a 100-year-old modern republic – with the balance of values particularly thorny in the public schools.

At the hand of Education Minister Heinz Faßmann, a 20-year-old debate has finally turned into concrete legislation: Ethics will now join religious studies in the Austrian junior and senior high school curricula. For most liberal thinkers this is long overdue, in a society in which the near religious monopoly of the Catholic Church has been steadily eroding. The number of registered Catholics has dropped by about 800.000 since the 2001 census, according to a study by the daily Der Standard, replaced by an additional 420,000 each of Orthodox Christians and Muslims. But the major shift was an extra 900,000 declaring themselves without any religious denomination (approximately equal to population growth).  

A surprising degree of cross-party consensus made passage of the new legislation at first look easy.  A bill put forward by the liberal NEOs proposed obligatory ethics classes – which former party-leader Matthias Strolz described as “fundamental to a pluralistic, open and democratic society” – in parallel to confessional religion classes. The proposal received wide support in the social-democratic SPÖ and even in parts of the more conservative ÖVP (People’s Party).

Is this crazy? Something unheard of? Nope!

While new here, the idea is hardly radical: The teaching of philosophy has been mandatory in French high schools since 1808, based on the Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century Siècle des Lumières. This tradition was then absorbed into the International Baccalaureate curriculum as Theory of Knowledge, a required course that includes logic, ethics and the moral elements of world religions.

In Austria, a determined defense soon emerged: ÖVP Christian Democrats voiced fears of “the replacement” of religious studies, even citing the 1934 Konkordat (Artikel VI. § 1) with the Vatican which guarantees the Church the right to teach religious studies in the lower and middle grades of the public school system.  The ÖVP’s coalition partner, the FPÖ, was more forthright: an absolute “Nein” to the elimination of religious studies. Their argumentation was civil in tone and positive in content, with the importance of religion “as part of our identity and values system.” But the unspoken elephant in the room was the party’s visceral rejection of Moslem immigration. This is the same FPÖ that not long ago was running election posters proclaiming “Stop the Islamization.”

In the end, Minister Faßmann hammered out an adroit compromise, which even the (Catholic) Austrian Conference of Bishops could support.  Generalsekretär Peter Schipka commented to Kathpress: “Ethics helps fill a deficit in the school program … as do confessional religious studies, which have always dealt with ethical questions.”  This is now government policy, to be implemented most probably in 2020-2021. Religious studies will remain on the curriculum, but ethics will be a new and parallel course. So non-Catholics in the senior grades (Oberstufe) – who have up till now, been able to simply opt out of religion class – will now take the mandatory alternative of ethics. Faßmann sweetened the sale of his new program with a twinkle in the eye: “It’s an alternative to the café.”