The interim leader of the Catholic Church in Liechtenstein will preside at a Mass Friday marking the opening of the tiny principality’s parliament, a year after the local archbishop canceled the event.
Bishop Benno Elbs, who was appointed apostolic administrator of the Vaduz archdiocese in September 2023, said that he would celebrate the Jan. 19 Mass of the Holy Spirit at Vaduz Cathedral ahead of the state parliament’s opening session.
Archbishop Wolfgang Haas, who led the archdiocese from 1997 until his resignation in September at the age of 75, declined to celebrate the annual Mass in 2023. He announced the decision after the parliament passed a motion in November 2022 calling on the government to introduce a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.
After the motion passed by 23 votes to 2, Haas said that the annual Mass before the opening of parliament in 2023 “no longer makes sense in view of the parliamentary behavior of the vast majority of our members of parliament in an essential matter of Christian ethics.”
Liechtenstein’s Prime Minister Daniel Risch said in September 2023, near the end of a consultation on the proposed changes, that he believed that “marriage for all” would “come very soon.”
According to the principality’s constitution, new laws become valid after receiving parliament’s assent and the reigning prince of Liechtenstein’s approval. If the prince does not sanction a law within six months, it is deemed to be rejected.
Any law that the parliament does not declare to be urgent may also be put to a popular vote.
Bishop Elbs, who leads the Feldkirch diocese over the border in Austria, said that he did not want the annual Mass to be dependent on the actions of the principality’s 25 members of parliament.
“The members of the parliamentary groups have asked me to do this,” he told Austria’s Kronen Zeitung. “If someone asks for a blessing before they take office or begin their work, then I am happy about it and do not make it dependent on the content of the parliamentarians’ work.”
The annual Mass before the opening of parliament reflects the close bond between the Catholic Church and the authorities in Liechtenstein, a mountainous country sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland that is roughly the size of Washington, D.C.
Catholicism is the state religion, but the principality had no diocese of its own until 1997, when John Paul II approved the creation of the Vaduz archdiocese out of the territory of the Swiss Diocese of Chur. The Polish pope appointed Chur’s bishop, Wolfgang Haas, as the first head of the archdiocese that covers the full 62 square miles of Liechtenstein and serves roughly 28,000 Catholics.
The move was triggered by concerted internal opposition in the Chur diocese to the tradition-minded Haas. In his new archdiocese, Haas was able to govern more freely. He was known for his support for the traditionalist movement and his decision in 2021 to boycott the global synodal process launched by Pope Francis.
The Sept. 20 appointment of Elbs as the apostolic administrator of Vaduz drew attention because the bishop has taken a markedly stand on Church issues to Haas. Elbs has previously expressed support for married priests, women deacons, and same-sex blessings.
Elbs noted that he hadn’t asked Haas whether he should preside at the Mass, but said his participation should not be seen as an affront to the archbishop.
“I am a different person and perhaps have a more relaxed, Austrian approach based on the separation of Church and state,” he said.
The Austrian bishop said that he had visited Haas in Schellenberg, where he settled after his retirement, and spoken with him over the phone.
“I had and still have a good relationship with Archbishop Wolfgang — even though we have very different approaches to many issues,” Elbs said.
In his Kronen Zeitung interview, Elbs also touched on a delicate topic for the Church in Liechtenstein: the government’s wish to introduce a new Church-state law.
A draft law, presented for consultation in 2023, would end the present situation in which only the Catholic Church is recognized by the state or public law, while other religious communities operate under private law.
Supporters say that the law would establish a new framework in which religious communities are treated equally, without severing historic ties between Church and state.
Elbs — who has met with Liechtenstein’s reigning prince Hans-Adam II and government members since his appointment — described the principality as “a different world” to Austria due to the close links between the Church and the civil authorities.
He noted that the principality’s funding system meant that “mayors are actually the employers of priests,” with clergy salaries paid by local municipalities.
He suggested that while this gives parishes financial security, it discourages priests from publicly criticizing the authorities.
“Basically, I believe that a free Church in a free state is better,” Elbs said, observing that around a quarter of Liechtenstein’s 39,000 population are not Catholic.
Yet the bishop said it would not be appropriate for the government to reshape Church-state relations before the appointment of a new Archbishop of Vaduz.
“I don’t think it’s right to decide on things like this in a transitional phase,” he commented.
Elbs said that since his appointment as apostolic administrator, he had found local priests cooperative.
“But one thing is also clear: as administrator, it is not my job to shape the future of pastoral work in Liechtenstein,” he said.
“I am there to manage the transition until a new archbishop arrives. He will then perhaps also develop new pastoral priorities with the priests — and there will probably be more discussions.”
Elbs told the Kronen Zeitung that he did not believe that the announcement of Haas’ successor was imminent.
He recalled that Archbishop Martin Krebs, the apostolic nuncio to Liechtenstein, had spoken of an interregnum of at least six months.
“Three have already passed, but I’m not sure if there will be a new archbishop in three months,” he said. “It took 18 months before I was appointed by Pope Francis [as Bishop of Feldkirch].”