By Michael Shields
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's Roman Catholic Church has laid down the law to its rebel priests by telling them they could not support a reform manifesto criticized by Pope Benedict and stay in an administrative post.
One priest told Reuters he had already stepped down from the post of deacon rather than renounce the "Call to Disobedience" manifesto that challenges Church teaching on taboo topics such as women's ordination and offering communion to non-Catholics.
Another priest had withdrawn his support for the reform campaign and kept his job, a Church spokesman said on Wednesday.
He added that two or three more have yet to decide whether to withdraw their support from the manifesto from a reform group called "Priests' Initiative" whose demands have been echoed by some Catholic groups and clerics in Germany, Ireland, Belgium and the United States.
"You can easily remain a member of the Priests' Initiative. You must only distance yourself from the 'Call to Disobedience' in an appropriate way," Church spokesman Nikolaus Haselsteiner said.
"In an average company, a department head can't say he doesn't care what the CEO says," he added.
The Vienna archdiocese said on Tuesday its head, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, had told priests last month he would not appoint manifesto supporters to the post of dean and those coming up for renewal in the post would have to choose.
Schoenborn, a close ally of Benedict, has met the rebel priests, including their leader Rev Helmut Schueller. But Tuesday's announcement was the first sign he had taken steps to rein them in.
Schueller says his group represents 10 percent of the Austrian clergy. The group has won broad public backing in opinion polls for its pledge to break Church rules by giving communion to Protestants and divorced Catholics who remarry.
Rev Peter Meidinger, who was dean in a district of Vienna archdiocese, said he stepped down from that post after Schoenborn made his options clear in a recent conversation.
"I spoke to the archbishop and perhaps you cannot say I had to choose, but I had the impression that there was no way out for me so I am stepping down and freeing up the spot," he told Reuters on Wednesday.
PUSHBACK FOR THE POPE
Meidinger, who will stay on as a priest in two parishes south of Vienna, said he was a founding member of the Priests' Initiative group that called for disobedience, a word Schoenborn said was unacceptable within the Catholic clergy.
"For me what is important is the Priests' Initiative and not the term 'disobedience'," the priest said. "The term civil disobedience is used when the leaders are simply not prepared to listen to people."
Reformist Austrian Catholics have for decades challenged the conservative policies of Benedict and his predecessor Pope John Paul, creating protest movements and advocating changes - such as ordination of women and abolishing clerical celibacy - that the Vatican firmly rejects.
Benedict, who for decades before his 2005 election was the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer, responded in April by restating the church's ban on women priests and saying he would not put up with open revolt from clerics and lay people.
(Reporting by Michael Shields, editing by Tom Heneghan)