Yesterday’s report from Cutting Edge that Cardinal Schonborn has confirmed the election of an openly gay man to a parish council in Austria, reversing an earlier decision by the parish priest to exclude him, deserves closer attention than I was able to give it initially (I placed my post in a hurry – I saw the report quite literally as I was about to head out for an evening’s work).
When I was sent the first news report that an openly gay man had been excluded from serving on the parish council to which he had been duly elected with overwhelming support, this was my reply:
This is Austria? Where 30% of priests have signed a public Call to Disobedience, demanding far-reaching reform of all elements of sexual teaching and clerical culture?
Wait for the backlash.
When I was sent a follow-up report that “the Archdiocese” had supported the priest’s decision, I was surprised, but confident that justice would prevail. I replied,
Thanks – but this ain’t over yet.
And it wasn’t, as we now know – but how could I have been so sure of it?
First, because this is, after all, Vienna – where two years ago, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn observed that it is time for the Church to move beyond an obsession with gay genital acts, to considering the quality of our relationships. That consideration is clearly what he gave to the couple in this case. He met them, dined with them, and concluded that in spite of their relationship, Stangl was a suitable candidate to serve on the council, fully deserving of the support he had received from the voters. The Cardinal also noted that there were others serving on parish councils whose lives were not in ideal conformity with Catholic rules – implying that refusal in this case would be clearly discriminatory.
In contrast, the priest who had tried to block the decision was solely concerned with the dreaded “genital acts”.
Now, consider the broader context of the Austrian Church, where several hundred priests last year signed a public demand for far-reaching church reform, provocatively titled, “a call to disobedience”. A majority of Austria’s Catholics agreed in an opinion poll, with the priests’ demands, a substantial proportion of priests who did not sign publicly are likely to agree privately, and Schonborn himself has made clear in his response that his own personal sympathies lie in the direction of reform – but that his hands are tied. The reactionary local priest in this case is clearly well out of step with his national church. Cardinal Schonborn could not have supported him without enraging further the reformists (and contradicting his own clearly stated sympathies).
There’s another issue: it’s inconceivable that Herr Stangl is the only gay or lesbian Austrian serving on a parish council. Nearly twenty years ago my partner and I served openly together, as a couple, on a parish council in Johannesburg. In the USA, the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministries (CALGM), which works closely with the bishops and operates strictly within orthodox guidelines, has found in its research that the most effective parish and diocesan models for ministry are those where gay men and lesbians are visible in the church community, and recommends that they be welcomed at all levels and branches of parish ministry, including on parish councils. Right across Europe, North and South America, we know that gay men forma high proportion of priests, and (together with lesbians) a high proportion of liturgists, church musicians and readers – some of them openly. Without the services of gay men and lesbians, many parishes would simply collapse. In strongly reformist Austria, where there is widespread recognition that a homoerotic orientation is entirely natural, there will certainly be other queer men and women already serving on parish councils elsewhere in the country, some of them openly. What makes Stangl’s election notable is not that he is a gay man elected to a parish council, but his election was actively and publicly opposed by a reactionary priest – who has been firmly repudiated by the Austrian bishops.
Nor does this incident stand alone. It slots into an emerging trend, of several bishops recognizing there is value in committed same – sex partnerships (last month, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson
and Cardinal Montini were just the latest in a lengthening list to say so publicly), and others overruling local priests trying to use the rule books to impose discrimination and institutional prejudice. Recall that last year, an El Paso priest who engaged in anti-gay campaigning was quickly reassigned by his bishop
, a visiting priest in Canada who delivered homophobic sermons was told he was no longer welcome in the diocese
. In Boston and in Australia, local priests who tried to exclude from Catholic schools, kids with same-sex parents were overruled by diocesan offices, and just last month, the priest who had controversially refused communion to Barbara Johnson was suspended from ministry.
All these reactionary priests will insist that they were simply operating strictly within canon law and church teaching, but there is a clear message now emerging: the other side of church teaching is an emphasis on respect, compassion and sensitivity, we must not judge the state of another’s conscience, the quality of relationships and the whole person are more important than particular genital acts – and our responses to gay and lesbian people should be proportionate to our responses to others whose lives are not exactly aligned with ideals spelt out in the Catechism.
In short, it is no longer correct (if it ever was) to assume that gay or lesbian Catholics in committed, loving relationships are obviously or necessarily in conflict with Church teaching.
Bravo to Cardinal Schoborn.
Here follows a translation of the Archbishop’s press statement, in full:
I thank the many candidates for the parish council elections. By their candidacy they showed their concern for the Church and the Faith. Thus they witness to the vitality of the Church. In their diversity they reflect the diversity of the life and faith journeys of today. Thus there are many parish councilors whose lifestyle does not in every way conform to the ideals of the Church. In view of the life-witness that each of them gives taken as a whole, and their commitment to the attempt to live a life of faith, the Church rejoices in their efforts. She does not thereby call the validity of her ideals into question.
In the small community of Stützenhofen, which I hold in great esteem, there is lively participation in Church life even in the younger generation. A sign of this is the high turnout the parish council elections. The formal errors which have come to light in that election do not call the results of the election itself (in which the youngest candidate, Florian Stangl, received the most votes) into question.
I was able to have a personal conversation with Herr Stangl, and was deeply impressed by his faithful disposition, his humility, and the way in which he lives his commitment to service. I can therefore understand why the inhabitants of Stützenhofen voted so decidedly for his participation in the parish council.
Today in the bishop’s council [Bischofsrat] we discussed the complex Stützenhofen case, and unanimously decided on the following decisions:
1. The diocesan leadership does not challenge the validity of the election and its results.
2. The bishop’s council mandates a revision of the rules for parish council elections in order to clarify the pre-requisites for candidacy in the context of continuing deliberation about the nature and purpose of parish councils.