Cardinal Schonborn, the head of the Austrian Church, has suggested that the church should take a more nuanced stance on homosexual relationships. In a meeting with the editors of Austria’s leading newspaper editors, he responded to a question about the Church’s attitude to homosexuality with the reply,
“We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships,” adding: “A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous.”
This is a world away from the standard position of the institutional church: the primary Vatican document, “Homosexualitatis Problema”, doesn’t even recognise the existence of relationships, let alone their quality. Instead, it speaks only of the homosexual “condition”, and of homosexual “acts”.
In the same press conference, he also suggested a reconsideration of the present stance on re-marriage after divorce. After all, he points out,
” many people don’t even marry at all any longer”.
For most people, these observations are obvious platitudes. in the context of the Church, with its rigid, legalistic prohibition on all forms of sex outside of marriage or not “open” to procreation, it si highly significant, as it signals an important and overdue shift from what the Cardinal calls a morality of “duty” to one of “happiness”.
The primary thing to consider should not be the sin, but people’s striving to live according to the commandments, he said. Instead of a morality based on duty, we should work towards a morality based on happiness, he continued.
The leading reports on the press conference give much more space to his remarks criticizing Cardinal Sodano, and his obstruction of investigations of child abuse, and also Cardinal’s remarks on the more obvious need for reform of Church structures. The observations and homosexuality and re-marriage are tucked away, low down in the reports by The Tablet, and also that by Associated Press.
I wonder though, if that is appropriate. The responses to abuse by criticism of high ranking prelates, or by calling for the obvious reforms of church structure and procedures around ministry are important – but are no longer new. The observations on homosexuality and re-marriage on the other hand, were not made in connection with the abuse problems, and are indeed unusual coming from a senior cardinal. Schonborn is not a Vatican insider, but he does have seniority, and has at times been mentioned as a possible future pope. (Personally, I would suspect that his clear criticism of the people and practices around the handling of abuse under the old regime will not ahve harmed his papal prospects when the time comes). He does have influence. According to the Tablet, Cardinal Schonborn studied under Cardinal Ratzinger, and is said to be “close” to him. Earlier this year, he was in the news when he responded to the problems around sexual abuse by saying, or implying, that the church should reconsider compulsory celibacy for all priests.
This is the first public expression I have seen of what I suspect is already under way: a recognition by some key people that the Church needs to reconsider its entire approach to human sexuality. It will take some time before this discussion becomes more public, but I am convinced that, in time, it will do so. The big question is, how long will it take?
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