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Cardinal Urges Rethink on Homosexual Relationships

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”.

Cardinal Christoph Shonborn

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?


8 Responses

  1. Terence,

    It would help if both “sides” moved away from the talk of the type of sex to the quality of the relationships.

    I wouldn’t call the Cardinal’s remarks so much a rethink as a refocus.

    • David, I agree completely that we should be focussing on the relationships – exactly as we do with others. My point though, is that this is completely new for the institutional church, because up to know, church documents and statements have not even acknowledged the existence of relationships between gay men: all they have been prepared to discuss have been homosexual “acts”.

      • Terence,

        I think part of the reason is that the homosexual “act” has been the only question that has been posed to them by the homosexual community.

        The heterosexual community has also been focusing on “act” questions, and then complaining when it gets an answer it doesn’t like. Sex outside of marriage? No. Abortion? No. Adultery? No.

        The question of when and how sex should be in a relationship is just part of determining what is a quality relationship.

        • David, I completely disagree that the “act” is the only question that has been posed by the homosexual community. On the contrary, my reading of gay writers on theology and church history is precisely that their argument that we should be focussing on the relationships, in a manner comparable to the treatment offered to everybody else. See, for example, the historians John Boswell, Mark D Jordan, and Alan Bray, who draw attention to the numerous examples of same sex relationships in church history, or the theologians John McNeill, Daniel Helminiak and Elizabeth Stuart, who describe how homoerotic relationships can be used for spiritual growth. In all of my fairly extensive reading on gay religion, I am not aware of a single significant writer who focuses, as you suggest, on the “acts”.

      • Terence,

        However, when it comes to a discussion with the Catholic Church, the discussion is almost always focused upon the Church’s teaching that homosexual “acts” are objectively disordered with the goal to change the Church’s teaching.

        For example, this website hasn’t had one single article acknowledging the qualitative differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Specifically, the creation of new human beings is not an event independent of sexual relationships. Nor can sexual relations be viewed without taking into consideration that sex’s primary purpose is not relationship-building.

        I would think that a website that proposes to be “open” would have provided a fair hearing on the value of having a teaching which has some objective criteria. Instead, the approach has generally been similar to your statement that the Church has to completely reconsider its approach to human sexuality.

        What I like about the Cardinal’s approach is that it allows an engagement on issues where the Church and those outside the Church generally have substantial agreement. The more the Church teach about developing the quality of relationships without including sex in the discussion, the more likely it is that the differences won’t seem that large.

  2. Thank God, finally someone with some common sense. Yes, they need to start talking about relationships.

  3. It’s so sad when we see bishops causing scandal among the faithful. His reasoning is flawed. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    • I agree that it is indeed sad when bishops cause scandal – such as excluding children from a Catholic school in Boulder, or excommunicating a professional ethicist for exercising careful judgement in the course of her duties, or blaming gay priests for the abuse scandal, or covering -up and protecting abusers, or…….

      on the other hand, there is no scandal whatsoever in Cardinal Schonborn’s remarks. There has been not a single word of objection or criticism from any senior clergy anywhere. Balance and good sense are welcome, not scandalous.

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