On April 28th this year, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna dropped some remarks in a news conference that hit made headlines around the world. He called for deep reform of the curia, he criticized a colleague (Cardinal Sodano), and suggested that it might be time for the Church to moderate its thinking on same sex relationships and on divorce. Most attention fell on the remarks about reform, and the criticism of Sodano, but in the implications for Church teaching, the observations on same sex relationships and divorce were potentially groundbreaking. As my regular readers know, I have been keeping a watching brief on news about Cardinal Schönborn in the expectation of a clear refutation or repudiation by the Vatican or by colleagues, but this still has not happened – at least, not on the sexuality remarks.
On Monday this week, two months to the day after the original news conference, it looked as though things might have changed. The Cardinal had been summonsed to Rome. where he had a lengthy conference with Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bertone, hardly the most gay-friendly of his colleagues. He emerged with a clear papal reprimand – for his criticism of Sodano.
Then there was today’s meeting between between the pope and his erstwhile protege, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who has among other things denounced Angelo Sodano, head of the College of Cardinals, called for a reform of the Curia, and suggested that the church take another look at clerical celibacy, divorce, and committed same-sex relationships. Sodano trooped into the meeting at the end with Bertone–on hand to mediate?–and a wacky press release ensued that claimed that 1) Schönborn might have in unspecified ways spoken out of turn; 2) Sodano didn’t really mean it when he denounced press chattering about priestly sexual abuse on Easter Sunday; and 3) only the pope gets to criticize a cardinal.
About “homosexual” relationships, not a word. (I have not seen anything on this in any of the reports of the meeting, mainstream or fringe).
Are we to assume then, that respect for homosexual relationships of good “quality” has become acceptable doctrine?
In the meantime, while I have been apprehensively looking out for repudiation from Schönborn’s colleagues, I have instead found independent support, from a bishop in Portugal.
The Catholic religious right are aflame with indignation at the reported comments of Portuguese Bishop Januario Torgal Ferreira, who heads the ordinariate for the armed forces, over some sane remarks on homosexuality and on “family planning”. The only English language reports I have found are the heavily edited and filtered reports on sites like Catholic Culture and Lifesite News, so I attempted to find the full, original report in Portuguese, and to read it via Google Translate. The result in a (clumsy) English translation is here.
I can’t say the exercise has left me with any of the subtleties of his thinking, but I’m pleased I did so – the full report includes much that was omitted from the edited English reports, and has left me with some idea of the person behind the remarks – a person that strikes me as a breath of fresh air in the Church. Taking all the reports together, I have a sense that this is a man who is simply asking for more flexibility and realism in the church. On gay marriage, he is personally opposed, but also acknowledges that gay relationships are a reality the church should deal with. He asks his colleagues, he says, if they have ever spoken to homosexuals? The Church would surely show a great deal more sensitivity on these matters if only they did so. Although he opposed the legislation which introduced same sex marriage, he thinks the President was right not to veto – because that was the realistic thing to do, avoiding unpleasant public displays of anger and protest, with an inevitable legislative override of any veto.
He also argues for more decentralization in Church governance, and is commendably frank in pointing out that bishops are human, like everyone else – and nobody needs to be scandalized by the thought of him, or any other bishop, going to a beach in swimming trunks, and possible lying next to a woman sunbathing topless.
Overall, the man is clearly that rare creature in the echelons of the Catholic oligarchy – a bishop who is capable of blending into his theology a healthy dose of reality, and I commend him for that.