The following reflections are not exclusively from the viewpoint of personalist philosophy. But they do contain philosophical distinctions whose fruitfulness for concrete decisions in Church administration and Church politics will, I hope, become clear as they are made. The following reflections are those of an Austrian Catholic who laments a decision of a Cardinal of his distant home-country, for whom he feels much respect and the affection of an old friendship.
The facts are well known: Christoph Cardinal von Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, and President of the Austrian Bishops Conference, has recently overruled the decision of a Polish pastor in a small village in Lower Austria. The pastor, Gerhard Swierzek, had decided against the election to the parish council of a man who openly practices a homosexual lifestyle and has even had his homo-union and quasi-marriage registered publicly. The Cardinal, who had initially indicated support for Swierzek’s decision, invited the young man (26), Florian Stangl, and his partner to his bishop-Palace for lunch. And then, after this surprising invitation, announced publicly and still more surprisingly, his decision to overrule the pastor and allow the election of Stangl to stand. The Cardinal commented further that he was impressed by the faith and Christian attitude of the two men, and that he understood why Mr. Stangl had been elected by the highest margin of votes in his favor. (The Cardinal did not meet with the pastor, who had sought a conversation with him.) The decision has been praised and defended by many, and criticized by many others, including other bishops and cardinals, who find it incomprehensible.
Among the defenders of the Cardinal’s decision—a decision that led to the pastor’s resigning his post in the parish, because his conscience did not allow him to serve under such circumstances—are not only homosexual lobbies or the large group of Austrian and other priests who formed an association that publically dissents with Church teachings and discipline, but also such eminent philosophers and committed Catholic politicians as the former Italian Minister of European Politics, and then of Culture and Tourism, member of the Italian Senate and since 2008 Vice-President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, my dear friend and former Prorector of the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein and now President of the Friends of the IAP, the Onorevole Professor Rocco Buttiglione.
In contradistinction to the voices arguing in favor of the Cardinal’s decision from an overtly or covertly anti-Catholic stance, or for quite irrational reasons, Buttiglione defends the Cardinal’ decision without calling into question the Church's moral teachings and without making any obviously unfounded claims, such as that a priest who has sinned himself has forfeited the right to apply Canon law and the duty to preach moral virtues to others.
Buttiglione fully recognizes that to practice homosexuality is sinful, and that serious sin, especially continuously committed and unrepented sin, while not automatically and immediately leading to the loss of faith, might easily do so. Moreover, Buttiglione agrees that a practicing homosexual may not be admitted to the Sacraments, and that the goal of sinners must be to convert and to seek holiness, instead of persisting in their sins or turning them into a new law.
Nonetheless, Buttiglione defends the Cardinal’s decision on the grounds that we are all sinners and that to live in sin does not automatically destroy Catholic faith or exclude practicing homosexuals and other sinners from a fruitful collaboration in an ecclesiastic political body such as a parish council.
I shall not deal here with the defenses of Cardinal Schönborn‘s decision that are based on serious deviations from the truth or Church teaching, but confine myself to a critical examination of the defense made by the great Catholic thinker and courageous politician Buttiglione—in other words, to a critical examination of the best defense by the best man among the supporters of Schönborn’s decision, who worked with me for years to build up a school of philosophy under the Motto diligere veritatem omnem et in omnibus, to love all truth and to love it in everything.
In spite of the intelligence and excellent background of his defense and my deep personal friendship for Buttiglione, it seems to me clear that in this instance my admired friend is wrong. For even the best arguments in favor of the Cardinal’s decision, I believe, clearly fail to take into account important distinctions, in the light of which, in my opinion, the Cardinal's decision should be taken back, or reversed by Rome.
What are my reasons?
1. In the first place we must make an important distinction regarding the fact that “we all are sinners.” Being a sinner is not the same as living in a state of serious sin. Whatever the subjective conscience of Mr. Stangl tells him, and whatever God’s judgment on his acting might be (which we do not know and may not presume to know), the state in which he openly lives, is, according to the Church, an objective state of grave sin—a state in which we do not all live.
2. Secondly, in the case of Stangl we are not dealing with a sin committed long ago or a more recent, repented sin, which (given that some of the greatest Saints have committed grave sins prior to their conversions) would certainly not exclude anyone from parish council membership or in some cases not even from priesthood (although the Vatican and Cardinal Schönborn insisted on Cardinal Groër's being removed from all public priestly functions for a sin that lay some 50 years in the past and was never definitively proven and, as far as I know, denied by Cardinal Groër to the end.) Such a sin we might presume to be at issue in the case of Stangl’s pastor, who is now publicly alleged to have carried on an affair with a woman for some months, prior to his becoming Pastor of Stützenhofen. Even if we assume that the woman who accuses him is telling the truth, then, while the pastor has violated both his priestly celibacy and the exclusive licitness of sexual relations in marriage, he has arguably repented and returned to his vows. In Stangl’s case, by contrast, we are faced with a self-avowed actual sin that continues in the present.
3. Even more alarming, the homosexual life of Stangl is evidently not recognized by him to be sinful. Rather, he insists on its being morally quite admissible. Stangl says that nowadays nobody can be expected to live in chastity or even that nobody does live in chastity—a remark through which he disqualifies himself even more deeply than simply by his way of living. Even if Mr. Stangl were to live a chaste life, his public approval of homosexual relations would disqualify him for membership in a Church council. It belongs to the mission of every Catholic council to announce the treasures of her teaching, including by holding up the evangelical ideal and value of purity, which has always been difficult to live, but which is praised in the Sermon on the Mount as a beatitude that has a unique promise attached to it: blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Quite apart from the “sermon of his life,” therefore, to publicly deride this virtue and call it impossible is clearly incompatible with being a parish council member, according the Church guidelines, on which I shall comment further below.
4. Moreover, there is an important aspect of being “an example for others” that is inseparable from holding any official position in Church bodies. Having a publicly professing homosexual in such an office would constitute a “lesson in impurity” and an example which others might follow, saying: “I only do what the Parish Council Member Mr. Stangl, whom the Cardinal defended against our Pastor and called deeply believing, also does.” The action of the Cardinal thus inevitably produces the illusion of Church approval of homosexual relations and sets up a morally bad example.
5. Further, there is an important difference between a sin committed privately and hidden from the public, and a sin committed openly. A priest who sins in secret, however deeply sad this is, at least expresses an element of shame for his actions and may just want to avoid a bad public example - without any hypocritical intention to lie and deceive the faithful. In contrast, a pastoral council member who openly professes his homosexual relationship (in whose sinfulness he does not believe) may be displaying shamelessness rather than honesty. Precisely because a priest must be aware that he is called to be an example for others – and while he therefore above all ought to be virtuous—he ought to avoid demoralizing others by turning his bad private life into a bad public example. If the priest were not only to sin, but to announce his sins to the whole Church assembly, it would indicate not honesty, but a lack of due shame, discretion and prudence. Such sins belong to the confessional, not to the public or the press, even though there might be circumstances in which a public confession and expression of sorrow, when linked to an inner conversion, might indeed be the right and edifying thing to do, as in the case of Saint Augustine’s incomparably wonderful book of Confessions. Condemning Pastor Swierzek (assuming, again, that the woman who is spreading her story is not lying) for having remained silent about sins committed before he became pastor of Stützenhofen, is quite pharisaical. For would any of the married men and women who call their pastor a hypocrite stand up and confess all their adulteries or other sins in public at Sunday Mass, or expatiate them in newspaper interviews? Why should a priest have to do this in order to be deemed honest? Certainly, chiding other people for their sins, and even publicly exposing their sins, while having committed similar ones (as the Pharisees who wanted to stone the adulterous woman did), may be pharisaical, but is not necessarily so. A father is not a pharisee because he reprimands his son for hitting his sister, because this corresponds to the truth, even if he himself did the same to his wife the day before. It would become pharisaical only if it were motivated not by the truth but by a judgmental attitude flowing from cruelty, pride and untruthfulness, in which he, the greater sinner of the two, would set himself up as a person of superior virtue.
6. There exists a further huge difference between an openly admitted homosexual life-style and the entering into an official homosexual union or quasi-marriage, recognized by the state but regarded by the Church as not only being gravely sinful (like a remarriage without ecclesiastic annulment), but as a double sin by pseudo-sanctioning the homosexual cohabitation through a kind of caricature of “homo-marriage with state blessing,” which compounds the evil of the sin.
7. A homosexual act (as opposed to homophile inclinations which are not in our control) is not only a serious sin, according to the Church, but a sin “against nature” (contra naturam)—against the whole order of the nature, meaning, and value of human sexuality, and thus it is a far greater violation of divine moral law than sins (such as premarital sex or adultery) that constitute a human failing, but do not go against nature.
8. Moreover, having entered an official homosexual partnership, Mr. Stangl will be eligible to claim such rights as the right to adopt children, etc., which in the eyes of the Church would be a further grave violation of the sacred and human institutions of marriage and family.
9. The election to parish council of a man who lives in a homosexual union, however nice and charming in conversation he may be, and however sincere in his faith (even though, obviously, he does not accept the ethics taught in Holy Scripture, whose condemnation of homosexual sins in the Old Testament and by Saint Paul could not be more stern and uncompromising), has also a deep outward aspect and effect. Condoning this election (possibly the first official such condoning done by a Cardinal) will be perceived by many as condoning homosexual relations themselves and thus as a public slap into the holy face of marriage. It thus causes, on the hand, a public scandal among many faithful, and sets, on the other hand, an example that might be followed in many parts of the world. If only to avert these sinister consequences, I believe that the decision ought to be reversed and this election declared invalid, as Pastor Swierzek had declared it as pastor—an act that as such in no way violates love, but expresses true love for Stangl and the other souls in his parish.
10. Finally, we must consider the contravention of Canon Law that the act of sanctioning the election of an active homosexual parish council member entails, especially when this sanctioning is explicitly undertaken against the decision of the pastor (who holds responsibility in his parish and whose judgment therefore ought not to be overruled by a higher authority, as long as he acted in full harmony with Church law, as Pastor Swierzek did). Consider the text of Can. 512, especially §3, which concerns electing members of the diocesan pastoral council—something which doubtless also applies to the election of parish councils:
“Can. 511 In every diocese and to the extent that pastoral circumstances suggest it, a pastoral council is to be constituted which under the authority of the bishop investigates, considers, and proposes practical conclusions about those things which pertain to pastoral works in the diocese.
Can. 512 §1. A pastoral council consists of members of the Christian faithful who are in full communion with the Catholic Church—clerics, members of institutes of consecrated life, and especially laity—who are designated in a manner determined by the diocesan bishop.
§2. The Christian faithful who are designated to a pastoral council are to be selected in such a way that they truly reflect the entire portion of the people of God which constitutes the diocese, with consideration given to the different areas of the diocese, social conditions and professions, and the role which they have in the apostolate whether individually or joined with others.
§3. No one except members of the Christian faithful outstanding in firm faith, good morals, and prudence is to be designated to a pastoral council.”
Ed Peters in his blog adds important explanations and references to Canon Law. I quote:
“Membership on a parish council (c. 536) seems to qualify as holding “ecclesiastical office” (c. 145). Holding ecclesiastical office (as opposed, say, to participation in the sacraments) is not a fundamental right of the faithful, and ecclesiastical authority has considerable leeway in setting out the qualifications for holding Church office (cc. 145, 148, and 223). To be eligible for ecclesiastical office, one must be “in the communion of the Church” (c. 149 § 1). Full communion with the Church is defined, for juridic purposes, as one’s being “joined with Christ in [the Church’s] visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance.” One’s assumption or retention of ecclesiastical office can be declared invalid only for reasons “expressly required” by law for valid assumption or retention (c. 149 § 2).”
However upright his subjective intentions may be, Mr. Stangl cannot be reasonably considered “a Christian faithful outstanding in firm faith, good morals, and prudence.” Therefore, if Pastor Swierzek, applying these clear guidelines, did what he deemed right for his own parish, according to his conscience, and was overridden by a higher authority, he was obliged to submit his resignation. If his resignation had been rejected, he would have had the right to appeal to higher legal Church authorities.
If Cardinal Schönborn – to whom I feel united in a very old (though through geographical distance “inactivated”) friendship, dating back to a time when both of us taught at the John Paul II Institute for the Studies of Marriage and Family in Rome—will rethink his decision, over which I feel doubly deep sadness, as a Catholic and as a friend, and will consider all these aspects and consequences of his decision, I sincerely hope and pray that he will take it back, in obedience to the truth and to the Church and notwithstanding any embarrassment such a change of decision may involve. For even if such a change of decision will outrage some, and provoke criticisms or derision by others, an honest act of admitting a mistake, which, if what I have expounded is true, this decision is, is never a good cause of feelings of shame, but deserves admiration and gratitude. I hope that neither His Eminence nor my friend Buttiglione will take amiss what the commitment to truth we share has required me to say.
Josef Seifert is an ordinary and life-long member of “The Pontifical Academy for Life”
 Whose nomination for a post as European Commissioner with a portfolio that was to include civil liberties, resulted in controversy as some political groups opposed him for his Roman Catholic views against homosexuality, despite his assurances that these were only his personal convictions and would not dictate his administration. His words which simply stated the Catholic position and should be obvious general knowledge, and even though he made clear that he would not support any laws that would discriminate against homosexuals (nor even oppose state-recognized unions among them), cost him the position of an Italian EU-Commissioner.