Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn set off a storm in a teacup this week when he said the Roman Catholic Church had to ask tough questions about the reasons for the clergy sex abuse cases coming to light now in Europe. “The issue of celibacy belongs to that (questioning) as well as the issue of personality development (of priests). And a large portion of honesty belongs to this too, in the Church but also in society,” he wrote in a newsletter for Vienna archdiocese employees called thema kirche.
In the blogosphere, this somehow got turned into headlines like “Schönborn questions celibacy” and speculation that he was somehow challenging this centuries-old tradition. Those comments must have been based on dodgy Google translations from the German, because it’s clear in the original that he never questioned the celibacy rule itself. He said the Church should “ask about the reasons for sexual abuse” (nach den Ursachen sexuellen Missbrauchs fragen) and “celibacy belongs to that” set of issues to ask about. He did not say “put celibacy into question” (in Frage stellen) or “challenge celibacy” (hinterfragen).
What he did do, though, is what several other prelates and experts in the German-speaking countries are doing these days, i.e. say that celibacy has to be considered as one of the pieces in the sexual abuse puzzle. This bring the public discussion about celibacy a lot further than the traditional arguments Pope Benedict puts forward. In my analysis today “Celibacy debate re-emerges amid Church abuse scandal,” Hamburg Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke is quoted as saying celibacy was not the reason for sexual abuse but “the celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality and cannot integrate sexuality into their lives. That’s when a dangerous situation can arise.”