Cardinal Schönborn says celibacy partly to blame for clerical sex abuse

Vienna, Austria - A senior cardinal has called for priestly celibacy to be re-examined in the light of sex scandals sweeping the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, conservative Archbishop of Vienna and a protégé of the Pope, shocked the Vatican by suggesting that it should carry out an “unflinching examination” of causes of the scandal.

These included “the issue of priests’ training”, he wrote in his archdiocese magazine, “the question of priest celibacy and the question of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the Church and of society as a whole”.

The Vatican said the remarks had been misinterpreted. “Priestly celibacy is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, said at a theological convention on priestly fidelity.

Cardinal Schönborn’s spokesman, Erich Leitenberger, issued a clarification later claiming that the cardinal was not “in any way seeking to question the Catholic Church’s celibacy rule”. Sources in Rome said he had been obliged to issue his “clarification” under pressure from the Holy See.

The cardinal, a respected conservative theologian, has a history of sparking controversy. He is an ordinary — or bishop — to Austria’s Eastern Rite Catholics, whose priests are allowed to marry, just as priests in the new Anglican Ordinariates being set up around the world for ex-Anglican clergy will be allowed to marry. Last year in Rome, Cardinal Schönborn, who has always been close to the Pope, presented a petition signed by leading Austrian lay Catholics calling for the abolition of the requirement for priestly celibacy.

Cardinal Schönborn told Vatican Radio last year that he did not agree with the petition’s conclusions, which also included a demand for women deacons, but added: “It is important for someone in Rome to know what some of our lay people are thinking about the problems of the Church.”

Despite calls by a number of theologians and lay Catholic organisations for priestly celibacy to be abolished or made optional, it has been repeatedly reaffirmed by successive Popes, including Pope Benedict XVI. However, Cardinal Hummes, from Brazil, once observed that celibacy was “not dogma”.

The celibacy rule for priests was not part of the early Christian Church but was introduced in the Middle Ages. A number of early Church fathers were married, including St Peter himself, according to St Mark’s Gospel.

In his article, Cardinal Schönborn said he could understand the frustration of many of the faithful over the paedophilia scandals. “Enough is enough. That’s what many people are saying and thinking.”

The Pope is due to issue a pastoral letter to the faithful in Ireland on the sex abuse issue after meeting Irish bishops last month. The scandal has come closer to the pontiff after it emerged that a former chorister in Regensburg — where the Pope once taught — had claimed he was abused while he was a member of the Cathedral choir, which was led for three decades by Georg Ratzinger, the Pope’s older brother. Monsignor Ratzinger this week admitted he had “slapped” choirboys but said he knew nothing of sexual abuse.

Today the Pope is to meet Robert Zollitsch, head of the German bishops’ conference, to discuss the growing crisis over clerical sex abuse in several countries including the Pope’s native Germany. Archbishop Zollitsch has described clerical abuse as “outrageous” and asked the victims for forgiveness, but has denied any link between sex abuse and celibacy.

An article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, by the historian Lucetta Scaraffia, suggested that having more women in high-level decision-making bodies would have helped to lift the “veil of masculine secrecy” over clerical sex-abuse cases.

This week the dissident theologian Father Hans Küng, who was stripped of his licence to teach Catholic theology in 1979 after he rejected the doctrine of Papal infallibility, said in The Tablet that denials of any link between abuse and celibacy were “erroneous”.

He said celibacy was not the only cause of the misconduct but described it as “the most important and structurally the most decisive” expression of the Church’s repressive attitude to sex.

Last November the Vatican said its new rules allowing the conversion of Anglicans, including married Anglican priests, did not “signify any change” in its rules for priestly celibacy.