VIENNA, April 12, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna is expressing openness to legal recognition of homosexual unions, appearing to put him at odds with Magisterial teaching.

In a talk at Britain’s National Gallery on Monday, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn defended the traditional definition of marriage, but urged “respect” for same-sex relationships, reports the UK Catholic paper The Tablet.

"There can be same-sex partnerships and they need respect, and even civil law protection,” he said, according to the paper. “Yes, but please keep it away from the notion of marriage. Because the definition of marriage is the stable union between a man and a woman open to life.”

"We should be clear about terms and respect the needs of people living in a partnership together. They deserve respect," the Cardinal added.

Cardinal Schönborn has made similar comments in the past, as for example in 2010, when he called on the Church to “give more consideration to the quality” of homosexual relationships.

In 2006, a German-language Catholic news agency reported that Schönborn’s Cathedral in Vienna had offered a blessing for unmarried couples on Valentine’s Day that included homosexual partners.

Last year, Cardinal Schönborn made international headlines when he overruled a priest in his diocese who had barred a man named Florian Stangl from joining parish council because he was living in a registered partnership with another man. After a personal meeting with Stangl, the Cardinal praised his “devout attitude, his modesty, and his lived readiness to serve.”

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Before the Cardinal stepped in, the Archdiocese of Vienna had released a statement appearing to support the priest, and affirming the Church’s long-held teaching on homosexual civil unions. “The magisterium of the Church has spoken unambiguously against homosexual civil unions,” the statement read.

The Church’s teaching on the issue was expressed most fully in a document published in 2003 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope John Paul II. The Congregation was then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI.

“Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity,” the document reads.

A bill recognizing such unions would constitute a “gravely unjust law” that would “obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage,” the document continues, adding that such a law’s “inevitable consequence … would be the redefinition of marriage.”

Cardinal Schönborn’s comments come as many have expressed hope for a new age of “dialogue” and a softened approach to controversial issues under Pope Francis.

It also follows comments made last week by several American Cardinals that homosexual activists hailed as a softening of the Church’s tone.

“We gotta do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “And I admit, we haven’t been too good at that. We try our darndest to make sure we’re not an anti-anybody. We’re in the defense of what God has taught us about…marriage. And it’s one man-one woman, forever, to bring about new life.”

Catholic teaching on civil unions for homosexual couples was in the news last month after Pope Francis’ biographer, Sergio Rubín, told the New York Times that then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had supported them.

Rubin said that during Argentina’s debate on same-sex “marriage” in 2010, Bergoglio had suggested privately to his fellow Argentine bishops that they accept civil unions as a compromise. The other bishops disagreed and the Cardinal went along with the others, according to Rubin.

Rubin’s account was disputed, however, by Miguel Woites, director of the Argentinean Catholic Information Agency and a confidant of the Cardinal’s from the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.

It "isn't true. It's a complete error,” he told ACI Prensa. "It's not correct to write something like that out of thin air. That (New York Times) article was very criticized by the bishops. He certainly would have referred to unions of convenience but not that anything be legalized."

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