Austrian Catholics Criticize the Vatican’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriage

The Vatican’s latest ruling against same-sex marriage has sparked outrage among many of Austria’s 5 million Catholics and 1.3 billion Catholics globally, including high-ranking Church leaders who have openly voiced opposition to the directive.

On March 15, the Vatican declared gay marriage “illicit,” claiming that any such union is “not aligned with the Creator’s plan.” While the Church would receive homosexuals “with respect and sensitivity,” it would not support their unions. The decision, reached by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope Francis, came in response to questions raised by priests and perishes who sought to welcome homosexual couples.

Christian faith describes marriage as a sacred union between a man and woman for the purpose of procreation. It entails a mutual commitment such that wife and children are protected. Under this reading, the Vatican asserts that same-sex unions do not align with Catholic teaching and thus cannot be sanctified. This decision does not imply a critique of homosexual couples, but rather a “reminder” of the Church’s views on marriage. 

The ban is a major setback for gay Catholics who have hoped the Church was becoming more inclusive. Many had become increasingly optimistic ever since Francis’s call last fall for a legal framework for homosexual couples. 

“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” said the pope in a documentary film Francesco, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival in October. The Vatican later clarified that gay couples deserve civil protection, including legal rights and healthcare benefits, but the pope’s comments do not suggest a change in Church doctrine.  

However, Francis has previously also expressed conflicting sentiments about gays. In an interview published in December 2019, he called homosexuality a “fad,” advising gay priests to be celibate or step down “so as not to lead a double life.” Additionally, he described romantic attraction between people of the same sex as “something that worries him.” In line with such statements, the Vatican’s latest directive appears to signal an end to its reformist intentions and reaffirms the Church’s firm stance that the sacrament of marriage sanctions the relationship between a man and a woman, and should be restricted to heterosexuals. Francis’s earlier proposal for the institution of “civil union” could provide an alternative that would not be in conflict with this foundational principle. 

Same-sex unions are allowed in almost all western democracies. Austria legalized same-sex marriage on January 1, 2019. 

Opposition in Austria

High-ranking Austrian Catholics have denounced the Vatican’s ban. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and a long-time member of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, said he was “not happy” about the decree and called the ruling a “clear communication error.” While he believes that the “holy matrimony” is and will always be sacred, he advised the Church to talk less about sexuality and focus on love instead. “I know many people who are in love with someone from the same sex and for whom this word from Rome was deeply painful,” Schönborn said. 

The Priests’ Initiative (Pfarrer-Initiative), an Austrian-based Catholic dissident group founded in 2011 by Helmut Schüller with roughly 400 members, vowed to defy the ruling and would continue blessing gay couples. “We will – in solidarity with so many – not reject in the future any loving couple who asks to celebrate in a worship service the blessing of God that they experience every day,” the group said in a statement. 

Austrian Catholics have long opposed the Vatican’s position, which they consider homophobic.  In 1995, a group launched the so-called “Church Citizens’ Initiative,” which called for “more humanity instead of blanket condemnations in questions of homosexuality.” With some 505,000 signatures, the petition was supported by a substantial share of the Catholics. Still, the group failed to enact real change. In light of the Vatican’s latest ruling, the situation seems to have improved little for homosexual Catholics in the past 26 years.  

Now, a broader Austrian public has again decided to speak up. A survey by the magazine Profil found that the majority of Austrians oppose the Church ban on same-sex marriage. Only 13% of the participants understood the Vatican’s decision, while 64% of the participants rejected the ban, and 21% stated that they were not interested in what the Church does. 

Parishes in Austria and other European countries have raised the rainbow flag in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. One is the Schwechat Parish in Lower Austria, where Father Werner Pirkner believes that homosexuals are just as much a part of the Church as everyone else.

“God loves all people, that is my deepest conviction, sexual orientation does not matter,” said Pirkner. “The church must provide a handrail for all people to hold on to and should not put up a stop sign for anyone.”