Swiss Bishops Offer Supportive Comments After Another Bishop’s Error

Bishop Markus Büchel, center, at an ordination

A Swiss bishop who was criticized for remarks deemed by some as advocating the death penalty for lesbian and gay people has apologized. His remorse has stopped neither public criticism from fellow prelates, who released pastoral appeals in the wake of this controversy, nor the filing of criminal charges.

Bishop Vitus Huonder of Chur quoted Leviticus in a July address at a conference of German-speaking traditionalist Catholics. Though he technically never suggested gay people should be executed, Bondings 2.0 noted at the time, his irresponsible language makes that interpretation extremely easy. After facing criticism, he apologized, reported The Local.ch:

“In a three-page letter sent to 800 of his colleagues, including priests and employees, on Wednesday night, Huonder apologized ‘to everyone who felt injured by my speech, in particular those of homosexual persuasion,’ reported Swiss news agency ATS on Thursday.

“The 73-year-old said it was a ‘mistake’ to write his speech purely ‘on a theological and academic level’. . .He also regretted writing it during the summer holidays when there was no one around to read it over for him.”

In response, at least two bishops criticized Huonder’s comments indirectly by offering pastoral appeals. Bishop Markus Büchel of St. Gallen, who is also head of the Swiss Bishops Conference, wrote a letter to pastoral workers after many expressed concerns about Huonder’s comments.  Kath.ch reported that he said that it was important in a sexual relationship was how a person responsibly uses sexuality, not whether that person is heterosexual or homosexual.  He encouraged Catholics to rely on their individual consciences.

Later he noted: ‘We are look forward to every relationship in which the partners accept each other as equal, valuable, beloved children of God and respect the dignity of others!’ ”

As for the church’s place when it comes to homosexuality:

“Büchel sees it as a task of the Church to accompany people on their way,’on which they can integrate their sexuality as a gift of God in their lives and their relations.” The Church must deal with the historical burdens of homosexuality and consciously develop ‘a new, human, and proper language.”

Büchel also spoke about Scriptural interpretation and contemporary understandings of homosexuality, affirming that “current knowledge about homosexuality as a constitutent part of personality, and not freely chosen, was not known at the time of the Bible.” The full letter, in German, is available here and Bondings 2.0 would welcome a more thorough translation of it from any of our German-speaking readers.

Abbot Urban Federer

A second episcopal response came from Abbot Urban Federer of Ensiedeln, who said church leaders should be for something, not against something. His first response to an email inquiry about “Why the Catholic Church condemns homosexuals?” was to simply quote the Catechism’s language about “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

Yet Federer felt that quoting the Catechism was not a sufficient response for this situation, so he reinterpreted the Leviticus passage more affirmingly on the abbey’s website, which you can find here in German, with a simple translation following:

“Although the passages condemn sexual intercourse among people of the same sex, they are not against homosexuality, which was not yet known in this ancient time. Therefore such passages can hardly be used to assess current issues!

He continued by saying that homosexuality “will occupy the church for a long time,” and he noted the Swiss bishops’ 2002 decision to support same-sex unions so that lesbian and gay people could be protected from discrimination. But Federer noted the church needs to do more,  citing a public letter to Huonder by the rapper Gimma to ask:

“Can the Church really and so loudly put a minus in front of homosexuality?. . .Gimma’s reaction is a provocative question for the Church: Should the Church not be used for people, for the dignity of gays and lesbians, rather than take action against certain people? The frank words of Gimma make me pensive and call me to more modesty.”

Finally, Federer turned to Pope Francis’ views on homosexuality:

“The Church may rejoice about homosexuals as children loved by God! Did not Pope Francis already show the Church how to deal with homosexuals in the right manner? In his first press conference as the head of Roman Catholic Church, he promoted the idea not to discriminate against male and female homosexuals. Verbatim, the Pope asked: ‘When a person is homosexual and seeks God and is of good will, who am I to judge?’ “

Bishop Huonder’s apology was also roundly criticized by LGBT groups. Pink Cross, an umbrella organization for several Swiss LGBT groups, filed a criminal complaint against Huonder in August for “inciting people to crime or violence” according to Newsweek. Bastian Baumann, director of Pink Cross, explained the bishop crossed a “red line” given his authority and exhortation to literal interpretation of Scripture:

“We believe in freedom of expression, and taking quotes from the bible is fine. . .But then he said the words should be applied to real life, which is the equivalent of calling for the death penalty for gay people. We were worried about that. He is the leader of a big church, and he was calling for people to follow his words, and we thought this could be dangerous.”

Baumann further rejected Huonder’s apology because “there was no misunderstanding” his remarks. If found guilty in this complaint, the bishop could face a prison sentence of up to three years.

What to make of all this?

My first reaction is that this is simply a reminder that God draws good out of bad situations. For as strikingly painful as Bishop Huonder’s citation of Leviticus was, the critical and pastoral responses from his colleagues are doubly positive. How simply refreshing to hear a bishop say, “The Church may rejoice about homosexuals as children loved by God!”

Second, it is good to see bishops who are willing to criticize a colleague whose behavior or statements were not in keeping with the office of bishop and Christian ideas. Both Büchel and Federer’s responses are polite, avoiding direct criticism of Huonder, but they make clear that his way of interpreting Scripture and discussing sexuality are irresponsible, outdated, and not in keeping with the best practices of Catholic theology today.

Third, and finally, Bishop Büchel’s letter is noteworthy as he shifts the conversation on homosexuality from genital acts to people. His exhortation for the “responsible use of sexuality” and emphasis on conscience are similar to how many theologians and ministers have reframed the conversation around homosexuality.

While I certainly doubt acceptance of same-sex relationships can be read into Büchel or Federer’s letters, the church’s leaders’ understanding of lesbian and gay people foremost as people is an important, though much belated, step. That they do this publicly and in criticism of a local peer who is  missing the mark is great!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

3 thoughts on “Swiss Bishops Offer Supportive Comments After Another Bishop’s Error

  1. Jerry Baumeister, PhD September 1, 2015 / 12:42 pm

    I applaud the Swiss bishops who took this opportunity to do something positive and affirming. Bishop Huonder made a big mistake and he apologized for it. Unlike many priests and bishops here in the USA who refuse to apologize and think they speak with the voice of God. What is even more appalling is the actions of Pink Cross, the LGBT group that has filed a complaint which could lead to criminal charges. This is vindictive and unforgiving. Mercy and compassion, as well as forgiveness is a two way street. Pink Cross needs to learn its lesson as well.

  2. Paul Halsall September 1, 2015 / 4:49 pm

    While I welcome the words of Abbot Urban Federer it seems he is indeed an abbot and his words, therefore, are not an ” episcopal response”.

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