The new head of the Austrian Bishops appears open to a rethink of Catholic doctrine on homosexuality and has commissioned a book on gay blessings.

– “Celibacy is not the ideal type of sexuality”

Archbishop of Salzburg Franz Lackner, elected June 16 as the new President of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference in a plenary assembly in Mariazell, said in a 2014 interview on the occasion of moving to his current archdiocese that “celibacy is not the ideal type of sexuality”.

Franciscan Lackner, 64 next month, was asked specifically in that interview whether the Church should be more open to women and gays and finally “enter into the 21st century”.

Archbishop Lackner replied that “we already are [open]. Pope Francis has already said a great deal on these subjects”.

On the question of the Church’s relationship to gays specifically, Lackner said: “I have friends who are homosexual. We do not discriminate against anyone. We’re not allowed to do that. If that happened, we would have to apologise and change that. But you have to allow a community of faith to say that the ideal type of lived sexuality is not homosexuality. The ideal type is also not celibate life. Pope Francis said well: ‘Who am I to judge?’ I don’t judge”.

Given that doctrine sees homosexuality as an “inclination” that is “objectively disordered” – as the Catechism puts it – the Church calls homosexuals to live lives of strict chastity.

Regarding the Church’s relationship to women – and specifically whether the Church should admit women to the priesthood – Lackner defended the traditional veto on female priests but said that the ‘no’ to their ordination was actually an advantage to them.

“I as a priest should not preach what I believe, but the teaching of the Church”, the archbishop explained, adding: “I must never strike out on my own like a layman. Or like pastoral care workers who get close to people. Sacramental service is a distant service. Women are close to life. Spiritual accompaniment is something that laypeople can do better”.

Even if Lackner is a defender of the Church’s ‘no’ to women’s ordination on the basis of a supposed tradition against it, he did admit in 2017 that “if Jesus came into the world today, I would say to him, ‘Take the women to the priesthood’. But there is also an injustice on the other side: celibacy. So a priest must live without woman”.

– Asked theologians to look into “sacramental character” of same-sex partnerships

The precise details of Lackner’s thought on priestly celibacy and women in the Church apart, where the Salzburg archbishop appears more determined to innovate is in the field of official Church blessings for gay couples.

Austrian priest theologian Ewald Volgger presented last month a new co-authored volume entitled The Benediction of Same-Sex Partnerships which argues that the Church should “recognise” the “sacramental character” of gay love.

“By blessing homosexual relationships”, the Church would “show an appreciation for this relationship”, and would “symbolically express the love of God for man”, was how Volgger summed up the content of the volume.

When asked the reason why he and theologian colleagues had written the book, Volgger replied: “Because the Austrian liturgical commission, chaired by Archbishop Lackner of Salzburg, asked us to deal with this question”.

Before he was appointed to Salzburg in 2013, Lackner was auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Graz-Seckau from 2002.

In his younger years he began training as an electrician, before abandoning that trade to become a UN peacekeeper in Cyprus in 1978 and 1979, where he found his vocation and later ended up joining the Franciscans in 1984.

Lackner – who has also been professor of Metaphysics at the Cistercian Philosophical-Theological University at Heiligenkreuz – succeeds as Austrian Bishops’ President Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, who has served in the role for the past 22 years. Lackner’s new deputy is Manfred Scheuer, the Bishop of Linz.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.