A Swiss Roman Catholic Bishop is being sued by gay rights organisations after he quoted an Old Testament bible passage on homosexuality at a Catholic conference. His detractors have accused him of inciting violence against gay people, as the passage in question advocates the death penalty for homosexuals. The Bishop has issued an apology.
On 31st July, Bishop Vitus Huonder of Chur, Switzerland addressed an audience at the “Rejoicing in the Faith” conference organised by lay group Forum Deutscher Katholiken, a conservative Catholic group opposed to liberalisation of the church’s teachings on marriage and the family.
According to Life Site News, a communique issued before the conference stated: “We reject the discrimination of people because of their sexual orientation. However, we stress that the notion “marriage” has to be preserved for the Living and Loving Community of one man with one woman. Family is and remains for us the community of father, mother, and child(ren).”
Bishop Huonder, who is known for his traditional views on marriage, discussed many passages during his 50 minute presentation, designed to outline a Christian view of marriage and the family. Starting with passages from Genesis, the Bishop described marriage as between one man and one woman, as modelled by Adam and Eve, before citing the 10 Commandments and exhortations in the New Testament for men and women to love, honour and respect their marital partners.
However, during the course of his discussion, Bishop Huonder also quoted Leviticus 18:22, which calls homosexual sex “an abomination”, and Leviticus 20:13, which states: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
But he stressed: “The Faith is a help for all people, also for those with homophilic inclinations, and can lead to a reorientation of these inclinations, to a control of the sexual passions and to an integration of these passions into a virtuous life according God’s Command.”
Despite the wider context offered, use of the two verses was enough for the Swiss gay rights group Pink Cross to declare that Bishop Huonder had called for the death penalty to be introduced for homosexuals, and that quoting the passages amounted to “inciting people to crime or violence.” The organisation has lodged a lawsuit with the public prosecutor of Canton Graubünden in eastern Switzerland.
In a statement posted online, the group argued that the problem was not so much with the verses themselves, but that Huonder had not sought to re-interpret or water down the passages. “Citing two quotations from the Bible from a legal order from the Old Testament to legitimize incitement to hatred and crime – devoid of exegesis (interpretation) and any relationship with the teaching of Christ – but in the literal sense, is unacceptable for us. It sows hatred. We tolerate no hatred, no incitement to crime and no violence against gay men and other so-called minorities,” they said.
Bastian Baumann, Director of Pink Cross, commented: “As a figure of authority within the church, Vitus Huonder accepts that his demand will meet with approval among Christians and other fundamentalists and could be followed obediently.”
He added that the Bishop had crossed a “red line.”
Speaking to Newsweek, Baumann repeated his group’s assertion that that Pink Cross did not oppose people reading out passages from the bible, only their application of those passages to life. “We believe in freedom of expression, and taking quotes from the bible is fine,” Baumann said. “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.”
Some within the church apparently agreed. Bishop Markus Büchel, president of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference had already distanced himself from Bishop Huonder’s comments, saying that it didn’t matter what sexual orientation a person has, as long as they conduct themselves in a “responsible manner.”
Others in the progressive Catholic and secular worlds also slammed the Bishop’s speech, posting on social media comments including “finally!”; “these homophobic clergymen”; or “It is time to pronounce public criticism of this bishop.”
But some conservatives have come out in his defence. Author Peter Winnemöller, writing on the Austrian website kath.net expressed disgust that the president of the Conference could abandon his fellow Bishop in such a way.
“As one of the lay faithful, one cannot and may not approve when a bishop acts publicly in such a disloyal way toward his fellow bishop,” he said “This is true even moreso when a bishop comes into the focus of circles that are enemies of the Church, and this because of a question concerning the doctrine [of the Church]. In this case, it would be rather reasonable to clarify the doctrinal questions in a dispute behind closed doors, but to assist the fellow bishop in public.”
Bishop Huonder has now issued an apology for his speech, saying claims that he had called for violence or the death penalty against gays were a misinterpretation.
“I am sorry if my 50 minute lecture […] which dealt with the biblical basis for marriage and family, was understood as diminishing homosexual people,” his statement reads. “This was not my intention. During the lecture I quoted several uncomfortable passages from the Old Testament to do with marriage, sexuality and family. I want to clarify that I… would in no way wish to diminish homosexual people.”
Mr Baumann says Pink Cross does not accept the bishop’s apology. “There is no question in this case of what he was talking about—there was no misunderstanding. We don’t need charity or mercy from the Church at all, we don’t accept his apology.”
If convicted, Bishop Huonder will face up to three years in jail.