A Seminary is like the heart of the diocese. One cannot play with one's heart, unless one wants to court trouble. But if there is trouble with one's heart one has to act fast, very fast and with determination. In fact, one cannot act fast enough or with enough determination.
This is how the Church fortunately behaved, faced with the scandal of the St Polten seminary in Austria. In consultation with the Vatican and the local bishop, Bishop Klaus Küng of Feldkirch, a Vatican-appointed investigator, has announced the closing of the seminary in the diocese of Sankt Polten "effective immediately".
In late July, Pope John Paul appointed Bishop Küng to make an apostolic visitation of the seminary and the diocese. The appointment came after a student was arrested on charges relating to child pornography and after an Austrian magazine published photographs police had found on the seminary computers. The seminary rector and vice-rector resigned after the photos were published showing staff members and seminarians kissing and fondling each other.
The apostolic visitor published an interim report saying he had closed the seminary as a number of seminarians had been downloading child pornography "in a truly addictive manner". He cited in particular the practice of viewing and downloading pornography from the Internet and the development of "active homosexual relations" among members of the seminary community. Meanwhile, the Austrian weekly News has reported that Küng's "confidential report" to the Vatican describes the seminary at St Polten as a "brothel for homosexuals".
This was another very sad incident in the recent history of the Austrian Church. The whole incident has a number of lessons for Austrian Catholics and the rest of the Church.
No short cuts should be adopted in the process of choosing seminarians. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, president of the Austrian bishops' conference, said the bishops' conference and the nuncio to Austria had "warned for months" that Bishop Krenn was "dangerously ignoring the rules of recruitment" by admitting students to the Sankt Polten seminary without checking why they had been rejected elsewhere. Whenever the rules of recruitment are abused, abuses follow.
Bishop Küng was very wise to add that "the more pressing the lack of priests, the more balanced, more sincere and more virtuous must be those chosen to become priests".
Lesson number two should be that such incidents should not be downplayed. They have to be looked at straight in the face and immediately tackled. Bishop Krenn, the bishop of St Polten, initially downplayed the seriousness of the photos, saying they were part of a boyish prank during a Christmas party. Most probably, had it been for him, the matter would have ended there, perhaps after some internal investigation and some partial internal actions.
Fortunately it was not for Bishop Krenn to decide. The whole Austrian Church reacted strongly and the Vatican's action was very quick and decisive. Had the same attitude been universally adopted then the Church would not be plagued to-day by so many cases of child abuse. It seems we are learning and that is very positive.
The scandal of St Polten quite naturally resuscitated the debate about clerical celibacy. But is such a reaction a fair and just one? Should the promise of celibacy (it's true that it is mandatory) be blamed for homosexuality and child pornography?
Celibacy is negated by both aspects and as a consequence it cannot give rise to either of them. Let's debate if we should debate clerical celibacy but let us not use non-arguments as part of the debate.
The controversy surrounding the scandal was coloured and clouded by the strong polarisation between liberals and conservative Catholics in the diocese of St Polten in general and in Austria in particular. The situation is so tense that each side had demonised the other to the extent that dialogue between them was difficult.
Bishop Küng said that he was shocked at the extent of the existing polarisation. Such polarisation negates the very nature of the Church. There is, in the Church, a place for conservatives and liberals, for those on the right and those on the left.
Quite naturally all should feel at home; all should feel that the church is really open for them all. Unfortunately during the last decade or so the perception that the top posts in the Church are more open to the conservatives than to the rest gained ground.
It is very clear and obvious that no one can please all. The swift action by Bishop Küng pleased many but some of his comments displeased others. The German Lesbian and Gay Association protested against his statement that the Church needed priests who are "resilient and healthy". Küng had said this immediately after deploring the fact that seminarians had had active homosexual relationships - thus implying that homosexuals were neither resilient nor healthy.
The association has called on the Church to abolish the requirement of celibacy, arguing that it discourages mature heterosexual and homosexual men from becoming priests.
Such statements by the German Lesbian and Gay Association do not do any good for the cause of gays and lesbians. It is true that mandatory celibacy for priests is the result of Church discipline and can be changed at any time. But homosexual relationships are not condemned by Church discipline but by God's law.
We conclude with a comment by Bishop Küng and augur that it will come true. "It is a painful hour for the diocese of Sankt Polten and for the Church in all Austria," he said. "I am, however, convinced that in the end this will be good for the Church."