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Austrian priest talks bluntly on church, gays

Vienna, Austria

While Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeannine Gramick represent one model of how to react when church leaders suppress ministry to gays and lesbians -- staying within the fold to press for change -- Austrian priest Johannes Wahala embodies another.

Call it rage against the machine.

“Even if one tries to be very fair and even if one loves the church as I do, we cannot say this church has contributed anything to a better understanding of homosexuality,” Wahala said in a late September interview with NCR.

“The hierarchy still considers the human being a trivial machine, with morals as the input and correct behavior as the output. It is a thoroughly dehumanizing view.”

Austrians have quickly become accustomed to such blunt talk from their country’s first openly gay Catholic priest, who -- after being fired by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna -- now works in private practice as a psychotherapist.

Austria is an overwhelmingly Catholic country of 8 million, where modern Europe’s live-and-let-live approach to sexuality collides with stern church morality.

Like Nugent and Gramick, Wahala was once his country’s highest-profile Catholic minister whose specialty was pastoral work with homosexuals. In 1997 and 1998, Wahala -- who had also served as a pastor and as the archdiocese’s director of education -- helped to organize ecumenical worship services for homosexuals. He was building the foundation for pastoral outreach to gays and lesbians in the country’s nine dioceses.

Like his American counterparts, Wahala found himself facing scrutiny. The Nugent and Gramick story unfolded over two decades; the denouement was much quicker to come here.

On June 9, 1998, Wahala and Schönborn strolled together across the square in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. As Wahala tells it, Schönborn told him point-blank: “You have to tell me openly and honestly whether you are one of those concerned. You know there are rumors about you.”

Wahala hesitated, but eventually acknowledged that he was, indeed, gay. Not long afterwards he “came out” publicly.

Wahala declines to say whether he was sexually active while under vows. “This is part of the personal sphere of intimacy that need not be laid open to anyone,” he said.

Soon after going public, Wahala received a letter from Schönborn forbidding him the exercise of his priestly faculties. He was removed from his positions in the archdiocese.

Wahala chose to speak his mind rather than plead for reinstatement. He does so in a new book called Fired by Schönborn, styled as an interview with Austrian journalist Thomas Hofer. It offers Wahala’s assessment of the situation facing homosexuals in the Catholic church.

It has been read with interest here for its image of Schönborn, since Wahala was once among the cardinal’s inner circle. Wahala says Schönborn is “fundamentalist” and “reactionary” in his thinking, while attempting to project an image of moderation. He also suggests Schönborn plays fast and loose with the truth.

Schönborn has had no comment.

Wahala told NCR that since the book appeared he has been inundated with phone calls from other Catholic priests who recognize themselves in it and want to talk. He said he knows many gay priests and even gay bishops, many of whom he met in Vienna’s gay coffeehouses and clubs.

He declines to name names. “That is a matter for the individual conscience,” he said.

Wahala, who has not been laicized, said he no longer acts as a priest but considers himself a Catholic. His stance has not satisfied everyone -- at a recent presentation for his book at the Vienna Press Club, Wahala faced an angry member of the audience who demanded that he renounce Catholicism.

“I consider the Catholic church broad enough even for me,” he said. Only time will tell whether the church here agrees.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999