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Green light for gay Catholic

A gay man has been allowed to participate in his local parish’s activities.

The vast majority of voters supported Florian Stangl in last month’s parish community council election. The 26-year-old social worker from Stützenhofen in the Lower Austrian district of Mistelbach had never made a secret of his homosexual relationship. Local clergy officials tried to keep Stangl from entering the parish community council despite the election result.

Now Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the highest representative of the Austrian Catholic Church, decided to allow Stangl to get involved in the Stützenhofen parish. After meeting with Stangl, Schönborn announced that he had been "deeply impressed" by his personality. Schönborn said it was now clear to him why most of the participants of the ballot backed Stangl.

Schönborn admitted that Stangl’s "personal concept of living" might not perfectly match the Catholic Church’s principles but also stressed that he fully supported his willingness to get active in the parish of Stützenhofen. Stangl said he considered the decision a sign of progress in the Austrian Church while Schönborn promised to define the criteria about who was allowed to run in the parish community council elections more precisely to avoid similar controversy in the future.

Around 4.5 million people were asked to participate in the Catholic parish community council vote last month. Every registered Catholic teenager and adult was eligible to vote for their local parish's new community council. Around one in five people allowed to participate did so in the election of 2007.

There are 3,032 Roman Catholic parishes in Austria. Most of them are located in Vienna (660), Upper Austria (474) and the largest province of the country, Lower Austria (424).  The fewest parishes are situated in the eastern region of Burgenland (171) and in the western province of Vorarlberg (125).

The number of parish community council members depends on the size of the parish. The councils’ members meet on a regular basis to discuss the organisation of events but also the local church’s general strategy as far as attempts to win back former members and other disputed issues are regarded. Members of the councils do not get any financial compensation for their engagement.

The election occurred only days after Egon Kapellari, the bishop of Styria’s Graz Diocese, warned from a splitting of the Austrian Church. Kapellari said Helmut Schüller’s Preachers’ Initiative must "slow down" to ensure an improvement of the mood in the denomination.

Schüller, a parish priest from Lower Austria who once headed Caritas Austria, found strong support across the country but also abroad after calling for a reform of the Church. The group of priests he is heading angered the Austrian Catholic Church’s leaders by declaring themselves "disobedient" towards the Vatican.

Schüller’s movement wants the Vatican to abolish the celibate. The parish priests also call for the right to give Holy Communion to people who married a second time at registry offices after getting divorced following church weddings.

Schüller said the Austrian Conference of Bishops must act more courageously and independently from the Vatican concerning the ultra-conservative attitude of the Pope. The Preachers’ Initiative consists of around 400 parish priests. The group plans to focus on creating international alliances this year.

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