An article published July 3 on the German edition of Vatican Radio’s website headlined “Moral Theologian: Church’s Sexual Morality is In Motion”, together with an accompanying picture featuring two lesbians kissing, has caused consternation on the blogosphere and in social media.

A number of readers took to Twitter to say they couldn’t believe such a headline and photo would appear on an official Vatican website. One called it a “disgrace”, another described it as a “shocking piece.” A third tweeted: “Dear God, please help us!”

One reader said the picture was yet another example of "desensitizing" people, especially children and adolescents, to such immoral behavior and the last place one would expect to see such an image is on Vatican Radio, also known as “the Voice of the Pope.”

The article and photo, which contained a close-up of two lesbians kissing with a rainbow wristband on one arm, were posted on Friday, then pulled on Saturday, only to be reposted on Monday. On Tuesday, the article remains published, but now the offending photograph has been removed. 

The director of the German edition, Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, told the Register July 7 that publishing the photograph, a stock photo from the news agency AFP, was a “technical error”, and that it was “electronically impossible to separate the article from the photo.”

“I did not know that,” he said. “Neither does our technical support staff have a solution. That is why the photo appeared again and is now gone again.” He added that the discussion "has shown that this picture is not fulfilling this purpose" and that "journalistically it was wrong to put it there."

But the article that the photo accompanied arguably caused more concern. It summarized the view — without any counter-argument — of South Tyrolean moral theologian Martin Lintner who asserted that the Church's sexual morality "is in motion". 

He suggested, in an article for Die Furche, a Christian weekly, that sexuality will be perceived in theology and the magisterium “more and more in its personal and holistic dimension.”

He implied there’s a shift away from the natural law regarding certain acts, and added that, despite concrete sexual ethical standards not changing much, the synods on the family show a "rethinking" in dealing with homosexuals. This stands in contrast to the Instrumentum Laboris (working document) for the upcoming synod which merely restates the Church’s current teaching concerning homosexuality. 

"The Church will become more sensitive to the sufferings of victims and families in which homosexuals live,” he predicted. This development, he said, is significant, even if the Church “emphasizes that a homosexual partnership remains different to that of a marriage.”

This last sentence showed support for what many German bishops, and some in Switzerland and France, are criticized for proposing: that the Church should recognize same-sex unions (though not same-sex ‘marriage’).

German Catholic commentator Mathias von Gersdorff said the Lintner article twists the words of the Vatican, “deliberately disorientating the faithful.” He added that it portrays the Second Vatican Council as allowing everything and leaving all subject to interpretation. Vatican Radio, he said, illustrated the text of the article with “a shameless photo that should never have appeared in a Catholic news service.”

The German language edition of Vatican Radio, like the German edition of L'Osservatore Romano, is part financed by the wealthy German bishops' conference.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the director of Vatican Radio, was informed of the article on Friday which was then temporarily removed.

In comments to the Register July 7, Father Hagenkord implied that he thought there was nothing wrong with the article but the picture failed to help the reader understand, or at least draw "proper" attention, to the story. 

"An illustration should not deflect attention from the story," he wrote in an email. "Different outlets use them differently, some want the utmost scandal or something like that, but that is not what Vatican Radio does. The discussion has shown that this picture is not fulfilling this purpose."

"As for the article itself," he wrote, "I was not here at the time. I do know nothing about that." He said he did not "feel informed enough" to answer questions we sent him about it, and had just returned from Germany. He said he did not want to enter into the debate about Catholic teaching as mentioned in the article. "There are a lot of things that could be said about it, but a simple photo is not worth the bother. The real issues should be addressed and that is exactly what the synod will do."

In an earlier, July 6 blog post on the Vatican Radio German website, Father Hagenkord revealed some of the reasoning behind the post while at the same time showing his incomprehension as to why so many Catholics would find such a picture and article offensive.

He wrote that, for him, the article “wasn’t really a scandal” but admitted the photo “wasn’t a wise choice” because it “didn’t really fit with the report.” The backlash, he said, took him “completely by surprise”.

Using what some might consider inappropriate language for Vatican Radio (although Father Hagenkord says it's a German technical term for an internet reaction such as this), he added: “It wasn’t a sh*t storm [out of control situation], but it went in that direction.” He described those who were shocked as people who are “unhealthily fixated” and “cannot tolerate that some people out there are different.” He added: “And we, as in community, and we, as in churches, wonder why homosexuals feel discriminated against? Even today.”

He described the reaction as a “wild verbal slap”, as if words had “no reality or effect, all in the name of teaching truth and church.”

Father Hagenkord was one of the few Vatican officials to attend a secretive, closed-door meeting at the Pontifical Gregorian University in May that tried to steer the upcoming synod to recognize same-sex unions. He is also the synod's liaison officer to German speaking media.

The Jesuit priest, who is affable and well-liked by his colleagues, wrote it was significant that “among us, and especially in the U.S., there are very many super-Catholic-denouncing-Christians for whom a single image is enough to get oneself so excited.” What such “artificial excitement” has to do with “love of neighbor or even normal interpersonal behavior escapes me,” he added.

He ended by saying the tone in the Church is harsh, and has been for some time.  “But even if we make mistakes here and there sometimes, we’re not prepared to join this game,” he wrote.

Some observed that the blog post made no mention of sexual morality, but that Father Hagenkord's response, and more importantly the Lintner article, are helpful in showing how certain groups, not only in Germany, view the synod and are trying to steer it in a heterodox direction. Furthermore, it harks back to the Gregorian meeting and how they proposed using the media to influence the synod proceedings. 

Roland Noé, director of the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net, asked in a July 8 article: "How is it possible that a Jesuit priest can publish, on an official website of the Vatican, a private opinion, and denigrate Catholics who, incidentally, co-finance the German edition through their Church tax contributions?” 

Noting that Father Hagenkord is the only Vatican official to have a blog of his own, Noé said the Jesuit priest “should remember, better sooner than later, that Vatican Radio does not serve to spread personal opinions, but to report on the Vatican and the Universal Church.”

A new Secretariat for Communications announced last month is expected not only to unify structures but also editorial policy across Vatican media.