UCA News

Same-sex marriage a hot topic in Indonesia

Controversy over a priest's comments about the likelihood of same-sex marriage being accepted by the Church should be seen as positive
Same-sex marriage a hot topic in Indonesia

Father Otto Gusti Madung of the Society of Divine Word. (Photo supplied)

Published: June 08, 2021 09:56 AM GMT
Updated: June 08, 2021 10:30 AM GMT

Recent media publications about comments made by an Indonesian Catholic scholar and priest on same-sex marriage and the Church’s position on the issue have sparked much debate. The priest at the center of the controversy is Father Otto Gusti Madung of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD).

A PhD graduate from Germany, Otto, as he is popularly called, teaches philosophy and human rights at the Catholic Institute of Philosophy in Ledalero, Maumere, Flores, an eastern province of Indonesia. Otto is a prolific writer and commentator; he is always critical and vocal on matters concerning human rights. For that he is known locally as an activist, not only for human rights issues but also for environmental causes. His track record on public advocacy is well documented through his commentaries published in various media outlets.

Otto’s social involvement is in line with the Catholic social doctrine asking for all baptized Catholics, and more so priests, to be advocates for the rights of all, particularly marginalized minority groups such as the LGBTQ community. For Otto, the imperative of his priestly calling is to be actively involved in solidarity with the weak who are often outcasts from society.

A local theologian and priest from Flores by the name of Paulus Budi Kleden, the superior general of the SVD in Rome, also emphasizes the importance of social involvement. He explains this through his famous notion of teologi terlibat (involved theology), a form of grassroots theology that values social sensitivity and awareness of the struggle, particularly of the powerless. Methodologically, involved theology is a method of doing theology through involvement or participation in the everyday life of society including listening, sharing ideas and thoughts, and acting for the betterment of people's lives communally and individually.

So, when Otto showed his concern and care for the rights of the LGBTQ minority through his critical assessment of Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage, why is he criticized? Why are his same-sex marriage comments considered offensive when the issue has been widely discussed throughout the world? Is it because he is a priest and as a priest he is not allowed to have an opinion about the official Catholic teaching? Otto is not just a priest, he is also an academic with a PhD in philosophy from Germany. His background and roles need to be considered in understanding why he made those same-sex marriage comments that provoked various reactions. 

Sources of debate

Otto’s comments about same-sex marriage were first published in English in UCA News on May 25 under the headline "Indonesian priest sparks same-sex marriage storm." Two days later, four more media outlets published Otto’s same-sex marriage comments with slightly different wording in their titles: one in English and three in Indonesian. The English version was published in New Ways Ministry, "Indonesian Priest Says Catholic Church Recognizing Same-Gender Marriages Is Possible." The last three were in Indonesian, first in Media Indonesia, "Pater Otto Harap Pastor Katolik Bisa Berkati Pernikahan LGBT" (Father Otto hopes Catholic priests can bless the LGBT weddings); in Suluh Desa, "Pater Otto: Pastor Katolik Harus Bisa Memberkati Pernikahan Sesama Jenis" (Father Otto: Catholic priests must be able to bless same-sex weddings); and in Graha Budaya, Geger, "Pater Otto Gusti Minta Gereja Katolik Memberkati Pasangan LGBT, Begini Penjelasannya!" (Uproar, Father Otto Gusti asks for the Catholic Church to bless LGBT couples, this is his explanation!).

If one takes a critical look at the wording of the titles, one may get a glimpse of the main purpose and motive of each media outlet in publishing Otto’s comments about same-sex marriage. The first two publications in English seemed to aim at simply publishing Otto’s comments as they are in order to show to the readership how a priest in the Catholic Church in Indonesia responds to the public discourse of same-sex marriage. It should be noted those comments were made by the individual priest without representing the Church as an institution or the educational institution where Otto teaches.

The last three publications in Indonesian appeared to be more provocative, aiming at testing public reaction. The fact that they failed to cite the actual words used by the priest is suspicious. Those publications soon sparked debate. The readers are divided: some welcomed the same-sex marriage comments with open minds, and some responded with antagonism and anger.

Despite the positive and negative reactions, the same-sex comments would raise more questions than answers. The official position of the Church remains firm — that is, no same-sex marriage is allowed in the Catholic Church. For the Church, marriage is always a sacrament, and exclusive sexual encounters within the marriage framework are meant for procreation, not for recreation.

Those who rejected the possibility of same-sex marriage demanded that Otto be removed from his position as the head of the Catholic Institute of Philosophy. Not just that, they also demanded that Otto no longer be allowed to teach at the Institute and, even more dramatically, to be excommunicated. The strong dramatic demands are made because they see Otto’s commentary as a serious threat to the Catholic teaching on heterosexual marriage and procreation. This argument of opposite-sex marriage for procreation versus same-sex marriage is interesting, and it should be opened for further discussion.

There seems to be an assumption that all heterosexual marriages will produce children, and all Catholics are born to marry. The critical question remains: when someone is not married, or is married but has no children, does this mean that the person is less Catholic merely because he or she does not live up to the Catholic standard and expectations about marriage and procreation?

Reading through some of the arguments against Otto’s commentary about same-sex marriage made me realize how conservative some people might be in their viewpoints about sex, marriage and procreation. Some may not realize how unchristian they might be in their attitudes towards homosexuals. They have stigmatized homosexuals as sinners to be punished, not to be forgiven, embraced and loved. This is a discrimination and is against the spirit of equality as in Galatians 3:28.

Clarifications and apology

In the wake of antagonistic reactions, Otto was forced to make clarifications and to publicly apologize for the hurt his commentary caused. The priest’s statement of clarification and apology was published in Media Indonesia dated May 31, "Klarifikasi Dosen STFK Ledalero Otto Gusti Terkait Pernikahan LGBT" (Clarification of the academic of the Catholic Institute of Philosophy); in UCA News, "Indonesian priest ‘sorry’ for same-sex marriage comments," published on June 1; in Sahabat Katolik Indonesia on June 3, "Pastor Otto Madung SVD Sampaikan Permohonan Maaf atas Komentarnya tentang LGBT" (Father Otto Madung SVD says sorry for his comments about LGBT).

In his clarification, Otto stated that his comments were misquoted for reasons beyond his knowledge. He made the original comments in response to questions by some journalists. Otto, referring to the findings about LGBTQ as well as to the history of the Catholic Church in wrongful condemnation of certain scientific findings, made an ethical argument that it is possible for the Catholic Church to change its current position on same-sex marriage.

As part of his defense, Otto emphasized the word “possibly” in his statement, and he also stated that he did not make explicit mention about the likely Catholic acceptance of same-sex marriage as sacrament as in the Catholic theology of marriage. This is a good rationalization, as marriage may refer to other forms, such as civil marriage or union according to the state law that is valid in a given country.

Lessons learned

Debates about same-sex marriage are not new. The issue has been discussed widely around the world for some time. In the Catholic Church, the topic became hotly debated over the last several months during the papacy of Pope Francis. This is partly due to the openness of the Holy See to tackle some of the problems within the Church at their roots, such as the issue of power, money and sex.

That means Otto is not the first person to make comments on same-sex marriage. Indonesian online media Sejuk published an interesting article on May 30, 2020, titled "Saatnya Agama Melawan Fobia LGBT" (It is time for religion to fight against the LGBT phobia). It raised some public interest in the discourse.

This controversy over Father Otto Gusti Madung’s comments about the likelihood of same-sex marriage being accepted by the Catholic Church should be seen as positive energy. Many who may never have thought about the matter before in relation to Catholic theology and marriage law, human rights issues and gender rights may now begin to ponder what all it means for the future. Will there be more talk about gender equality and justice without robust actions for eradicating the discrimination that uses biblical pretexts such as the first chapter of the Book of Genesis?

Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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