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The men who could be pope: Cardinal Christoph Schönborn

The cardinal who holds his Church together

By on Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Cardinal Schönborn addresses an audience in Atchison, Kansas                 (CNS)

Cardinal Schönborn addresses an audience in Atchison, Kansas (CNS)

Young at 68, the Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is often described as a reformer who comes out of Pope Benedict’s intellectual tradition. Nicknamed the Zauberlehrling (“Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) he studied under Joseph Ratzinger in Regensburg and is an active member of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis, a group of the Pope’s former students who meet annually with the Holy Father to discuss theological issues. He was secretary of the body which put together the compendium of Catholic teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, first published in the 1990s, but also has a reputation for compromise and reform.

Born in the present-day Czech Republic in 1945 into an aristocratic family, Cardinal Schönborn grew up as a refugee in Austria after his parents fled Bohemia after the War. He joined the Order of Preachers in 1963 and was ordained a priest by Cardinal Franz König in Vienna in 1970. During his doctoral studies at the Institute Catholique in Paris, Cardinal Schönborn spent a year in Regensburg with Joseph Ratzinger. His academic interests have covered ecumenism, especially with the Eastern Churches, doctrine and catechesis as well as the Charismatic Renewal. Before becoming an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Vienna, he taught dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Cardinal Schönborn was parachuted into the Archdiocese of Vienna in 1995 after his predecessor, Cardinal Hermann Groër, faced child abuse allegations. His time in office as Archbishop of Vienna has not been easy. As a result of Austria’s historically strong tradition of Catholicism, the established Church – enriched by vast properties and annual membership fees – had grown fat and complacent while on the extremes experimental pastoral theologians waged war with ultra-conservatives.

Austria is the birthplace of We are Church, a now international group of lay people and priests that has called for married priests, women priests and increased lay involvement. The country is also home to the International Theological Summer Academy, an annual theological seminar which is more focused on traditional orthodoxy and a conservative approach to liturgy.

Cardinal Schönborn has had to deal with rebellious priests calling to be allowed to be married to their housekeepers and refusing obedience, while also facing criticism from conservatives who feel that he has bowed too much to public opinion, conceded too much to the self-styled reformers and allowed liturgical excesses in the name of attracting people to the Church.

Pope Benedict’s first annus horribilis, 2009, was also a critical year for Cardinal Schönborn. January saw the media storm over Pope Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunications hanging over Lefebvrist bishops, including the controversial Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. The Williamson affair shook the Austrian Church. The slow haemorrhaging of Austrian Catholics which had gone on for years suddenly turned into a torrent. In order to make peace, Cardinal Schönborn publicly criticised the Pope’s decision and joined a campaign urging Catholics to create T-shirts with slogans on why they were staying in the Church despite what was happening.

And then another bomb struck. The Holy See went over the heads of the Austrian bishops’ conference to appoint Mgr Gerhard Wagner to the extremely divided Diocese of Linz. Mgr Wagner, an outspoken conservative, was boycotted by the priests of the diocese. After a drawn-out media war, Cardinal Schönborn made an emergency trip to Rome. Mgr Wagner was persuaded to resign. The bishops, led by Cardinal Schönborn, issued a document which blamed the Vatican for the incident, but also said the episode called into question the very sacramental nature of the Church.

In recent years Cardinal Schönborn has not hesitated to be critical of the Curia. After former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano called the media uproar about the clerical child abuse scandal “idle gossip”, Cardinal Schönborn lambasted him in the press for his lack of sensitivity and understanding about the crisis. Another media war ensued in which Cardinal Schönborn also accused Cardinal Sodano of obstructing an investigation into the abuse allegations against Cardinal Groër, which he and the then Cardinal Ratzinger were pushing for in 1998.

Much of Cardinal Schönborn’s approach has been shaped by his background: he has been known to say in private that he belongs to two minorities which have taken too much for granted for too long: the aristocracy and the hierarchy. Secularisation and the growing fall-out from the Church seem to be his biggest pastoral concerns. As he told John Allen, a veteran Vatican reporter in an interview last year: “The question is, do we really believe that we can attract people to Christ today?”

In the name of mission, he has tolerated Masses with strobe lights, balloons and rock music in the hope of making the Church more accessible to the young and has promoted a youth catechism in order to make the Church’s teachings more comprehensible to an un-catechised and seemingly unenthusiastic younger generation. He has sat down with the priests calling for reform to hear their concerns as he feels that they represent many of the concerns of the laity, even though he believes that their approach has the wrong accent.

As the son of divorced parents, he campaigned in favour of divorced and re-married people receiving Communion, a popular concern for the German-speaking laity.

Last year Cardinal Schönborn had to announce a radical restructuring of the Archdiocese of Vienna because the Church has too many buildings and parishes, and too few priests and people. He hopes that by clustering parishes together the Church’s new situation will be reflected more accurately. He also hopes that by giving over other parish buildings to lay movements he can get the spirit of evangelisation moving in the Austrian Church.

Anna Arco is editor-at-large of The Catholic Herald

  • Emma07

    I so hope he becomes Pope.  We need him

  • Julian Lord

    I so hope he becomes Pope

    I don’t.

  • Benedict Carter

    “The cardinal who holds his Church together”?

    What?! Is the writer of this line actually mad?

    Shonborn, faced with open rebellion from a section of the clergy under his governance … does nothing, but panders to them time after time after time. Chamberlain at Munich has nothing on this Cardinal.

    If “holding his (local) Church together” consists in the toleration of heretical and apostate priests, then give me a Pope who won’t hold his Church together!

    What harm to the Faith and a great scandal to the Catholic Faithful Schonborn has given!

    Has Anna Arco never read Christ’s own words about lopping off diseased branches of the vine which are fit only for the fire? Clearly not.

    Interesting that the CH’s first Papal preferences are two liberal-progressives. Wonder which particular appalling candidate their next journalist will offer us?

  • Panchobio

    Me too.

  • 777francis

    I think that Cardinal Schonborn sounds like he is the correct mixture of courage, compassion,
    intelligence, humility, tolerance (for example of Catholics with differing viewpoints in regards to married priests).  He is willing to listen to others while being true to the Gospel of Christ . He appears to be completely untainted by the horrific sexual abuse problem.  The new pope must have  zero tolerance for pedophile priests.  He may be the best candidate and I hope that he is chosen.  I am praying to Our Lady for this outcome or any other Cardinal that exemplifies these characteristics.

  • Benedict Carter

    Christian Virtues

    “Tolerance” is not on the list.

  • James M

     He’s probably too old

  • James M

    What would “zero tolerance” be like in practice, though ? It sounds well – but in practice, it  might be unworkable. 

    Maybe corruption is needed for the Church to function.

  • Charles

     We forget that people are attracted to strong, intelligent leadership. Wishy wash compromise is not respected, its simply  taken advantage of by those that are strong and intelligent. The Catholic church is not meant to be all things to all people, but rather to be that which it was created to be; let those that don’t like it leave for another church as we’d be better off without them anyways.

  • AlanP

    I wonder if there is any possible candidate you would NOT regard as unspeakably appalling?  Personally I don’t think we should be discussing the merits or otherwise of particular individuals.  Especially as it often happens that a Pope turns out to be very different from what people expect (John XXIII and Benedict XVI are examples).

  • Benedict Carter

    Hear, hear Charles. 

  • Benedict Carter

    The current crop of Cardinals has nothing whatever to recommend it. 

    You have no conception Alan of the terrible crisis facing the Church, that’s your problem. Governance is only one aspect of it.

  • Thérèse

    Ummm….. did Ms Arco deliberately leave out the bit about the said cardinal overruling one of his priests re the gay man who is living with his partner who wanted be on the Catholic parish pastoral council? Why not give the full picture and the full truth?

  • Thérèse

    Problem solved. 

  • Delposo32

    This man is the Pope. He have been the Pope for the past 8 years, but the radicalism and the loosing time in “the coming back” had deteined him for being in charge of our church.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

     Could somebody in authority please find out the Truth in this matter?

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Benedict Carter

    Just look for it on google. All true enough.

  • jae

    We are all sinners as well as the Apostles. Most of the cafeteria catholics are ignorant and confused about their faith, so the outright condemnation or the “fire and brimstone” type is not of Church of Christ.

    The primary Mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel and save souls, specially the lost ones back to Christ. Hammering their heads with the Bible doesn’t do any good, we had done that already.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

     Internet is not necessarily the place to look for TRUTH about a person.
    It could easily be also the market place of faceless people vying with each other to be on top.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP