Austrian cardinal speaks on controversies

For more than two decades, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has been one of the Church’s most influential prelates, with his work as the primary author of the Catechism of the Catholic Church affecting the life and the teaching of the Church around the world. In recent years, however, he has also been at the hub of controversy. In mid-June, the cardinal delivered an address at the Language and Catechetical Institute’s Twentieth Anniversary Conference in Gaming, Austria. There, Our Sunday Visitor had a chance to sit down with the cardinal and talk with him about those controversies, as well as his perspective on the state of the New Evangelization. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Recently in your diocese, a young openly homosexual man was elected to his parish council. Both his election and your decision to allow his election to stand created quite a stir in the media. Could you explain your thinking on that decision and the controversy surrounding it? 

Cardinal Schönborn: To begin with, I believe this was a very local situation that certainly did not deserve to be discussed in public, mainly because it is out of the question that the concrete details of the situation be exposed to the public. The only thing I’ve requested of people is that if I make a pastoral decision in a very concrete circumstance they should trust that this decision does not reflect any change in my commitment to Catholic teaching. 

The fact is that sometimes we have to live with situations that are objectively disordered, but we do so with the hope that the people are on the way of faith. We are a community of sinners who all need to improve our lives. We all have to take steps to be more completely conformed to the Lord’s teachings. In this particular situation, I have certainty that the young man is on the way of the Christian life and is conforming his life more and more to God’s plan. I was clear with him about the Church’s teaching when I spoke, but we need to have patience. Again, the only thing I request is to trust that I did not make this decision lightly or arbitrarily, and am in no way denying the Church’s teaching on this issue. 

OSV: Your decision to accompany pilgrims to Medjugorje has surprised some people, especially given the statements coming out of the local diocese and Rome that have questioned the authenticity of the apparitions. Could you give us some insight into how you approach this question and about how we can approach it as well? 

Cardinal Schönborn: I think that the Church’s teaching on Medjugorje is very clear. The bishops of the countries of the former Yugoslavia took a clear position in 1991. This is still valid and has been confirmed by the Vatican twice. There are three important points in this statement. First, that it is not confirmed that the events are of supernatural origin. That means it is neither confirmed nor denied. The Church left it open. The second point is that as the so-called apparition question and message question has not been decided it is not permissible to make official pilgrimages to Medjugorje. So, for example, I cannot organize a formal diocesan pilgrimage to Medjugorje as we can to Rome or Fatima or Lourdes. The third point, however, is that the people who choose to go to Medjugorje on their own are entitled to spiritual care. So, we priests or bishops are invited to provide spiritual company to pilgrims. That’s what my predecessors in Vienna did from the very beginning regarding Medjugorje, and that’s what I continue to do. I think these three points are sufficient for a good understanding of how to approach Medjugorje. The most important for me are the overwhelming good spiritual fruits of Medjugorje. 

OSV: A group of Austrian priests have drawn quite a bit of attention to themselves, including being singled out by Pope Benedict in his Holy Thursday remarks, by publicly voicing their opposition to key Church teachings on the priesthood, marriage and sexuality. How have you been handling these priests and do you see your approach changing anytime soon? 

Cardinal Schönborn: This is a long story, and as always the media reduces the long story to headlines. As it so happens, the word disobedience is a marvelous headline for journalists. They like showing differences of opinion, conflict and opposition. That’s what the media needs. Because of that, this group of priests have chosen to include the word “disobedience” in their group’s name for media reasons, to attract attention. This has been severely criticized by many of us who consider that as an unfair procedure. I do think we have to discuss the questions that are behind the controversy. Some should be easy to answer. There is, after all, a clear doctrine of the Church concerning women’s ordination. There are others, such as the preaching of the laity, which they need help seeing in a larger context. It is good for laypeople to preach, but rather where they live, work and act. Each baptized person should be a messenger.  

Then we have the question of those who are divorced and remarried. This is a burning question because so many are in these situations. But what I don’t understand is why the only question anyone seems to be interested in discussing is whether they can go to Communion or not. There are so many important questions to deal with. For example, what happens to the children of those who are divorced and remarried? What happens to those spouses who are abandoned? What are the psychological effects of giving a promise and not keeping the promise? Again, there is such a range of questions we should seriously consider, but this group of priests focuses exclusively on communion questions, when really each of us should be asking if I have the right disposition, if I should abstain until I can go to confession. So there are many questions behind this initiative that truly deserve discussion but not under the heading of disobedience. Rather they should be addressed under the heading of real pastoral care, helping people look at Jesus and his way, his obedience, as well as looking at the riches of the teaching of the Church, not as a burden. The Holy Father’s homily is a beautiful invitation to them and to us to find the true way of obedience. 

OSV: What are the obstacles and opportunities for the New Evangelization in Europe? 

Cardinal Schönborn: Well, to me it seems that we are the obstacle. Think about this: Why is it said about St. Paul that despite his chains, despite being in prison — being under house arrest in Rome — why is it said that he announced the good news of Jesus Christ with full trust and without obstacles? How is being in a quasi prison being without obstacles? It’s because he had no obstacle in himself. The first obstacle we have to overcome is our unconverted heart and our fear to suffer for the Gospel. As Paul said to Timothy, “Suffer with me for the Gospel.” That’s the only real obstacle we face. Of course the devil is there, making many obstacles, but none are greater than the grace of God. So many people are waiting for the Good News, and the more our own hearts are converted, the more we can give that to them. 

OSV: When looking at the current climate for the New Evangelization in Europe and in America, do you see any differences between the two? 

Cardinal Schönborn: I love America but I am not sure if I know enough to fully address that question. I can say that you in the States are at some advantage as people are much more “churched” there than people are in Europe. Church attendance is much more natural, and there is more practicing of the Faith. But, despite that, generally speaking, I think the situation of announcing the Gospel is everywhere similar because the Gospel is for all. The human heart is waiting for the Gospel everywhere. It corresponds to the deepest desires of the heart. 

OSV: As we approach the Year of Faith, what is important for Catholics to keep in mind? 

Cardinal Schönborn: It may be helpful to think about what Paul says, and that is that we can lose faith. Faith is a gift. It’s a relationship to a person, to Jesus. It’s having trust in him, it’s a commitment to him. And if you don’t treat this friend well, if you neglect him, you may lose the friendship. Not from his side, but from our side. Therefore, the most important thing for the Year of Faith is to cultivate a true friendship with Jesus every day. This is Pope Benedict’s constant invitation to us. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor