By Hops Burger

In the Roman rumor mill – more than in the German or Austrian – the name of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn repeatedly appears as a papabile. And not without reason. Schönborn has a particularly close relationship to Benedict XVI, and to a certain extent he would be a guarantee that the great theological lines of the preceding pontificate would be drawn further.

Schönborn studied under Ratzinger in Regensburg for a year. He later developed a close relationship to Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as editor responsible for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. On many theological topics the two are on the same wavelength. Recent history shows that there was also strong consensus on some political questions.

Schönborn stems from an old line of Austrian nobility which has already produced many bishops and cardinals. Like many German speakers, he was expelled from his Czech homeland immediately after the Second World War. He and his family found a new home in the western Austrian province of Vorarlberg.

Experiencing the fate of an exile, along with dramatic developments in his extended family, have played a role in Schönborn’s sense of being a cardinal and archbishop of Vienna. He has repeatedly shown that others’ personal trials must be handled in the light of the Gospel, and that mercy, empathy, and understanding for the flaws in another’s biography must triumph over the court of judgment of strict doctrine. There is no doubt that in his faithfulness to principles, Schönborn follows the mind of the teaching of the Catholic Church. But he is also a deeply pastorally-minded man of the Church. Despite his lofty position, his feet remain firmly on the ground and he has never lost contact with the real world of people.

His personality, thought, and way of dealing with people become clearer in the details of various stories that have received little attention in the media because they remain obscured to the eyes of superficial journalism.

In a televised discussion of the question of the divorced and remarried, a woman asked him if he would refuse her Communion, now that he knows that she is remarried. He replied with the succinct statement: The Church doesn’t have a statute to fit every situation in human life.

Schönborn’s manner of dealing with the conflict surrounding the burial of Austrian President Thomas Klestil, who died in office, was noteworthy. Klestil had caused a sensation when he divorced his first wife and soon thereafter married his election campaign secretary. The election campaign had been led under the image of the “healthy family.” The second wife, an ambitious diplomat who is now a prominent Austrian ambassador, managed to convince the presidential administration that the first wife should be excluded from official participation in the burial ceremonies. The cardinal forcefully insisted that both women be seated in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, in the first and second row. In his homily he spoke tactfully, and yet with clear language, about the fact of a failed marriage, so that no one was offended in the way he brought together honesty and merciful goodwill.

Schönborn continues to be given big problems having to deal effectively in the public eye with cases of sexual abuse by clergy, particularly by his predecessor, the abuser Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. His initial reflex was defensive, but then he gained respect by examining the facts and looking truth in the eye. This he did together with a minority of the Austrian bishops – Bishops Weber of Graz, Kapellari of Klagenfurt, and Eder of Salzburg. These four publicly declared that they had arrived at moral certainty that the accusations against Cardinal Groer were based on fact.

The enmity which resulted between him and ultraconservative Bishop Kurt Krenn of St. Pölten was legendary. Against his better knowledge, Krenn positioned himself with scandalous public statements and defended Groer to the hilt. Then Krenn was confronted with a scandal in his diocesan seminary. The rectory of the seminary, and not only he, was found guilty of homosexual behavior. Krenn defended his people, meaning that his days as diocesan bishop were numbered. Conservative publications probably aren’t wrong when to this day they accuse Schönborn of greatly speeding up the demise of the Austrian “scandal bishop.”

In the clarification of event surrounding Cardinal Groer, the Austrian bishops were forcefully impeded by the Roman authorities and John Paul II. Retired Bishop Weber of Graz has admitted that this remains a big wound in his life. (It is known that Cardinal Ratzinger took a different position than the rest of the Roman curia in such questions.)

In an interview in 2010, Cardinal Schönborn publicly criticized the obstructionists in the Vatican, and especially their leader, the Secretary of State at the time, Cardinal Sodano. The reaction was fierce. Schönborn was called to Rome for a scolding. In Vienna there were secret reports of a shouting match involving several cardinals. The matter was then settled, at least publicly, with spongy statements. Schönborn certainly didn’t out himself as a friend of the curia in the whole affair – and of course he knew the curia all too well from his time in Rome.

It counts as certain in Austrian church gossip that Schönborn prevented the already-announced episcopal ordination of Fr. Gerhard Wagner, parish priest in Upper Austria who was named auxiliary bishop of Linz. Wagner was known for his reactionary views and his difficult personality. As an old Austrian nobleman, Schönborn has no fear before thrones of princes, and so he went directly to the Pope. He brought about the revocation of Wagner’s nomination as auxiliary bishop – a one-time occurrence in recent Church history. Acting discretely behind the curtains, Schönborn was able to apply the emergency brakes quickly and so save the Austrian Church from much difficulty.

An episode brewed up for the Cardinal by the stupid behavior of a Polish priest north of Vienna caused a sensation. Initially the pastor did not oppose the candidacy for parish council of a homosexual man who had civilly married his same-sex partner. After the man was elected by the parish community, the pastor refused to approve the election of this open homosexual. As the media made much of the matter, the cardinal invited the man and his partner to a meal and conversation. Later, in an interview, the cardinal said that he was struck by the testimony of faith of the two men and their way of living their faith.

The Polish priest publicly objected that he could not continue as pastor when the cardinal undercut his teaching of Catholic morality. The priest’s case was weakened when a woman soon came forward as his former mistress.

Already in 2010 Schönborn had said, “In the matter of homosexuality we should see more clearly the quality of a relationship. And also speak respectfully of this quality. A stable relationship is certainly better than when someone simply lives promiscuously.” For him this was a change from a “morality of obligation” to a “morality of flourishing.” The center of attention is not sins, but human striving to comply with the commandments.

Another action was less politically less satisfactory, and it was gleefully exploited by the left-wing church magazine “Kirche In.” An associate pastor in a Vienna parish announced that he was leaving the priesthood for a woman. Shortly after he departed his office because of celibacy, a new associate pastor arrived – with wife in arm. He is Greek Catholic, and thus a legitimately married priest. No one could explain satisfactorily to the astonished parish why the one man could be a priest, but not the other.

Cardinal Schönborn is ecclesiastical ordinary in Austria for Eastern Catholics of the Byzantine rite in communion with Rome. He has repeatedly attempted to alleviate the pressing clergy shortage in his archdiocese by the placement of married Greek Catholic priests. The Roman authorities have caused him every possible difficulty in this matter.

Schönborn has also had bad fortune with his former vicar general, Helmut Schüller. The cardinal fired the overly ambitious cleric, which was hardly a surprise to insiders. Now Schüller perpetually provokes his archbishop with his Appeal to Disobedience and his call for women’s ordination, the abolition of mandatory celibacy, and other hot-button issues. Schüller has also founded an organization of like-minded priests. The archbishop certainly does not respond with disciplinary measures, but rather makes his argument patiently and mostly suffers silently as he goes forward.

These and many other stories show Schönborn to be a man and bishop of personal integrity, not corrupted by his office or church politics, with a deep Christ-centered spirituality, open with goodwill to contemporary people and their concerns, problems, and needs, but not uncritically so. For many people in Austria, Schönborn embodies the model of the “Good Shepherd” who reacts with understanding to the brokenness of human existence. He appeals for conversion and transformation not with moralistic finger-pointing, but with love.

The cardinal hopes for an improvement of the church situation through forms of new evangelization, especially as this come from the “new movements.” His close relationship to the “Community of the Lamb” has not been concealed. Several of these ecclesial movements are received with goodwill and encouragement in Vienna.

Schönborn is a man of ecumenism. He is united to the Pope Emeritus in his inclination toward Orthodoxy. Schönborn has documented this and supported it as a scholar in his much-celebrated book on icons of Christ. Schönborn also energetically supports “pro oriente,” the foundation begun by Cardinal König. He is highly active in the foundation’s work, for example in study trips and encounters with Orthodox and Old Oriental church leaders. His well-known friendship with the deceased Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Michael Staikos brought about much good. One could also observe Schönborn taking part in the Orthodox Good Friday procession in the inner city, since the Greek cathedral is close to St. Stephen’s cathedral. Orthodox liturgy and spirituality were and are an important spiritual heritage for the Viennese cardinal.

As editor of the Catechism in Rome, Schönborn survived the trial by fire which tested his suitability for higher church office. It is true that he got his wings as respected professor of dogmatics in Swiss Fribourg, and he was always noticed and encouraged by Ratzinger, but his church “masterpiece” was the Catechism. Among friends Schönborn never hid the fact that the drafts from the appointed commission of bishops were mehr schlecht als recht (“terrible more than correct”). He pretty much had to rewrite everything from beginning to end, and write much of it new.

The true heart of the cardinal beats in the chapter of the Catechism on the liturgy. This bears most clearly the handwriting of Schönborn, who has always dedicated himself devotedly to liturgical questions. His approach to questions of worship is systematic, spiritual, and aesthetic. Liturgical history is not dismissed thereby, but it doesn’t play a central role. In this approach he is united once again with Ratzinger.

Anyone who studies the liturgy section of the Catechism will understand well the innermost thinking of Schönborn. The Cardinal of Vienna is – as a Dominican – a gifted teacher. Despite his high intellectualism, he can present complicated and complex theological matters so that they are understandable even for simple people. He has a pleasant speaking voice, and his rhetoric is skilled but unobtrusive. One listens readily to him, because he succeeds in drawing people in by the manner of his spoken communication.

His calm manner of celebration and his skill with communal ritual show him to be a master of the ars celebrandi. Ever since the sanctuary of St. Stephen’s Cathedral was renovated by Cardinal Groer, it continues to be a place for celebration that doesn’t offend the eye and is free of the usual burden of ecclesiastical kitsch.

The cardinal highly values liturgical aesthetics and a dramaturgically well-prepared liturgy. In this he is supported by a master of ceremonies – a married deacon – who ensures that episcopal worship services are beautiful to behold in their external unfolding.

As an aesthetically sensitive man, Schönborn is a friend of tasteful modern vestments. But in Vienna it is part of the normal style of feast day liturgies that baroque vestments and other such things from the cathedral treasury are used. This is not an ideological statement but an aesthetic one.

Normally one wouldn’t see the cardinal wearing liturgical clothes with Belgian lace. He appears not to be a friend of the wall of candlesticks on the altar, as is customary in Rome since Guido Marini.

It is not known that the cardinal is particularly a friend of the Extraordinary Form (with the pre-Vatican II missal of 1962). Most of the Austrian bishops are discretely agreed that this form is not to be encouraged, but also not prevented. They see no necessity of using this liturgy as a way to favor Latin in the liturgy. Austrian church music praxis also contributes to this. It is completely normal that on high and not so high feast days, church choirs sing a Latin Mass Ordinary with orchestral accompaniment, without it becoming somewhat of a “concert with liturgical accompaniment.” And apart from this, choirs sing not a little Latin church music. It should be emphasized that the celebration from altar and ambo is mostly in German. This praxis is affirmed also by many “progressive” Catholics, because this type of church music simply belongs to the cultural identity of Austrians.

The cardinal has no problem singing a Mass in Latin – without making it into an ideological question. Perhaps only those closest to him know how he, with his cultural background, managed to preside at a Mass with the Catholic youth of his diocese with blaring rock music.

German-speaking dioceses will get the new edition of the official hymnal and prayer book Gotteslob (“Praise of God”) in fall 2013. The Austrian bishops participated completely and constructively in the drafting process, including their defiance of the attempts at regulation of the Congregation for Divine Worship to interfere with customary practices of congregational singing. An aspect of this was that the bishops did not accept the CDW’s prohibition of songs by the Dutch ex-Jesuit Huub Oosterhuis as “liturgical songs.” According to press reports, the songs have stayed.

Among the noteworthy actions of the Viennese cardinal with respect to liturgy is the publication of a particular funeral rite for the Archdiocese of Vienna, which appeared not as a “Ritual Book” but as a “Manual.” Schönborn simply decided sua potestate (“by his own power”) to publish this book to meet pastoral needs, rather than taking the usual path for the publication of official liturgical books.

It is reported that Schönborn is counted among the strongest critics of the attempt at retranslation of the missal which, it is said, is seen as highly unsuccessful. The translation is only known fragmentarily, since everything must transpire as a secret business. The Austrian bishops above all have made no secret of their continuing resistance to it. It was also the Archbishop of Salzburg who made himself the leader of those who prevented the implementation of the new translation of the German funeral rites after Rome ordered its publication. With nonacceptance of the officially issued book, the situation is now a standoff.

There are other utterly unconventional facets of the Cardinal of Vienna. In his diocese he has named many women to leadership positions in the chancery. His friendship with the Austrian poet Peter Turrini, who has repeatedly taken critical positions on church matters, is legendary. His engagement with the world of the arts is respected. His scholarly work is considerable.

Admittedly, the discussion he led in the U.S. media on “intelligent design” caused a disturbance.

Schönborn is a man who was given many gifts in life and has made use of these in a very positive way. One thing he clearly is not: a politician who intervenes with an iron fist. He is a man of dialogue, including difficult dialog. He is not too cowardly to take in hand a hot potato. Above all, he is a spiritual man. He is deeply rooted in the Church, but he has retained the capability to beyond the edge of his plate to see and understand the external world with all its questions and problems.

But: will the cardinals want to elect an Austrian after a German pope?

Hops Burger hails from the land of the historic Austrian-Hungarian empire and knows way too much about things Roman. His idea of a good time is studying a Latin liturgical book.  

Send to Kindle