Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna Austria, who was editorial secretary for the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, recently sat for an Easter interview with Die Presse out of Vienna (also reprinted here.)
The wide-ranging interview touched on welcoming immigrants, witnessing to the Resurrection in secularized society (less than 1/3 of Austrians believe in God), the church’s outreach to youth, and the development since the 1992 Catechism whereby the Church has come to reject capital punishment entirely.
On the subject of women’s ordination, the cardinal chose his words very carefully. His remarks could be understood as opening the way for further development, or also as putting the brakes on any movement for now.
Asked about change in the church, Schönborn said,
“One of the key questions is the role of women in the church. In this, religious organizations as a whole are in need of development… The question of ordination is a question that surely can only be settled by a council. A pope cannot decide this by himself. This is too large a question for it to be settled from the desk of a pope.”
(This echoes comments Cardinal Schönborn made in television interviews in the 1990s to the effect that it would require an ecumenical council for the church to ordain women to the priesthood. His comments were considered noteworthy at the time because he seemed not to consider the question absolutely closed.)
Die Presse asked Schönborn if his remarks applied to priesthood, diaconate, or the office of bishop. He said,
“Pope Francis has at least not excluded female deacons… I would not consider it good [that he introduced this alone]. The church is a community; large decisions should be addressed in a communitarian way.”
Asked if he hoped for such a council, the cardinal said,
“I hope that we go further down the path of synodality, which the pope has strongly encouraged. I trust in the next council, whenever it comes. In his time John XXIII recognized the right moment, when no one expected it. I trust in the Holy Spirit.”
It is noteworthy that Cardinal Schönborn does not state that ordination of women to the episcopate, priesthood, and diaconate is a closed matter that can never be changed. He addresses the question in the context of development of doctrine. But as a practical matter, if Schönborn’s hypothesis is true that only a council (or perhaps synod?) can approve female deacons, this could mean that Pope Francis’s hands are tied and female deacons will not be coming anytime soon in the Catholic Church.
Schönborn says that he trusts in the Holy Spirit also in the question of married priests, which he expects will be taken up at the Amazon synod the pope has called.
On the difference, sometimes large, between the last three popes, Schönborn said this:
“There is a traditional Catholic principle, the development of doctrine… There are distinct levels of doctrinal development. Today it is taken for granted that girls may be altar servers. In many other churches it is still unthinkable that a female steps foot in the altar sanctuary. Or another example: Pope Francis stated a year and a half ago that the feast of Mary Magdalen must be celebrated on the same level as the other feasts of the apostles. Mary Magdalen was the first witness of the Resurrection. She is the apostle of the apostles. One can say that this is a tiny matter. But it indicates a changed situation of consciousness.”
The cardinal was asked how he would explain to a young person without a connection to the church that Jesus is risen. He said:
“Either death is the end or it is a transition. I would say to a young person: When your grandmother dies, do you really believe that she is simply gone? There comes also a second dimension, whether one believes that something continues somehow after death, say, as pure energy, or whether there is resurrection. That this world is not the ultimate thing, but rather that there will be a new creation. This means that we really will live, that we will find each other again.”