Cardinal Schönborn on Resurrection, Women’s Ordination, Development of Doctrine

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna Austria, who was editorial secretary for the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Churchrecently 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.”


  1. “The question of ordination is a question that surely can only be settled by a council. A pope cannot decide this by himself.”

    Actually he can. To quote Lumen Gentium no. 22 (from Vatican II), “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff… The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church.”

    Even if Pope Francis were to convene a council to settle this doctrinal matter (one that was already officially settled by John Paul II), it would have no authority over him. To use LG as an example, it was promulgated by Pope Paul VI alone. Sure, he convened the council to draft the document and do the doctrinal heavy lifting (as most popes do), but the entirety of Vatican II would be nothing without his signature, and LG would had the same authority had Paul IV decided to write it alone.

    I am a great admirer of the work and mind of Cardinal Schonborn, and I love his parting words in this article. But this theoretical supremacy of an ecumenical council appears to be a serious misinterpretation of the power of the Holy Father as it relates to his bishops, assuming this argument is translated correctly. Pope Francis could certainly change that, but I doubt he will because it could similarly enable a Game of Thrones style Burkeian coup that I’m sure everyone wants to avoid.

    1. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it will be accepted. A secular example is global warming. Scientists (equivalent to the Pope) say global warming is real because it is real and should be accepted as such, but large amounts of the public might reject the teaching. The scientists could just keep announcing the truth knowing their authority should be rightfully accepted even as it is being ignored. But if politicians (or say bishops in a Council) also agree then the public will be more willing to go along, which is the point of announcing the truth in the first place.

      Also isn’t it more proper to say the supreme exercise of the papal magisterium and an ecumenical council cannnot come into conflict because the Holy Spirit is the ultimate source of both.

    2. I think Schönborn’s point is not that a council is superior to a pope, but that acceptance will come more easily if it is seen as a collaborative decision rather than a diktat from a supreme ruler, because reception after is the important part. (I mean, I agree that acceptance cannot be lacking, but look at the fuss over the Joy of Love!)

      I think he is right about that, but that doesn’t mean a council is needed. The Marian dogmas were preceded by “polls” of the bishops. Well, not the recent Mother of the Church definition.

  2. I have implicit trust in the good cardinal. And of his description of the relationship between the pontificates of JP2, BXVI, and Francis. That said, I would not interpret his comments as either supporting or opposing wonens ordination. Just that only a council would have the authority to settle the matter. Surely people will dissent as the do from from Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. But those councils and decisions aren’t going anywhere.

  3. “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.

    If Pope Francis wants the church to “create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church,” then he should begin by reevaluating whether the prohibition against permanent women deacons should stand today.

  4. A true spiritual heir to his fellow bishop of yore, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Whether the next pope is Cdl Tagle as Francis II the Merciful, or Cdl Sarah as Clement XV Hammer of Heretics, we know that His Most Shrewd Eminence is set for life.

  5. “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.”

    It’s interesting that the Cardinal’s reply to the disconnected young person about the Resurrection of Jesus doesn’t name Jesus. How would the cardinal explain to the hypothetical young person how/why belief in Jesus is necessary for that time when “we will find each other again” and/or why baptism into and regular practice of the Christian faith is essential, or normative, or mandatory?

    I going to guess that numbers of young people believe they will see grandma again. I’m not so sure that many will accept that Jesus’ Resurrection somehow has to be a part of that reunion.

  6. John Paul II effectively closed this matter of women’s ordination and met the conditions of infallibility, although did not declare it ex cathedra. Nonetheless, he stated “I define and declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination upon women.” So, possibly leaving the door open for the deacons, but not the priesthood. If another Pope were to come along and approve ordination of women, then the whole institution of the Papacy just looks like a game and/or fraud from that point.

    1. You write as if theology is an exact science, and as if there has been no tension or contradiction in the development of the magisterium’s position on any issue. History simply does not bear out this view. I’m sorry, but if you push your worldview far enough, it becomes unscholarly fundamentalism.

  7. It’s a shame that today’s Christians mostly fail to grasp the significance of the theological revolution that occurred when Peter and the others accepted the revelation made to them that the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jewish believers to the riches of God’s kingdom. Gentiles can be saved by grace through faith? Women could be called through the power of the keys to be servant leaders at the Lord’s table? What impact would this have on the belief that rule by males is of define institution? What impact on the life style of clerics who live as well off bachelors who vacation all over the world, have the finest furnishing, and drive great vehicles? Cultural change is tremendously challenging. Long live Francis for his bold efforts to effect that change.

  8. For almost two thousand years, Christians have claimed that they possess documents written by eyewitnesses containing testimony that hundreds of people witnessed the most earth-shattering event in all of human history: The Resurrection of Jesus. However, modern scholarship now believes that this claim is false.

    Neither eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. And this isn’t just the view of atheist scholars who have a bias against the supernatural. It is the view of the majority of Roman Catholic scholars. Even scholar NT Wright, a favorite of evangelicals and other conservative Christians has said, “I do not know who the authors of the Gospels were and nor does anyone else.”

    The fact is, the only scholars who still believe that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels are for the most part fundamentalist Protestants.

    I believe that this is the most profound discovery of modern biblical scholarship; a discovery which will eventually doom traditional, conservative Christianity. It is the issue we non-supernaturalists must point out to conservative Christians over and over and over again, every time we discuss the truth claims of Christianity with them. Without the ability to pull out the Gospels as primary source eyewitness accounts, the strength of the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus drastically plummets. And without the historicity of the Resurrection, the entire
    Christian belief system collapses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.