Vienna cardinal’s diplomatic, managerial skills tested by turmoil

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As archbishop of Vienna and president of the Austrian bishops' conference Cardinal Christoph Schonborn's diplomatic and administrative abilities have been tested by a period of church turmoil involving laity and the hierarchy.

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn heads the Archdiocese of Vienna in Austria. (CNS file photo)

The conflicts have involved disagreement over the nature of the priesthood, the role of lay people and the authority of the hierarchy. The tensions were heightened by a controversy over Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, the former archbishop of Vienna who resigned in 1995 amid allegations that he had sexually abused minors.

Beyond his pastoral trials, the 60-year-old Dominican has the talents and experience that make him one of a handful of cardinals consistently mentioned as possible papal candidates.

Many have given Cardinal Schonborn high marks for guiding a difficult dialogue with dissident groups and disaffected Catholics in Austria. At the same time, the number of Austrians leaving the church has increased substantially in recent years, and differences among bishops have been made painfully public.

The church in Austria suffered a further blow in July 2004, when the media published pictures of priests and students of the Sankt Polten seminary kissing and fondling each other, and when Austrian authorities found thousands of pornographic photographs on seminary computers.

After a formal Vatican investigation of the diocese and its seminary, the seminary was closed and its bishop, Bishop Kurt Krenn, resigned.

Cardinal Schonborn said the bishops' conference and the nuncio to Austria had "warned for months" that Bishop Krenn was "dangerously ignoring the rules of recruitment" by admitting students to the Sankt Polten seminary without checking why they had been rejected elsewhere.

The scandals have lowered Cardinal Schonborn's ranking on most media's lists of papal candidates, but he has not lost his popularity completely and seems, at least on paper, to have many of the qualities most cited as necessary to be pope.

For instance, the cardinal speaks French, English, Italian, Spanish and Latin, and he delighted journalists during Pope John Paul II's June 1998 trip to Austria by fielding one question in Esperanto.

In 1996 he was invited to preach Pope John Paul's Lenten retreat, a special sign of papal favor. He is a member of the Vatican congregations for the doctrine of the faith, Eastern churches and Catholic education as well as the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Goods of the Church. He is a former member of the International Theological Commission.

In October 2003, Cardinal Schonborn created a small storm of controversy when he commented to Austrian state radio that Pope John Paul was approaching "the last days and months of his life" at a time when the Vatican was adding items to the increasingly frail pope's schedule.

When he became a cardinal in January 1998, people outside Austria already recognized his name: Cardinal Schonborn was the main editor of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." He guided the team of seven bishops that produced the catechism in its original French version in 1992. He also coordinated the contributions of about 1,000 bishops to its drafting and writing and oversaw several of its translations.

In editing the catechism, the cardinal strongly defended the preservation of traditional language in texts and dismissed the debate over inclusive language as an issue that would quickly be forgotten. The catechism did not use inclusive language.

But it was Cardinal Schonborn who formally asked Pope John Paul in October 2002 to approve drafting a more concise catechism, saying the current volume of more than 2,800 articles of church teaching is too ponderous "to be the simple guide to the faith that is needed by Catholics."

The cardinal was then named part of a 10-member commission charged with preparing an official Catholic minicatechism; a 150-page draft was completed in February 2004.

In 2001, Cardinal Schonborn became the most senior Catholic leader to visit Iran after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. He called for closer contacts between Catholics and Muslims saying, "Patient dialogue with Islam, backed by educational and cultural initiatives, is the Catholic Church's most important task."

At a February 2004 talk in Florida, he said Islam and Christianity profess to have received God's ultimate revelation, which makes dialogue between them difficult. But dialogue is not impossible, nor is cooperation in promoting peace, justice and morality. In fact, he said, Catholics and Muslims have worked together, for example, in standing against abortion at U.N. conferences in the 1990s.

Pressure for dialogue within the Catholic Church greeted Cardinal Schonborn when he was named head of the Vienna Archdiocese in 1995.

Austrian Catholics had launched a global movement, "We Are Church," to seek more lay participation in church decision-making, to end the requirement of priestly celibacy and to promote the priestly ordination of women.

In August 2001, Cardinal Schonborn said the ongoing discussions between Austria's laity and church officials was a sign of diversity in the Catholic Church and not an indication of serious tensions.

Christoph Schonborn came from a family that produced two cardinals, in the 18th and 19th centuries. His was one of the prominent noble families of the region known at the time as Bohemia, much of which later became Czechoslovakia.

Just after World War II, when some of the nation's communities retaliated for their wartime sufferings by expelling people of Germanic origin, the Schonborn family fled to Austria. Christoph was 8 months old.

At age 18 he entered the Order of Preachers and studied at Dominican schools and universities in Austria, Germany and France. His postgraduate studies included philosophy, theology, psychology and Byzantine and Slavic Christianity. He became a priest in 1970.

Then-Father Schonborn went on to further studies and academic positions in Austria, Switzerland and France and joined several theological commissions.

Pope John Paul appointed him auxiliary bishop of Vienna in 1991 and coadjutor archbishop in April 1995.

Cardinal Schonborn's diplomatic skills were employed in the name of the Holy See as early as 1997, when he traveled to Istanbul to meet with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and to Moscow for talks with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II.

During a talk with Rome missionary officials in 1996, Cardinal Schonborn shared his thoughts on several important church topics. A few samples of his remarks:

-- On women's ordination, Pope John Paul's statements on the all-male priesthood are right, but "we are not at the end of this debate."

"The teaching of the Holy Father is very clear, but the intelligence of the faith must follow it. And it's a pastoral responsibility to fully explain this teaching."

-- Papal infallibility is important and valid, but must be better understood. It is not just the pope's position, but the pope expressing the "infallibility entrusted by Christ to the church as a whole."

-- Religious movements such as charismatic renewal and the Neocatechumenate sometimes upset local bishops and clergy with their aggressive evangelizing, yet this is a "necessary tension" that can help the church.

-- Theology today needs two or three generations to recover from inadequate formation programs. Part of the remedy is use of the new catechism.

-- The church needs new ways for all the faithful to express their understanding of the faith, but majority vote or parliamentary procedure cannot be the church's model.


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