Cardinal Schönborn: a Council Could Approve of Female Ordinations

During Easter, not only did a German priest and monk declare that he could well imagine a female pope in the future, but Cardinal Christoph Schönborn – whom Pope Francis has called a “great theologian” and to whom the pope entrusted the public interpretation of Amoris Laetitia – gave an interview in which he appears to express the belief that a future ecumenical council could approve of the ordination of women to the priesthood.

In an 1 April interview given to a group of Austrian journalists – prominently to some from the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, but also from the Salzburger Nachrichten – Cardinal Schönborn makes several statements that show his own openness to the idea of married priests, as well as ordained women – from deaconesses, to female priests, and even to female bishops.

When asked in this 1 April interview about an Austrian bishop’s proposal to ordain married men and whether he would agree with him, Cardinal  Schönborn responds with the words: “Organisational questions are important, and I believe that there is some room for movement, also some necessary potential for change.” These words make it clear that he welcomes such proposals for change. The prominent Austrian cardinal and editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in this context more concretely what he means when he himself first brings up the topic of women and says that “one of the key questions is the role of women in the Church. There, the religious communities altogether have a need for development.”

Cardinal Schönborn adds that he wishes for “a higher percentage of women in leading positions” and then brings up the subject of female ordination:

The question of ordination [of women] is a question which clearly can only be clarified by a council. That cannot be decided upon by a pope alone. That is a question too big that it could be decided from the desk of a pope.

It was Pope John Paul II, in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, who is credited with offering the Church’s final word on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood when he wrote:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Was it to this letter that Schönborn was referring when he said the issue of women’s ordination “cannot be decided upon by a pope alone” and that it “is a question too big” to be decided from “the desk of a pope”?

It is important to note here that while it might seem as if the cardinal is setting a high standard for such a decision, he actually proposes this step — an ecumenical council — as a sort of revolutionary communal change. As a matter of fact, not even a council could decide to ordain women. Since he is close to Pope Francis, Schönborn raises the question whether his comments indicate here some future plans of the pope with regard to female ordinations, or even with regard to a future ecumenical council.

When asked whether he speaks here about the ordination of female priests, Schönborn responds: “[Ordinations] as deaconesses, female priests, and female bishops.” Discussing the fact that Pope Francis has not excluded the idea of ordaining deaconesses, Schönborn returns to his thesis that it would not be “good” if the pope were to decide upon this matter by himself alone. “The Church is a community, big decisions should me made together.”

It is in this context that the Austrian cardinal and current archbishop of Vienna says that he wishes

that we continue to walk the path of synodality of the Church [to make decisions after consultations in an assembly – in the words of the Salzburger Nachrichten] which the pope very much promotes. I trust that there will be a next council – whenever it comes. John XXIII recognized in his time the right moment when nobody else expected it. I trust in the Holy Ghost.

Cardinal Schönborn also predicts that the question of married priests “certainly will be brought up” at the upcoming Amazon Synod, even though he also says that he himself “would not want to have to decide it.” He repeats “I trust in the Holy Ghost.”

Cardinal Schönborn, when further discussing the larger matter of changes within the Church’s teaching, insists that there exists “a traditional principle, that is the development of doctrine. Right now, we are experiencing a very exciting step in the development of doctrine,” he explains. Quoting Pope Francis’ own words on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he says “the development of doctrine exists.” As an example, the Austrian cardinal refers to the question of “a clear condemnation of the death penalty” as “wanted by John Paul [II].” “But,” adds the cardinal, “the time was not yet ripe. Now we are at that point.” (As Steve Skojec has explained earlier, the Church’s traditional teaching on the death penalty actually belongs to the realm of irreformable doctrine, and thus a claim that death penalty is always unjust is a heretical statement.)

As other examples for developments of doctrines “on different levels,” Schönborn mentions altar girls, thus returning to the topic of women.  He stresses that “in other Christian churches, it is still unimaginable that a woman enters the realm of the altar” and points out that Pope Francis, one and a half years ago, put St. Mary Magdalene’s feast “on the same level as the feasts of the Apostles.” “One could say that is a small thing. But it shows a change of consciousness.”

In light of this new Easter interview as it was given by Schönborn, it might be fitting to recall yet another troubling recent interview of his. In January of 2018, he spoke with the German newspaper Die Zeit in which he also touched upon the matter of the change of the Church’s teaching. When asked what he thought of the papal document Amoris Laetitia, the cardinal then said that the document was “soothing.”

He explains this sentiment by saying that

the great preceding document, Veritatis Splendor, of John Paul II showed, in a way, one side of reality, but did not take into account the other [side]. John Paul II wanted to state that there are objective norms. And that was absolutely necessary. […] The second half was given by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia.

When dealing with extremely poor families such as those in Latin America, the cardinal adds, “one cannot just only come [to them] with the objective norm!” For, one must look at the “life conditions” and the concrete cases.

At the same time, Schönborn ambiguously says that “of course, the norm remains untouched. It is not, after all, a neutral measure, but it is finally reality.” He also wants, along with Pope Francis, “to form consciences,” but “not replace them.”

Cardinal Schönborn then explained that he does not think that he needs to be a bridge between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. “I do not believe that there is need for a bridge between the two. They are very different, and they are much closer than one often assumes.” He then adds that “Pope Francis has repeatedly said that he cherishes my introduction to Amoris Laetitia, and he has recommended it. That makes me, of course, happy. I consider it a very important and great document which is truly very helpful for spouses and families.”

With regard to the two innovative interviews as given by Cardinal Schönborn in the recent past, Sandro Magister provided an excellent description of Pope Francis’ mode of operation in spreading confusion comes to mind. As Magister wrote on 5 April:

In theory, all the Vatican media should work in concert in transmitting to the world the faithful image of the pope.

But in practice this is not what happens. … even Francis often does it all on his own in communicating with the world, without orchestrating anything with anyone. And he does so in at least three ways:

– by saying in public and in person what he wants, without going through any precautionary check or inspection;
– by having others say in public what he says to them in private conversations;
by promoting persons who say what he himself does not say either in public or in private, but is happy to have said. [emphasis added]

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