Cardinal Schönborn: Francis Wants to Win Over Opposition in Loving Ways


On 17 July, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria – one of the pope’s preferred theologians and his designated interpreter of Amoris Laetitia – gave an interview to the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. For the first time since the many recent signs of a serious resistance against the papal document Amoris Laetitia – such as the letter of the 45 theologians and the very recent critique of Professor Josef Seifert – Schönborn himself suggests a small, but largely indirect, response from Pope Francis to his public critics.

Many observers have indeed wondered why the pope has not yet taken it upon himself to much more directly and publicly respond to these morally earnest and charitable oppositions to his text Amoris Laetitia – with, perhaps, the exception of the pope’s somewhat surprising comments in a July 2016 interview that he does not like to “behead” his opponents.

On 29 July, Global Pulse Magazine published an article about that 17 July interview with Cardinal Schönborn, after having translated the major sections of the original interview.

In that interview, Cardinal Schönborn acknowledges “the existence of a fierce and organized opposition to Pope Francis, [which is being] carried out in certain Catholics circles. And he [Schönborn] has warned us that it is fomenting considerable polarization within the Church,” according to Global Pulse Magazine. Schönborn also says: “We are currently witnessing intensive inner-church debates – not so much in Austria, but internationally – as there is, quite evidently, a very strong, significant opposition to Pope Francis.” He adds that this opposition to the pope has been “very active and very loud,” even though a clear majority of Catholics support Pope Francis and his variously proposed reforms.

Significantly – and this will now be my own added translation – the Austrian Cardinal admits: “While Pope Francis has had a great acceptance in milieus which otherwise have little to do with the Church, there exists a polarization within the Church.” [my emphasis added]

Cardinal  Schönborn also reveals in this 17 July interview that he had just spoken, the week before, with Pope Francis about this strong, manifest resistance that has taken root against his reforms. The cardinal said, moreover, that he was “greatly impressed” with Francis’ immediate response: “We must try to win over this inner-church opposition lovingly [sic]”. One might here pose a question as to how one should properly win people over to one’s own camp if we are likewise facing a grave question of heresy or of one’s complete loyalty to Christ’s teaching – which the recent letter of the 45 theologians concerning Amoris Laetitia has already aptly discussed.

As to the method of how to “win the opposition over,” the Cardinal Schönborn himself gives a few hints of his own. First of all, he proposes to overcome the dichotomy of “conservative” and “liberal” as a two-fold category; and he thus thinks it is more helpful, instead, to describe the Gospel Messages as “challenging.” He continues, according to the translation provided by Global Pulse Magazine:

Asked whether this difficult situation in which the Church currently has found itself was not putting a brake on the pope’s wishes for reform, Cardinal Schönborn pointed out that a great deal had already been achieved.

He noted that Francis had set specific processes in motion and the ball was rolling. One example, he said, was what the pope had done for two years with the Synod of Bishops and its deliberations on the family. The cardinal said this new process has led to healthy discussions on a great deal of issues.

Things are not changed at the endpoint, but [rather] along the way,” he reflected.

“At the Extraordinary Synod Assembly in 2014, for example, what the bishops had to say was still incredibly abstract. But a year later they were suddenly talking about reality,” the cardinal pointed out.

“Bishops spoke about their own family situation. And, lo and behold, they no longer simply theorized abstractly,” he said.

“In a way,” Cardinal Schönborn said, “the journey is the destination.” [my emphasis added]

What Cardinal Schönborn here describes as a reformative process and new method could also be characterized as a Gramscian form of indirect cultural change, namely: one first opens up all kinds of discussions that challenge the traditional moral teaching of the Catholic Church and thus tendentiously weakens it and persistently questions it. Just by opening up such a discussion, irreformable doctrines are even put into doubt. After a certain time, the atmosphere as well as the attitude of the Catholic world concerning marriage and the family has slowly changed without many people being adequately aware of it.

One aspect of such a gradual cultural change is also, much more concretely and intimately, to personalize truths, as the cardinal himself has shown with regard to the recent synods: namely, that the synod fathers gradually started – especially in the new format of small language-related discussion groups at the 2015 Synod – to speak more about their own family situations and to do it openly and “less abstractly.” (The expression “less abstractly” might also be read here in the sense of “less doctrinally.” That is aparently what happened during some of the discussions at the Synods on the Family.) This is also a typical manipulative form of psychological technique (a “psycho-technique”) which is applied in order to facilitate change. That is to say, to draw discussions about doctrine and truth down onto an emotional and a largely subjective level. Once the discussion is conducted on that level, truths can be more easily separated, isolated, individualized, and effectively relativized. We have seen this kind of discussion, for example, in the German Bishops’ Conference’s own methodical efforts to stress the decisive importance of “personal biographies” and to accentuate the proposed fact that “each individual’s life situation is different.” (As if this were an argument against God’s Call to all of us to live out our individual lives, nonetheless, in accordance with His Laws.)

Thus we may better understand the importance that Cardinal Schönborn himself puts on the dubious saying “the journey is the destination” – as if to say “our result is more process.” Such a metaphysical formulation shows a neglect of some largely universal truths that can – and must – never change essentially because they come from God Himself as acts of His love. Moreover, for those who loyally hold on to Christ’s teaching in its coherent totality, there is no easily  imaginable way of accepting Pope Francis’ “loving treatment” – especially if that specious allure could make them gradually change their higher loyalty to Our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Furthermore, the message now sent out by Schönborn to the Catholic world and others – namely that Pope Francis wants to win over his opposition by means of a loving treatment – is itself rather vague and abstract. Would it not be far more beneficial, for the greater good of the Church and for the many confused and vulnerable souls today, if he were to instead respond publicly – in a forthright, responsible manner – to the serious critiques of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia? For, Pope Francis’ protracted and obdurate silence in the face of some seemingly heretical passages in this hortatory document gives increasing credibility to the theory that it is his intent to spread some of those erroneous and equivocally novel doctrines, although under the appearances, of course, of being “only pastoral” and “much more merciful.”  In any event, we now await his manly decision to rescind such confused passages, quickly and explicitly – and directly.

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