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In His Own Words: Cardinal Schönborn on Exhortation’s Deepest Concerns

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Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, has been chosen by Pope Francis to present his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Leaetitia, on 8 April. We’ve already explored some of his statements over the past few days, because we believe it may shed light on why he was chosen for this particular task.  Of special importance in this regard is a reading of his thoughts on the Church’s teachings — especially on marriage and family — and what they might tell us about the larger agenda of Pope Francis, the Synod that he led, and the exhortation by which he will now implement its work.

Cardinal Schönborn’s public comments on these matters have been somewhat extensive. Among them is the foreword he composed to a German-language book containing the essential official documents relating to both sessions of the Synod. The book, entitled The Vocation and Mission of the Family: The Essential Documents of the Synod of Bishops, was edited by Cardinal Schönborn himself and was published in 2015 by the German publishing house Herder.

In his foreword, Schönborn makes clear his sympathies for a more indulgent attitude toward the sinner. His overall tone is the appreciation of the purported “good” to be found even in sinful situations. For example, he says:

  • One has to see the positive elements in those “incomplete forms of living together” instead of stressing what is missing. These positive elements might be “signals of a new start.” He concretely mentions civil marriage as an example. Schönborn says that civilly married “bind themselves in duty in front of society and toward one another.” This is, in his eyes, “a step of progress in comparison to cohabitation.”
  • As to the question of the “remarried” divorcees, Schönborn sees that “there is not general solution.” Even though he says that “’Anything goes’ is not the way of the Gospels,” he claims that the Synod of Bishops on the Family proposes that every situation is different. The priests have to listen – in the “Forum internum” – “what the conscience is saying” in order to see what may be done “also with regard to the access to the Sacraments, to the Sacrament of Penance and of Holy Communion.”
  • In those relationships that are not “fully sacramental,” there are to be found “elements of truth and of sanctification.” In this, Cardinal Schönborn proposes that even in sinful situations (of cohabitation, adultery, etc.) there can be found elements of sanctification.
  • If a woman, for example, has had a broken marriage and an abortion, but later “remarried” civilly and has now five children and desires to receive absolution for her former abortion, Schönborn explicitly says that he advises his own priests to give such a woman absolution – even though she lives in a sinful situation. “You [priests]  cannot let this woman go away without having freed her from the burden of her sin,” he says.
  • Schönborn proposes that one has to see the positive in unusual situations. “In ‘patchwork families’ there is not a lack of surprising generosity, even though some people will be scandalized by them.” He continues: “One can certainly learn from such persons who live in such situations.”

We have also mentioned in our earlier coverage some of the cardinal’s other stated views on both communion for the divorced and remarried and the nature of same-sex relationships. These bear repeating here. At Crux, John Allen relates:

During an Oct. 26 press conference last year, Schönborn, whose own parents were divorced when he was a teenager, told reporters he felt that the synod could not recommend a clear yes or no to Communion for the divorced and remarried.

“There is no black and white, a simple yes or no,” he said, arguing that situations vary widely and so too must the Church’s response.

On the issue of how the Church talks about gays and lesbians, Schönborn also has been a champion of more inclusive approach.

“The Church should not look in the bedroom first, but in the dining room!” he said in a September 2015 interview with Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit-run journal in Rome.

“We can and we must respect the decision to form a union with a person of the same sex, [and] to seek means under civil law to protect their living together with laws to ensure such protection,” he said in that interview.

Schönborn spoke of a gay friend who, after multiple temporary relationships, now has a stable partner.

“They share a life, they share their joys and sufferings, they help one another,” he said. “It must be recognized that this person took an important step for his own good and the good of others, even though it certainly is not a situation the Church can consider ‘regular’.”

Returning to his theme of “positive elements” in otherwise sinful relationships, a particularly detailed illustration of Schönborn’s thought is to be found in an August, 2015 interview between the cardinal and Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., a close friend and collaborator of the pope. Father Spadaro, who is seen by Vatican insiders as a man with a unique understanding of the mind of Pope Francis, has now made reference to this interview at least 12 times on his Twitter account. Among the more noteworthy passages in the interview is Schönborn’s analogy between his understanding of marriage and a long-controversial passage (widely believed to have been composed by then Father Ratzinger) in Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church (with our emphasis):

At the last Synod, I proposed a reading key that aroused many discussions and was still recorded in the Relatio post disceptationem, that is no longer present in the final document, Relatio Synodi.  It was an analogy with the ecclesiological reading key given by Lumen gentium, the constitution on the Church in its article 8.  The question in question is: “Where do you find Christ’s Church?  Where is it concretely embodied?  Does the Church of Jesus Christ exist, as he wanted it and founded it?”  The Council answered this with the famous affirmation: “The only Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church”, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica.  It is not a pure and simple identification, as if it says that the Church of Jesus Christ is the Catholic Church.  The Council affirmed: “it subsists in the Catholic Church” united to the Pope and the legitimate bishops.  The Council adds this phrase which has become key: “Although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure, these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling towards catholic unity.” The other confessions, the other Churches, the other religions are not simply nothing.  The Vatican excludes an ecclesiology of all or nothing.


I have simply proposed to apply this ecclesiological reading key to the reality of the Sacrament of Matrimony.  Because marriage is the Church in the small, the ecclesiola, the family as the small Church, but it seems legitimate to me to establish an analogy and to say that the Sacrament of Matrimony is realized fully there where justly there is a sacrament between a man and a woman living in faith etc.  But, that does not prevent that, outside of this full realization of the Sacrament of Matrimony, there are elements of matrimony that are signals of expectation, positive elements. 


We must look at the numerous situations of cohabitation not only from the point of view of what is missing, but also from the point of view of that which is already promise, [sic] what is already present.  Moreover, the Council adds that, although there is real holiness in the Church, nevertheless she is made up of sinners, and moves ahead along the path of conversion (L G 8).  She always has need of purification.  A Catholic cannot be put on a higher rung with respect to others.  There are saints in all the Christian Churches, and even in other religions.  Jesus said of the pagans, to a woman, and two of Rome and official: “I have not found a faith like this in Israel”.  A true faith, that Jesus found outside of the chosen people.

When pressed on the question of what practical action might be taken in irregular unions — second “marriages” that are objectively adulterous — the cardinal responded:

The objective criteria tell us that in [sic] a certain person still bound by sacramental marriage will not be able to participate in a full way in the sacramental life of the Church.  Subjectively, he or she lives this situation as a conversion, as a true discovery in their own life, to the point that you could say, in some way—in a different way, but analogous to the Pauline privilege—that for the good of the faith you can make a step that goes beyond what objectively the rule would say. … I do not hide, in this regard, that I was shocked as to how a way of arguing purely formalistic wields the ax of intrinsece malum (intrinsically evil).


The obsession on the intrinsece malum has so impoverished the debate that we are deprived from a large range of arguments in favor of uniqueness, of indissolubility, openness to new life, of the human foundation of the doctrine of the Church.


If there was a valid sacramental marriage, a second union remains an irregular union.  Instead, the whole dimension of spiritual and pastoral accompaniment exists for people who journey in a situation of irregularity, where it will be necessary to discern between all or nothing.  You cannot transform an irregular situation into a regular one, but paths of healing, of deepening exist, paths in which the law is lived step by step.  There are even situations in which the priest, the accompanier, that knows the people in the internal forum, can come to say: “Your situation is such for which, in conscience, in your conscience and in my conscience as pastor, I see your place in a sacramental life of the Church.”

On the question of homosexual relationships, the cardinal opines:

You can and you must respect the decision of creating a union with the person of the same sex, to seek the instruments in the civil law to protect their coexistence and their situation with laws that assure this protection.  But, if we are asked, if you demand that the Church says this is a marriage, well we must say: non possumus (we cannot).  It is not a discrimination of people: distinction does not mean to discriminate.  This does not absolutely prevent having a great respect, a friendship, or a collaboration with couples who live this type of union, and, above all, to not despise them.  No one is obligated it to accept this doctrine, but you cannot expect that the Church does not teach it.


I know [a]  homosexual person who has lived a series of experiences for years, not with the person in particular or in a coexistence, but frequent experiences with different people.  Now he has found a stable relationship.  It is an improvement,if only on a human level, no longer passing from one relationship to another, but he is stabilized in a relationship that is not based only on sexuality.  He shares his life, they share joys and suffering, there is help for each other.  We must recognize that this person has made an important step, for their own good and the good of others, even if, certainly, it is not a situation that the Church can consider as regular.  Judgment on these sexual acts as such is necessary, but the Church must not look first into the bedroom, but into the dining room! It is necessary to accompany.

Was Schönborn chosen to present the exhortation because he has so openly shared thoughts such as these? Do his words give us a glimpse of what Pope Francis intends to accomplish in Amoris Laetitia? Why would the cardinal be chosen to present the document to the world if he were in outspoken disagreement with the Holy Father?

It is also noteworthy that Schönborn remains useful as a bridge-builder on the exhortation, since he retains credibility among many conservative Catholics for his work editing the new Catechism, as well as his close friendship with Pope Benedict XVI. Many of the faithful are entirely (and blissfully) unaware of his sentiments on the most important issues in play on marriage and family.

If his selection as a primary presenter of the exhortation is, in fact, a result of his positions on these matters, then we certainly have cause to be gravely concerned about what will be said in those 200 pages.

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