Could genuine reform in the future be coming from the most unexpected of directions?

As I was surfing the net yesterday, I—along with everyone else who saw the headline—was completely floored when I glimpsed this headline on the National Catholic Reporter’s blog, “Schönborn attacks Sodano, urges reform”

Of course to anyone who is a close follower of internal Catholic affairs it should be no surprise that—on initial inspection—the reputation of Cardinal Schönborn and the radical concept of ecclesial reform seem to be practically mutually exclusive.

Yet, once the article–obtained from the UK’s Catholic Tablet weekly is inspected one can see what all the hubub has been about.

In it, Cardinal Schönborn delivered a scathing criticism of the current dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano (who on Easter Sunday notably dismissed the ever gathering storm of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal overtaking Europe as “petty gossip”). He further rebuked him by saying that his comments had “deeply wronged” the victims of sexual-abuse committed at the hand of clerics and that the Church was “urgently in need of reform.”  Throughout the fallout of this most recent crisis which has plagued the Catholic Church, Cardinal Schönborn has been one of the foremost heralds among its prelates in denouncing these heinous acts and thereby demanding true and genuine reform of the Church. During Holy Week he even made it a point to publicly celebrate a Mass of Penance for all those victimized by depraved clerics and once more used the opportunity to denounce both the system and the environment that gave rise to these horrible acts.

 However, the comments that caught the most media attention were found later on in the piece. In response to a question probing the Church’s stance on homosexual individuals the Cardinal stated that,

“We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships…A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous.”

And thus, the shockwave of curiosity and bewilderment was ignited throughout the blogosphere and the world at large.

But what exactly do the Cardinal’s comments mean? He didn’t necessarily condone homosexuality or homosexual relationships nor did he condemn them.

Heretofore, the Archbishop of Vienna has always been characterized in glowing terms (especially among more conservative-minded members of the Church) as having long been Joseph Ratzinger’s most astute protegé during his tenure at Regensburg University in Germany. He has been championed in many circles as the Catholic Church’s best hope to continue the late Pope John Paul II’s legacy of “evangelical Catholicism” (as John Allen would describe it) of positively promoting all of the Church’s teachings—even controversial ones—not so much as prohibitions on humanity, but rather as conscious assents to the will of God and the alleged dictates of the Gospels.

Usually he has been consistent with this approach, but there are a few notable exceptions that might give a bit more insightful perspective into the Cardinal’s most recent comments that have sparked so much astonishment—and even enthusiasm—among many.

In 2005 Cardinal Schönborn wrote an article for the New York Times in which he stated,

“Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection – is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

This comment sparked criticism because the Cardinal seemed to be undermining the foundational premise of Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, he would continue to insist in the following months that he was not at all discounting the theory, but instead emphasizing that God did in fact have an active role to play in the process. In effect, he was promoting a middle of the road approach to the vigorous debate between Creationists and proponents of evolution—basically saying that scientifically, evolution is certainly legitimate as a theory for explaining the origin of the human species in the natural world, and yet, the role of God ultimately guiding the process cannot be forgotten either. It must be remembered that this has always been the Church’s official position regarding the legitimacy of the theory of evolution in explaining the origin of mankind on the planet Earth.

Some time later in 2006 the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Vienna, Austria decided to plan a Valentine’s Day blessing for all couples who were in love. Shortfly following the ceremonies it was reported that homosexual couples had even presented themselves to be blessed and no difficulties were encountered. In a manner vaguely similar to today’s most recent headlines concerning the Cardinal, it was widely reported that Cardinal Schönborn never barred such couples from coming forward to participate in the blessings. Later, a “clarification” was issued which stated that even “non-married” persons who felt so strongly in love—even though they may not have been engaged or in a relational status officially recognized by the Church—were able to take part in the blessing in an “individual” manner but not together as a couple.

The available facts don’t seem to be numerous enough to be able to verify whether this was indeed the case or whether homosexual individuals in committed, loving relationships did present themselves for the blessing and if anything was done to prohibit them from doing so. Neither has Cardinal Schönborn himself ever spoken concretely on this topic to date to put to doubt any of these speculations.

If observed carefully, one can almost sense a pattern in the approach that the Archbishop of Vienna has consistently taken on these various issues. Despite being mentored and honed in numerous ways by the present Pope, Christoph Schönborn seems to be quite a different man from Joseph Ratzinger.

Throughout his academic and theological career—at least following his change from liberal to conservative on the theological spectrum in the wake of changes implemented following the Second Vatican Council—Joseph Ratzinger has always responded the same way when confronted with controversial issues. He simply issues the Catholic Church’s official Magisterial proclamations and ends discussion of the topic. A notable example of this was when during his 2009 visit to Africa he was asked a question about the Catholic Church’s stance on the status of couples where one partner has been infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Much debate has been made about this issue because of the traditional prohibition against birth control by the Magisterium because it “eliminates the possibility of new life”, and some thought that the HIV phenomenon might provide an exception to re-examine this teaching in light of new theological and scientific innovations. Yet, Pope Benedict XVI was unwavering on this matter saying that condoms only contributed to the problem. We only need to examine history to see what kind of reaction that declaration was met with.

Whether it has been divorced or re-married couples, the question of abortion, the morality and dignity of homosexual persons and their relationships, or the status and salvific significance of other religions in relation to Christianity; Joseph Ratzinger has really never shown any instances of being theologically objective or sociologically receptive for the sake of beginning dialogue and discussion on any of these pressing issues. Instead, it seems that he has taken the opposite direction in some cases and reversed barriers that were eliminated during the papacy of the late John Paul II (most notably, extending an invitation to disenfranchised Anglicans who were upset with the body’s stance on homosexuality and the ordination of women to join the Catholic Church and essentially form their own “rite” within Catholicism).

Cardinal Schönborn by contrast seems to always deal with issues in a theologically grounded yet pragmatic manner. Instead of simply condemning the phenomenon of homosexuality or urging all homosexuals to a life of celibacy—as is the current Magisterial position of the Church—he leaves the question open and up to the individual. The most important thing to him is the quality of the relationship. Granted, he hasn’t endorsed homosexual relationships outright, but he does talk about the possibility of there being a positive aspect present within them—which is something we usually never here from the prelates of the Church these days.

This particular approach of the Cardinal’s is notably similar to the venerable Fr. Charles Curran’s—who was one of the first theologians to attempt to genuinely tackle the issue of the question of homosexuality in a positive and reasoned context. Fr. Curran’s conclusion was that because of the presence of sin in the world certain subjective tendencies could not be avoided. Although they were objectively wrong they were not subjectively sinful. Thus meaning, although homosexual relationships were technically wrong because they were not open to “procreation” they may not necessarily be subjectively sinful for the individuals involved, taking into consideration the solidification of the person’s orientation and the quality of the relationship that they were in. Ultimately, even if it might technically be wrong, if the relationship was sufficiently supporting the two individuals in terms of moral and emotional stability and integrity, it could in fact end up being a very good thing morally.

I personally don’t necessarily agree with this approach. To me it doesn’t go far enough, and I agree much more with the distinguished Fr. John McNeill who sees a homosexual orientation as simply being a “gift” from God which is morally “neutral” or equivalent when compared to loving, heterosexual relationships. Yet, currently, the Church’s teaching on sexuality is mired in the archaic centrality of procreation as always being the ultimate goal and pinnacle of sexual intercourse. So, this limited understanding prevents the prelates from seeing homosexuality in any other context aside from its relation to procreation.

Still, much as Fr. Curran’s observations were a landmark in opening the door to the discussion of homosexuality in the context of theology, so it seems that Cardinal Schönborn’s comments could be in the wider public sphere of the Catholic Church. Although the approach of affirming homosexual relationships as “essentially imperfect” isn’t really desireable, it must be remembered that as has been said so often, the Catholic Church thinks in terms of centuries not years. Also, when has homosexuality ever been mentioned so positively by any prelate in recent memory since Cardinal Martini of Milan was considered a papbile?

If the Church must be reformed by baby steps I think Cardinal Schönborn might be the perfect candidate to carry out the job if it were the will of God that he someday be elected as the Bishop of Rome. As much as Pope Benedict makes of the importance of integrating faith and reason the Archbishop of Vienna really seems to actually but that integration into action. Only time will tell if God truly intends to use this compassionate conservative to help reform and renew His Church so that it might more fully reflect the love and compassion of the Christ of the Gospels. Whether Cardinal Schönborn’s vision is meant to be shaped into a tangible reality or not remains to be seen. Still, his approach, compassion, and understanding continue to be most welcome!

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About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a social justice visionary, writer, and legal worker in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a contributing author to “Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics.” Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

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