ROME – In a move possibly hinting that Pope Francis will side with progressives on some contentious matters regarding family life, the Vatican announced Thursday that a keenly anticipated document from the pontiff will be released April 8 and presented by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria.
The document, technically known as an “apostolic exhortation,” is designed to draw conclusions from two tumultuous summits of Catholic bishops from around the world, called “synods,” on issues pertaining to the family held in October 2014 and October 2015.
Carrying the Latin title Amoris Laetitia, subtitled “On Love in the Family,” the document will be presented in an April 8 Vatican news conference featuring Schönborn and Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod secretary, along with two Italian academics.
That press conference will be streamed live on the Vatican Radio site.
Although the Vatican did not release details about the document’s contents on Thursday, in broad strokes it’s expected to echo areas of wide agreement among the bishops during those summits, such as the need for more thorough programs of marriage preparation and the importance of supporting families trying to live the Church’s vision of married life.
However, the synods also exposed clear divisions among the bishops on three key issues:
- Whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics ought to be able to return to Communion under some circumstances.
- Whether the Church needs more tolerant language to talk about gay and lesbian relationships, without altering the substance of its teaching.
- Whether the Church can acknowledge positive moral values even in “irregular” relationships, such as living together outside of marriage.
During the two synods, Schönborn was seen as a leading exponent of the moderate-to-progressive position on those issues.
He was part of a German-language group, for instance, which proposed an “internal forum” solution to the question about Communion for those Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church.
The “internal forum” refers to private exchanges between believers and priests or bishops, generally in the context of the sacrament of confession. Although canon lawyers debate whether, and how, it could be applied to the divorced and remarried, advocates of allowing them to return to Communion generally see it as way to accomplish that on a private, case-by-case basis.
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’.”
During the 2014 synod, Schönborn also argued that the Church can find positive moral elements in other non-traditional relationships, such as cohabitation outside marriage.
He drew an analogy with Lumen Gentium, a document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which taught that there are “elements of sanctification and of truth” outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church.
In the same way, he suggested, there may be virtues and truth in relationships that fall short of the Church’s full vision of marriage as a permanent, lifelong union between a man and a woman open to new life.
“Who are we to judge and say that there are no elements of truth and sanctification in [those relationships]?” he asked in 2014.
Given that track record, the choice of Schönborn to present the pope’s document may be an indication of where Francis is likely to come down on those matters, at least in a big-picture sense.
It may also reflect a degree of political savvy, since despite his progressive-seeming stances on the key synod debates, Schönborn nevertheless also has solid conservative credentials.
He’s an intellectual protégé of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, and was also the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church under St. John Paul II.
A member of the Dominican religious order, the 71-year-old Schönborn is widely regarded as one of the most intellectually impressive members of the College of Cardinals, and was mentioned as a possible candidate to be pope himself in both the conclaves of 2005 and 2013.