LIMERICK, Ireland — When Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna spent Thursday afternoon in the west of Ireland speaking about Amoris Laetitia in two talks and a Q&A – over four hours, in total – it was a fascinating immersion into the deep thinking behind the document, and a chance to be close to one of the key figures at the heart of the contemporary Church.

The Irish Church is about to start a year of preparation for the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in August 2018 at which the pope has asked that families have a chance to reflect on and discuss Amoris.  Hence the invitation to the Archbishop of Vienna, the exhortation’s authoritative interpreter, who was tasked by Francis with presenting the document to the media when it was released in April 2016.

Among the dozens who turned out at “Mary I,” as Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College is affectionately known, was the WMOF’s secretary-general, Father Timothy Bartlett, as well as bishops, pastoral workers, and Religious working with families across Ireland.

Schönborn revealed that when he met the Pope shortly after the presentation of Amoris, Francis thanked him, and asked him if the document was orthodox.

“I said, ‘Holy Father, it is fully orthodox’,” Schönborn told us he told the pope, adding that a few days later he received from Francis a little note that said: “Thank you for that word. That gave me comfort.”

Sparkling anecdotes like that, dropped into his talks, expose the Archbishop of Vienna’s intimacy with Pope Francis, a relationship that dates back to the late 1990s since he first met him in Buenos Aires while visiting a Dominican branch of sisters there.

Schönborn’s passion for Amoris, and his admiration for what Francis is seeking to achieve with the document, shines through constantly.

That mutual confidence and trust — even to the point of the pope consulting Schönborn as the barometer of the orthodoxy of Amoris — is in stark contrast to the pope’s clear distrust of the former prefect of the Vatican’s doctrine congregation, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, whose bad-tempered departure has dominated recent headlines.

Francis inherited Müller from Benedict, relieving him of his post as soon as his five-year term was up. In a series of indignant interviews, Müller has criticized Francis while claiming that Schönborn’s attempts to clarify Amoris were “simply not convincing” and that he alone had the “competence” to act as a bridge between the two sides.

Schönborn is also, of course, a longstanding Benedict XVI confidant, his former student, and a close friend, as well as being the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which came out 25 years ago under the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s supervision. (Schönborn was going on, after Limerick, to celebrate that event in Cork.)

Explaining in the academic seminar how Amoris flowed from St. John Paul II’s 1980 exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio — which had spoken of the obligation in truth to distinguish between different situations of the divorced and remarried — Schönborn said he had suggested to Benedict XVI that the two documents formed a “diptych,” meaning a painting made up of two interconnected panels.

The pope emeritus had agreed with that proposition, but not, Schönborn conceded, with his following suggestion: That where the first was Platonic, the second was Aristotelian.

Schönborn didn’t avoid the controversy over the four retired cardinals’ ‘dubia’ letter challenging the Pope, giving some of his most direct responses on the issue to date.

He is clearly appalled at their behavior.

“The question of these dubia is for me mainly a question of procedure,” he said at a press conference before the talks at Limerick’s cathedral house. “That cardinals, who should be the closest collaborators of the pope, try to force him, to put pressure on him to give a public response to their publicized, personal letter to the pope — this is absolutely inconvenient behavior, I’m sorry to say. If they want to have an audience with the pope, they ask for an audience; but they do not publish that they asked for an audience.”

On Amoris’s mixed reception, Schönborn said he wasn’t surprised at bishops disagreeing “because the reception of an important document takes time.” Pointing to the Second Vatican Council’s document on other religions, Nostra Aetate, he said 50 years later “it’s still very much in debate and the document has not given us the solution to everything.”

He said the process of receiving the teaching would inevitably be a long one but “fruitful” if it involved discussion and “negotiation.”

The difficulty in Amoris being grasped, he said, was the tendency to cleave to rigorist or laxist positions that fled reality and clung to principles alone.

In a letter to one of the dissenting cardinals, Schönborn had explained that of course Amoris upheld the constant teaching of the Church that a valid marriage was indissoluble, but “giving this answer is not an answer to all the single situations and cases that in everyday life we have to deal with.

“Much more difficult is discernment,” he said, “because you have to look closely, yes, in the light of the principles, but also at reality, where people stand, what is the drama of how did they come to a separation, to a new union, and so on.”

Schönborn expanded on this point in his first talk. “Moral theology stands on two feet: Principles, and then the prudential steps to apply them to reality.”

It was what parents had to do when raising their children, or teachers teaching young people, or politicians in governing a country, he said.

It was the classical field of what Thomists like Schönborn – a Dominican friar – call the virtue of application of prudence and which Francis, as a good Jesuit, calls in Amoris “discernment.” For Francis, says Schönborn, “the question of discernment is the key question for the right handling of right relation between principles and concrete application.”

Pope Francis, he says, “never questions the principles, because these are the principles of the Gospel, of Jesus’ teaching, but he clearly says again and again, and argues, clearly, that in practical matters we have to exercise discernment.”

It is clear that Schönborn believes this traditional, meat-and-potatoes capacity for prudential application of moral norms has been in decline and needs reviving. In the academic seminar, he recalled how in the 1980s “there was a great fear that the link between teaching and conscience would be weakened.”

The problem, he said, was that conscience came often to be seen merely as “the transposition of the Church’s teaching into acts” but in fact “the work of conscience is to discover that God’s law is not a foreign law imposed on me but the discovery that God’s will for me is what is best for me. But this must be an interior discovery.”

He was “deeply moved” when he read the famous paragraph 37 of Amoris, which complains that too often the Church fails to make room for the consciences of the faithful, and that the task of the Church is to “form consciences, not replace them.”

That meant understanding that people operated within constraints. In Amoris, he said, Francis “often comes back to what he said in Evangelii Gaudium, that a little step towards the good done under difficult circumstances can be more valuable than a moral solid life under comfortable circumstances.”

He said the key to understand what is “moving” Francis in Amoris is in its paragraph 49, which reflects the pope’s pastoral experience among poor families in Buenos Aires.

Francis says there the Church must offer “understanding, comfort and acceptance” to people in difficult situations rather than “imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy.”

“The bonum possibile in moral theology is an important concept that has been so often neglected,” said Schönborn, adding: “What is the possible good that a person or a couple can achieve in difficult circumstances?”

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna speaking at Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College (Credit: Austen Ivereigh.)
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna speaking at Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College (Credit: Austen Ivereigh.)

What Schönborn was hoping for from Amoris were not new norms but encouragement to discern different situations in the application of the principles.

“If we consider the immense variety of situations it is understandable that neither the synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature, and applicable to all cases,” he said.

When he read Chapter 8, he was relieved.

“I had serious fear that the attempt of certain bishops, certain theologians, certain pressure groups, would lead Pope Francis to attempt to formulate a new canonical disposition applicable for all situations of irregular situations. That is what the eastern Orthodox Churches do … where it is generally canonically established that a second and third union are possible under certain conditions.”

Some, he said, wanted a similar canonical disposition for the Catholic Church.

“I was so relieved and glad that Pope Francis stood clear above this. The canonical dispositions are valid and need no addition.”

But this does not mean, as some have tried to conclude, that nothing is possible, or has changed.

“What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of all particular cases,” as St. John Paul II asked the Church to do in distinguishing the different situations of the divorced and remarried. Paragraph 298 of Amoris lists six such cases, Schönborn pointed out.

Francis at one point in the synod described the question of communion for the divorced and remarried as a “trap,” because it stopped people looking at the concrete situation, Schönborn reported, adding that Amoris asks, first of all, that each case is examined with its own particular characteristics.

But before the question of communion can be addressed, an examination of conscience is needed (Amoris suggests five searching questions). “The question of communion can come after that.”

There may be cases when the sacrament can be given, he said, but they needed discernment – for which Amoris gives guidelines.

At the press conference Schönborn quoted the seventh-century pope St. Gregory the Great that the art of pastoral accompaniment is the art of discernment.

“It’s an art,” he said, “and it needs training.” It was an art he taught his priests in Vienna in special courses, and which the pope had urged the Jesuits in Poland to teach in seminaries.

Developing that art will be key to the future fate of Amoris.