VIENNA, Austria – While critics of Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia often see it as fostering a permissive line on divorce and remarriage, a key papal ally says that if people actually take it seriously, at least in the West it would likely mean greater firmness vis-à-vis a “lax” culture.

“In some areas of the Church, discernment in the sense of Amoris Laetitia, would lead to a stricter attitude,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, told Crux on Tuesday.

The 72-year-old Dominican, widely seen as one of the leading intellectual lights of the European hierarchy, spoke in an exclusive interview in his archbishop’s palace.

“In the West, generally, we are rather tempted by laxity,” Schönborn said. “In other areas, some people are tempted by rigorism. And Pope Francis said something very important: Neither the rigorists nor the laxists do the work of discernment. The rigorist knows everything in advance, and those who are lax let go of everything.”

His point was that Amoris Laetitia calls for a lengthy and morally serious process of discernment about the failure of a marriage modeled on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. If that’s really taken seriously, he suggested, it would certainly be a more rigorous screening process for admission to Communion than is often the case in the trenches in many Western cultures.

Schönborn also said he’s “not really” troubled by the fact that different bishops and groups of bishops have given different interpretations of Amoris, since “reception is a long process.”

What Schönborn does believe is that the Church shouldn’t be in such a hurry to draw immediate practical conclusions, and more focused of becoming “imbued” with the spirit of the document and especially its call to discernment.

“It needs discussion, and I’m not afraid that the voices of the bishops and of the laity aren’t fully concordant,” he said.

Schönborn also touched on other matters in his Crux interview:

  • He argued Pope Francis forms a “triptych” with his predecessors St. John Paul II and emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, saying they “had to secure the basics of Catholic teaching, which were seriously menaced,” while Francis brings a keen sense of “where people stand, where they are, how their lives are, and where they have to be led.”
  • He acknowledged that the cardinals who elected Pope Francis didn’t quite know what they were getting – though, he laughs, since he expected to be surprised, in a sense Francis has turned out to be precisely what he anticipated.
  • He insisted that the categories of left v. right should be “forgotten” when trying to understand the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas, he says, wasn’t conservative or progressive, but “simply bright and Catholic.”
  • We can’t take for granted that the faith won’t die out in contemporary Western Europe the way it did historically in Turkey and North Africa, Schönborn said, but he nevertheless sees signs of hope – principally in immigrants bringing a vibrant faith to the Old Continent, and in small pockets of committed young believers.

Part one of Crux’s conversation with Schönborn appears below, focusing on Amoris Laetitia and the discussion it’s sparked. Part two will be published tomorrow.

Crux: Different bishops and groups of bishops are giving different answers as to what Amoris Laetitia means in terms of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Does that diversity, which some see as confusion, trouble you?

Schönborn: Not really. Reception is always a long process, if it’s something important. The reception of the Council of Trent took at least 200 years. The reception of the first ecumenical council in Nicea took 300 or 400 years. Reception is a very important process, because it’s through the debate around a teaching that it can penetrate into the body of the Church and can become flesh and bone for the Church. The reception of Vatican II is far from over, it’s not yet done …

You could argue that the ferment around Amoris is an illustration of that, couldn’t you? That it illustrates the debate over the pastoral application of the council’s vision is still a work in progress?

Exactly. I think the attention that Amoris Laetitia focuses on what Pope Francis calls families ‘as they really are’ was one of the great focuses of Vatican II. Of course, there’s always a certain tension between the expression of doctrine, the clarity of doctrine, and the integration of the Church’s teaching into people’s lives and into our own life.

This process of reception must be a time of discussion. I’m not at all afraid that there is discussion. Pope Francis said to us at the end of the first synod in 2014 that he would have been worried if everything was serene and without discussion. He calls this, with Ignatius, the work of the Spirit. It’s the motion of the Spirit. It’s like a pregnancy, you know? It’s a work in progress. It needs discussion, and I’m not afraid that the voices of the bishops and of the laity aren’t fully concordant.

What I urge is patience. In the Austrian bishops’ conference, we said we prefer not to produce guidelines right now because we’re still in the time of receiving the document. After Vatican II, most bishops’ conferences were in too big a hurry to make local synods and produce their own stuff.

The unique exception … probably there are others, but the one I know personally … was a certain Archbishop of Krakow. What did Cardinal [Karol] Wojtyla do at the end of Vatican II? He published a small book with the key texts of Vatican II and short comments. That book was printed in thousands of copies, and the entire archdiocese of Krakow entered into a ten-year-long synod process. The purpose wasn’t to produce documents, but to study Vatican II and to interiorize its teaching on liturgy, on the Church, on divine revelation, on religious freedom, and so on. He was already pope when, on his first trip to Poland, he formally closed that synod. I think that was the right way to do it.

What I tried to do in our diocese was to read the text of Amoris Laetitia with priests and with laity, saying, ‘Look at the text read it, it’s so beautifully written,’ Don’t hurry to draw immediate practical conclusions, a kind of casuistic application of Amoris Laetitia. Let yourself be imbued by this great document, and then, little by little, it will be clarified.

Some bishops’ conferences have published guidelines, such as Malta, Germany, the Vicar for Rome, and so on. That’s fine, but they have to be discussed further, I think, it’s still too early. The bishops of the Buenos Aires province have published guidelines, and the pope has taken a position that these guidelines are in conformance with Amoris Laetitia. But in general, I think we need time. We have to get in touch with the spirit of Amoris Laetitia before drawing all kinds of practical conclusions.

You’re counseling patience, but in the meantime many people are perplexed because the bishops of Buenos Aires seem to give one answer to whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion and the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territory give another. What’s the correct answer?

The correct answer is to discern. Look at Familiaris Consortio 84 … leaving aside the Communion question, which is, as Pope Francis once said, a ‘trap.’ Everybody looks first at the question, ‘Are they allowed or not?’ But the way of discernment works differently, and the primary indication was given by St. John Paul. In Familiaris Consortio, he says ‘pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.’

What does that mean? It means there’s a moral difference in different situations, and he gives three cases: A person who has been bluntly abandoned by their spouse; the situation of those whose marriages are ‘irreparably broken’; and those who in conscience are convinced that their first marriage was never valid. Those three examples are enlarged by Pope Francis in chapter 8 of Amoris, giving other ones and calling on us to discern and to distinguish.

That’s to be done, first of all, by the people themselves. The first question is not whether they can have access to the sacraments, but how they handled the failure of their marriage.

In the Archdiocese of Vienna, we’ve had a program for the divorced and remarried for many years called ‘The Five Attentions.’ I feel strongly confirmed by Amoris Laetitia in this method of discernment. One of the first things we ask, for instance, is, ‘How did you treat your children?’ Pope Francis insists in Amoris that children should never be forced to carry the weight of their parents’ conflict on their shoulders. There’s a very moving section where Pope Francis says, “I make this appeal to parents who are separated: Never ever, take your child hostage!” (AL 245) This is a grave, grave sin.

There’s a great deal of help he gives for discernment. He speaks, for instance, about the situation of the abandoned spouse. How in the failure of your marriage have you considered the situation of the abandoned spouse? What’s the effect of your divorce on friends, other families, the community? Have you considered the question of hatred between you and the other person? These are means of discernment, and the primary question is how to handle a situation where a promise has failed.

The heart of Amoris in many ways is this call to discernment. What some people hear in the word ‘discernment’ is watering down moral norms. So, from a pastoral point of view, how can you be sure that discernment doesn’t mean a lack of clarity?

Read chapter 7 of Amoris Laetitia on education. There you have exactly the framework of what is true discernment. What do the parents do for their children and with their children? What is good, what is evil for them? Where they have to be strict, where they have to be patient. That’s the normal work of educators, and should be the work of every pastoral situation, it’s discernment.

Therefore, Pope Francis does not stop to repeat, “We need a better training in discernment.” There are rules in discernment. St. Ignatius, in the spiritual exercises, he gives the rules of discernment. And finally, in the ultimate dimension, discernment is to listen to the voice of God in your life. It’s the question of conscience.

It doesn’t worry you that this might weaken respect for the Sacrament of Marriage, or unravel our commitment to the idea of the permanency of marriage?

I think discernment, in the sense of Amoris Laetitia, would in some areas of the Church, lead into a stricter attitude. In the West, generally, we are rather tempted by laxity. In some areas, some people are tempted by rigorism. And Pope Francis said something very important: Neither the rigorists nor the laxists do the work of discernment. The rigorist knows everything in advance and those who are lax let go of everything.

They both start with a prioris…

Yes. And a lax education is as bad as the rigorist education.

Are you saying that on the ground, in terms of pastoral reality, if we took Amoris Laetitia seriously in the West we’d actually be tougher on divorce and civil remarriage?

I would say we would be more attentive, yeah. More careful.

More cautious maybe?

More cautious in the sense of forming our own conscience. Yeah. But I have to add a very important element.

In Amoris Laetitia, there is only one passage in which Pope Francis speaks of Holy Communion. This is not in the context of divorce. It’s in the context of social reality (AL 186). He quotes St. Paul to the Corinthians, when he speaks about discerning the body and what is the reproach of St. Paul to the Corinthians? That the rich eat and drink to be drunken, and the poor are hungry. And this is not discerning the body.

I think the invitation for discernment is something that touches everybody. Not only the divorced. It touches everybody: How is my discernment when I treat my people, my staff in a brutal, inhuman way – and I go on Sunday to Communion? Is that discernment of the body?

So, I think Pope Francis invites us to enlarge the question. And finally, with the words of St. Paul, everybody has to discern whether he eats for his judgement or his benefit.