DUBLIN – If one were to start ticking off the most important figures at the senior levels of the Catholic Church today, obviously the list would start with Pope Francis. After that might come Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and a man many observers see as a potential successor to the pope he serves.
It wouldn’t take long, however, before the name of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria would surface.
Now 73, Schönborn has been a major player in the Church for more than three decades, having become the Archbishop of Vienna in 1995 at the tender age of 50.
As fallout from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and other new developments in the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals continue to cloud the opening of the World Meeting of Families, it’s worth noting that Schönborn is no stranger to the abuse crisis. He took over in Vienna from Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër who was accused of sexually abusing young male students when he was a Benedictine abbot.
Though Groër always denied the charges, Schönborn led the Austrian bishops in declaring they were “morally convinced” of the truth of at least some of the charges. A book on Groër eventually would contend that he abused more than 2,000 young men over the course of his life.
I asked Schönborn if the current round of abuse scandals threatens to drown out the World Meeting.
“It’s present, it’s real, it’s here,” he said. “That’s clear. I think the most important thing is to clarify what’s happened, and then to find the means for the future to avoid these things happening again.”
He argued there’s a direct link between the abuse crisis and the theme of the World Meeting.
“I think the most important solution is sound family life,” he said. “What happened with abuse in the family, and what happened with abuse in the Church by priests, is a call for healthy families. Where else can young people grow in a healthy relationship to their own sexuality?”
“Therefore, the World Meeting of Families comes at exactly the right time,” Schönborn said. “It’s good that it’s here in Ireland, where so much has happened, as in other parts of the world and the Church.”
Adding a dash of realism, the Austrian prelate also warned that the story is far from over: “Probably, we will find other scandals from the past decades,” he said, while insisting “the answer is given here,” meaning in the World Meeting’s celebration of the family.
After Pope Francis issued a letter to the People of God on Monday about the abuse crisis, much reaction from survivors’ groups has been critical, focusing on a lack of concrete detail about what steps might be taken to remedy the crisis. In particular, critics have focused on the absence of strong accountability measures to deal with not just the crime but also the cover-up.
I asked Schönborn if he believes that kind of accountability can be achieved.
“I think this is mainly a question of a change in culture,” he said. “I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and the attitude was widespread that the past must be covered up. It’s only been with difficulty, little by little, that we’ve learned what Jesus said: ‘The truth will set you free.’ This is real, it’s necessary.”
“I think we’re in a process in the Church, and in society,” he said.
Finally, we talked about Amoris Laetitia, the 2016 document from Francis on the family that triggered controversy due to its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. I pointed out that there’s actually a group of Fatima devotees on hand here in Dublin praying a rosary every day at 11:00 a.m. in part that the “heresies” of Amoris will be dispelled.
I asked Schönborn if he felt the early debates about Amoris have run their course, and now the focus can shift to the rest of the document.
“That’s what we should have done from the very beginning,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful document. It’s complementary to John Paul II’s teaching on marriage and the family. It came at the right moment, for this time, as a very practical and deeply spiritually rooted teaching on marriage and family.”
“I think the critiques always exist,” he said. “They have to be looked at carefully, but not be the focus.”
Despite Schönborn’s long shelf life, at 73 he’s still within the window to be considered a possible successor to Francis, depending on how much longer the papacy goes on. Many observers would say that his unique profile as someone who’s both friendly with the Church’s conservative wing and yet also a major Francis booster could position him to be a consensus candidate.
Whatever his future as a papabile, however, Schönborn’s present certainly is as a major tone-setting force in the Church, not just in Austria and Europe but worldwide. As a result, no matter what one makes of his views, to ignore them would be a serious analytical mistake.