Cardinal for a new EuropeThe Tablet Interview Christoph Sch?nborn
- 17 April 2004
Christoph Sch?nborn combines charm and resolve, abhors relativism and desires clear Catholic identity. The archbishop of Vienna talks to Austen Ivereigh
IF THE Church?s cardinals were cars on an autobahn, Christoph Sch?nborn ? tall, handsome, aristocratic, multilingual, fine-tuned theologically and molto papabile ? would surely be the 12-cylinder Mercedes purring in the fast lane.
But on Wednesday of Holy Week, when I met him in his palace next to the Stephansdom in the Austrian capital, the Merc had been caught in traffic: a meeting of religious leaders to formulate their proposals for the country?s revised constitution had badly overrun. I was left with half an hour ? not normally enough to find out what makes a cardinal tick. But when I finally sat down with the Archbishop of Vienna, who turned 59 in January, he was a model of concision and precision. It was not hard to see how he has emerged as one of the leading cardinals of the Wotyla generation: like those of his mentor Joseph Ratzinger, his sentences are delivered with a studied intensity ? and in elegant English.
Sch?nborn is the mover and shaker of the Church in central Europe. It was his idea to hold a year-long Central European Katholikentag, or ?Catholic Congress?, which ends next month. Some 60 million Catholics from107 dioceses in eight states ? Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia ? have taken part in pilgrimages and conferences to consolidate the spiritual element in the enlargement of the European Union in May. But its purpose is also one of reconciliation, helping to erode the walls in European hearts left by centuries of conflict.
It is a theme close to his life. Born in 1945 to old European nobility (there is at least one other Cardinal Sch?nborn among his ancestors) in what was then Bohemia, he was barely a year old when his mother ?took to the road with two children and two suitcases?. They were among 3.5 million ethnic Germans deported from Czech-ruled Sudetenland with the consent of the victorious Allies. ?Monstrous things were done,? he recalled to a Polish newspaper in January. ?My grandmother died in a Czech camp, and we lost everything without compensation.? But ?we also gained freedom,? he says.
Sch?nborn joined the Dominicans and was ordained in 1970. He was appointed to the Vienna archdiocese in 1995 in the midst of the sex abuse scandal engulfing its then archbishop, Cardinal Hermann Gr?er. Sch?nborn was made coadjutor bishop, succeeding Gr?er when he was forced to resign in September that year. Since then, Rome has not stopped signalling its favour. Sch?nborn was invited to preach the Lenten retreat in 1996, and was named cardinal two years later.
Key to his fast-lane career is his close alliance with Ratzinger, under whom he studied as a postgraduate at the University of Regensburg in the late 1970s. Like the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sch?nborn is a disciple of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the theologian who has been the flag-bearer for those who believe that the development of the Church after the Second Vatican Council has conceded too much to the spirit of modernity.
Like Ratzinger, Sch?nborn believes that the formation given by seminaries and theologates is deficient, and needs putting right: ?If there is one thing I really care about,? he once observed, ?it is education?. Ratzinger?s confidence in him was crucial in the Pope?s decision in 1988 to put him in charge of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which came out in 1992. There were reservations about freezing Catholic teaching in a compendium, as well as its heavily male language. But it was a monumental achievement by anyone?s standards: a clear statement of Catholic belief for an age unsure of what that was.
Sch?nborn once said that overcoming the inadequate theological formation of the past decades will take two or three generations. It has been, in many ways, his life?s work. After Regensburg, Sch?nborn went on to serve as chancellor of the Medo Institute in Holland, a conservative centre of theological studies founded as a counterweight to the established faculties in northern European universities. With Ratzinger?s backing, in 1989 he helped to found the Casa Von Balthasar, a residence outside Rome for those considering a priestly vocation. Among the other founders was Fr Joseph Fessio, the conservative American Jesuit whose publishing house, Ignatius Press, publishes Ratzinger?s works in the United States. Fr Fessio, whom Sch?nborn describes as ?a good friend ? a longstanding friend?, is now chancellor of Ave Maria University, a fledgling college of 120 students in Naples, Florida, funded out of the fortune of Thomas Monaghan, the founder of Domino?s Pizza; Monaghan sold the chain in 1998 and committed his millions to promoting ?faithful? Catholic higher education. Ave Maria students take a core liberal arts programme, pray the rosary and are encouraged to picket abortion clinics. Sch?nborn visited the university in February and was impressed.
Ave Maria is ?not even yet a born baby, it?s an embryo, but a beautiful embryo,? he tells me. ?I think some American universities have a need of clarification of their Catholic identity and it can be helpful for them to have a young Catholic university that is challenging by a courageous and clear Catholic identity.? Does he see that lacking in other universities? He does not want to name names, he says, ?but I can think of a number of quite famous universities in the United States which are Catholic ? but are they famous for being Catholic?? He sees the secularisation of Catholic institutions in the US as a problem. ?I think many people are more and more aware of that and are enthusiastic about a clear identity.?
Balthasar (1905-1988) is often counterposed to the other key theologian of the postconciliar era, Karl Rahner (1902-1984). Both were Jesuits (although Balthasar left the order in 1950, to found the lay Community of St John) and both were members of the International Theological Commission. But they clashed in the 1970s over the direction the council had taken. Among the powerful German group in the College of Cardinals, Rahner has remained the icon of the Church?s progressive wing, with its more positive, Thomist view of the world, while Balthasar was the inspiration for the ?radically orthodox?, Augustinian view which accentuates the division of the Church and the world. In the German-speaking world, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the Bishop of Mainz ? and, until he died last month, Gr?er?s predecessor as Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Franz K?nig ? are thought of as disciples of Rahner, where Ratzinger and Sch?nborn are the leading Balthasarians.
The differences kaleidoscoped in the dispute in the late 1990s between the German bishops and Rome over the Church-run abortion counselling centres in Germany. When abortion was legalised there after reunification, women were required to undergo counselling before they were allowed to terminate their pregnancies. Hundreds of Catholic centres sprang up, visited each year by some 20,000 women, of whom about one in four decided against an abortion. As John Allen, the Vatican commentator, has observed, the results posed a dilemma: were these 15,000 abortions in which the Church was complicit, or 5,000 it had helped to prevent? Cardinal Ratzinger took the first view; Cardinal Lehmann, speaking for the bishops, the second. Ratzinger eventually prevailed.
I asked Sch?nborn how he saw the difference in worldview between the two theologians. ?The difference, I would say, is, do we start from the presentation of Christian revelation or do we start from the human heart longing for meaning, the meaning of life?? he says. ?Balthasar starts from God?s manifestation, Rahner from the human desire for God?s coming. But of course they were close and different at the same time. Certainly, the two approaches are complementary.?
Because the Rahnerians start with the human longing for God, they stress the importance of coming alongside human beings and entering into dialogue with them, allowing the natural desire for Christ to emerge naturally. For Balthasarians, Jesus sent his disciples into the world as sheep among wolves; they prefer to start with the offer of Revelation, to offer people a clear choice. The Balthasarians worry about equivocation in a society dulled by relativism; hence the ?notes? from the CDF concerning the role of Catholic politicians in public life and their duty to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. The stance of the Archbishop of St Louis, Raymond Burke ? who says he would refuse communion to John Kerry because of the senator?s voting record on abortion ? is, from a Balthasarian standpoint, admirable. But from a Rahnerian view it means closing off dialogue with a human heart presumed to be longing for transcendence.
The divergence is as old as Augustine v. Aquinas, and is incapable of intellectual resolution ? it exists as one of those ?creative tensions? in the Church?s relation to the world which exists also in the heart of every Christian. Where the emphasis is placed will depend on how one reads the demands of the age. In contemporary Europe, Sch?nborn believes, Christians are ?increasingly regarded as foreign bodies, disturbing the peace in a neo-pagan society?. For too long the Church has believed in an underlying Christian substratum which is simply no longer there, he believes; to put it crudely, therefore, the Church right now needs more Balthasar and less Rahner.
?The twentieth century as the century of martyrs is not sufficiently expressed only by the natural desire of God as the starting point, as Rahner takes it,? says Sch?nborn. ?It?s much more dramatic. What Balthasar opposed to Rahner was the drama of salvation: it has cost the life of God?s Son. It?s a costly grace. You cannot move from man to God without the narrow door of the Cross ? that was Balthasar?s insistence.?
Hence the cardinal?s enthusiasm for evangelisation: the Rahnerian ?cry of the human heart? is too suffocated by secularism, in the Balthasarian view, for the Church to wait for people to arrive at the threshold of the Church on their own. The figures in Austria certainly suggest this: about 77 per cent of Austria?s 8 million people are Catholics, but only about 20 per cent attend Mass regularly and some 40,000 have been draining away from the Church there each year since 1995.
So Sch?nborn has encouraged the new ecclesial movements in his diocese, especially the Emmanuel movement founded by Pierre Boulat in France in the mid-1970s, whose charism is to bring faith to unbelievers. In Vienna, Emmanuel runs the International Academy for Evangelisation, and in June last year organised in the Austrian capital the first of five week-long ?city missions? in European capitals: this year it is the turn of Paris, to be followed by Brussels, Lisbon and Budapest in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
?What we have been doing in the mission in Vienna was trying to meet the hidden desire for God and to come to meet that desire by simple steps, by being present in the streets and shopping centres, by opening the churches, to ease the first step,? Sch?nborn says. ?But then there must be the confrontation with the message, and this confrontation needs also a further step ? and of course often this will not happen: it will remain a good talk, some good works.? However well they are sown, he accepts that most seeds will fall on stony ground. ?It?s like Paul in Athens when he was discussing at the Agora,? Sch?nborn smiles. ?When he came to the point, he was fairly lonely.?
Sch?nborn himself was in many ways converted by the city mission, its organiser, Otto Neubauer, the director of the evangelisation academy, told me later that day. He described how the cardinal went out on the streets, accompanied young people into nightclubs, and was filmed with Austrians known for their notoriety rather than their faith. It helped Sch?nborn come closer to his people, and earn some of the affection formerly reserved for Cardinal K?nig. He now writes a weekly column in the mass-selling Kronenszeitung tabloid, and his brother, who is similar in appearance, is a well-known actor in TV soaps, where he is often given the role of priest. (If Sch?nborn becomes Pope, he will presumably be in even heavier demand.) When the two brothers meet, they lean their heads together ? a shared joke about receding hairlines, apparently.
Nor is Sch?nborn as rigid as his Balthasarian desire for a ?clear Catholic identity? might suggest. Although he has not said much about either since, in 1996 he noted that the use of the condom in given situations could be the lesser evil, and on women?s ordination said ?we are not at the end of the debate? despite the Pope?s ?clear? teaching on the matter. And in 1999 he surprised many people by telling a concerned Protestant in a letter that anyone who in good conscience can say ?Amen? to the eucharistic prayer of the Mass may take communion in a Catholic church. This ?simple little rule?, he said, could always be applied when in doubt. (He was annoyed with The Tablet when we described his statement in a headline as a ?radical statement on intercommunion?; it was not radical at all, he explained in a letter to the editor. But it did go much further than the English and Welsh bishops? 1998 stipulations in One Bread, One Body that non-Catholics can receive Catholic Eucharist only when there was a pressing need.)
One key to Sch?nborn may be a tension in him between Dominican intellectual honesty on the one hand and his Balthasarian desire to offer the world a clear vision of the Church and its faith. This may be why, as one experienced Catholic commentator told me, ?the cardinal appears to take two steps forward and then three steps back?. Shortly after he became Archbishop of Vienna he co-founded the Dialogue for Austria, a church programme of conversation between bishops and laity which sought to overcome the post-Gr?er mistrust in the Church. But in 1998 the representatives ? both church leaders and lay delegates ? voted to support admitting married men to the priesthood and women to the diaconate, and allowing the faithful more of a say in appointing bishops. The results alarmed Rome and forced Sch?nborn to switch tack: in an inept move for which he later apologised, he sacked his vicar-general, a strong supporter of the dialogue, by leaving a note outside his door. Sch?nborn said he wanted now a greater emphasis on spiritual renewal; he was convinced that the future for the Church lay in smaller, but more committed groups of believers. Renewal would come through the pursuit of holiness rather than institutional reform.
But then came Cardinal Ratzinger?s surprise remarks at Cardinal K?nig?s funeral, in which he raised the question of how the Church might look again at the balance between the universal and the local Church. Was the appointment of bishops, I asked Sch?nborn, one area in which reforms might be made?
It was in Austria, after all, that one of the most controversial appointments under Pope John Paul II was made. Sch?nborn?s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Gr?er, was named in 1986 to succeed Cardinal K?nig. It was a classic case of Rome imposing its own candidate: K?nig?s advice on his successor was not sought, and the Pope bypassed all three of Vienna?s auxiliary bishops to appoint Gr?er, who was then the Benedictine Abbot of Maria Roggendorf monastery and the opposite in almost every respect of K?nig. It was a decision which, indirectly, unleashed a crisis which left the Austrian Church reeling.
When, in 1995, a number of men who had been novices under him 20 years earlier accused Gr?er of sexually abusing them, the cardinal refused to deal with the accusations, which he said were defamatory. Austrian Catholics drew the conclusion he was guilty; the Pope, who had until then stood by Gr?er, accepted his resignation in September 1995, but the scandal dragged on, splitting the Austrian Church. Only when, two and a half years later, four Austrian bishops ? one of them Sch?nborn ? said they were ?morally certain? the accusations were true could the Church begin to move on. (As a footnote, it is worth noting that Sch?nborn was admired for his full and frank apology for Gr?er?s misconduct, and for his attempts since then to unify the Austrian Church ? not least through a sudden willingness, demonstrated in November last year, to address the problem of clerical sex abuse head-on through new guidelines.)
Sch?nborn told me he was ?hesitant? to call for more local church involvement in episcopal appointments. The Church, he said, had gained the freedom to appoint its own bishops ? it was only 100 years ago in Austria that all bishops were appointed by the emperor. ?That the Pope is free to appoint bishops, this is a conditio sine qua non,? he told me, adding: ?Now, having said this, it is not at all alien to the papal system to be truly collegial in the consultation and I think that the normal procedure of bishops? appointments today, if it is truly followed, gives many, many possibilities of real commitment of the local Church in appointments.? Take, for example, he said, the list of episcopal candidates which every bishop is obliged to give Rome every three years. ?We have not done this in Austria,? he admits. ?Our collaboration has been lacking. We have responsibility as bishops to be aware of possible candidates and to speak to the nuncio regularly, to give these lists to Rome.? He adds: ?I must say that the appointments in Austria in the last ten years have been made very carefully following the procedures and in no case can we complain about an action of Rome over our heads.?
Sch?nborn then surprised me by the vehemence with which he favoured ?a rethinking of the functions of the synod?, the gathering of bishops? representatives every four years which is widely criticised for being stage-managed. ?It?s a beautiful instrument of collegiality; it has served tremendously the communion among the bishops, between the local Churches, but is now 37 years old and it should be rethought ? mainly the functioning of the synod.?
How? ?There should be more plenary discussion, more consultation on issues developing an atmosphere of a real debate, a real exchange, and to be liberated a little bit from that narrow framework that has developed in the last decades.?
But then he backtracks when I ask him if that means less curial control. ?No, there is no curial control ? I mean, there is a close collaboration, the synod brings the results to the knowledge of the Holy Father and he then decides how to come to the conclusions.? What he wants, he makes clear, is a reform ?not of the institution but its functioning?.
Finally, I asked Cardinal Sch?nborn about Christian relations with Muslims. He said in February 2001 that ?patient dialogue with Islam, backed by educational and cultural initiatives, is the Catholic Church?s most important task.? Which did he consider more important, I asked him, theological dialogue or building up personal relationships at a simple, human level? Friendship, he said, was key ? ?a genuinely Christian task?. The Good Samaritan, he said, ?was not a Muslim, but he was a foreigner, and I think this is the challenge of the Gospel ? there is no stronger language than this, this truly human and Christian understanding and love for your neighbour in respect and in truth.? This, he said ? tapping a huge volume of 2,000 messages of condolence the archdiocese has received since the death last month of the man Austrians knew simply as ?the cardinal? ? was the secret of Franz K?nig, ?that everybody felt not judged but with this very genuine interest of understanding about your life, what is important in your life?. The echo on the death of his illustrious predecessor, he says, was similar in kind if not in scale to the reaction following that of Mother Teresa; a Muslim delegation, as well as large numbers of Orthodox, were all present for his funeral. ?That?s this dialogue of life which is certainly the most important. It will be through friendships that the understanding will be promoted ? true friendship that will bridge nations.?
Clear Catholic identity, educational rigour, and friendship ? these are the priorities of a cardinal who bears the words on his episcopal crest from John 15:15 ?Vos autem dixi amicos?. They would look good inscribed on the dashboard of a high- powered Mercedes.