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The Pope’s crucial ally on the family

Cardinal Schönborn with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CNS)

Today, one of the most important moments of Pope Francis’s pontificate, the long-awaited apostolic exhortation summing up two tumultuous synods on the family will be released. Its first details were due to be divulged at a press conference at the Vatican, watched live online by Catholics around the world and translated simultaneously into several languages. Aside from Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the synod, and an Italian married couple, the key figure who will act as the Pope’s voice on the document will be Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna.

The Austrian cardinal, described by Vatican expert John Allen as “one of the most intellectually impressive members of the College of Cardinals”, and traditionally seen as a protégé of Benedict XVI, is now starting to emerge as a pivotal figure in the Francis era too.

For conservatives this may provoke unease. The 71-year-old cardinal is no stranger to controversy, making pronouncements that do not always seem to square with Church teaching.

In 1999, for instance, he told his archdiocesan newspaper that anyone – including Protestants – who says “Amen” to the Eucharistic prayer at Mass could receive Communion.

Last year the cardinal risked uproar when he spoke about a gay friend who, after many temporary relationships, started a stable one. “It’s an improvement,” he said. They share “a life, they share their joys and sufferings, they help one another. It must be recognised 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’.”

The Church’s negative “judgment about homosexual acts is necessary”, the cardinal explained, “but the Church should not look in the bedroom first, but in the dining room! It must accompany people.”

The remarks may have been made by Cardinal Schönborn but they are classic Francis. The pair certainly click when it comes to pastoral challenges on the family. Cardinal Schönborn told Fr Antonio Spadaro in an interview for La Civiltà Cattolica last year that he was “a bit scandalised” by the synod fathers speaking “very abstractly about marriage”, explaining: “Few among us have spoken of the real conditions of young people who want to get married.” In Austria, he said, young people were discouraged from marrying by their precarious economic situation, by the lack of stable jobs. He called for an “attentive and compassionate view on the reality”.

The cardinal’s own background gives him an insight into what “irregular” families mean in practice. A child of divorced parents, he once explained that he came from a “patchwork family” where he relied on the support of uncles, aunts and cousins growing up.

However, despite some of Cardinal Schönborn’s statements, conservatives might feel reassured, too. The cardinal is no agitator for reform. It is worth remembering that he edited the 1987 Catechism of the Catholic Church and is a close confidant of Benedict XVI, whom he reportedly lunched with during the last synod discussions. The cardinal was also, according to Vatican commentators, an architect of Benedict XVI’s election as pope.

This is why he is such a crucial ally for Francis. As a “spiritual son” of Benedict XVI who embodies the pastoral approach of Francis, he serves as a bridge between the two pontificates.

He was also a bridge between the two opposing camps at the family synods. As the moderator of the German-speaking group last year he had to mediate between Cardinal Walter Kasper, on the reform side, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In the same interview with Fr Spadaro, Cardinal Schönborn showed how suited he was to the role. “In an attitude of a faith, an opposition between ‘doctrine’ and ‘pastoral practice’ does not exist,” he said. “Doctrine is the teaching of the ‘Good Shepherd’, who manifests in his person the true path of life.” In a nod to core Biblical teachings on the nature of love, he said: “Pastoral practice without doctrine is none other than a ‘clanging cymbal’.”

With his personal background and down-to-earth language, Cardinal Schönborn will mollify those with liberal sympathies, while his academic and theological credentials may reassure those missing the clarity of the Pope Emeritus in the face of looming uncertainty.