Young at 68, the Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is often described as a reformer who comes out of Pope Benedict’s intellectual tradition. Nicknamed the Zauberlehrling (“Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) he studied under Joseph Ratzinger in Regensburg and is an active member of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis, a group of the Pope’s former students who meet annually with the Holy Father to discuss theological issues. He was secretary of the body which put together the compendium of Catholic teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, first published in the 1990s, but also has a reputation for compromise and reform.
Born in the present-day Czech Republic in 1945 into an aristocratic family, Cardinal Schönborn grew up as a refugee in Austria after his parents fled Bohemia after the War. He joined the Order of Preachers in 1963 and was ordained a priest by Cardinal Franz König in Vienna in 1970. During his doctoral studies at the Institute Catholique in Paris, Cardinal Schönborn spent a year in Regensburg with Joseph Ratzinger. His academic interests have covered ecumenism, especially with the Eastern Churches, doctrine and catechesis as well as the Charismatic Renewal. Before becoming an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Vienna, he taught dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Cardinal Schönborn was parachuted into the Archdiocese of Vienna in 1995 after his predecessor, Cardinal Hermann Groër, faced child abuse allegations. His time in office as Archbishop of Vienna has not been easy. As a result of Austria’s historically strong tradition of Catholicism, the established Church – enriched by vast properties and annual membership fees – had grown fat and complacent while on the extremes experimental pastoral theologians waged war with ultra-conservatives.
Austria is the birthplace of We are Church, a now international group of lay people and priests that has called for married priests, women priests and increased lay involvement. The country is also home to the International Theological Summer Academy, an annual theological seminar which is more focused on traditional orthodoxy and a conservative approach to liturgy.
Cardinal Schönborn has had to deal with rebellious priests calling to be allowed to be married to their housekeepers and refusing obedience, while also facing criticism from conservatives who feel that he has bowed too much to public opinion, conceded too much to the self-styled reformers and allowed liturgical excesses in the name of attracting people to the Church.
Pope Benedict’s first annus horribilis, 2009, was also a critical year for Cardinal Schönborn. January saw the media storm over Pope Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunications hanging over Lefebvrist bishops, including the controversial Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. The Williamson affair shook the Austrian Church. The slow haemorrhaging of Austrian Catholics which had gone on for years suddenly turned into a torrent. In order to make peace, Cardinal Schönborn publicly criticised the Pope’s decision and joined a campaign urging Catholics to create T-shirts with slogans on why they were staying in the Church despite what was happening.
And then another bomb struck. The Holy See went over the heads of the Austrian bishops’ conference to appoint Mgr Gerhard Wagner to the extremely divided Diocese of Linz. Mgr Wagner, an outspoken conservative, was boycotted by the priests of the diocese. After a drawn-out media war, Cardinal Schönborn made an emergency trip to Rome. Mgr Wagner was persuaded to resign. The bishops, led by Cardinal Schönborn, issued a document which blamed the Vatican for the incident, but also said the episode called into question the very sacramental nature of the Church.
In recent years Cardinal Schönborn has not hesitated to be critical of the Curia. After former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano called the media uproar about the clerical child abuse scandal “idle gossip”, Cardinal Schönborn lambasted him in the press for his lack of sensitivity and understanding about the crisis. Another media war ensued in which Cardinal Schönborn also accused Cardinal Sodano of obstructing an investigation into the abuse allegations against Cardinal Groër, which he and the then Cardinal Ratzinger were pushing for in 1998.
Much of Cardinal Schönborn’s approach has been shaped by his background: he has been known to say in private that he belongs to two minorities which have taken too much for granted for too long: the aristocracy and the hierarchy. Secularisation and the growing fall-out from the Church seem to be his biggest pastoral concerns. As he told John Allen, a veteran Vatican reporter in an interview last year: “The question is, do we really believe that we can attract people to Christ today?”
In the name of mission, he has tolerated Masses with strobe lights, balloons and rock music in the hope of making the Church more accessible to the young and has promoted a youth catechism in order to make the Church’s teachings more comprehensible to an un-catechised and seemingly unenthusiastic younger generation. He has sat down with the priests calling for reform to hear their concerns as he feels that they represent many of the concerns of the laity, even though he believes that their approach has the wrong accent.
As the son of divorced parents, he campaigned in favour of divorced and re-married people receiving Communion, a popular concern for the German-speaking laity.
Last year Cardinal Schönborn had to announce a radical restructuring of the Archdiocese of Vienna because the Church has too many buildings and parishes, and too few priests and people. He hopes that by clustering parishes together the Church’s new situation will be reflected more accurately. He also hopes that by giving over other parish buildings to lay movements he can get the spirit of evangelisation moving in the Austrian Church.
Anna Arco is editor-at-large of The Catholic Herald
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund