Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has told academics in Austria that ‘Amoris laetitia’ should be subjected to rigorous theological discussion and expressed his delight at having his controversial pastoral approach for remarried divorcees in Vienna worked into the document.

Speaking on Pope Francis’ new post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family at the International Theological Institute in Trumau April 9 (see video of full talk below), the Archbishop of Vienna said there are “no forbidden questions” when discussing the text.  

Compared to his presentation at the Vatican the day before, the cardinal, who is chancellor of the institute, was a little more cautious about the document and, although enthusiastic about it, he appeared to downplay its significance. It is not an encyclical, he stressed, and that while one should listen to it with a “readiness to submission”, there should “not be a refusal to discuss” its contents.

“Pope Francis would be the last one not to want to discuss what he proposes,” Cardinal Schönborn said. “We need this frank discussion because we are all in search of truth.”

Also during his talk, he expressed frustration with the media’s focus on footnote number 351, the only place where the sacraments are mentioned, and in the context of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

Critics believe it is a means of surreptitiously inserting the controversial Cardinal Kasper proposal into the text to allow remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion after a period of penance. As the only reference to Jesus in the Eucharist in this context, they say it carries with it great significance, and indeed represents an attack on the sacraments if construed as giving the green light for civilly remarried divorcees, living in de facto adulterous relationships, to receive Holy Communion.

As he did at the end of the last synod, Cardinal Schönborn rejected such a focus. He said Pope Francis had told him during a private audience between the two synods that it is a “trap” because it can obscure the “whole picture.”

“Methodologically, I invite you to put this little footnote into brackets, it’s only a footnote,” he told the group of theologians. “Look and listen to the document, see the great vision, the great arch he [Pope Francis] is building in the apostolic exhortation.”  He dismissed such a focus on the reference to the Eucharist as a “narrowness” that is “very difficult” to overcome” and instead to “open our mind and our heart to this document.” 

Elsewhere in the talk, Cardinal Schönborn tried to show what he saw as continuity between the document and Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio and Benedict XVI’s teaching on marriage and the family. He frequently made a point of expressing his agreement with a talk just preceding his, given by Dr. Michaela Hastetter, an expert on Benedict XVI’s teaching on marriage and the family. 

The cardinal mentioned mortal sin, stressing there are various situations which the Church can never allow. He pointed to same-sex marriage as an example, which the document clearly rejects. But he also reiterated the document’s position that not all is black and white and that Holy Communion for remarried divorcees is one of these. “It’s a difficult discernment,” he said.

“We all know many priests”, he said, who admit remarried divorcees to Holy Communion “without discussing or asking, and that’s a fact.” He added that it is “difficult to handle for the bishop,” and said he was “very happy” that the Pope in the document takes up the controversial approach he has adopted in Vienna.

This involves what he called “five attentions” made to remarried divorcees: a series of five questions the priest must ask to see how merciful and correctly they have behaved before, it can be inferred, they are able to receive Holy Communion. They include how they treat the children of their first marriages, how they treated their abandoned spouse, and how they dealt with unresolved hatred.

With this approach, the sacraments “come into another light,” he said. “It’s about the way of conversion.”

He said the International Theological Institute, which specializes in marriage and family issues, should incorporate Amoris laetitia into its curriculum. “We have a lot of work to do in this institute to go over again and again the Church’s magisterium and to see what it really means to be with these many situations in our own families in our own communities,” he said.

The cardinal closed by again calling on the institute to “study this document, discuss it.” There will be a “big theological discussion,” Cardinal Schönborn predicted. “It’s good, it’s necessary and it’s helpful — hopefully.”