A few days ago I pointed out a striking Media Fail regarding what Cardinal Schonborn said in a meeting with members of the Austrian press.

Fr. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press offers some helpful perspective on the story, which only illustrates the 285th Rule of Acquisition (CHT to those who sent links).

First, Fr. Fessio provides some clarity regarding the nature of the event (which the press had given conflicting accounts of):

Cardinal Schönborn, who like his mentor Pope Benedict is a model of openness and transparency, invited the editors of Austria’s dozen or so major newspapers to a meeting at his residence in Vienna. How many bishops can you name who have extended such an invitation to the press?

The journalists agreed that this would be an “off the record” meeting so that everyone could take part freely and frankly. Was this to impose silence on the press? To cover up once again the misdeeds of clerics? No, it was an attempt by Cardinal Schönborn to be as open as possible and to make himself available to answer any question that was asked. It was an attempt to help educate the press on matters that the press often finds difficult to grasp—such as the essential foundations of the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church, and the intricacies of moral theology.

That’s certainly a noble effort. As is so often lamented, the press just doesn’t “get” religion and their stories suffer as a result. It would be nice if editors had enough background to catch some of their reporters’ mistakes.

But unfortunately it seems that someone in the private meeting betrayed the Cardinal’s trust and published a garbled account of what happened. So what perspective does Fr. Fessio add regarding the specific claims concerning what Cardinal Schonborn said?

Let’s take them one by one.

1) What about the claim that we should move away from a morality based on duty and toward one based on happiness?

In my own prior piece, I took up this claim first—though it is not first in the article—because the solution to this one is easy to discern. Fr. Fessio offers the same basic interpretation, adding the technical terms for the philosophical positions in question:

First, he [the Cardinal] explained that it is important to avoid the errors of a Kantian moral philosophy, that is, one based on the categorical imperative of duty alone. Thomas Aquinas, inspired by Aristotle, elaborated what scholars would call a eudaimonistic rather than a deontological moral philosophy. That is, a moral philosophy not based on mere duty, but based on the natural desire of all men for happiness.

The Tablet, apparently drawing on other published sources, wrote: “Instead of a morality based on duty, we should work towards a morality based on happiness, [the cardinal] continued.” This is in itself accurate. But in the context of the Tablet article, it implied that the Church should change her teaching on homosexual relationships and divorced and re-married Catholics. (Both were mentioned immediately preceding the above quote.)

But what did Cardinal Schönborn mean by the reference to eudaimonism? He tried to explain it to the journalists. The Church attempts to lead men to their ultimate happiness, which is the vision of God in his essence. Moral norms are meant to do that; they have that as their end or purpose.

2) What about the claim that the Church ought to view long-term homosexual relationships as less bad than promiscuous ones?

Here Fr. Fessio introduces another concept from Catholic moral and pastoral theology, the difference between the law of gradualism and gradualism of law:

The [moral] norms themselves are unchanging. However, our approach to obeying them is gradual and our efforts are a mixture of success and failure. This means that while certain moral norms are absolute, that is, they hold in all circumstances without exception, our approach to obeying them may be halting and imperfect.

This is commonly referred to as “the law of gradualism” and is opposed to “the gradualism of the law,” as if the law itself were somehow variable.

This is the context for the cardinal’s saying: “We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships,” adding: “A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous.” This does not at all mean that the cardinal was advocating or even suggesting that the Church might change her teaching that homosexuality is a disorder and homosexual activity is always a grave evil. It is always grave, but there can be gradations of gravity—or, to call it by its true name, objective depravity.

Fr. Fessio may well be right that this is the context in which Cardinal Schonborn was speaking. He may have talked to the Cardinal and found that out first hand. From The Tablet’s piece, it’s not as easy as with the first point to discern that, but this may be due simply to the poor quality of The Tablet’s reporting of the incident.

If the Cardinal were thinking of the law of gradualism in this connection, I still don’t know that I’d think a stable homosexual relationship is better than homosexual promiscuity. As I mentioned in my previous post, few stable homosexual relationships seem to be exclusive—“fidelity” to one’s partner is given a different meaning in homosexual subculture—and even if such a relationship is both stable and exclusive, I don’t see why serial homosexual acts with one person are less objectively disordered than serial homosexual acts with multiple partners. Indeed, I can see an argument for it being worse in that the parties may be reinforced in the idea that what they are doing is okay because it more closely imitates marriage, while intrinsically failing to possess the reality of marriage.

However that may be, it seems to be a point that is arguable.

3) What about the claim that the Church should rethink the situation of divorced and remarried couples?

Here Fr. Fessio also invokes the law of gradualism, saying:

This is also the context of the Tablet’s statement: “The cardinal also said the Church needed to reconsider its view of re-married divorcees ‘as many people don’t even marry at all any longer’.” This “reconsideration” does not mean a change in the Church’s teaching that a valid marriage is indissoluble, and that someone who is validly married cannot remarry validly. It means that perhaps—but only perhaps, because this is an opinion that does not have the authority of a magisterial pronouncement—the Church should find new ways of leading the weak and confused to the difficult but liberating challenge of Christ’s demands.

Fr. Fessio again may well be right that this is the context in which Cardinal Schonborn was speaking, though it is hard from the lousy reporting of The Tablet to tell.

If all the Cardinal was suggesting is that the Church should try to find ways to help couples more perfectly conform their lives to Christ’s teachings regarding marriage then that would be entirely uncontroversial. Such a claim would make sense of The Tablet’s assertion that he referenced the fact many people don’t even marry any more. In that kind of world, the Church definitely needs to think about how better to help people understand and embrace the truth about marriage.

It still would be unclear how that explains the claim that the Church “need[s] to reconsider its view of re-married divorcees,” but this again may simply be shoddy reporting by The Tablet. It’s hard to tell.

4) What about the claim that the Roman Curia needs to be reformed?

Here Fr. Fessio says:

In the course of this “off the record” meeting, the cardinal also frankly expressed his belief that a “reform of the Roman Curia” was needed. It’s not as if nothing had been done. In fact, the cardinal recognizes that the transfer of all sexual abuse allegations against priests to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in 2001 was already a major reform. He was referring to an attitude of secrecy and defensiveness, as well as an inability to comprehend the gravity of the scandal.

And that’s certainly a reasonable view to take!

Indeed, any organization composed of fallen human beings is prone to need reform, just as the fallen human beings themselves are prone to need ongoing conversion. The trick is making sure that efforts at reform and conversion achieve the intended goods. But the claim that the Roman Curia—or any other institution—could be improved is scarcely the stuff of scandal.

5) What about Cardinal Schonborn’s “attack” on Cardinal Sodano?

I just love what Fr. Fessio says regarding this:

Cardinal Schönborn did not “launch an attack,” as the Tablet states; he made a criticism. And to characterize the substance of the meeting with such a false and misleading headline is typical of the treatment the pope, Cardinal Schönborn and the Church have been receiving at the hands of a sensationalist press.

This is so true.

Criticisms and disagreements are not the same thing as attacks. Attacks may take the form of criticisms, and disagreements may lead to attacks, but they are not the same things. One can make criticisms and have disagreements without the metaphorical violence implied by “attack.”

Yet the mainstream media invariably phrases things in terms of Drama Verbs: launched, attacked, assailed, blasted, etc.

In fact, just today the Drudge Report carried the headline, “Pope blasts gay marriage as ‘insidious and dangerous’...”.

Here is the full text of the pontiff’s “blast”:

Initiatives aimed at protecting the essential and primary values of life, beginning at conception, and of the family based on the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman, help to respond to some of today’s most insidious and dangerous threats to the common good. Such initiatives represent, alongside numerous other forms of commitment, essential elements in the building of the civilization of love.

Wow. Harsh, man! “Civilization of love.” Lots of blasting going on here!

Fr. Fessio concludes:

In sum, Cardinal Schönborn is not calling for any change in the Church’s teaching or discipline. He is calling for a deeper understanding of the struggle to live the high demands of the moral law. He is critical of an attitude of defensiveness and dismissiveness still present in the Roman Curia (not to mention many episcopal curias—but the meeting was not about that). And he is trying to be transparent and responsive to the press.

Here again, though, the adage is confirmed: No good deed goes unpunished.


What are your thoughts on this mainstream media mess?