Cardinal Schönborn on the Synod: 'I Am Confident There Will Be No Change in Doctrine'

The archbishop of Vienna believes that mercy must not only be extended to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, but also to the children and abandoned spouses harmed by family breakups.

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn (photo: Wikipedia)

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is the archbishop of Vienna and the president of the Austrian Bishops' Conference. A former student of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Cardinal Schönborn is perhaps best known as the editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He is also a member of the Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops and will attend the ordinary synod that will be held Oct. 4-25.

On July 31, during a public appearance at the Napa Institute, he responded to questions about whether the synod might approve proposals to change Catholic doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage and Church discipline that bars divorced-and-remarried Catholics from receiving the Eucharist. Cardinal Schönborn said, “I am confident there will be no change in doctrine.” 

The following day, the cardinal, who turned 70 in January, met with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond to express his hopes for the synod and his belief that mercy must not only be extended to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, but also to the children and abandoned spouses harmed by family breakups. Cardinal Schönborn also reflected on his work as editor of the Catechism and recalled the intense debate that resulted in a change in Catholic teaching on capital punishment.


You have spoken of the trauma you experienced as a child when your parents divorced, and you expressed your hope that the ordinary synod not only will call for mercy for divorced-and-remarried Catholics, but also for the children who have suffered from family breakups.

It is so obvious that the first victims of divorce are always the children, because the parents are their parents. They have not only a father, but also a mother. They have a mother, but also a father. If they separate, something is always broken in the life of the child.

Therefore, I fully agree we have to speak about mercy and be merciful to the divorced and remarried, who often experience many sufferings and troubles. But before speaking about the suffering of the parents, we must speak about the suffering of the children.

I recommend catecheses that Pope Francis recently gave on the subject. On May 20, he told separated parents: “The children should not be the ones to carry the weight of this separation; they should not be used as hostages against the other spouse.”

And if we speak about mercy for those who are remarried, we must also speak about those who are left alone. Pope St. John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), has a very moving passage about abandoned spouses, who suffer from that situation, existentially and economically.

I always insist on the pastoral accompaniment of people who have divorced and remarried, but also those who remain alone after a divorce, very often homeless, in great economic troubles and in solitude. They need the Church’s attention.

There is a third point, which the Catechism mentions, and this is almost absent in all our discussions: the tremendous harm that divorce inflicts on our society.


Even children who don’t have divorced parents are affected by divorce. They fear their parents’ marriage could break up or that their own marriage will not last.

The Catechism mentions the negative example divorce gives: “It has a contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society” (2385).

How many family businesses have collapsed through the divorce of the parents? What enormous economic damage comes from divorce. Therefore, I hope the synod will have very encouraging words to help Catholics overcome the temptation of divorce.


You have said that your own parents’ divorce was very painful for you. How did you recover, spiritually and emotionally?

First, I have a large family network, and that is a great benefit in a family crisis. My parents were not left alone by their families, and we, the children, were not left alone by our aunts, uncles and cousins. The effect of divorce on an isolated, small family of father, mother and child is more dramatic.

Second, I had been called by Jesus very early, at age 11. When my parents’ divorce happened, I already had an intense, personal religious life, which helped me overcome the pain.

In the process, I discovered something that is extremely important. I remember saying to my mother, in the difficult days of the divorce of my parents: “The parish is my home.” Of course that wasn’t very kind to my mother. But looking back, it shows that the parish — the Church as family — is a reality, and it can be of enormous help in overcoming the pain and separation of divorce.


As the editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you played a critical role in the drafting process. The Catechism’s strong language opposing the death penalty, in almost every case, has led a growing number of U.S. Catholics to reject this practice. Would you speak about the discussions on this issue that took place before the publication of the Catechism?

In the drafting of the Catechism, we came to the Fifth Commandment, and there were burning issues: euthanasia, suicide, war and peace, the whole question of just war. But perhaps the most intense discussions were about the death penalty.

There were two lines [of discussion] on this issue. One said the Church has always maintained that there is a fundamental right of society to defend itself against serious threats of crime and violence and that the punishment is not so much to be seen as vengeance, but the legitimate defense of society.

The second line said the death penalty has to be definitively banned, just as slavery had been banned and as other traditional forms of violence have clearly been banned by the Church.

The position of Pope John Paul II belonged to that second line. He never expressed it publicly, but as we worked on this chapter, we knew that he wanted to limit the death penalty to the maximum.

The first edition of the Catechism was not so explicit in saying that the death penalty was no longer necessary.

What caused the change in the official definitive version was that John Paul had published Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). It includes passages where he explicitly congratulates modern societies for banning the death penalty. So in the drafting of the definitive text, the passage from Evangelium Vitae was introduced into the Catechism.

What was not introduced, to my regret, was another passage from Evangelium Vitae, which said that among the signs of a new civilization of love and a new culture of life was the worldwide tendency to definitively ban the death penalty. This passage was not included, but the central message of Evangelium Vitae is in the Catechism.


Pope St. John Paul II lived under totalitarian rule, both under the Nazis and then under the Soviet Union. Did that experience influence his view of the death penalty?

Definitely. He had seen the arbitrary application of the death penalty in the Nazi and communist regimes. His life experience helped to form his view that the death penalty can be so easily abused and that it must be banned.


The Catechism has helped to clarify Church teaching for the faithful, especially after a period of weak and confusing religious instruction. However, people are often confused when the media selects a passage from Pope Francis’ informal comments, like “Who am I to judge?” and then claims that the Pope has discarded an element of Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. What’s your reaction to this?

Isn’t what Pope Francis said in an interview on the plane coming back from World Youth Day, in fact, what Jesus said in the Gospel? Jesus said to the woman: “I do not judge you.” And during the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Do not judge.” He did not say call good evil and evil good. Abstaining from judgment never means declaring good evil and evil good.

The evidence is that [Pope Francis’ statement] was an evangelical reaction that came directly from the Gospel. He only said, “Who am I to judge?” God is the judge. But in all Pope Francis’ teachings, he has been very clear about the same-sex partnership question.

I don’t see the problem. I see, rather, the problem for those who see it as a problem.


Has the Pope’s pastoral approach introduced something different?

I think there is a deep continuity, especially with Pope Benedict XVI.

I always say, “Read Pope Benedict’s address in Freiburg im Breisgau, during his 2011 trip to Germany, where he said the Church should be unworldly.” The program he outlined for a missionary Church in a secular society reads like the program of Pope Francis.

I also say, “Read the homilies of Benedict, who says that friendship with Jesus is the essence of Christianity.”

Of course Pope Francis has brought his Latin-American experience and his Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality [into his pontificate]. My impression is that, with his daily homilies and catechesis, he is conducting a kind of Ignatian retreat with the whole Church.

In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which is a tremendous text, he is helping us to be missionary Christians in a secular society.

From the very first pages of Evangelii Gaudium, he extends a tremendous invitation: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.”


In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis tells the faithful that they must go to the fringes and be prepared to get “dirty” and “bruised.” Has he stirred us out of our complacency?

Very often, Pope Francis says, “I prefer a Church that goes out than one that is self-centered and insulated.”


Certainly the recent immigration crisis in Europe poses a great challenge to the political leadership and to the Church. But you have also said that the Catholic Church in Vienna has benefited from immigration.

We have greatly benefited from the Catholic immigrants who bring a fresh dynamism, a new élan to the Church in Austria. We have Polish, Filipino, Indian and African immigrants, and we are very grateful for their presence. The non-Catholic immigrants from Orthodox Churches have also renewed our Christian culture.

There is also Muslim immigration: Thousands of Turks came to Austria in the ’60s and ’70s. Now, there is a second generation of Muslim immigrants living in Austria, and many of them are in the middle of an Islamic revival. We have a growing problem of Islamic integration — or non-integration — in the country.

Finally, there is a new phenomenon that is totally unexpected: a huge wave, like a tsunami, coming into Europe from the Middle East and Africa. This year, our little country of Austria expects 80,000 refugees coming from Africa, the Middle East, Syria and Ukraine. This is the consequence of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, a quasi-civil war in Sudan and Somalia, the Eritrean conflict and the climate disaster in the Sahel Zone in Africa.

There has been a lot of discussion about how to respond to this challenge. The politicians say the Church must do more. They say that because they want to distract from their own helplessness.

The Church does a lot. About 5,000 refugees are in all kinds of ecclesial institutions; these are about 10% of all refugees in Austria. But if this crisis continues, we don’t know how we will be able to address it.


Recent media coverage of the upcoming Ordinary Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family has given the impression that some bishops from northern Europe may challenge Church teaching on marriage and provoke conflicts with other bishops who want Catholic doctrine and pastoral practice on marriage to remain as it is. Is this a fair characterization, or would you like to correct the record?

The European Churches are not a bloc. There are very different situations in each European country. Many Polish bishops may not have exactly the same view as many German bishops. But, generally, I have the impression that we are victims of the typical media necessity of putting everything in black and white. There are no nuances.

I think it is necessary and healthy that all these questions on marriage and family are discussed openly and honestly. We should not be afraid of this.

But I am also convinced that the positions present in the synod are not so wide apart as the media suggests.


You are hopeful?

I am very hopeful.

First, I believe the Lord is present, as he promised, when two or three are gathered in his name. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is on holiday leave during the synod. Finally, I believe the role of the Holy Father is to be the focus of unity. He is the expression of the Church’s unity.

Therefore, cum Petro et sub Petro — with Peter and under Peter — the synod will take a good path.

Remember that the disputes of the first synod in the history of the Church that took place in Jerusalem — the so-called Council of the Apostles — involved a tremendous and very harsh debate. But it ended with a great unity. The life of the Church today is still inspired by the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.