"The family is the fundamental cell of society. Both sociological and psychological studies have shown that in crisis situations, the family is the best, fastest and most reliable network in society," Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said in a Dec. 16 interview in the Austrian daily Tiroler Tageszeitung.
Asked if he saw himself as someone who faced and could deal with the reality of people's family lives today, Schönborn said in this respect, the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family in October was of crucial importance for the church. He said Pope Francis gave a powerful impetus when he asked the bishops and the local churches to let him know how marriage and the family were doing in their various contexts the world over.
"That was actually something perfectly natural [for the pope to do], but it isn't put into practice enough," the cardinal replied. "It's the old principle of 'look, judge, act.' So first of all, just look and don't pass judgment."
And what did he see when he looked at the reality of family life today? For Schönborn, the family was an unbelievable success story.
"Where would our society be without the social benefits families provide? The state would be totally overburdened without families," he said. "The more it tightens its belt by cutting benefits, the more obvious it becomes that the survival network is the family."
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Schönborn said the basic requirement for a family was a stable relationship.
The interviewer said it was clear at the synod that a strong faction found it difficult to go along with this new concept of looking at the reality of family life as it is lived today.
"Pope Francis' focus is very simple; namely, that it is imperative to understand and be sensitive to the reality of people's lives before passing judgement," Schönborn replied. "And the reality is that relationships either succeed or break down. Patchwork families don't come about out of sheer fun, but because difficulties crop up. Maybe the couple couldn't cope with their financial or psychological problems. A happy marriage is not something natural, but it is a valuable example for all other relationships. The family sits round the table for meals, prays together and talks to one another."
Schönborn said he comes from a patchwork family. He said he experienced deep faith and a great deal of generosity in patchwork families, but, of course, also many wounds.
The church is committed to beliefs that do not easily command a majority nowadays, he said.
"For instance, we will always say that every child has the right to live," he said. "That is something we can never go back on. However, we never have the right to pass judgment on someone who is guilty of an abortion." He said the fascinating thing is to represent and live convictions without putting oneself in the position of a judge.
"The Christmas message is that however much has gone wrong in one's life, that is not the end. There are no hopeless cases in God's eyes. Those are the good tidings. They will never grow old," Schönborn said.
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]