Austrian, German cardinals stress need for new look at teachings on marriage, family

This article appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

Both Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich are campaigning for a new look at marriage and the family at the ongoing synod in Rome. They are both known to support Cardinal Walter Kasper's merciful The Gospel of the Family, in which Kasper outlines a possible way of allowing some divorced and remarried people to receive the sacraments. Small wonder, therefore, that they are both being interviewed at length during the synod.

When Jesuit Fr. Bernd Hagenkord, head of the German section of Vatican Radio and one of the few journalists allowed to attend synod sessions, asked Schönborn on Thursday to explain what exactly was meant by "graduality" -- an aspect of tradition that recognizes that moral decision-making develops over time and that has repeatedly been mentioned at the synod -- Schönborn said while it is clear that one cannot change divine daw, it is at the same time essential to point out that few people manage to keep it 100 percent of the time.

"The Ten Commandments are not at our disposal, we cannot change them. But what we actually experience in our own lives is that we only keep them partially and not 100 percent," he said. "If one applies this to marriage and the family, then of course the full realization is sacramental church marriage, which is indissoluble and open for children. But we also know that many people only reach this full realisation of marriage gradually."

On the Austrian bishops' ad limina visit in January, Schönborn said, Pope Francis had asked the bishops whether, like in Argentina, many young couples first cohabited in Austria.

"The pope didn't say that cohabitation was OK," Schönborn said. "He merely said that that was the situation in Argentina. And he went on to say that when a child was on the way, the couple often began think, 'Perhaps we should marry after all, possibly in a registry office.' And some couples then went a step further and said, 'We want a church marriage.' We must accompany these couples, step by step, in this gradualness so that they can discover what the full form of the sacrament [of marriage] is, the pope told us."

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Does that mean that there are positive elements in nonsacramental marriages or relationships? Hagenkord asked.

"I can look at an imperfect situation from two sides, and both sides are justified. I can look at what is missing, and I can see what is already there," Schönborn replied. When couples live together in a stable, faithful relationship, one could say that is not a sacramental marriage, that there is something missing, but one could also say that it is a beginning, that there is already something there, Schönborn said. Pope Francis had encouraged the Austrian bishops to look at what was already there and to accompany it "towards something more complete and more perfect."

He also said it is important to consider a couple's personal circumstances. In Austria, for instance, unmarried couples are better off tax-wise than married couples, as single mothers receive extra support from the state. Getting married, therefore, means sacrificing the extra money, Schönborn said. Previously in Austria and still in many countries even today, very poor people cannot get married for financial reasons, he said, then recalled the case of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, whose mother had been a maidservant.

"Franz was born illegitimately [in Upper Austria in 1907]," Schönborn said. "His parents hadn't enough money to get married. Later, when he was a little older, his mother was exceedingly lucky that a farmer was prepared to marry her and adopt young Franz."

The main thing is to accompany such relationships nonjudgmentally and with understanding and encouragement, Schönborn said.

Schönborn said Thursday on Austrian television that he is sure the church under Pope Francis, who speaks so often about mercy and forgiveness, will find a new way of dealing with failure. Schönborn said it is clear that the church must reach out to those whose marriages have failed: No one must feel that their membership of the Catholic church ended because they failed, he underlined.

Marx, meanwhile, has emphasized that the church's teaching is not a "static construct." It is essential to develop it further, he told the online German publication katholisch.de on Tuesday. While the synod does not aim to change church teaching, "we cannot say we won't touch teaching and only consider pastoral matters," he said. "The church must rework Christian teaching on the family together with today's Christians and have a new look at the magisterium."

Marx, who is also a member of Pope Francis' Council of Cardinals, said he hopes the entire church will engage in a broad discussion on marriage and the family, but he cautioned against glorifying what some people see as the good old days.

"That undertone that there used to be such a thing as an ideal marriage and an ideal family in times gone by should be avoided," he said.

The church must also take a differentiated view of homosexuality, Marx said.

"One simply cannot say that a faithful homosexual relationship that has held for decades is nothing," he said, as that is too "forceful" a standpoint.

"We just mustn't lump things together and measure everything with the same yardstick, but must differentiate and take a closer look, which doesn't mean that I endorse homosexuality as a whole," he added.

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]


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