Schönborn: Get rid of 'tunnel view' when it comes to discussion of families

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

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has appealed not only to the media but also to the church in general to take a closer look at the broader family environment -- including single parents, widows, children of divorced couples, and patchwork families -- rather than concentrate solely on Communion for divorced and remarried people and those in gay relationships.

The media's "tunnel view" -- namely, its concentration on divorced and remarried people and those in same-sex relationships -- also to a certain extent played a dominant role at the synod discussions, he told the press on his return to Vienna.

He then quoted the view of one of the only female participants at the synod, whom Pope Francis was especially invited to take part: Ute Eberl, 52, a married mother of three who has been responsible for family pastoral work in the Berlin archdiocese for over 20 years. (See below.)

"Take a look at the living room first and not at the bedroom," Schönborn said Eberl told synod participants in her four-minute talk. "Once you start wagging your finger, you're no longer taken seriously."

Schönborn said he agreed with Eberl and knew the pope did, too.

The decline of marriage worldwide is the most worrying factor by far and should be occupying center stage, Schönborn said. "The really big problem is that people aren't getting married at all -- and that is worldwide," he said.

Because young couples frequently cohabit nowadays, Pope Francis had suggested accompanying such couples and encouraging what was promising and valuable in their relationships in the hope that it would lead to marriage, Schönborn said.

Pope Francis' change of perspective -- looking positively at the reality of people's lives -- has instilled the fear that the "earnestness of the ideal" of marriage would be lost if irregular relationships are accompanied, Schönborn said. Francis told the Austrian bishops on their ad limina visit in January that he found this fear extraordinary, Schönborn said: "And it is indeed most astonishing that this change of perspective the pope is asking of us is causing quite such fears, as he only wants to remind us of the joy of the Gospel, which is as fresh as ever," he added.

Schönborn said Pope Francis is being exposed to a "massive wave of attacks," especially in the Italian media, attacks he said were evident in reports in Il Foglio or certain books published by such well-known Italian publishers as Mondadori. Some of the reports even said Francis' election was not valid, he said.

During the synod, Schönborn told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that he himself had great respect for faithful, lifelong same-sex partnerships. He said he knew such a couple in Vienna, and when one of the partners had become seriously ill, the other partner had not moved from his side. He recalled Christ's words that publicans and prostitutes also go to heaven and said Jesus' message is also directed at bishops and priests, who could bow down to the exemplary behavior of gay couples even if they could not give their blessing to this form of sexuality.

The pope's wish for open discussion and a realistic stocktaking of family situations had on the whole been fulfilled at the synod, Schönborn said, but there was still a lot of ground to be covered. His own "theological key" of accompanying the "traces of Christ" in relationships outside the ideal of Catholic marriage had met with a wide response at the synod, even if it had not been explicitly mentioned in the final document, Schönborn said, recalling the pope's bid to look positively at what is already there and not at what is missing.

A woman's inside view of the synod

Eberl, one of the few women personally invited by the pope to take part in the synod, was responsible for collecting the replies to the Vatican questionnaire in the Berlin archdiocese.

Asked after the first week of the synod by the German daily Der Tagesspiegel what she had told the bishops, Eberl replied, "I said, Let's take a look at people's living rooms first before we look into their bedrooms. We'll witness their fears, joys and sorrows in the living room -- and that's what counts if we as a church want to be near them. Life concepts have become more fragile. If one goes there, wagging one's finger, one won't be taken seriously."

What were the chances that divorced and remarried Catholics might be able to receive the sacraments? she was asked.

"One can feel that something is developing," she said. "On this issue, it won't be possible to turn the clock back, as marriages are not only breaking down in Europe. In Latin America, entire extended families are falling apart. That came out quite clearly in the first week. The subject was hotly debated. Some experienced participants of Episcopal synods even said they'd never known quite such heated discussions." She said she was very pleased with the interim report, which was in a new tone and reflected a change of perspective, both of which she said she wished for.

When she was asked a week later by the German online portal whether she was disappointed by the final report, Eberl replied, "I was surprised that the interim report had been changed to quite such an extent by the many interventions. In the first week, bishops from all over the world described family life very realistically, but in the second week, I had the impression that family life as it really is had been pushed into the background in favor of the question: 'What does the Church say?' Insofar, yes, I am a little disappointed."

However, she said she was very impressed by the pope's final words.

"He encouraged us to have controversial debates. In short, his message was: 'Of course you can quarrel. That won't make the church fall apart. I'll see to that.' I find that most encouraging for the coming year, in which the bishops' conferences and the dioceses are to continue working on the synod results."

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

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