Schönborn: The next synod must concentrate on the realities of family life

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

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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Next year's Synod of Bishops must concentrate more on the realities of family life as it is actually lived in all its various forms, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, has underlined in an interview.

It was good that controversial views had come out into the open at the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops, Schönborn said: The church was struggling to find its way in a pluralistic, increasingly secular society, and it was therefore "absolutely essential" to discuss the path it should take and to engage in controversy.

In a four-page interview in the December issue of the acclaimed German theological monthly Herder Korrespondenz, Schönborn explained why he took this strongly positive view:

"The Synod ushered in a good process. I came back highly motivated and energized and would have thought it terrible if the frictions had not come out into the open. I have all too often experienced Synods at which bishops are not prepared to lower their guard and only indulge in sweet-talk, discussions at which no one dares to say where the shoe pinches or where the real needs lie and things one has heard umpteen times before are simply repeated."

Because of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, when he had openly said he no longer had the strength to carry out the papal office, Schönborn said that closed culture has changed, and other senior churchmen now to talk openly. Benedict's decision to stand down "was the decisive turning point. Cardinals suddenly got up and admitted that they felt wretched in the Curia. I have never heard cardinals speak so openly and freely as they did in the pre-conclave discussions after Pope Benedict's resignation."

At the synod, Schönborn said he had suggested applying the principle of gradualism to the question of marriage.

"When discussing marriage and the family, we must first of all ask ourselves why couples all over the world often cohabit nowadays without marrying. Before I evaluate this morally, I have to learn to understand why even committed Catholic couples nowadays often only gradually discover the way to the Sacrament of Marriage," he said.

His suggestion led to heated debates, but he said he intended to abide by this approach because it was helpful.

"When we say that there are elements of truth and holiness in other religions, we are not saying that we agree with everything they believe in," Schönborn said. "We recognize aspects -- the search, the path, the process." Similarly, he said, recognizing that cohabiting couples may be on the way to the sacrament of marriage did not mean agreeing with cohabitation as a whole.

Many of his fellow bishops were afraid of this approach, and to a certain extent, the synod had been characterized by fear, he said. Some bishops were afraid that the synod debates could lead to the pope and the church giving up the firmness and clarity of church teaching. He said they were afraid that the many Catholics who fought for family values, like the million or more French Catholics who had gone onto the streets to demonstrate for family values, would feel deserted.

"This is something one must take seriously. The Church is the only big institution worldwide which clearly says yes to marriage and the family," he said. "That is a high value and the fear is great that this bastion will fall."

What did he say to bishops who had such fears? he was asked.

Schönborn said he would remind them of the parable of the prodigal son:

"The good Catholics who are Catholic in the best sense of the word sometimes remind me of the older brother in this parable. He is disappointed because his father is preparing a feast for his younger brother despite the fact that the younger brother has done everything wrong and so the older brother feels he is not being rewarded for his loyalty. The father's reply is one of the most beautiful sentences in the New Testament: 'You are with me always and all I have is yours,' Luke 15:32. I would tell these Catholic families that they should be glad and thankful as they bear witness to the fact that marriages can be successful but that they should also rejoice and welcome home those who do not achieve this ideal."

Schönborn was then asked what he had said to those cardinals who had suddenly expressed a longing for authority when they were in Rome for the synod and had pointed to the way Russian President Vladimir Putin was defending family values. Schönborn said he had told them how worrying he found what they were saying.

"There is a certain temptation to dream of a powerful Church at the moment, a longing for political Catholicism which will impress people with its supposed strength and present the Church as a cultural power," he said. "These people get extremely worried when they think they see signs that the power of the papacy is diminishing and the Pope is to a certain extent descending from his throne." He said some people were frightened by Pope Francis' pontificate, and this had triggered stories that Francis had not been validly elected.

At the end of the synod, Schönborn said he spoke to Pope Francis about the controversies between the bishops and asked him if perhaps they were getting too heated, but Francis had told him to trust in God.

"The Lord leads the Church and he will lead it through these controversies," the pope told him, Schönborn said.

As to his hopes for the 2015 synod, Schönborn said he would like to see the participants take a more open look at the reality of life and go into the history of marriage and the family.

"At the Extraordinary Synod marriage and the family were often discussed as though they were something that took place in interstellar space and not in a particular period of history, in a particular society under particular conditions," Schönborn said. "And thirdly I would like to see us work off the deficits in our theology, above all on questions of fundamental morals. This homework needs doing as it plays a great role in the background of the Synod debates. As a Dominican I would very much like to invite everyone concerned to orientate themselves on a morality which sees people 'in via' -- that is on their way -- a morality which is inherent in Christian hope."

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

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