Monday, March 02, 2009

As the Protege Turns

Long thought to be a member of B16's "kitchen cabinet," spates of buzz floating the prospect of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn's departure from Vienna for one or another Curial post have been commonplace even into recent months.

A faithful fixture of Team Ratzinger with star-cred among church conservatives, the talk was never surprising -- as prefect of the CDF, the now-Pope plucked the Dominican theologian from near-obscurity in 1987, entrusting him with overseeing the years-long process that would birth the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first such universal text since the Council of Trent's doctrinal index was issued over four centuries before.

Now 64, the Austrian's meteoric rise on the wider stage was just beginning.

An auxiliary bishop of Vienna by his mid-forties, the nobleman cleric was thrust into the global spotlight in 1995 when the capital's archbishop, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, was accused of sexually abusing young men and minors decades before. Named coadjutor to Groer weeks after his 50th birthday as the scandal's first waves bore down, Schönborn ascended the archbishop's throne within six months as his predecessor retreated to a monastery, never to be heard from again.

Given the red hat in the first intake following his succession -- and, along the way, the coveted invite to lead one of John Paul II's Lenten retreats -- Schönborn was said to be one of the "great electors" who smoothed Joseph Ratzinger's path to Peter's chair in the 2005 conclave. Though never actually one of Benedict's doctoral students, the cardinal's long taken part in the pontiff's annual summer Schuelerkreis, where Ratzinger convokes his alums for a days-long seminar on a host of topics. And when the first part of the Pope's beloved "personal" work, Jesus of Nazareth, was rolled out at a Vatican press conference in 2007, he tapped the Viennese cardinal to lead the event in his stead.

Amid recent events, however, the duo's decades-long history appears to have taken something of a shift: with Benedict getting a global drubbing after January's twin debacles of the Lefevbrist de-excommunication and the ill-fated appointment of Gerhard Wagner as an auxiliary bishop in Schönborn's backyard, the prelate long heralded as this pontificate's "crown prince" has quietly been striking notes that've sounded conspicuously more like the charges of an outside observer.

Most prominently displayed in the letter on the controversies he led the Austrian bishops in releasing -- which text, even before offering tepid support for Benedict, cast blame for both firestorms on "errors [by] the church" and, fresh from the Wagner fiasco, pledged the body's vigilance "that bishops are appointed who are not 'against' but 'for' a local church" -- recent leaks in the European press have added to the buzz over a new tone from Vienna with reports that, among other things, the cardinal has "privately expressed his concern at the manner in which the church is being governed.

"In particular, [Schönborn] and others are concerned that [Benedict] is acting ever more in isolation, with appointments being made without either sufficient consultation or proper vetting," the Irish Times said in Tuesday's editions, days after the Times of London pointedly noted that the Pope "failed to reassure" the cardinal over his concerns during a private audience last month, at which point the prince-prelate called an emergency meeting of his bishops, saying publicly that "damage control" had become necessary for the good of the church in Austria.

At the crossroads of his decades-long bond with the pontiff and the inflammation of a home-turf fold known for being rebellious even in sanguine times, a recent piece in The Tablet highlighted Schönborn's evolution into "one of the most outspoken cardinals in the church" -- a role which, not all that long ago, few observers, if any, would've foreseen:
For a man with a reputation for keeping a steady hand on the tiller, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has been so active during the recent storm over the lifting of the excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops that his actions could be seen by some as just as likely to rock the boat as keep it on course....

Cardinal Schönborn was one of the first to criticise the Vatican on the way it had handled the Williamson case, saying: "A mistake has obviously occurred here. Someone who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated to an ecclesial office. One cannot but voice a certain criticism of the Vatican for not looking into the matter more closely."

Confronted shortly afterwards with the announcement of the appointment as auxiliary bishop in Linz of Gerhard Maria Wagner, who claims that Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for the sins of New Orleans' homosexuals and abortionists, Cardinal Schönborn, who is Archbishop of Vienna, published a moving and unambiguous "Word of Comfort and Encouragement" to the priests and church employees in his diocese in his monthly newsletter, Thema Kirche.

"I can imagine that many of you don't feel too good at the moment. Neither do I," he wrote. "Once again we are confronted with occurrences that cause grief and indignation. They make us shake our heads and seem incomprehensible. And once again the Church has been made to look stupid and so have we. And again we ask, ‘Is this really necessary? Have we deserved this? Are we to be spared nothing?' At a time when the Church should really be dealing with the crucial worries that face people today such as the financial crisis and unemployment, it is confronted with debates about a small group of people who refuse to recognise the Second Vatican Council, or at least crucial parts of it, who think the Pope and the Church are on the wrong path and who consider themselves as the true Catholic Church. And on top of that we are now faced with the uproar concerning the new auxiliary in Linz. This is all a bit much and can give rise to a feeling of hopelessness."...

The cardinal's own pastoral course has been accommodating. Recent episcopal appointments of auxiliary bishops have taken the normal course and the bishops appointed have gone quietly about their jobs and caused no conflict. Growing concern about the drastic shortage of priests and the clustering of parishes prompted Cardinal Schönborn's former vicar-general and head of Caritas Austria, Monsignore Helmut Schüller, to form the "Austrian Priests' Initiative", which is in favour of making priestly celibacy voluntary, ordaining proven married men and recalling priests who have left to get married, so that each parish can still have its own pastor.

While Cardinal Schönborn is always quick to emphasise that the Austrian Church cannot go ahead with such reforms on its own as they concern the whole Church, he has remained open to dialogue with the group. Leading members of the Priests' Initiative went to Rome recently in an attempt to discuss their concerns with the various Vatican dicasteries. When they received a last-minute cancellation of an appointment with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they telephoned Cardinal Schönborn who in his turn picked up the telephone and made an interview possible after all.

Cardinal Schönborn has so far been vindicated in his handling of the current crisis, but it is by no means over. The deep rift between ultra-Right Catholics and Wagner supporters on the one hand, and ultra-progressives calling for radical reforms including the ordination of women priests on the other, will be difficult to heal. Deep down the old wounds left by the scandals mentioned are still festering. While a recent parish survey showed that parishes with charismatic priests who involved the laity were flourishing, one of the priests interviewed was quick to point out that the slightest church scandal would reopen these old wounds and lead to a new exodus from the Church.