.- Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna believes the small but growing number of faithful Catholic families in Europe can win the continent back to the Christian faith.
“I see our young, believing families with four or five or six or more children and how they live in the midst of this society – they are really the New Evangelization not through words, but through the fact of living the happiness of a believing family,” he told CNA May 14 in Rome.
“We are now a minority – the baptized Christians in Austria are 70 percent but practicing Catholics are 10 percent -- but if these 10 percent are convincing and convinced, they can change the country, just as happened in the Roman Empire.”
One key to the success of the New Evangelization, he asserted, is the lifework of his former tutor and lifelong friend Pope Benedict XVI, whose primary legacy, he believes, will eventually be summed up in three words – “fides et ratio” (faith and reason).
“From the very beginning of his ministry, the Pope has stressed that Christian faith, Christian life is not first of all a series of doctrines, not first of all as a series of rules, but a deepening friendship with Jesus. He (the Pope) is convinced that without faith you cannot understand Christian morals. Without faith you cannot understand Christian life. And therefore, I think the big challenge is really to deepen our faith. Call it new evangelization, call it mission – I think it has very much to do with conversion,” the cardinal explained.
“I would say he has this tremendous capacity to show, to make perceptible the coherence of our faith,” said the cardinal, who studied in the early 1970s under then-Professor Ratzinger at Regensburg University in Germany.
This ability, he suggested, allows Pope Benedict to present the teachings of the Catholic faith not “like bricks you have to carry on your shoulders” but instead “as a life, that it is coherent, that it corresponds to the desires of the heart, the real desires of the heart, that it corresponds to reality, that it is true in life, that is true in illness, true in situations of pain, and even it is true when you die.”
Cardinal Schönborn actually credits one particular homily preached by Cardinal Ratzinger in December 1979 with shaping his understanding of the role of a theologian in the Church.
“I was then 34 years old and teaching dogmatics in Switzerland, and he spoke about the ‘faith of the little ones’ and how the Magisterium of the Church has to defend the ‘faith of the little ones.’”
Since then the two men have often cooperated in their work, including, most notably, on the creation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. Cardinal Schönborn is also a regular participant in the “Ratzinger Schülerkreis” (Ratzinger student circle), a group of former students that still meets every summer with their old academic mentor.
The cardinal explained how his greatest joy as a bishop has always been to “meet the deep faith of the little ones,” even if they are “really great ones like Pope Benedict or John Paul II, but before God they were little ones.”
A persistent optimist, Cardinal Schönborn also believes that there is still “deep faith in the world,” including in Europe, “where exteriorly speaking faith seems to vanish but there are still many deep believers, and we have to nourish their faith.”
He is currently in Rome for a quarterly meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which he is a member. Interestingly, one of the department’s more persistent problems comes from ongoing protests by Austrian priests and laity who are demanding a liberalization of Church teaching. About 7.5 percent of Austria’s 4,000 clergy belong to an initiative that last June published a “Call for disobedience.”
“I do not depreciate the elder generation; I myself am now 67, so I belong to the elder generation,” the cardinal remarked, “but it is fascinating to see that in these movements, be in that lay initiative ‘We are the Church,’ be it the priests protesting, there are practically no young priests. ”
He thinks that the root of the problem is “a certain nostalgia” among older clergymen who “seriously think, ‘if the Church would be a little bit more liberal, finally we could breath, and the Church would be filled again and the acceptance of the Church would be as it was in the 50s and 60s.’”
But Cardinal Schönborn described this thinking as “a dream” and “an illusion.”
The issue reached global prominence on Holy Thursday this year when Pope Benedict XVI used his Chrism Mass homily at St. Peter’s Basilica to publicly rebuke the actions of the dissenters.
“When the Call to Disobedience was published,” Cardinal Schönborn explained, “we said the word disobedience cannot stand because you cannot build up a Church life on the basis of disobedience. We have not yet taken sanctions because we still believe in the possibility of personal dialogue but we also clearly said: you will have to decide yourself.
Some observers have criticized the cardinal for not moving swiftly against those seeking to change the Church’s teaching.
When he asked if the time for action was near, Cardinal Schönborn replied, “God is immensely patient, but the danger is it provokes confusion for the faithful, and therefore I think it is time to come to a decision.”
Another issue that has put the Vienna cardinal in global headlines was his decision last month not to veto the already completed election of an openly homosexual man in a registered domestic partnership to a parish council within the archdiocese.
“I decided for very precise reasons, which I am not ready to expose to everybody, (that) this election was done. I do not overturn it. I let it stand,” the cardinal said.
He also strongly rejected any suggestion that his decision has undermined the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
Initially Cardinal Schönborn was intending to intervene with the supervisory body that oversees the elections to veto the selection of 26-year-old Florian Stangl in the northern Austrian village of Stützenhofen.
But after a week of consultations and a meeting with the young man, Cardinal Schönborn decided not to interfere.
The episode should “certainly, absolutely not be understood as a change to the Church's teaching on homosexuality,” he stressed. “You may believe me, I was the General Editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the teaching of the Catechism, especially in this respect.”
He said he regretted that in “our blog and internet society” everybody thinks they can “judge the situation without knowing all the precise details, but that’s our world.”
“Without entering into details, you can believe me that as a pastor I have had very clear words with this young man, and I am convinced that he is on a way as a young faithful in a difficult situation.”
He said his experience over many years is that “if a person with same-sex attraction discovers true, chaste friendship, this can be a real way out, a real way out of a situation that is very often a dramatic destruction of the person.”
“To live in promiscuity is really inhuman and destructive for the person,” the Austrian cardinal observed.
And he sees that there is a need for “good communities where people are not judged immediately, but also not just taken for granted. To find the right way between accepting the person as the Catechism says, but being clear on homosexuality as practice. To make the person aware that he is really esteemed, loved, and nevertheless, at the right moment, we say that his is not the true way.
“So, guiding a person in a difficult situation is always a real art. We should be very clear on the principles and very human on the steps to these principles,” the cardinal said. “As Pope Benedict always reminds us: one will not understand the teaching of the Church unless one has a true relation with Jesus Christ.”
A proud patriot, Cardinal Schönborn seemed somewhat frustrated by the external media image of Catholic Austria being one of dissent and protest. For him, this stereotype “is not the life of the Church.”
“Go to Mariazell, the national shrine, and this is also the shrine for the Hungarian and the Slavic peoples, and you will find what is the heart of the Austrian people – their love for Our Lady,” he said.