‘The Pope is a Catholic’

‘The Pope is a Catholic’ Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leary, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and Fr Chris O Donnell pictured at the Let’s Talk Family: Let’s Be Family conference in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Photo: Brian Arthur

“The Pope is Catholic.” It might seem a strange way for one of the Church’s most eminent cardinals to begin a lecture, but these are strange times: just one day after Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn spoke in Limerick about how to read Pope Francis’s exhortation on love and the family, Catholic websites, news outlets and commentators that boast of their orthodoxy were falsely claiming Pope Emeritus Benedict had said the Church is on the verge of capsizing and even that the former Pope had equated Pope Francis himself with a capsizing boat.

He had, of course, said no such thing, but incomplete and poorly translated texts had been leapt upon by a small but vociferous faction of Catholics whose online presence is grotesquely disproportionate to their significance in the real world and who have been convinced for some time that the Holy Father is a disaster for the Church, with Amoris Laetitia, his 2016 post-synodal exhortation, being nothing less than a betrayal of the Church’s constant teaching.

For the Austrian cardinal, a Bohemia-born aristocrat whose parents divorced when he was in his early teens and who last year presented the exhortation to the media in Rome for the Pope, nothing could be further from the truth.

Best tool

Describing Amoris Laetitia as the best tool for its own interpretation, he told the crowd, including five current bishops, at Mary Immaculate College’s ‘Let’s Talk Family, Let’s Be Family’ conference, “there have been many comments, even episcopal comments, published about Amoris Laetitia, and that’s good, but I think to receive the substance of the document, the best thing is to enter into the document.”

The document, he continued, is Catholic, as is the Pope. “Some people are afraid he might not be fully Catholic,” he observed, adding, “when Pope Francis asked me to present this document to the media, I met him shortly afterwards and he said ‘thank you, thank you for presenting the document,’ and then he said to me: ‘Is it orthodox?’

“And I said, ‘Holy Father, it is fully orthodox’.”

Pope Francis would later send him a note saying his reassurance had given him comfort, a powerful testimony to the respect with which the Dominican friar who has served as Archbishop of Vienna since 1995 has been regarded by the last three Popes. St John Paul II appointed him in 1980 to the International Theological Commission of the Holy See and in 1987 picked him to serve as general editor, working alongside his former teacher the future Pope Benedict XVI, of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Admitting the document’s controversial nature, he alluded then to the notorious ‘dubia’, five questions about the document put to the Pope by four cardinals last September and subsequently published – something Cardinal Schönborn criticised in a press conference before his lecture – when the Pope did not respond.

About “the four cardinals who wanted to have clear answers”, he said, “I think I have given personally an answer to one of them – but not in public – and I gave a clear answer to their questions. And the answer is very easy. To all the questions you can say ‘yes’. Does Pope Francis question the indissolubility of marriage? The answer is ‘no’. Does he teach the classical teaching on marriage and family? The answer is ‘yes’.”

At the core of the difficulty, he said, was the classical problem of how moral principles should be applied on the ground. Ahead of the lecture he had told gathered media how over 1,400 years ago, Pope St Gregory the Great had said the art of the pastoral accompaniment is the art of discernment, which requires training.

Cautioning against rushing to judgment in moral matters, he advised the press: “I fear those who have rapid, clear answers in politics and economy and also in religion. Rigorists and laxists have clear and rapid answers, but they fail to look at life. The rigorist avoids the effort of discernment, of looking closely at reality. The laxist lets everything possible go, and there is no discernment. They are the same but opposite.”

Moral theology, he explained in the lecture, stands on two feet, the moral principles themselves and then the prudential steps to application of the principles.


“This is the classical field of the virtue of prudence, and in moral theology the treatment of prudence has been gravely neglected; there was a great insistence on the principles, and that was right and it necessary, as principles must be clear, but then the question is how to come to practical judgment and practical action,” he said, continuing, “That is the task of the virtue of prudence.”

The Pope tends to favour different language when focusing on the same issue, he explained. “Pope Francis doesn’t speak very often about the virtue of prudence; he speaks, as a good Jesuit, about discernment,” he said, noting that the Pontiff sees discernment as the key question in these matters: “This is the key question for the right handling or right relation between principles and concrete application.”

With that pointer, the cardinal then had the audience turn to the very end of the exhortation, as he began mapping out a skeleton guide to the document he would later describe – and he said Pope Emeritus Benedict shares this view – as so complementary to St John Paul’s 1981 post-synodal exhortation Familiaris Consortio that the two form a diptych, as though they’re two panels of the same picture.

Section 325 of the text, he says, is a “great summary” of Amoris Laetitia, noting how one of the key ideas of Pope Francis throughout the document is that marriage is a journey. “We are in via, on the way, on the road,” he said, describing this as an approach to things similar to St Thomas Aquinas’ and continuing, “There’s no family  in a static way; each family is in via, as each of us is in via his whole life.”

Quoting the exhortation’s observation that no family drops down from Heaven perfectly formed, but must constantly grow in their ability to love, looking towards its ultimate fulfilment in the Kingdom to come, he summed this up as a caution not to demand of marriage a perfection a family cannot have, and said, “very often Pope Francis remembers that one of the main causes of failure is not asking too little of marriage, but too much”.

Deepest needs

Stressing that we are all on a journey, the cardinal noted that “imperfection is an essential part of our life” and turned to section 320, which says a couple’s love reaches a healthy autonomy when each spouse realises God alone must be the centre of their life and only he – and not the other spouse – can satisfy their deepest needs.

He quoted the document’s reference to how World War II Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer – described by the cardinal as “a really great man and a martyr of Faith” – said the spiritual journeys of couples needs to help them to “a certain ‘disillusionment’ with regard to the other, to stop expecting from that person something which is proper to the love of God alone”.

This recognition of earthly imperfection, picking up on how sections 72 and 73 describe marriage as of its nature an “imperfect sign of the love between Christ and the Church”, seems to mark a fine-tuning of Familiaris Consortio; the earlier document taught, following Scripture and Tradition, that marriage is a sign of that union, and Amoris follows this, with the qualification that here on Earth this can never be a perfect analogy.


Moving through section 321, with its description of the family as a ‘hospital’ in which Christian couples act as co-operators of God’s grace and witnesses of the Faith, the cardinal told how his mother and his infant self and toddler brother had fled Bohemia – now in the Czech Republic – following the Second World War and sought refuge with family in Austria, before returning to the very beginning of the document.

Reflecting on the document’s opening section, the cardinal said if there is one central message to Amoris Laetitia, suitable to be shared in a mere online tweet, it is that “marriage and family are possible” – the exhortation, he said, is a great encouragement for marriage and the family, noting how the synod fathers of 2014 and 2015 had believed that even with all the challenges of today’s world, there remains a profound desire for marriage throughout the world.

The synod process – the biggest single exercise in collective Church discernment since the Second Vatican Council – was a collective journey, the cardinal explained, detailing the “surprising” progress of the synods, with 2014’s extraordinary synod being marked by tension and conflict, while 2015’s synod saw every point in the synod’s final text approved by at least two thirds of the gathered bishops. “That’s really a sign that the synod was a common way,” he said.

The biblical foundations of marriage and the family, he said, as outlined in sections 19-21, do not shy away from reality, with Pope Francis sharing this recognition. “For good reason,” he quoted, “Christ’s teaching on marriage is inserted in a dispute about divorce.” Citing biblical examples, he explained that this realism warns us against idealising the family, and calls us to look mercifully upon reality.

Sections 35 to 37, then, show Pope Francis mapping out the main line of his approach, encouraging us to stand up for the values we can and must offer the world.  It is not enough, the cardinal said, to reel off the problems of the world, or simply to impose rules by authority; rather the challenge is responsibly and generously to show why people should marry “and in this way”, he quoted the Pope as writing, “to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them”.

Advising those gathered to underline this, he reiterated this – “trust in grace”, he said, before noting how the Pope cautions against weighing marriage down with excessive idealisation, presenting it as an abstract phenomenon rather than a living and changing reality.


Elphin’s Bishop Kevin Doran told The Irish Catholic last December that the most important thing Pope Francis was saying is that we can’t be anybody else’s conscience, and section 37 of Amoris Laetitia spells this out, noting how we sometimes find it hard to allow for the consciences of the faithful and observing “we have been called to form consciences not replace them”.

Explaining that he had been deeply moved by this passage, the cardinal asked whether we really trust in the consciences of people who respond as best they can in difficult circumstances, observing that “the bonum possibile (possible good) in moral theology — it has been so neglected”. In what seemed an allusion to the famous parable of the widow’s mite, he noted how Pope Francis has observed that “a little step towards the good done under difficult circumstances can be more valuable than a moral solid life under confident circumstances”.

The key to understanding where Pope Francis comes from on this, he said, can be found in section 49, which outlines the difficulties faced by poor households, single mothers, and others in need to whom the Church must offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than turning God’s loving and healing message into stones to hurl at those in difficulty. The cardinal had witnessed the hardships suffered by the poor of Buenos Aires and the heroism with which they faced it when he visited the city – and met the future Pope – in the 1980s, he said.

Section 123 is another central text in the document, he said, noting with approval the fingerprints of St Thomas Aquinas in the passage which defines love as a kind of friendship marked by concern for the good of the other and with marriage destined to last as it is rooted in the deepest inclinations of human nature. “We shouldn’t be afraid too much about other kinds of relationship because this natural inclination will always be stronger,” he observed.


Pope Francis’ realism is clear in sections 220 and 221, detailing how a maturing love learns to negotiate in a way that everyone wins, with the development of this skill needing time and patience.

Expressing pleasure that Pope Francis did not get bogged down in the subject of same-sex marriage, he related how sections 250 and 251 focus on the Church’s Christ-inspired approach to homosexual people, reiterating that everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation, is entitled to be respected in their dignity and treated with consideration and without even a semblance of unjust discrimination – and especially without aggression and violence. While same-sex unions are not analogous to God’s plan for marriage, he said, “we always have to look at the person first, and not the orientation”.

Chapter eight of Amoris has long been the most controversial part of the exhortation, he said, turning to section 300 – while urging those gathered to read chapter seven carefully – to quote the key statement, “if we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases”.

This statement relieved him when he read it, he said, as he had worried the document might contain new canonical rules: maintaining that the canonical dispositions remain valid, but that it’s not true to say nothing has changed, he said Amoris recognises what’s needed are not new rules but a renewed attitude to discernment.

This need had been flagged by St John Paul in Familiaris Consortio 84, he said, which said pastors for love of truth are obliged to discern situations – to distinguish between cases – with section 298 of Amoris reeling off a range of  different scenarios considered by St John Paul. Pope Francis, he says, has built on this.

“We do not speak about Communion,” he said, explaining that this question comes later. “We speak about the moral qualifications of situations,” he continued, “Pope Francis said at one point in the synod, that this question of Communion is a trap, because you put away the consideration of the situation, and you only want to have a casuistic approach: are they allowed or aren’t they?”

Section 300, he said, details five questions for divorced and remarried, including how they treated their children as their marriage was breaking down, what efforts had been made at reconciliation, what had become of the abandoned party, what consequences had the new relationship had on the family and the wider Christian community, and what example it was setting for young people preparing for marriage.

Describing this as the real programme to accompany the divorced and remarried, he said whatever happens the good of children must come first. “Never ever, take your child hostage,” he quoted the Pope as crying in section 245, adding: “The question of Communion can come after all this.”

See news report (Children must be priority when marriages fail – top Cardinal)  and The Irish Catholic’s exclusive interview with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (Building a doctrine to speak to real human situations).