No good deed goes unpunished

May 11, 2010 15:45 EDT

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. is founder and editor of Ignatius Press, which is the primary English-language publisher of the works of Pope Benedict XVI and which has published several books by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. He is also publisher of Catholic World Report magazine.

schoenborn 1Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna, November 13, 2009/Heinz-Peter Bader

By Father Joseph Fessio, S.J.

Did  Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna “attack”  Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and former Vatican secretary of state? If The Tablet weekly in London were your only source of information, you’d think so, because that’s what the headline screamed.

What happened?

Cardinal Schönborn, who like his mentor Pope Benedict is a model of openness and transparency, invited the editors of Austria’s dozen or so major newspapers to a meeting at his residence in Vienna. How many bishops can you name who have extended such an invitation to the press?

The journalists agreed that this would be an “off the record” meeting so that everyone could take part freely and frankly. Was this to impose silence on the press? To cover up once again the misdeeds of clerics? No, it was an attempt by Cardinal Schönborn to be as open as possible and to make himself available to answer any question that was asked. It was an attempt to help educate the press on matters that the press often finds difficult to grasp—such as the essential foundations of the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church, and the intricacies of moral theology.

NG002104St. Thomas Aquinas, by Carlo Crivelli

Cardinal Schönborn is a  Dominican and a professor. Which means that he has a serious scholar’s grasp of the foundations as well as the conclusions of moral theology, particularly as expounded by  St. Thomas Aquinas.

Perhaps Cardinal Schönborn overestimated the capacity of the invited journalists for a serious academic discussion. Just what did the cardinal do?

First, he explained that it is important to avoid the errors of a Kantian moral philosophy, that is, one based on the  categorical imperative of duty alone. Thomas Aquinas, inspired by Aristotle, elaborated what scholars would call a  eudaimonistic rather than a  deontological moral philosophy. That is, a moral philosophy not based on mere duty, but based on the natural desire of all men for happiness.

The Tablet, apparently drawing on other published sources, wrote: “Instead of a morality based on duty, we should work towards a morality based on happiness, [the cardinal] continued.” This is in itself accurate. But in the context of the Tablet article, it implied that the Church should change her teaching on homosexual relationships and divorced and re-married Catholics. (Both were mentioned immediately preceding the above quote.)

But what did Cardinal Schönborn mean by the reference to eudaimonism? He tried to explain it to the journalists. The Church attempts to lead men to their ultimate happiness, which is the vision of God in his essence. Moral norms are meant to do that; they have that as their end or purpose. The norms themselves are unchanging. However, our approach to obeying them is gradual and our efforts are a mixture of success and failure. This means that while certain moral norms are absolute, that is, they hold in all circumstances without exception, our approach to obeying them may be halting and imperfect.

This is commonly referred to as “the law of gradualism” and is opposed to “the gradualism of the law,” as if the law itself were somehow variable.

tabletThis is the context for the cardinal’s saying: “We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships,” adding: “A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous.” This does not at all mean that the cardinal was advocating or even suggesting that the Church might change her teaching that homosexuality is a disorder and homosexual activity is always a grave evil. It is always grave, but there can be gradations of gravity—or, to call it by its true name, objective depravity.

This is also the context of the Tablet’s statement: “The cardinal also said the Church needed to reconsider its view of re-married divorcees ‘as many people don’t even marry at all any longer’.” This “reconsideration” does not mean a change in the Church’s teaching that a valid marriage is indissoluble, and that someone who is validly married cannot remarry validly. It means that perhaps—but only perhaps, because this is an opinion that does not have the authority of a magisterial pronouncement—the Church should find new ways of leading the weak and confused to the difficult but liberating challenge of Christ’s demands.

In the course of this “off the record” meeting, the cardinal also frankly expressed his belief that a “reform of the Roman Curia” was needed. It’s not as if nothing had been done. In fact, the cardinal recognizes that the transfer of all sexual abuse allegations against priests to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in 2001 was already a major reform. He was referring to an attitude of secrecy and defensiveness, as well as an inability to comprehend the gravity of the scandal. He cited Cardinal Sodano’s Easter remark as an example. It was a criticism, not an attack, of a fellow cardinal. It was much milder than what he could have said.

schoenborn 2Former Styria province governor Waltraud Klasnic (L) and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna April 1, 2010/Heinz-Peter Bader

In the 1990’s when both then-Bishop Schönborn and Cardinal Ratzinger wanted a full investigation of allegations against the archbishop of Vienna,  Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, Cardinal Sodano, along with many other entrenched curial prelates, was able to prevail with Pope John Paul II and prevent an investigation. Both Bishop Schönborn and Cardinal Ratzinger lamented what they (and I) believe was a serious mistake. As cardinal and now Pope, Ratzinger has done much corrective work—as the case of  Father Marcial Maciel abundantly illustrates. Cardinal Schönborn did not “launch an attack,” as the Tablet states; he made a criticism. And to characterize the substance of the meeting with such a false and misleading headline is typical of the treatment the pope, Cardinal Schönborn and the Church have been receiving at the hands of a sensationalist press.

So much for the Tablet’s headline and its story.

Less sensational than the Tablet’s lead but certainly deserving of public attention is the vigorous action Cardinal Schönborn has just taken. He has appointed Waltraud Klasnic,  the former head of Styria province — a person something like a U.S.  governor — as head of a commission to investigate the Church’s response to the sex-abuse crisis. This person is a woman, a practicing Catholic and a highly respected political figure. Her mandate is to choose her own commission and to carry out the investigation as she chooses. The Church will not only not oversee or direct the investigation, but will cooperate in making available all necessary materials.

fessioFr. Joseph Fessio S.J.

Perhaps some will now criticize Cardinal Schönborn for not appointing such a commission sooner. If so, it will only demonstrate a will to criticize, not a desire to seek the truth.

In sum, Cardinal Schönborn is not calling for any change in the Church’s teaching or discipline. He is calling for a deeper understanding of the struggle to live the high demands of the moral law. He is critical of an attitude of defensiveness and dismissiveness still present in the Roman Curia (not to mention many episcopal curias—but the meeting was not about that). And he is trying to be transparent and responsive to the press.

Here again, though, the adage is confirmed: No good deed goes unpunished.

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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