GUESTVIEW: No good deed goes unpunished

By Guest Contributor
May 11, 2010

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.

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Cardinal 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.


St. 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.

This 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.

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Former 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.


Fr. 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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What “VIEW” of remarried divorcees (adulterers) does Schonborn say the Church should “reconsider”? Silence.

WHY should the Church give consideration to the “quality” of sodomite relationships? No reason given.

Posted by dude123 | Report as abusive

dude123, you say Schoenborn gave no reasons for his comments about changing the Church’s approach to remarried divorced people and to homosexuals. That’s not true.

On the first issue, he said “Many people don’t even get married anymore so we need a new way to appreciate those who through marriage publicly pledge themselves to each other.” On the second, he said: “A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous.”

As Fr. Fessio notes above, “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.”

You may not agree with Schoenborn’s explanation but you can’t say he didn’t offer one.

Repeat, follow closely:
What ***VIEW*** about adulterers does the Church need to reconsider???

***WHY*** does the Church need to reconsider the “quality” of sodomite relationships???

Posted by dude123 | Report as abusive

These are simple questions Tom, and Fr. Fessio. Take the first one. There can only be a handful of “views” on the issue of divorce, e.g. people who remarry after divorce commit adultery, people in a state of sin desecrate the Eucharist if they receive, adultery is a mortal sin, if you die unrepentant, you will burn in hell. Which one of these “VIEWS” does the Church need to reconsider Tom? The second question is just as simple. I won’t bore these intelligent readers any further.

Posted by dude123 | Report as abusive

Mankind was created by Our All Powerful Triune God to worship Him and serve Him. On the views above I would say as God begins to separate the sheep and the goat there are only two world views. Pagan and Judao-Christian The only purpose two people are together with one another is to give birth to and raise Christian children to in keeping with the first order of Genesis. This life has very little to do with this world and the word used above “eudaimonistic” which is a pagan pleasure and happiness. Those that cannot see that the culture of death is abortion, euthanasia, and gay unions need to go back to their international world history, their theology and scripture. In Romans 1:24-26 it says two people “of the same sex together” are an abomination under God. Children being sacrificed -gay sex- and pushing out the old IS A POLYTHEISM – It’s idolatry, the worship of false Gods~! If Our God Jesus Christ would turn over the tables for merchandise sales in the foyers of the Church what do you think he will do to those selling this corrupt view in His house.
As the Protestants begin to go completely false liberal it is “we” Jesus’ orthodox remnant that is set aside to tell of Him and His way and His way gets narrower and narrower not broader and broader. Read His inerrant Word it will tell us Salvation history and Salvation future !

Posted by telmab7 | Report as abusive

objective depravity. This is what the church calls part of God’s creation – the gays.

No wonder they are driven to suicide, and sometimes murdered. by the church of “life”

The whole world is changing. Fancy words, and ideas from an age of the ‘anything but’ holy roman empire cannot change the fact that gay people are more and more being accepted as the good people they are. While the church in Europe is dying quickly, and splitting here.

And btw, the two states with the lowest divorce rate in the USA are Mass and Conn. Two of the first states with gay marriage.

And lets not forget that the church has yet to EXcommunicate Hitler. Born and Baptised a catholic in very Catholic Austria. Where he learned his hatred of the Jews – Jesus own people- from the poison the church put into society over a millenia. And it was this hatred that hitler leveraged to get elected. And 50 million people died.

And in 2009, RATZInger UNexcommunicated a Bishop Williamson, who is a holocaust denier / minimizer. To bring Williamson’s 600,000 mad followers back into the church.

At least Argentina had the you know whats to throw Williamson out of the ocuntry. And just recently their legislature passed a gay marriage bill.

I used to think that Ratzinger was a hitler in disguise. Now I believe he is part of Gods plan to help change, or destroy, the church that has always needed some victim to hate, to sell their corrupt brand of love.

The catholic church is, as we’ve seen in endless revelations of the cover up of sexual (and mental) abuse of children, like a Pathological liar. So corrupt that it cant possibly even understand its own corruptness.

it fits perfectly the definition of Power: Power corrupts,and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And when you claim to speak for God, it gets just that much more worse.

Posted by SteveMD2 | Report as abusive