Monday, 25 September 2017

Schönborn: towards a person’s possible good

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5141 words, 26 min read

In July, at Mary Immaculate College’s Irish Institute for Pastoral Studies, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna gave a beautiful, commented reading of some passages of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the family. A video of the whole event has been published recently and, as a sign of gratitude to Cardinal Schönborn, I would here like to share a lightly edited transcript of the majority of his talk. It radiates love and profound care for the family and, by extension, for all of humanity, and benefits from Cardinal Schönborn’s rich gifts and experiences - his having been editor of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, his being archbishop of Vienna, his having been a student of Benedict XVI, his participation in both Synods that lead to Amoris Laetitia and his having been chosen to present Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis when it was published.



Moral Theology stands on two feet: the principles and then the prudential steps to application of the principles to reality. And this is the normal challenge that every parent faces when they have to educate their children. […] This is the classical field of the virtue of prudence. And in moral theology the treatise on prudence has been gravely neglected. There was a great insistence on principles, and that was right, and it’s necessary. Principles must be clear. But then the question is how to come to practical judgment and then practical action. That’s the task of the virtue of prudence. […] For Pope Francis the key question is discernment […] for the right handling of the relation between principles and concrete action.
AL: “325. The teaching of the Master (cf. Mt 22:30) and Saint Paul (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31) on marriage is set – and not by chance – in the context of the ultimate and definitive dimension of our human existence. We urgently need to rediscover the richness of this teaching. By heeding it, married couples will come to see the deeper meaning of their journey through life.”
One of the key words of Pope Francis in the whole document is: marriage is a journey. It’s [a] classical Thomistic approach. It’s the existence “in via” - we are on the way, on the road. There is no family in a static way. Every family is “in via” as each of us is “in via” his whole life.
AL: “325. As this Exhortation has often noted, no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. This is a never-ending vocation born of the full communion of the Trinity, the profound unity between Christ and his Church, the loving community which is the Holy Family of Nazareth, and the pure fraternity existing among the saints of heaven. Our contemplation of the fulfillment which we have yet to attain also allows us to see in proper perspective the historical journey which we make as families, and in this way to stop demanding of our interpersonal relationships a perfection, a purity of intentions and a consistency which we will only encounter in the Kingdom to come.”
Very often Pope Francis remembers that one of the main causes of [difficulties in] marriage is not that we ask too little from marriage, but too much. […]
AL: “325. It also keeps us from judging harshly those who live in situations of frailty. All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse. Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. What we have been promised is greater than we can imagine. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.”
[This] helps us to see that we are all on a journey and imperfection is [an] essential part of our life. […]
AL: “320. There comes a point where a couple’s love attains the height of its freedom and becomes the basis of a healthy autonomy. This happens when each spouse realizes that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord. No one but God can presume to take over the deepest and most personal core of the loved one; he alone can be the ultimate centre of their life. At the same time, the principle of spiritual realism requires that one spouse not presume that the other can completely satisfy his or her needs. The spiritual journey of each – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer nicely put it – needs to help them to a certain “disillusionment” with regard to the other,382 to stop expecting from that person something which is proper to the love of God alone. This demands an interior divestment. The space which each of the spouses makes exclusively for their personal relationship with God not only helps heal the hurts of life in common, but also enables the spouses to find in the love of God the deepest source of meaning in their own lives. Each day we have to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit to make this interior freedom possible.”
It shows that great freedom that is the Christian vocation, which is not an impediment for the donation of each other but the condition of not demanding of each other what only God can give. And, nevertheless, he can affirm in the next point a word I love very much in this document:
AL: “321. “Christian couples are, for each other, for their children and for their relatives, cooperators of grace and witnesses of the faith”. God calls them to bestow life and to care for life. For this reason the family “has always been the nearest ‘hospital’”.”
It’s a beautiful metaphor! […] When my mother had to leave our home in ’45 as a refugee, with me on her arm as a baby, and my elder brother two years old, from Bohemia, from what’s today the Czech Republic, she had to leave the house in half an hour. Where did she go? She looked for the closest point at the Austrian border where she had relatives, family. The family is the nearest hospital. Where do you go? Where do these thousands and thousands of refugees who came through Austria and went all over Europe, where do they go? I have heard so many of them say, “I have family, relatives in Sweden, I want to go to Sweden. I have family in the Netherlands, I want to go there.” Family is the strongest hub, the most protected hub. It’s also the most vulnerable hub. […]

Pope Francis with Amoris Laetitia wants to tell us one key message. […] “Amoris Laetitia: marriage and family are possible.” […]

Before we enter this document, we must look at the Biblical foundations in the first chapter. […] There are some words that show how realistic Pope Francis’ approach is to the question of marriage and family. […]
AL: “19. The idyllic picture presented in Psalm 128 is not at odds with a bitter truth found throughout sacred Scripture, that is, the presence of pain, evil and violence that break up families and their communion of life and love. For good reason Christ’s teaching on marriage (cf. Mt 19:3-9) is inserted within a dispute about divorce. The word of God constantly testifies to that sombre dimension already present at the beginning, when, through sin, the relationship of love and purity between man and woman turns into domination: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16).”
The approach is always realistic. Let’s speak of the families […] as they really are. […] This realism invites us to not idealize the family but to look mercifully on that reality. And I want to show you three methodological texts, numbers 35, 36 and 37, where Pope Francis indicates the main line of his approach.
AL: “35. As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings.”
Sometimes we really feel helpless. I had to speak to the German government and officials. Angela Merkel was sitting there at the front. She is a very impressive lady, and I said, listen, dear politicians, we in the Catholic Church we feel often like against a wall. Whatever difficult question arrises, we are accused of being retrograde, of being conservative, of being out of touch, and it is so hard for us to say that the ideal we present is viable, that it is not impossible. So, Pope Francis encourages us to stand up for the values we [stand] for, not to be ashamed.
AL: “35. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things.”
During the Synod, a Synod Father, he was a cardinal, gave a talk - 3 minutes we were allowed to speak - it was a good decision - he began to describe all the evils of our time: consumerism, materialism, hedonism, “pansexualism” he said, and some other isms I have forgotten, and then I said: but, brethren, with a long list of isms, that we criticize, nobody will be motivated to choose Christian values. And that’s exactly what Pope Francis says:
AL: “35. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.”
[...] The word grace appears so often in this document. Trust in grace. Don’t only repeat the norms, but trust in grace. And the two words: reasons and motivations. We have reasons for our hope. We have reasons for our faith.
AL: “36. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

AL: “37. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
I must say, I was deeply moved when I read this text: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” And do we really trust in the conscience of people who very often respond “as best they can.” The “bonum possibile” in moral theology that has been so neglected. What is the possible good a person can achieve, or a couple can achieve, in difficult circumstances? Often Pope Francis comes back to what he has said in Evangelii Gaudium: “A little step towards the good, done under difficult circumstances, can be more valuable than a moral, solid life under comfortable circumstances.” […] Do we really trust conscience? Of course, dialogue is necessary, deepening the awareness of conscience, but first of all we can trust.

And I want to read with you number 49, which is, as the theologians would say, the hermeneutic key, the key to understanding where Pope Francis comes from. What moves him in speaking as he does.
AL: “49. Here I would also like to mention the situation of families living in dire poverty and great limitations. The problems faced by poor households are often all the more trying.36 For example, if a single mother has to raise a child by herself and needs to leave the child alone at home while she goes to work, the child can grow up exposed to all kind of risks and obstacles to personal growth. In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others”.”
I have met Pope Francis for the first time when he was an auxiliary at Buenos Aires in ’97. […] I will never forget the barrio, the quarter where the sisters [I was visiting] were living. It was “un oceano de miseria” - an ocean of misery. Huts and huts and huts as far as you could see. And in the neighboring hut of the Little Sisters, there was a couple, who had a little daughter and a boy - the boy has become a criminal - and the daughter, Roxanne, now has two little children, two boys, and she showed me when I was there three years ago, the little hut she had built herself, with a little garden, all very very poor, but when I read this text I thought, Roxanne - the heroism of these women in such difficult situations. That is the existential place, where Pope Francis comes from and what matters to him. […]
AL: “123. After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the “greatest form of friendship”. It is a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life. Marriage joins to all this an indissoluble exclusivity expressed in the stable commitment to share and shape together the whole of life. Let us be honest and acknowledge the signs that this is the case. Lovers do not see their relationship as merely temporary. Those who marry do not expect their excitement to fade. Those who witness the celebration of a loving union, however fragile, trust that it will pass the test of time. Children not only want their parents to love one another, but also to be faithful and remain together.”
I was asked one day in a school [… by a girl]: “Bishop, what was the most difficult day in your life?” I was surprised by this question and without reflecting, I said: “The moment when I heard that my parents divorced.” There was a great silence. That’s the experience of many young people, and I tried to repair what I had done and said: “But, listen, I can tell you, by experience, there is always a way.” But, this is such a deep truth, and we will see how important this experience is for Pope Francis, in Chapter 8. Before asking the question: are they allowed - yes or no - to receive communion, look at the situation of the family, the children, and so on.
AL: “123. These and similar signs show that it is in the very nature of conjugal love to be definitive. The lasting union expressed by the marriage vows is more than a formality or a traditional formula; it is rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person.”
We must not be desperate […]. Marriage will last because it is rooted in the deepest inclinations of human nature. The “inclinatio naturalis” was in Thomas Aquinas - this is typically Thomistic - so to say the guideline, the orientation that human nature, that the Creator, has given us. Therefore the best ally of our understanding of marriage and family is human nature. That will last and we shouldn’t be too afraid of the discussions of other forms of relations because fundamentally this natural inclination will always be stronger.
AL: “123. For believers, it is also a covenant before God that calls for fidelity.”
That’s what faith adds to this natural inclination. But all these arguments show that love in itself is inclined to be permanent and faithful and lasting. […]

[Now] we must read number 220 - it’s so funny - it shows the realism of Pope Francis. I think this should be read by a couple, because it is so true for a couple, it is also somewhat true for us who live in celibacy.
AL: “This process [the process of growth] occurs in various stages that call for generosity and sacrifice. The first powerful feelings of attraction give way to the realization that the other is now a part of my life. The pleasure of belonging to one another leads to seeing life as a common project, putting the other’s happiness ahead of my own, and realizing with joy that this marriage enriches society. As love matures, it also learns to “negotiate”. Far from anything selfish or calculating, such negotiation is an exercise of mutual love, an interplay of give and take, for the good of the family. At each new stage of married life, there is a need to sit down and renegotiate agreements, so that there will be no winners and losers, but rather two winners. In the home, decisions cannot be made unilaterally, since each spouse shares responsibility for the family; yet each home is unique and each marriage will find an arrangement that works best.”
There is no general rule. Every marriage synthesis is unique. […] Our former president of Austria, I am good friends with him and his wife, he is an agnostic and she is not baptized, of Jewish origin, but they are a very good couple. An exemplary couple. And one day they spoke about how they work, their strategies in conflicts and they said: we have an agreement that the one of us who more easily gives in does it. “So,” I asked, “but how do you know who of you can give in more easily than the other?” And they smiled and said: “That’s by experience.” No winner, no loser; negotiate.
AL: “221. Each marriage is a kind of “salvation history”, which from fragile beginnings – thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part – grows over time into something precious and enduring. […] Love is thus a kind of craftsmanship.”
[… On homosexuals and homosexuality]
AL: “250. The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception.During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”
In all these discussions, it is known through the media that I have had the case of an elected parish councillor who lives in a same-sex union. He is a very fine young man, he works with handicapped children, he is fully engaged in the parish, he leads the parish choir, and he is highly respected by the parish and his friend, his partner, is a good and a fine young man and they are faithful to each other. I had the choice, when he was elected to the parish council - he had the most votes for the parish council - I was confronted with the question: have I to cancel this vote? In the same week we had the media full with a monk, a Benedictine monk, who had abused in the college of his abbey, probably about 100 boys. He ended in prison, but the abbot had covered … The media were full of this and I said, no, I can’t cancel this parish vote. It was not a protest vote against the Church’s teaching. It was for this young man, who is an honest and good Christian, a real believer, and I decided not to cancel that vote. It was discussed all over the globe, in the “blogosphere”, and I think these few words of Amoris Laetitia are sufficient. As we do for marriage crises, as we do for priests in crisis, we have to look at the person first, not the orientation. I have always said in these discussions: I have never met a homosexual, I have always met a person that has also had a homosexual orientation, but that is not all of the person and there are so many good things to look at. So, I think it is good that Pope Francis refused to have a long discussion about the question.
AL: “251. In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex”.“
[…] In Austria we have a law for same-sex partnership and this is a law with reasonable civil law dispositions for same-sex people living together, sharing their life. It’s questions of inheritance, of rights of visit, of sharing an apartment, and so on - all these legal questions. And from the Church’s side we have not at all objected to this law, because it’s helpful for civil situations which we have not to judge on the personal level. But then, we clearly said we are grateful to the government that they clearly distinguish the legislation on marriage and family from this kind of civil legislation. Of course, some groups were not satisfied, but I think it is a possible way and I think it is also an honest way. […]

Chapter 8. Let’s have a look at number 300. […]
AL: “300. 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.”
When I received the draft for preparing my presentation in Rome, of course, I admit, I read first Chapter 8, which you shouldn’t do. And, when I read this sentence, I was relieved. I must say, I had a serious fear that the attempt of certain bishops, certain theologians, certain pressure groups, would lead Pope Francis to the attempt of formulating a new canonical disposition applicable for all cases of irregular situations. That’s what the Eastern Orthodox churches do with the canons of 692 where it is generally, canonically established that a second and a third union are possible. Not under certain conditions, but they are possible. And this is a canonical, general rule. Some people wanted such a kind of disposition in canon law for the Catholic Church and I was so relieved, so glad, that Pope Francis stood clear about this. The canonical disposition and the dogmatic grounds for this canonical disposition, are valid and need no supplement, no addition. Does it mean, as some people conclude, from this sentence, that nothing has changed? That nothing is possible? Therefore, lets’ read the second sentence:
AL: “300. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.”
Now, you may say, that’s much too difficult. We need clear rules. How can a couple, a priest, a pastoral personnel, come to such a discernment? Pope John Paul II has said in Familiaris Consortio no 84. - a famous text on divorced remarried - he said “the pastors, the shepherds, by love for truth, are obliged to distinguish the cases, to distinguish the situations” - that’s John Paul! And if you turn back to number 298 you will find a series of quotes of St. John Paul about the distinction of cases, distinction of situations. Pope Francis has enlarged this chapter of 84 of Familiaris Consortio by adding some other cases. I give you just the first case:
AL: “298. The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or t into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”.”
That’s a reality. We do not speak about communion here! We speak about the moral qualification of different situations. Pope Francis said once during the Synod: this question of the communion is a trap because you put away the consideration of the situation. You only want to have a casuistic approach: are they allowed, aren’t they allowed. But, first of all, discern the situations.
AL: “298. There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”.“
When my parents divorced, they knew each other for three days before they got married. It was wartime, my father was at the front, came back to Prague, met my mother at a party, and asked her to marry him the first evening. And then he had to return to the front, they wrote letters, and during the second holiday from the front, they got married. My father then deserted the German army, he was very hostile to the Nazis, escaped and joined the British army. He came back with the British army when I was already born. And they began to live together practically four years after their wedding, and had to discover that they didn’t know each other. So, it’s great that my parents stood together 17 years and they really tried to bring us up but they knew that this marriage … So, as a child already, I had the feeling that if my mother said: “I cannot bring up four children alone,” working hard - she was in business - she brought us up alone, she is still alive - 97! Amazing! But, I would have understood if she had said, “I just can’t do it, bringing up four children alone.” And she had had the possibility for a second marriage, but she didn’t do it, and she always says until today, “He was my husband, yes, he is my husband.” Of course, this marriage could have been dissolved easily, because, they knew each other three days, but nevertheless, the situation addressed here is morally different from destroying an existing marriage through adultery. And we have finally a fifth [and sixth] case:
AL: “298. Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family. The Synod Fathers stated that the discernment of pastors must always take place “by adequately distinguishing”, with an approach which “carefully discerns situations”. We know that no “easy recipes” exist.””
We could say a lot about this discernment. I just want to add one point, which is made in number 300:
AL: “300. Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.”
That’s what Pope Francis recommends in this situation, before asking the question of communion. Ask five questions:
AL: “300. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen trust in the mercy of God which is not denied anyone”.”
This is for me the real program for how to accompany divorced remarried in their great variety of situations. These 5 points. And I end with number 245:
AL: “245. The Synod Fathers also pointed to “the consequences of separation or divorce on children, in every case the innocent victims of the situation”. Apart from every other consideration, the good of children should be the primary concern, and not overshadowed by any ulterior interest or objective. I make this appeal to parents who are separated: “Never ever, take your child hostage! You separated for many problems and reasons. Life gave you this trial,”
I find it very impressive. Pope Francis does not judge: “Life gave you this trial” of separation. But:
AL: “245. but your children should not have to bear the burden of this separation or be used as hostages against the other spouse. They should grow up hearing their mother speak well of their father, even though they are not together, and their father speak well of their mother”. It is irresponsible to disparage the other parent as a means of winning a child’s affection, or out of revenge or self-justification. Doing so will affect the child’s interior tranquillity and cause wounds hard to heal.”
This is the attitude of discernment Pope Francis is inviting us to exercise and practice and the question of communion can come after that, when he says: “There may be cases in which the help of the sacraments can be given.” But that needs discernment. And he gave us, and I tried to present in brief, some guidelines for this discernment.