Cardinal Schönborn Offers Model for Pastoral Outreach to Lesbian and Gay Couples

For several years now, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has spoken acted very forthrightly in support of lesbian and gay couples.  In his latest interview with an Italian Catholic magazine, Schönborn continued his advocacy for greater recognition of same-gender couples, while at the same time tempering his recommendations by stating his adherence to the magisterium’s heterosexual norm for sexual expression. [For a list of Schönborn’s previous statements on lesbian and gay couples, see the end of this post.]

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn

In an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica‘s editor, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Schönborn enunciated both one of his strongest statements of support for lesbian and gay couples, as well as one of his strongest statements of support for the hierarchy’s view of sexual ethics. The interview was conducted in Italian, but excerpts from it were included in a news article in the United Kingdom’s Catholic Herald:

“Cardinal Schönborn spoke in the interview about a gay friend of his who, after many temporary relationships, is now in a stable relationship. ‘It’s an improvement,’ he said. They share ‘a life, they share their joys and sufferings, they help one another. It must be recognised that this person took an important step for his own good and the good of others, even though it certainly is not a situation the Church can consider “regular.” ‘

“The Church’s negative ‘judgment about homosexual acts is necessary,’ he said, ‘but the Church should not look in the bedroom first, but in the dining room! It must accompany people.’ “

The cardinal gave a description of how he understands what it means to pastorally accompany gay and lesbian couples:

“Pastoral accompaniment ‘cannot transform an irregular situation into a regular one,’ he said, ‘but there do exist paths for healing, for learning,’ for moving gradually closer to a situation in compliance with Church teaching.

” ‘We are not at risk of diluting the clarity [of Church teaching] while walking with people because we are called to walk in the faith,’ he said.

Though his comments about gay and lesbian relationships are not the most positive that they can be, there is a hopeful message in the methodology that Schönborn lays out.  His pastoral methodology seems very close to ideas offered by Pope Francis:

” ‘We are all called to observe the situation, not gazing from above and beginning with abstract ideas, but with the gaze of pastors who scrutinise today’s reality in an evangelical spirit,’ the cardinal said . . .

“The approach the bishops are called to take, he said, ‘is not first of all a critical gaze that highlights every failure, but a benevolent gaze that sees how much good will and how much effort there is even in the midst of much suffering.’

“The next step, he said, is not to pretend that everything in all those situations is fine, but to help Catholics build on what is good, growing in holiness and faithfulness to God and to each other.”

Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I tend to think that if such an approach were actually practiced by bishops and other pastoral ministers, these church leaders would also be changed by the encounter they experience.  In giving up their harsh judgmental stance, bishops and pastoral ministers will be opening their hearts to seeing goodness and holiness, and I can’t help but think that this new vision will change their own hearts and minds.

How did Cardinal Schönborn develop such an open approach to these pastoral situations?  Perhaps the detail of his biography that he mentioned in the interview holds a clue:

“Cardinal Schönborn said that being a child of divorced parents – and of a father who remarried – he knows what it is to grow up in a ‘patchwork family.’ And despite it not conforming fully to the Church’s ideal, ‘I also experienced the radical goodness of the family’ with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who helped out.

In 1999,  Detroit’s Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a great advocate for LGBT Catholics, was asked a question at a talk he gave, “How can more bishops become like you?”  Gumbleton, whose eyes were opened about LGBT people because of having a gay brother, answered, “Tell the bishops to find the gay and lesbian members in their families.”

I strongly suspect that the reason Cardinal Schönborn has such an open view about what the church would call an “irregular” relationship is that he experienced these realities in his own family.  And he is courageous enough–and vulnerable enough–to face those facts, reflect on his experience, and share those thoughts publicly.  I’m not sure enough church leaders are willing to be so vulnerable.

If you can read Italian, you can read the entire interview with Cardinal Schönborn in La Civiltà Cattolica by clicking here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Previous posts about Cardinal Schönborn’s statements on lesbian and gay couples:

April 3, 2012: “Austrian Cardinal: Gay Man Can Stay on Parish Council”

April 12, 2013: “Two More Cardinals on the Record Endorsing Civil Unions

February 11, 2014: “Signs of Openness on LGBT and Marriage Issues from Two European Church Leaders”


10 replies
  1. terryweldon
    terryweldon says:

    The entire article is well worth reading, in full, It goes way beyond the more sensitive approach to LGBT ministry, which you describe, but goes to the heart of what “doctrine” is really about (or should be):

    “Doctrine is not, in the first instance, a series of abstract statements, but the light of the word of God demonstrated by apostolic witness to the heart of the Church and in the hearts of believers who walk in the world today.”

    This is powerful stuff – and Schonborn is a notable theologian, one of Pope Benedict’s inner circle of former students who met with him regularly for seminars on theology.

    He also demolishes the hoary old cliches of what marriage has “always” been about, and cannot be changed.

    The article is long, and in Italian – but I am in the process of producing a rough translation into English, which I shall be posting in full at The Queer Church Repository, and with commentary, in sections at Queering the Church. The first of these, on Schonborn’s thoughts on “doctrine”, is at

  2. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    Church teaching deals with absolutes–the sanctity of life, the Trinity, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Lived faith deals with the question, How Do We Act? The “we” is all of us, imperfect human beings. The answer is that we accompany one another without judgment. We hang in there with one another. Trying to “reform” one another never works. Love works. In my own family, we run the gamut of views. I am a liberal, progressive Catholic. Some are rules-oriented conservative sticklers. Obviously, we do not agree. Despite many heated conversations, we have not convinced one another to change. But some grace has occurred, through love. When we have reached out to one another in times of need, the love melts some of the judgment. Over time, we know beyond a doubt that despite differences, we are a family and can count on one another. The “melting” of judgment through love is by virtue of the Holy Spirit. And it is the love that endures. Shaming and punishing is not of Christ, it is man demanding to be “right” and in power. It has nothing to do with love, faith or hope. Pastoral action is powerful and meaningful. It nourishes love of self and others. Shaming and punishing nourishes the dark side of human nature. Shaming that is codified into law is dangerous. The “death to gays” and imprisonment of gays in Uganda and other countries is an example. This kind of codification must be resisted and changed. Otherwise, our Church will be divided beyond repair. People of conscience will not be able to stay. I pray that our Pope and bishops, priests and members of the hierarchy find a way to accompany all Catholics, the rules-loving ones and the progressives. But we must make room for all of us, and we must stop the bullying, firing, imprisoning, and codified mistreatment.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Last September, in an interview, he called a close friend’s same-gender relationship “an improvement” as they share a life together, even if it is considered irregular by the church. Speaking at […]

  2. […] Schönborn will be present at the press conference when the document is released.  Schönborn, who upholds the hierarchy’s traditional heterosexual model for marriage, has nonetheless said some good […]

  3. […] Bode’s support for civil unions and better pastoral accompaniment of same-gender relationships is similar to a small, but growing, number of bishops around the world.  This is particularly true for German-speaking prelates, echoing positive comments last week from another synod delegate, Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. […]

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