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Benedict’s “spiritual son”: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/05/13

The son of German aristocrats, the Cardinal is well educated and multilingual
One of the fascinating details to emerge when considering the cardinals of the Catholic Church is the vast range not only of nationalities, but also of educational and social backgrounds. Here the son of a truck driver, there the son of a peasant worker. Here the boy of a middle class family from the developed world, there a boy of South American factory workers. Here a child of an American farmer, there the scion of an aristocratic European dynasty. 

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn is a member of the venerable Bohemian noble family of Schönborn-Buchheim-Wolfstahl. Through the years the family has produced two cardinals and 19 archbishops, bishops, priests, and religious sisters. He follows in the footsteps of his great-great uncle, Franz Graf Cardinal Schönborn, who was also the leader of the Austrian episcopacy.

After the Second World War, the Schönborn family was forced to flee from Bohemia.  Christoph entered the Dominican Order in 1963 and studied theology in Paris and philosophy and psychology in Bornheim-Walberberg. He did further studies at the Catholic Institute of Paris and studied Slavic and Byzantine Christianity at the Sorbonne. He was a student of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger at Regensburg, completed a doctorate in Sacred Theology in Paris, and taught theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is fluent in seven languages and is well known as the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn has had a stormy ride. Dealing with a Church in turmoil, he helped steady the boat after a sex abuse scandal, but then seemed impotent to deal with a high level open rebellion amongst liberal clergy who are demanding reform in the Church over issues such as celibacy and women’s ordination. He’s also had clashes with high level Vatican officials and has been criticized for interfering in internal disputes in areas of the Church beyond his authority.

What would a Schönborn papacy look like? He certainly has the intellectual acumen to lead the Church. He’s been called Benedict XVI’s “spiritual son,” so he would be a conservative and reliable as a defender of the faith. He is not only an accomplished academic, but he communicates well with ordinary people. He’s a polished performer with the media – articulate, popular, and able to relate to people of many different backgrounds, including youth.

Schönborn is active in the New Evangelization, and is a keen proponent of new mission and spiritual movements that attract the young. I met Cardinal Schönborn while visiting Vienna as part of a large conference on the New Evangelization. He spoke well and with passion, and he was at home with the many young people who wanted to listen and speak with him. With his many languages, and his skill in communications, he would be at home on the big stage with top billing. He would be able to carry the large set pieces of the papacy in a way that Benedict XVI, in his reserved way, was not.

The problem is that Schönborn often seems to take one position, get involved in a problem, put a foot wrong, then try to make amends. There is an ambiguity and uncertainty about him that is troubling.  Was his handling of crises in his archdiocese an example of weak and ineffectual leadership, or was he pastorally sensitive – prepared to listen and compromise and work behind the scenes to maintain unity? Such ambiguity might mean he lacks the backbone to initiate the reform that the Church needs at this time.

In Cardinal Schönborn, we would have an intellectual European aristocrat leading the Church. Although he has seven languages and a keen interest and education about the Eastern Church, does he have the foreign experience necessary to lead the global Church? Does the Church need another German-speaking intellectual, or do we need a leader from the developing world? Does she need an aristocrat born in a castle and educated at the best schools, or does the Church need a man with a common touch – the son of a truck driver? the son of a farmer?

Perhaps these questions are irrelevant. The Catholic priesthood is a great leveler; questions of family origin and background become less significant the higher a man rises in the ranks. The scarlet robes of the cardinals have a way of making them all very equal. Should Cardinal Schönborn be elected pope by the power of the Holy Spirit, he would be able to overcome the limitations of his aristocratic ancestry just as much as the son of a peasant may overcome his own set of obstacles.

This is ultimately the job of the electors: to weigh up a man’s qualifications, his social and ethnic background, his experience and relationships, the needs of the whole Church, and then to discern that extra ‘something’ – those indefinable spiritual qualities that separate out that one man who goes into the “Room of Tears” to don the white cassock.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Be in touch, connect with his blog, and browse his books at

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