His eminence Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert Cardinal Graf von Schönborn, the third to be created Cardinal in his aristocratic family, is a man with an unenviable job to which he needs to bring all the diplomatic skills he can find in his armoury.
For a start, his two immediate predecessors hardly left him a smooth playing-field. The late (and some would say great) Cardinal König was one of the powerful liberal champions at Vatican II and continued to favour the cause with intelligence and vigour until his death in 2004 at the advanced age of 98, having governed the diocese of Vienna from 1956 until 1985. He was a great champion of Ostpolitik, the policy of detente with the Communist East, and this led him to welcome the election of Pope John Paul II, something he was later to regret when it became apparent to him that liberalism was going to be increasingly placed on the defensive. He became increasingly critical, even while in office, of the Pope, for, as he was said to see it, turning his back on the Council. He continued until his death to subscribe to The Tablet and correspond there. To his annoyance, his favoured candidate was not selected to succeed him; instead was chosen the disastrous Hans Hermann Groer, a man who was said by one writer (Hubertus Czernin, Das Buch Groer) to have abused up to two thousand young men.
Improbable as that figure might sound, people seem prepared to believe it, and so Groer is understandably now a focus of ecclesiastical hatred in Austria, and his perceived conservatism served only to persuade more to the other side, remembering the 'good old days' of Cardinal König, who remained alive throughout Groer's tenure of the office and this fact alone no doubt made life no easier for his successor. Rumours still abound in Vienna of Groer's partiality for women's clothing and handsome young men; whatever the truth may be (and to the end Groer denied everything) his memory is a painful one. A couple of years ago Cardinal Schönborn let slip (in the way he does) that the then Cardinal Ratzinger had wanted to have a proper investigation of the Groer scandal, but Cardinal Sodano used his influence with Pope John Paul to prevent it.
Schönborn followed an academic career, studying in the 1970s under Professor Ratzinger at Regensburg, his scholarly work culminating in his crucial role in the preparation of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. In some ways the publication of the Catechism was a turning point in the history of the Church; although certain people believe it to be theologically deficient (from one perspective or its diametrical opposite), the overwhelming majority consider it a welcome restatement of the Catholic faith for the modern era. The English-speaking world has particular reason to be grateful to Schönborn for his assistance in ensuring that the new Catechism would not employ politically-correct language, but would rather seek to be accurate in the first place. This was almost the beginning of the fight-back that was to culminate in the publication of the 2011 Roman Missal which, for all its faults, is such an improvement on its predecessor.
It was not surprising that Schönborn became a bishop; he was consecrated in Rome in 1991, and appointed coadjutor of Vienna in 1995 in the shadow of the Groer debacle, succeeding to the see in the same year.
This is where it gets sticky. I think that Schönborn has had the most difficult innings of any Archbishop of Vienna, and quite possibly of any Western European see in the last couple of centuries.* The memory of Cardinal König and the contrasting example of Cardinal Groer served to give extraordinary impetus to the liberal cause in Austria. Schönborn in his pontificate has had to ride the bronco and try to hold together and if possible pacify a church threatening imminent melt-down. In order to do so he has had to be all things to all men; this is a very difficult thing to achieve. My experience is partial, but I have to acknowledge that although you will find him attacked from all sides on the internet (participating in a strange liturgical goings-on here, known to be in the intimate circle of the Pope there), those whom I have met who actually know him acknowledge the greatest respect for him—and these include a (very) liberal parish priest in Vienna and some (very) conservative Religious. And, more to the point, both parties are convinced he is on their side. In fact, I'm sure that the fingers of some readers may already be twitching to identify in the comments box this or that dreadful event at which Schönborn was present. **
Now, this might be duplicity, of course, but it might also be simple aristocratic diplomacy and good nature. It is the nature of the products of posh schools to be at ease in company, to speak to high and low alike with equal affability. And, simply, he seems to be a nice man.
He also seems to have some good ideas. Last week I met one of his seminarians; this young man had the highest regard for his Archbishop, who visits the Seminary almost every week, and makes it a kind of home from home. Each year he, personally, takes his seminarians on holiday for a fortnight, and in his company they have had access to remarkable sights and places. In other words, he understands what so many do not, that the relationship that a bishop has with his priests is a vital one, and if this present crisis in the Austrian Church can only be healed by personal charm, well that is better than schism. The Church has used it in the past to great effect (I think of Cardinal Consalvi after the Congress of Vienna) and it might serve well now.
We are all well aware of that group of priests in Austria who want to revolutionize the Church right now. I was interested to read in this week's Tablet that Schönborn seems to have negotiated their demands down to near-moderation. He seems to have made them feel heard and valued and all those other things, and to be well on the way to defusing a potentially highly explosive situation.
Which is all to say that though I have said in the past that what the Church really needs is passionate defenders of the faith, sometimes diplomats have their role, too.
* Well, okay, I suppose that the Archbishop of Paris who was murdered during the communes might have found things more difficult. And many of the Spanish hierarchy in the 1930s. and…………Look, permit me a little artistic licence!
** And there is his puzzling attitude to the business at Medugorje. I can't account for that.