Vienna's Cardinal SchoebornLike any major international news story
which develops in languages which are not English, information about
developments in the sex abuse scandal tend to be partial, fragmentary and
confusing. In Austria (not to be confused with Australia, from where I am
writing), Eisenstadt Bishop Paul Ilby has told the
daily newspaper Die Presse
that clerical celibacy should be an optional
extra: “It should be at the discretion of every priest whether to live in
voluntary celibacy or in a family.” Bishop Ilby turned 75 in January and
no doubt the Pope will be accepting his resignation shortly.

But when newspapers report that the
Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, ran a similar line a few
days ago, it does send confusing signals.

The American Jesuit publisher, Father
Joseph Fessio
, however, has clarified the Cardinal’s widely reported
remarks, which emerged in The
, England’s most influential Catholic journal, as “Schönborn attacks
Sodano and urges reform”.

Father Fessio says that the real story runs
like this. The Cardinal invited the editors of Austria’s major newspapers to a gathering
at his residence in Vienna to give them deep background on the controversy.
This included a brief (even if it were long, it would still be too brief) class
on the difference between deontological and eudaimonistic ethics.

Notwithstanding Austria’s (not Australia’s)
renown for intellectual depth, the Cardinal may have over-estimated the
journalists’ capacity for absorbing long Greek words. Apparently he was trying
to show that  

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.

Somehow the signals got jumbled and the
word leaked out that Cardinal Schönborn wanted to reform Catholic teachings on
homosexuality and divorce and attacked Cardinal Sodano. But Father Fessio says
that this is quite wrong:

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.