POLITICS APRIL 18, 2005
As far as titles go, it's hard to beat Pope. It's exclusive--none of that pesky power sharing that goes on amongst dukes and princesses, presidents and prime ministers. It's ancient--an uninterrupted line for nearly 2,000 years. It's expansive--one billion Catholics and counting. It's not hereditary--you really have to earn that papal miter. And, perhaps most importantly, the pontiff never wants for powerful allies--he's always on the side of the Almighty. But none of this should be news to Viennese archbishop Christoph Schonborn, a key figure in the Vatican and descendant of Austrian nobility who is often refered to as "Count Christoph." He already knows how to wield authority, and he's the right man to answer to the appellation "Your Holiness."
At the spry age of 60, Schonborn is among the youngest of the papal contenders. His pedigree, though, is undeniable: He's the nineteenth member of his family to rise to the rank of prelate, he's a confidante of the ultra-influential Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (i.e. "the pope-maker"), and he was a trusted adviser to John Paul II. A revered scholar, Schonborn served as general editor of the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first major update of church teaching and liturgy in 400 years. His renown as an intellectual has not kept him cloistered in the Vatican library. He travels frequently, speaking eloquently on the need for Catholics to reach out to Jews and Muslims and "rediscover each other as witnesses of God's faithfulness." Best of all, Schonborn has earned major kudos (as well as some derision) for his matter-of-fact candor about some of the Church's touchiest issues.
This straight talk served Schonborn well when a sex scandal erupted at a Franciscan seminary in Austria last year. Early in 2004, a stash of child pornography was discovered at St. Polten, a training school for priests led by the rigidly conservative Bishop Kurt Krenn. It wasn't long before the police got involved and not much longer before a local magazine found photographs of the rector and deputy rector of the seminary fondling students. Krenn dismissed the actions as "boyish pranks," but Schonborn was in no mood for excuses. "In a Roman Catholic seminary there is no room for pornography," he told The New York Times, just before forcing Krenn to resign and overseeing a series of tough reforms. Since then, Schonborn has quietly urged the Church to drop its cloak-and-daggers approach to abuse allegations and deal with them openly.
Calls for openness at the Vatican are about as welcome as pleas for leniency at an executioners' conference, and Schonborn has paid a price for his suggestions. His conservative colleagues have branded him a liberal, a particularly ludicrous accusation to his Austrian brethren, who consider him, if anything, maddeningly right-wing. In truth, Schonborn is neither: He's a moderate. Like John Paul II and Ratzinger, Schonborn is a theological traditionalist who has tried to reign in some of the doctrinal liberties that have grown out of Vatican II. At the same time, he's proven himself adept at identifying the most serious threats to the Church's future--pedophilia, shrinking numbers in the West, the growing threat of AIDS elsewhere--and prodding for institutional responses. Of all the cardinals, the cosmopolitan Schonborn may be the best equipped to deal with the very different crises of faith happening in Europe, Africa, and Latin America.
Schonborn also promises to be an expert at working a crowd, a skill whose importance John Paul II ably demonstrated. His youth is just the half of it. Major publications throughout the world have been heaping praise on both Schonborn's intellect and personality--"articulate," "brilliant," and even "charismatic" have popped up. A fluent speaker of four languages, he should have no trouble following the act of the previous polylingual pontiff. Even though Schonborn is a longtime Vatican insider, his continued efforts to reach out to laypeople bode well for the inclusiveness of his papacy. As pope, Schonborn would be fair-minded, approachable, unafraid of reform--you can count on it.
Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.