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European papers say Schönborn may be Vatican education chief

NCR Staff

Media reports in Austria and Italy say that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna is the leading candidate to replace Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi as head of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome.

At 77, Laghi is two years past the official retirement age for bishops. His office has played a key role in negotiations over a new set of norms for Catholic higher education in the United States.

Though Austrian sources say they take the reports seriously, anticipating Vatican appointments is always guesswork. At different times some of the same media outlets have mentioned Schönborn as a possible successor to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While there has been no comment from the Vatican, and Schönborn’s spokesperson said the rumors about Schönborn’s replacing Laghi are “built entirely on air,” the leading daily newspaper in Vienna, Die Presse, reported May 18 that Schönborn has quietly indicated a successor in preparation for a possible move to Rome: Augustinian Abbot Gregor Henckel-Donnersmark.

Several Italian newspapers have also reported in recent weeks that Schönborn, 54, is under consideration for Laghi’s job.

The son of old European nobility, Schönborn has traveled widely and is fluent in several languages, including English. Sources who know Schönborn say he is a doctrinal conservative, a keen thinker and open to dialogue, but also someone unlikely to assert pastoral interests against Vatican directives.

Schönborn’s reputation as an administrator has been tarnished in recent months by perceived gaffes ranging from the way he fired his popular vicar general (by placing a note on his doorstep) to his failure to reprimand ultraconservative Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, whose abrasive style has alienated many Austrians.

More generally, many Austrians say they have been disappointed by Schönborn’s resistance to the reforms in the church called for by the Dialogue for Austria, a special national assembly of Catholics that convened in Salzburg in October 1998 (NCR, Nov. 6, 1998).

Unlike Laghi, whose background is as a church diplomat, Schönborn would bring to the Vatican post a long history of involvement in educational issues. In a news conference two years ago, Schönborn told reporters, “If there’s one thing I’m really interested in, it’s education.”

A Dominican, Schönborn did his postgraduate work in theology under then-professor Joseph Ratzinger at the University of Regensburg in Germany. He later joined the faculty at the Dominican University of Fribourg in Switzerland and served on the International Theological Commission, a body that advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

John Paul II tapped Schönborn in 1988 to serve as editorial secretary for the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992. He was named auxiliary bishop of Vienna in 1991, made archbishop in 1995 and entered the college of cardinals in 1998.

During the early 1990s, Schönborn served as chancellor of the Medo Institute in Holland, a conservative center of theological studies launched in 1990 as a counterweight to established Catholic theology programs in northern European universities.

In many European nations, Catholic theology is taught at state-run universities, often without any direct control over curricula or faculty appointments by the local bishop. Conservatives have complained that this lack of episcopal oversight has led to secularization and a tolerance for dissent.

After opposition in Holland forced the institute to relocate in 1994, Schönborn welcomed it to Austria under the name of the “International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.” It operates out of a renovated Carthusian monastery in Gaming, Austria, with Schönborn designated by John Paul II as its “grand chancellor.”

The institute receives some funding from the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Schönborn’s most direct link with American Catholic higher education comes through the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, known for its strongly traditionalist stance on church matters. Steubenville operates an Austrian branch campus out of the same Gaming site as the International Theological Institute. In April 1997, Schönborn traveled to the United States to receive an honorary doctorate from Steubenville for his work on the Catechism.

Schönborn is an enthusiastic backer of the “new movements” in the church, such as the Legionaries of Christ, Focolare and the Neocatechumenate. A key adviser to Schönborn, Therese Henesberger, is a Neocatechumenate member. In 1997, Schönborn authored an article for L’Osservatore Romano defending the new movements against charges that they amount to “sects within the church.”

One of Schönborn’s closest American contacts is Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, head of Ignatius Press in San Francisco, who studied under Ratzinger along with Schönborn in Regensburg.

Fessio predicted that if Schönborn replaces Laghi, Schönborn will continue to press concerns for the Catholicity of church-affiliated universities in the United States. “He would surely be interested in the Catholic character of any institution,” Fessio told NCR.

“But he’s not a head-basher,” Fessio said. “I think Americans would find him very open to dialogue.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999