Cardinal Schönborn, on Conscience 

For LGBT Catholics struggling with formal Catholic teaching on sex and gender, conscience is a lifeline. In this regard, it’s worth paying attention to the thoughts on the subject by Cardinal Cristoph Schonborn, who is perhaps the most influential theologian guiding the Catholic church on lgbt issues.

One the one hand, Schonborn is highly respected by both our living popes. Pope Francis invited him to present the formal launch of Amoris Laetitia to the press. He’s also close to Pope Benedict XVI as a former student, a close friend, and a regular participant in the theological “Ratzinger Schulerkreis” Benedict used to hold every summer at Castelgandolfo. He was also the general editor 25 years ago of the Catholic Catechism. His judgement matters.


On the other hand, he is also one of the stronger supporters of LGBT inclusion. Several years ago, he was the first high ranking bishop or cardinal to suggest that the church should be paying more attention to the quality of our relationships, rather than obsessing over genital acts. That suggestion, seemingly so out of touch with orthodoxy at the time, has since moved steadily into the mainstream of Catholic thinking. He was also one of the first to express support for civil recognition in law for same-sex partnerships. Earlier this month, at an Irish workshop to prepare for the 2018 World Meeting of Families, he said that “same-sex couples also need families“.

The problem, he said, was that conscience came often to be seen merely as “the transposition of the Church’s teaching into acts” but in fact “the work of conscience is to discover that God’s law is not a foreign law imposed on me but the discovery that God’s will for me is what is best for me. But this must be an interior discovery.”

He was “deeply moved” when he read the famous paragraph 37 of Amoris, which complains that too often the Church fails to make room for the consciences of the faithful, and that the task of the Church is to “form consciences, not replace them.”

Source: Crux

Speaking in Limerick to the Mary Immaculate College Irish Institute for Pastoral Studies, he made his observation about conscience while drawing a distinction in moral theology between “principle” and what Dominicans call prudence, and Jesuits like Pope Francis, call discernment.  Much of the discussion and controversy around Amoris Laetitia concerns the issue of communion for those divorced and remarried.  There is nothing in the document to contradict established church teaching that marriage cannot be dissolved. The pastoral question though, is how best to respond to those in difficult situations, who have in fact remarried? This is a question not for abstract rules, but for prudential judgement.

What Schönborn was hoping for from Amoris were not new norms but encouragement to discern different situations in the application of the principles.

“If we consider the immense variety of situations it is understandable that neither the synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature, and applicable to all cases,” he said.

This distinction goes right the way back to the great theologian Thomas Aquinas himself, from whom Pope Francis quoted in an observation that was objectively true in the abstract, is not necessarily so subjectively, in a particular case.

Exactly the same point is applicable to persons who are gay or lesbian. Even if (I repeat, “IF”) it is true that same-sex genital acts are somehow “disordered” in the abstract, as a general principle, it does not necessarily follow that is the case in the particular case of those with an innate same-sex affectional orientation. For us, what is “objectively disordered” may well be subjectively sound, healthy and life-giving: in Cardinal Schonborn’s words, “what is best for me”.

That is where we, as LGBT Catholics, need to apply the discernment of conscience.

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