By David Gibson
Editor's Note: This commentary was first published on May 18, 2010 at PoliticsDaily.com.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is a former student of the current pope whose efforts in the 2005 conclave were key to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI. But these days Schönborn has the Vatican and conservative Catholics wondering whether he's helping his friend, given the independent-minded streak Schönborn has shown amid the ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis.
In March, Schönborn set off alarm bells in Rome when he said that mandatory celibacy -- the longstanding rule that priests must not marry -- should be included in an "unflinching examination" of the scandal's causes.
Schönborn's spokesman later claimed that the cardinal was not "in any way seeking to question the Catholic Church's celibacy rule" -- though church sources said the backtrack was issued under pressure from the Vatican.
Now Schönborn has repeated his support for optional celibacy in a statement that will likely confound the Vatican and be hard to clarify.
Last week, Austrian Bishop Paul Iby of Eisenstadt, who is retiring, said the church should re-think the celibacy requirement as well as the all-male priesthood. "It should be at the discretion of every priest whether to live in voluntary celibacy or in a family," Iby told Die Presse. On Monday, Schönborn said he shares Iby's desire for an open debate on the issue.
"The concern that Bishop Iby expressed is shared by all of us [Austrian bishops]," Schönborn told the Austrian Independent newspaper. And in a possible tweak to Rome, he added that "I am happy to be in a church in which there is freedom of speech and opinion."
Schönborn is seen as an orthodox churchman who was the main editor of the latest edition of the church's catechism, the main guidebook for Catholics throughout the world. But he been increasingly outspoken as the sex abuse scandal has continued to rock the church.
Last month, in an unusual blast at a fellow cardinal, Schönborn said that the dismissal of sex abuse reports as "petty gossip" by Cardinal Angelo Sodano at Easter Mass in the Vatican had "deeply wronged" the victims of clergy abuse. Sodano's remarks were part of a defense of Pope Benedict XVI, and Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state who is still very influential in Rome, was embraced by the pontiff after his brief talk.
But Schönborn was having none of it.
Speaking to editors of Austrian daily newspapers, Schönborn said that it was Sodano who had thwarted Vatican investigations of high-level child abusers, such as Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, the previous archbishop of Vienna, and Father Marcel Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, a cult-like Catholic order now under Vatican censure. "The days of cover up are over," he said, according to an account in The Tablet of London, a leading Catholic weekly.
Schönborn, who was once a theology student of Ratzinger's, also went well beyond a mano-a-mano with Sodano. He said the Roman Curia was "urgently in need of reform." But he noted that Pope Benedict was working "gently" on that process and that the pope's style -- Ratzinger is a theologian and academic who likes to deliberate and prefers not to delegate tasks -- made it difficult for advice from the outside to reach him.
Even more sensational were Schönborn's comments in the interview that lasting gay relationships deserve respect and that the church needs to reconsider its position on remarried divorcees who currently are barred from receiving Communion.
"We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships," he said, adding: "A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous."
No wonder some people are touting the 65-year-old Schönborn himself as papabile -- literally, "pope-able" -- in a future conclave.
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author, filmmaker, and a convert to Catholicism. For more information on him, click here.