On Being Mother and Teacher in Equal Measure: A Reply to Cardinal Schönborn

Regis Martin

By Regis Martin

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

Cardinal Schönborn
Photo Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

One of the earliest memories I have of Franciscan University, which is the school in Steubenville, Ohio where I teach, took place one evening years ago while leaving my office to go home. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a wise and holy priest who founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and who himself went home (to God) in 2014, was giving a talk in the chapel to an overflow audience of students. So many, in fact, that a hundred or more were lined up outside hoping to get in. “What is he talking about?” I asked a student. With a big smile on his face, the young man shot back: “Chastity!”

Not long after that, Fr. Groeschel and I met in a TV studio, along with a couple of my colleagues. Our conversation was about homosexuality and the essential rightness of the Church’s position. We all agreed that while she opposes it because it is disordered, those who practice it are not to be despised; they are to be treated, rather, with dignity and respect. Love the sinner, in other words, but hate the sin.  

Fr. Benedict said something else that day which struck me so forcibly that it has stayed with me ever since. It was a brief exchange he recounted with a young man who, while acknowledging same-sex attraction and the accompanying sins he’d committed in order to gratify it, nevertheless urged Father not to forget him. “I’m in a kind of hell, Father. And someday I may want to get out of it. Until I do, please promise me two things: Don’t give up on me and don’t throw away the map!”

What the young man meant, of course, was that the Church should continue to hold out hope of his return to the sacraments and not simply write him off as among the unredeemables; but that she must not do so at the expense of setting aside the laws of nature and God, which regard sodomy as a serious breach of the moral life. What the anguished young man feared most was that the Church might abandon not only him and his destiny before God, which in the exercise of her role as Mother the Church is forbidden to do; but that in her role as Teacher, which is equally indispensable, she might decide to compromise or set aside altogether that teaching. She mustn’t do either, but instead she must remain at all times both Mater et Magistra, without which the young man would be left most fearfully and hopelessly alone. Unfortified, as it were, by either the warmth of a Mother’s love, or the wisdom of her insistence that the same norms apply to all her children.   

This brings me to the recent intervention of the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, whom I’d also met in Steubenville; in fact, it was right after he’d completed his work as secretary of the commission charged with drafting the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A man of obvious learning and piety, he impressed me very much in the conversations we had concerning the importance of an official compilation of the Faith that (in the words of Pope John Paul II, who authorized its release on October 11, 1992, the 30th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II) would serve as “a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine.”

So, what happened? Why had this man, on whom so much high praise had been heaped in helping midwife a document that has proven so enriching to the life of the faithful, suddenly go completely bonkers? On the matter of blessing same-sex unions, that is, which he surely knows the Church simply cannot do. And why would that be an issue with anyone, much less the former secretary to the commission that assisted in the Church’s official codification of that fact, along with so many others? It quite boggles the mind.  

“If the request for a blessing is honest,” he tells us, “if it is truly the request for God’s blessing for the life path that these two people, in whatever condition they find themselves in, are trying to make, then the blessing will not be denied them.” That was the response of his Eminence following the release of the decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which flat-out forbade the practice. On what grounds? Because, as the CDF declared (and the Holy Father approved), “God does not and cannot bless sin.”

What part of that sentence does Cardinal Schönborn not understand?

Actually, he understands it all too well, which may account for why he so recoils from seeing it applied. And so he throws up a straw man that not only rejects the clear teaching of the Church as Magistra, but also her function as Mater. What, after all, is the ageless and universal experience of children interacting with their mothers? That they are only loved but never disciplined? That she only wants them to have a nice day, never mind if they elect to spend it leading disordered lives? Then they are surely not loved.

Children, and when it comes to Mother Church, we are all children, are to be loved for the sake of the good which that love aims to promote. It is never a senile benevolence, to use a phrase from C.S. Lewis, which is no more than a false and demeaning love, one that does not challenge or even raise its voice lest it speak too harshly to the child about his sins and shortcomings.

That is not how God loves us. And if those in same-sex relationships, “have the feeling of being rejected by the Church,” which is how the Cardinal characterizes it, then both he and they need to be disabused. Because the Church rejects no one and nothing. Save sin, which God too rejects, even as he went to the Cross to demonstrate his love for the sinner.