Schoenborn has drawn plaudits for his handling of child sexual abuse cases that deposed his predecessor. And on issues ranging from divorce to tolerating gays within the church, he has proven a supple conciliator, expressing understanding for those who stray while hewing closely to a conservative interpretation of doctrine.
But some question whether the reserved, 68-year-old theologian has the charisma and independence to break free from Benedict’s shadow and lead the church in his own direction. Schoenborn “has been very active, and he made some pioneering decisions,” said Hubert Feichtlbauer, an expert on the church in Austria. “But he ultimately lacks the clout to assert his authority vis-a-vis those who don’t want to obey it.”
Schoenborn has tried to deflect speculation that he could be the pick. Even his 92-year-old mother told Austria’s Kleine Zeitung newspaper that he “would be no match for the skullduggery in the Vatican,” adding, “there’s enough intrigue for him in Vienna.” Still, some look to his handling of past crises and see a shepherd capable of steering a troubled church toward calmer waters.
Born in the waning months of World War II to an aristocratic family in what is now the Czech Republic, Schoenborn was ordained as a priest when he was 25, following many of his family members into the church. He is said to speak seven languages.
Schoenborn edited the church’s catechism in the early 1990s and became archbishop of Vienna in 1995 after his predecessor, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, was accused of sexually molesting boys. Schoenborn remained silent on the scandal for three years but then came out forcefully against Groer, saying he believed the charges. That same year, Pope John Paul II made Schoenborn a cardinal.
“Culprits are often protected, because in church it was said we have to be able to forgive,” Schoenborn was quoted as saying in 2010. “But this is misunderstood mercifulness.”
Last year, Schoenborn intervened in an Austrian church dispute in which a man living in a same-sex partnership was elected to a parish council. The local parish priest said the man could not take office; Schoenborn overruled the priest, saying that while church teachings condemn sexual relations outside the bounds of traditional marriage, Catholics shouldn’t turn away those who seek to participate in spiritual life.
In the run-up to the conclave, Schoenborn tried to re-instill some of the sense of sacredness that the church’s swirling crises — abuse scandals, the leaks of private documents and financial mismanagement at the Vatican bank — have stripped away. “We are voting a head of a religious community,” he told journalists in Rome on Sunday, the Austrian Presse Agentur reported. “Not the chairman of a bank.”