Cardinal Schönborn: Christianity Offers Dual Citizenship


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WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 4, 2010 ( Ice and snow did not keep them away. Amidst the flurry of a winter snowstorm, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, addressed an auditorium over-flowing with students, faculty, clergy and lay faithful at the Catholic University of America (CUA).

The lecture, a joint venture of CUA's School of Theology and Religious Studies, School of Philosophy, and School of Canon Law, was open to the public. And the public came. Attendance was so strong that some students complained of having to turn back, because there was no standing room left in the hall.

Cardinal Schönborn, a Dominican religious, was ordained a priest in 1970. Before being named archbishop of Vienna in 1995, he was a professor of dogmatic theology at Fribourg, Switzerland. He was later elevated to cardinal in 1998. The cardinal addressed Wednesday's audience on the question "Christianity: Alien Presence or Foundation of the West?"

Fascinating alternative

Cardinal Schönborn began his address by delineating three legacies that he believes fundamental to the inheritance of Christian culture to the West: a sense of moral integrity, by which Christians are often recognized not only by what they do, but also by what they do not do; the concept of humanity as a united, universal family; and the idea that freedom makes man most like God, and is man's greatest possession.

The cardinal went on to ask, "Is it true that modern man wins his freedom through a bitter struggle against the Church? Is it true that the Enlightenment brought human freedom and dignity to humanity, not Christianity?" This, he claims, is the great hypothesis of modern history. But he is not convinced.

Cardinal Schönborn suggested that much of the early Church was born and emerged from a pluralistic Greco-Roman world 2,000 years ago, Christianity today offers a fascinating alternative to the modern secular world.

"Christianity's position in modern Europe is paradoxical," the cardinal proposed. "It is both a foreign body and a root for Europe. Although it is seen as a foreign entity, it still evokes a feeling of home and nostalgia for many in Europe.

"Europe has an increasingly number of people who, after having lived a fully secular lifestyle, find there way to a conscious Christian faith. And they have a way of describing their discovery of Christianity as a 'way home,' or a 'finding home.'"

Of heaven and earth

Alluding to St. Augustine, Cardinal Schönborn went on to explain, "Here in lays the distinctive and unmistakable strength of Christianity: her dual citizenship. At once earthly and heavenly, it invites one to a loyal participation in society, taking on responsibility for the city of man without wanting to overthrow it in order to create some utopian society. This engagement with the temporal is founded on the fact of a peril-less citizenship in the city of God."

Cardinal Schönborn made clear that the Christian's claim to belong not only to an earthly citizenship, but to a heavenly one, is what makes Christianity hated by totalitarian systems, most especially notable in the 20th century. "The Christian is free," he says. "Free with respect to the state, because he is never only a citizen of the state. Never before has this Christian freedom been more clearly expressed than during the time of fascism, communism, and Nazism during the last century, when authentic Christian witness resulted in millions and millions of martyrs."

The cardinal believes that this foundation of freedom is precisely what Christianity has to offer modern Europe. "It is freedom from the demands of the mainstream, from political correctness, or simply from the pressure of the latest fashions. Christian freedom," Cardinal Schönborn described.

Radical freedom

As testimony to the power of Christian freedom, Cardinal Schönborn recalled the great spiritual movements that became cultural movements in Western history. "This year marks exactly 1,100 years since the monastic reform of Cluny," he remembered. "This monastic reform brought Europe over 4,000 monasteries in a period of 200 years. A fantastic network all over Europe, with an enormous economic, social, artistic and spiritual energy."

The cardinal explained that when Cluny began to decline another great spiritual renewal was sparked with Bernard of Clairvaux, then again with the Cistercians, and history repeated itself again with the mendicant orders of Francis and Dominic. Each of these spiritual renewals made enormous contributions to the cultural and civil societies of their time.

"Has enough consideration been given to the freedom made possible by these renewal movements and how much Europe has been influenced by these movements?" he questioned. "From its inception, Christianity allowed people to step outside of their temporal and political order. The idea that man must obey God before he need obey man brought an enormous element of freedom into society," he continued.

The cardinal argued that throughout the centuries the freedom to radically follow Christ set free enormous creative energy throughout the Western world, and is "one of the permanent sources of European vitality."

Cardinal Schönborn also expressed his joy over the resurgence of spiritual movements in today's Church. "Why should history not repeat itself today?" he asked. "Why should we not have the kind of surprise, undreamt-of surprise, ahead of us that Francis of Assisi brought to Europe 800 years ago?" He described the lay movements in the Church as "a very vital sign" and claimed they point to the same creative Spirit that once brought to life the Christian spiritual and cultural renewals of previous centuries. The cardinal mentioned in particular Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, and Communion and Liberation.

Call to purification

But the cardinal did not fail to point out that the modern relationship between secularism and Christianity serves a needed purpose for the purification and maturation of Christianity: "Christianity also needs the critical voice of secular Europe, asking hard questions, sometimes nasty questions, questions we should not try to escape or avoid.

"It does Christianity good to listen to the questions of secular society and be challenged to answer them. It wakes the Christians up and challenges them. It questions Christianity's credibility. And Christianity needs to be questioned.

"It is good for us to be held accountable."

He explained that the critical questioning of the secular world presses Christianity to become what it is called to be, and helps to purify what is incoherent between its words and deeds. "And why?" he asked. "Because deep down, the secular West longs for an authentic Christianity, and hopes for a Christianity that is credible through its life."

Cardinal Schönborn ended the evening with a call to faith. "Christian freedom has an inexhaustible source. 'Remember, I am with you until the end of time.' This saying of Jesus Christ is Christianity's most powerful resource!" he exclaimed. "This alone explains the inexhaustible power of regeneration in Christianity, which again and again experiences its resurrection, in the power of the One who rose again."