Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press, has written a guest essay for Reuters, "No good deed goes unpunished," which addresses the recent reports about remarks by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn about members of the Roman Curia. Here are the opening paragraphs:
Did Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna “attack” Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and former Vatican secretary of state? If The Tablet weekly in London were your only source of information, you’d think so, because that’s what the headline screamed.
Cardinal Schönborn, who like his mentor Pope Benedict is a model of openness and transparency, invited the editors of Austria’s dozen or so major newspapers to a meeting at his residence in Vienna. How many bishops can you name who have extended such an invitation to the press?
The journalists agreed that this would be an “off the record” meeting so that everyone could take part freely and frankly. Was this to impose silence on the press? To cover up once again the misdeeds of clerics? No, it was an attempt by Cardinal Schönborn to be as open as possible and to make himself available to answer any question that was asked. It was an attempt to help educate the press on matters that the press often finds difficult to grasp—such as the essential foundations of the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church, and the intricacies of moral theology.
Cardinal Schönborn is a Dominican and a professor. Which means that he has a serious scholar’s grasp of the foundations as well as the conclusions of moral theology, particularly as expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Perhaps Cardinal Schönborn overestimated the capacity of the invited journalists for a serious academic discussion. Just what did the cardinal do?
First, he explained that it is important to avoid the errors of a Kantian moral philosophy, that is, one based on the categorical imperative of duty alone. Thomas Aquinas, inspired by Aristotle, elaborated what scholars would call a eudaimonistic rather than a deontological moral philosophy. That is, a moral philosophy not based on mere duty, but based on the natural desire of all men for happiness.
The Tablet, apparently drawing on other published sources, wrote: “Instead of a morality based on duty, we should work towards a morality based on happiness, [the cardinal] continued.” This is in itself accurate. But in the context of the Tablet article, it implied that the Church should change her teaching on homosexual relationships and divorced and re-married Catholics. (Both were mentioned immediately preceding the above quote.)
But what did Cardinal Schönborn mean by the reference to eudaimonism? He tried to explain it to the journalists. The Church attempts to lead men to their ultimate happiness, which is the vision of God in his essence. Moral norms are meant to do that; they have that as their end or purpose. The norms themselves are unchanging. However, our approach to obeying them is gradual and our efforts are a mixture of success and failure. This means that while certain moral norms are absolute, that is, they hold in all circumstances without exception, our approach to obeying them may be halting and imperfect.