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Austria's Schoenborn: a 'moderate' close to Benedict

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

Hailing from a family of aristocrats, Austria's Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn is widely seen as a moderate figure in the Church but also shares the conservative values of his now-retired mentor Benedict XVI.

The tall, open-faced and oft-smiling archbishop of Vienna is one of the contenders to take over the papacy, although some have questioned the likelihood of a second consecutive German-speaking pope being chosen.

Well-liked and seen as a brilliant theologian, Schoenborn has described himself as "conservative on religious issues but liberal on social matters."

Following a call to disobedience by Austrian priests who have campaigned for the past two years for an end to celibacy and the ordination of women, the 68-year-old used sharp words and threatened disciplinary action.

At the same time, Schoenborn surprised people in 2010 when he questioned "whether celibacy is an appropriate way of life for priests" at the height of a massive sex-abuse scandal that had engulfed the Roman Catholic Church in Austria and around the world.

He later amended his statement, arguing he had called for priests to stand by their vow of celibacy, but the "moderate" label has stuck.

Schoenborn's connection to Benedict goes back some 40 years to when the Austrian spent a year studying in Regensburg, southern Germany, where the future pope -- still known then as Joseph Ratzinger -- was teaching.

Schoenborn became a close associate of Ratzinger -- collaborating with him on an "Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church" in 1993 -- and remained so after Benedict XVI entered the Vatican.

In an interview with the Austrian weekly News in April 2012, Schoenborn explained the continued need for celibacy as "a special protection and source of strength" for the Church.

He has also opposed the ordination of women in the priesthood, the use of contraception, abortion and civil partnerships for gays.

But the cardinal has had no qualms about criticising the Vatican's actions at times, including the controversial nomination of an ultra-conservative priest as auxiliary bishop in the Austrian city of Linz in 2009 and attempts by the Church to cover up the actions of certain priests during the sex-abuse scandal.

This has not gone down well with certain circles in Rome, observers say.

When an Austrian priest refused last year to appoint a homosexual man to the parish council despite overwhelming votes in his favour from the community, Schoenborn stepped in and gave the councillor his blessing.

Other high-profile actions have included him calling for a family of refugees due for deportation back to Kosovo to be granted residence on humanitarian grounds, and speaking out against a presidential candidate with close links to the neo-Nazi scene.

Fluent in English, French, Italian and Spanish on top of his native German, Schoenborn is a strong advocate of closer ties between East and West and of interreligious dialogue.

Born on January 22, 1945 in Skalsko, in what is now the northern Czech Republic, he comes from an old noble family stretching back to the Holy Roman Empire, but grew up in Schruns, in western Austria.

In 1963, he joined the Dominican order and at the age of 25 was ordained as a priest. After that he continued his studies in Paris and Regensburg, and spent several years in Switzerland teaching.

Named archbishop of Vienna in 1995, he was elevated to the rank of cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1998, facing his first major crisis after his predecessor Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer was accused of paedophilia and forced to seek exile in Germany.

Schoenborn eventually issued a statement of apology on behalf of the Church for Groer's actions but his efforts to have Pope John Paul II speak out publicly about the affair were to no avail.

In 2011, his younger actor brother Michael made local headlines when he appeared in the musical "Sister Act" in Vienna, playing none other than a cardinal in the singing extravaganza.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130307/austrias-schoenborn-moderate-close-benedict