VIENNA – Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn is a soft-spoken conservative who is ready to listen to those espousing reform. That profile that could appeal to fellow cardinals looking to elect a pontiff with widest-possible appeal to the world's 1 billion Catholics.
His nationality may be his biggest disadvantage: Electors may be reluctant to choose another German speaker as a successor to Benedict XVI.
A man of low tolerance for the child abuse scandals roiling the church, Schoenborn himself was elevated to the its upper echelons of the Catholic hierarchy after his predecessor resigned 18 years ago over accusations that he was a pedophile.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, The Associated Press is profiling key cardinals seen as "papabili" — contenders to the throne. In the secretive world of the Vatican, there is no way to know who is in the running, and history has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation. Today: Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn.
Multilingual and respected by Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, Benedict XVI's friend and former pupil was one of the cardinal electors in the 2005 papal conclave that chose the German as head of the Catholic church. A scholar who is at home in the pulpit, Schoenborn also is well connected in the Vatican — and appears willing to make it his home, if reluctantly.
Asked if he would like to succeed Benedict on news of the pontiff's plan to step down, he said: "my heart is in Vienna, my heart is in Austria — but naturally with the whole Church as well."
Such reticence is not unusual for a prince of the church known for a quiet management style focused on steering the Austrian church around controversy.
That has not always been possible. The austere Schoenborn owed his own elevation to the scandal involving his predecessor, Hans Groer, who was accused of abusing young boys.
Appointed Vienna's archbishop in 1995, Schoenborn initially stayed silent. But he showed courage three years later, personally apologizing "for everything that my predecessors and other holders of church office committed against people in their trust."
In a measure of his dislike of confrontation, he fired his reform-minded vicar, Helmut Schueller, in 1998 by shoving a dismissal letter under Schueller's door.
Yet, while grappling with the pornography scandal roiling the church in 2005, he took on the Vatican.
"It's sad that it took so long to act," he said of Rome's reluctance to investigate the wrongdoing, saying later of the scandal: "The church is greater than its human weaknesses."
He went further than that as cases of sexual abuse continued rocking the church, calling for a re-examination of priestly celibacy in 2010 — only to roll back in typical style shortly after, by having his spokesman issue a denial that he was questioning the rule on priests not marrying.
While accepting the possibility of evolution, Schoenborn criticized certain "neo-Darwinian" theories as incompatible with Catholic teaching, writing in a 2005 New York Times editorial, that "any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."
Ideologically, his tenure has been marked by a turn away from inner-church reform. Instead he has focused toward respect for Catholic dogma — while understanding those who fall by the wayside.
"It is not easy for the church to find the right path between the ... protection of marriage and family on the one hand and ... compassion with human failings," he said in 2004, alluding to church opposition to — but his personal understanding of — divorce. His audience, at a funeral Mass for Austrian President Thomas Klestil, included both his widow and his divorced wife.
Later, however, he made clear that he backed the sanctity of marriage, telling an Austrian weekly shortly after Benedict's resignation that its indissolubility "can be traced back to the instructions of Jesus" and thus could not be changed.
He spoke out about bending church dogma in response to pressure in the same interview, saying: "If Christ communicated a teaching that we believe is true and brings salvation to humanity, then nobody gains if that teaching is falsified, even if he were to gain in popularity by doing so."
Born Jan. 22, 1945, into an aristocratic Bohemian family, Schoenborn's destiny appeared to have been influenced by his heritage — 19 of his ancestors were priests, bishops or archbishops.
After joining the Dominican order in 1963, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 by Cardinal Franz Koenig. Like most Austrians, Schoenborn idolized Koenig for his social engagement and courage to speak out on controversial issues — but was initially eclipsed by Koenig's overwhelming personality.
In the late 1960s, when Koenig played tennis in Schoenborn's hometown of Schrunns, Schoenborn "always fought to be Koenig's ball-boy," said Schoenborn confidant Heinz Nussbaumer in a telling reflection of the later relationship between the two churchmen.
Because of Koenig's strong persona, Schoenborn "had a difficult start," said Nussbaumer, publisher of a Catholic weekly. "But later he was able to develop his own personality."
His reputation as a scholar — and bridge-builder to Orthodox Christians — began with a dissertation on icons even before he became a theology professor at the Catholic University of Fribourg, Switzerland in 1975. Fluent in French and Italian, proficient in English and Spanish, he is well-connected in the Vatican, as reflected by his role as a cardinal elector for Benedict.
He built on his image as an ecumenist with visits to the patriarchs of Russia and Romania and met with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 11 years ago, on the first trip of a Catholic church leader to the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution.
Normally above the fray of international politics, he spoke out sharply in 2002 about President George W. Bush's inclusion of Iran with prewar Iraq and North Korea as part of the "the axis of evil."
"In the best case it's naive," he said, contending such comments could "alienate Iran's moderate factions."