God, the Devil and Us

A controversial discussion on humanity, politics and the Catholic Church at Vienna’s National Library

Actor Klaus Maria Brandauer and Cardinal Christoph Schönburn | Photo: Mina Nacheva

The applause of the large audience echoed in the Camineum of the National Library, Mar. 24, as Golden-Globe-winning Austrian actor and director Klaus Maria Brandauer and Vienna’s Archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schönborn made their way to the brightly lit podium at the front of the hall. While waiting for the murmur to die, the two men patiently glanced over the faces of the many listeners anticipating the start of what promised to be an unusual talk, entitled “God and the Devil – Just a Play”’ hosted by the Academy for Evangelization.

For the Cardinal, the topic was familiar territory. But Brandauer too could be said to have earned his credentials to “speak of the Devil,” with a famed 1981 film performance in István Szabó’s Mephisto. An adaptation of the Faust story based on a novel by Klaus Mann, Brandauer played that part of an actor in Nazi Germany who goes against his conscience and continues to act, in order to win favor with the Party.

So discussion began with the clash between the worlds of God and the Devil. But its emphasis soon shifted to another player – humanity. “I would rather keep the Devil out of the picture and focus on us,” explained Brandauer who is also a professor at the Max-Reinhardt-Seminar, “because we are the devil.”

Having played the role of Mephisto, Brandauer knows perfectly well that being the bad guy in a play “is amazingly well received.” No one can possibly be entirely good, he added.

Schönborn, the dogmatic, who also studied under the current pope at the University of Regensburg, agreed.

“Clearly, this is true,” he said. “Evil is firstly and most importantly the reality that exists in us.” On the other hand, however, “we should not exclude the Devil that easily.” The fact that he exists in the first place implies the need for people to find his purpose in the world. For Schönborn it is a simple one. “We find release in his existence,” he pointed out. We would not be able to bear all the weight of the world on our shoulders. “I think that would be too heavy of a burden.”

In his argumentation, Schönborn referred to Original Sin, going back to a passage in the Bible that describes Lucifer as a castaway from heaven.

“He is a creature,” the Cardinal insists. “He may be a fallen angel, but he still is one.” By giving him the right to live, God has granted us the freedom to decide where to draw the line between good and evil, knowing that part of the blame will always be attributed to Satan.

The concept of the fallen angel was not new to Brandauer. What concerned him, however, was the idea of the Devil being the equivalent to an angel.

“If so, it would seem as if every terrible person or every gruesome criminal should be acknowledged as an angel.” It all came down to responsibility, he said, to a vigorous round of applause, as Schönborn nervously stirred in his seat. It looked as though the audience had taken sides.

“For me, it is just not good enough to lay the blame on someone else,” the actor continued. “It is about being in charge of yourself.” He made his point – people need to remain human and not rely on a higher force to atone for their bad deeds.

“We may hope for everyone,” the Cardinal insisted, not willing to contradict. Actually, “we even should hope for everyone.”

This led the discussion to politics and the Catholic Church. “Where are we heading?” asked Brandauer. Many claimed that society consisted solely of good people, however, he did not agree. “It’s boring, because nothing ever changes. We need answers.” The actor not only expected answers from the world of politics, but also from “The Company,” (this was how he fondly calls the Catholic Church).

“That bothers me,” the head of “The Company” replied. Schönborn explained that he lacked “great visions and the strong hope” in politics, referring to the financial crisis and Austrian immigration politics, and demanded something “clear, instead of a wrangling in the question of asylum.”

In the end, the discussion got around to the topic everyone secretly was hoping for. Unlike the Pope, Cardinal Schönborn spoke openly about the current, sensitive issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

It is “a very painful, but extremely necessary progress of purification,” he said. It was essential to be hard on the Church, or it would lose its credibility. “It has to go through that, because not only the Church benefits, but our country as well.”

Encouraged by the spontaneous applause on the part of the actor, Schönborn continued that the victims would have the top priority.

“It will do us all good if we distance ourselves from today’s attitude of camouflage,” he concluded – words that triggered a series of understanding nods among audience members and emphasized the importance of the unresolved issue.

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