The cardinal told journalists on Thursday that he knew an Austrian gay couple who were "marvellous human beings" who supported each other when they were sick - an example, he said, of the "gifts and qualities" gays can offer the Christian community cited in a Vatican report this week.
"The basic principle is that we first look at the person and not at their sexual inclination," he said in English, as conservative bishops tried to put the brakes on a perceived drive by Pope Francis to make the Church adopt a more merciful approach to sinners.
Hinting at his position on the hot-button topic that has overshadowed a two-week meeting of bishops on the family, Schönborn said "we must not look first in the sleeping room, but in the dining room."
However, while "same sex orientation has nothing to do with sin", homosexuality "is not the orientation God wants", he said.
"We must always maintain the gift of the relation between man and woman," he added.
The 69-year-old cardinal was speaking as the Vatican published the reactions of ten working groups of bishops to a preliminary report which made waves around the world on Monday with its suggestions of greater openness to gays and re-married divorcees.
In a series of strongly-worded changes to the text bound to disappoint progressives, the bishops warned against the Church appearing to accept lifestyles which go against the gospel.