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Bishop Johan Bonny has been making headlines in Catholic media, first in Germany but today also in his native Belgium. In an extensive note the bishop of Antwerp outlines his thoughts and expectations for this autumn’s Synod of Bishops. Various media have presented this as an attack on Popes Paul VI and St. John Paul II and their documents on difficult subjects related to marriage, family and morality. But reality is somewhat different. Bishop Bonny does not exclusively discuss the contents of various magisterial pronouncements, but does offer strong criticism on how they came about, and how they are put it into practice.
In this post, I will summarise the text and offer my opinion here and there. As it is a fairly long text, this post is a work in progress. Expect updates over the coming days.
In the first part of his document, the bishops explains that he sees the development of an ecclesiastical question within the discussion about marriage and family, which he traces back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception and sexuality, Humanae vitae. The way in which the Pope developed this text, apparently ignoring the advice of experts he had appointed himself, stands in stark contrast with how the Second Vatican Council went about matters: in strong collegiality which led to a virtually unanimous passing of documents.
This lack of collegiality in such an important matter has led, so the bishop explains, to a gap between the Church’s moral teaching and the moral understanding of the faithful. And we do see this happening: statements, decrees, encyclicals and the like do not play much of a role in the lives of the faithful, even though they can be important for properly living as Catholic faithful. Of course, a perceived lack of collegiality can not be the only explanation for this, as Bishop Bonny admits. I would even go so far as wondering if many faithful are even aware of how documents are developed, at least not in our time.
Among bishops, Curia and Pope, more collegiality can have positive results (and also negative), since we should not be afraid of talking about such important matters. But the Church is no democracy. The very nature of the papacy, of the body of apostles and disciples that Christ established, is at odds with that. The Pope has magisterial primacy, and he must be free to exercise it. But of course it is good to do everything to avoid needless division and even opposition, although that can probably never be rooted out completely.
According to EWTN, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri has confirmed what I have been saying since an interview two weeks ago caused some fear and confusion about the goals and focus of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family.
In the earlier interview the cardinal seemed to be hinting at possible changes in the Church doctrine on marriage. While I did not share that conclusion, many others did. I already wrote that Cardinal Baldisseri’s comments did, in my opinion, not so much deal with doctrine but with pastoral practice, which, I still think, will also be the focus of the Synod. In the EWTN interview, the cardinal emphasised the following:
“Regarding the possibility for the synod of bishops of changing the doctrine of the Church, I underscore that the First Vatican Council’s document Dei Filius affirmed that “understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained, which Holy Mother Church has once declared; and there must never be recession from that meaning under the specious name of a deeper understanding.”
And I also remind you that John XXIII said in the inaugural speech of the Second Vatican Council that “authentic doctrine … should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.””
Whether these comments come in response to the fears mentioned above, are a form of “backtracking”, or are simply a timely reminder about the nature of doctrine in the Church, they should go some way in clearing up misconceptions about the upcoming Synod. The Church will not be changing the truth. That is the same in the past, now and the future. What she can – and should – look at it how that truth can be communicated, shared, explained and lived most effectively. So no, divorce will not suddenly become an option for validly married couples, and the very nature of marriage will also not change. The sacraments will not be devalued, and we should still be properly disposed to encounter the Lord in them. Objective obstacles will remain so. The Synod will not change the ‘what’, but will look at the ‘how’.
As 185 cardinals are planning to attend the consistory for the creation of new cardinals on 22 February and, more importantly, the preceding days in which the College of Cardinals will be employed for it most significant use: to function as an advisory body for the Pope on, in this case, topics related to the reform of the Curia and the upcoming Synod on the family, 14 archbishops and one bishop are planning to travel to the Eternal City for their inclusion into the College.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols poses in the purple of a bishop for the last time, shortly before flying to Rome for the consistory.
Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes Solórzano, clad in jeans and a sports jacket, says his goodbyes at the airport of Managua.
Archbishop Loris Capovilla, who, at 98, will be the oldest cardinal ever, has asked Pope Francis to allow him not to come to Rome for the consistory. Stating that his strength is greatly diminished and feeling uncomfortable at meeting so many people, the former personal secretary of Blessed Pope John XXIII will receive the red hat at the church of Sotto il Monte, birthplace of John XXIII, a few days after the consistory. The last time a cardinal was not present at the consistory in which he was created was in 1998, when Cardinal Alberto Bovone, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, received the red hat at the Gemelli hospital. He would succumb to the illness which had confined him there a few months later. Blessed Pope John XXIII, by the way, also wasn’t in Rome when he was made a cardinal in 1953. Then the Papal Nuncio to France, he received the regalia from the French head of state, a privilege no longer in use.
Per the Vatican website, the rite for the creation of the new cardinals will be unchanged from those of Pope Benedict XVI’s last two consisteries. It all starts with a greeting, prayer and a reading of the following text from the Gospel of Mark:
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem; Jesus was walking on ahead of them; they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive. Once more taking the Twelve aside he began to tell them what was going to happen to him, ‘Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again.’
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him. ‘Master,’ they said to him, ‘We want you to do us a favour.’
He said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’
They said to him, ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’
But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I shall drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I shall be baptised?’
They replied, ‘We can.’
Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I shall drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I shall be baptised you shall be baptised, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.’
When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John, so Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that among the gentiles those they call their rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (10:32-45).
The first of the new cardinals, in this case Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin will address the Pope on behalf of all, after which the Pope officially names the new cardinals. From that point onwards, they are officially created as cardinals. The new cardinals will then speak the profession of faith and oath of fidelity.
Each new cardinal then approaches the Pope to receive the biretta, the ring and the bull of his creation which also names his deaconry or title church. The kiss of peace follows, and the rite ends with the Our Father.
Photo credit:  The Papal Visit on Facebook,  ANSA/PAOLO MAGNI/DRN
In an example of how very general words can lead to the oddest of conclusions, local and international media have taken some of Pope Francis’ comments in a three-hour dialogue with religious superiors (held in November, but published only recently) and used them to suggest that the Pope, and in extension the Church, had changed its teaching on ‘alternative forms of family life’. In other words, they claimed that Pope Francis, or rather the image that many have of how they want him to be, is now in favour of same-sex couples raising children, one-parent families and other unions in which children are raised other than complete families with a father and mother.
Jimmy Akin has a good summary and explanation of what the Pope really said.
What can we conclude from this? That, quite simply, people are not hearing what the Pope is saying. The main reason for this is that his words are not being communicated properly, even wilfully changed or erroneously interpreted, by independent media. And related to that, we can say that people are not aware of what the Church is teaching.
I have read some comments which seemed to indicate that the mere recognition of these alternative forms of family is a new thing, and thus a change in attitude. The Church, many think, considers homosexuality to be disordered and is opposed to same-sex relations because she refuses to acknowledge its existence. In that light, Pope Francis words about suitable pastoral care for children in such situations and about the importance of education can appear to be revolutionary.
But they are pertinently not. They are valuable and they must be heard and taken to heart, but they are not new. The need to provide adequate pastoral care and education to anyone, regardless of their state of life or sexual orientation, is not the same as approving of that state of orientation. The Church is not an ostrich, pretending that all the things she doesn’t like aren’t there. No, she openly acknowledges they exist. And in doing so, she can teach: that desires do no dictate what is good for us, that not everything that can be done should be done and that people are called to an ultimate destination in God. That destination is not reached or even known by allowing everything. The journey does not originate in people, but in God. We are therefore called to strive for what is God’s and make what is man’s suited to the Lord. That is process in which we are first and foremost called to see the world so that we can reach out to it.
During their November meeting, which took place last Tuesday, the Dutch bishops decided what to do with the questionnaire that the Synod of Bishops had sent round in preparation for next year’s Extraordinary Synod on the family. Rather than polling all faithful they will be limiting themselves to the parishes and their pastoral teams. “Those who deal with the various situations regarding relationships, families and family forms in daily pastoral reality, paint the best picture of the situation in the Dutch parishes,” the bishops said in a statement released today. The questions which ask for statistics and percentages will be answered by the Secretariat of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands.
The questionnaire as it was released in Dutch via the website Katholiek.nl will not be sent on to Rome by the bishops.
The reasons to do it like this are easily understood and supported: there is the question of time (the answers need to be back in Rome by the end of January), so efficiency is needed, and the nature of questions requires a level of knowledge that many regular faithful do not have (nor should they, in most cases, be expected to). I also had to pass on some questions because I simply had no way of providing a useful answer.
In most Dutch parishes, as in the dioceses, contact between pastoral teams and faithful is easily achieved and priests will have a good knowledge of the makeup of their parishes. That means that they will be able to answer the questions accurately, and that individual faithful can approach their priest if they have concerns about what he should write in his answers to certain questions.
I just finished answering the questions in the questionnaire sent by the Synod of Bishops to the world’s bishops. Or, at least I tried to. The poll is available in Dutch via this link.
Some questions were not that hard and quite fun to answer, while others were, well… virtually impossible to answer. I suppose that’s the result of compiling questions aimed at a very broad selection of people, ranging from lay unmarried faithful, via celibate priests with a pastoral responsibility to married couples with children. Add to that the great variety of cultural backgrounds and societies that faithful are a part of, and you are bound to come across questions which you can only answer with an honest “I don t know”, or something along the lines of “I’m sure my parish priest knows, but I sure don’t”. Still, I would assume I’m not the only one answering the questions (if you haven’t done so, go, do your bit), so what I missed others will add.
Secular media have presented the questionnaire as being about “homosexuals and contraception”, but, as often, that is a gross misrepresentation. The questions do touch upon those subjects, but their focus is greater: the pastoral care for families, in which marriage and the raising of children are an integral part. The Church’s teachings on sexuality, as well as the conflicting developments in society on these topics are related to that, and so appear in the questions as well.
The Church needs governance from above, but also knowledge of the situation “on the ground”. This poll is a first step to try and achieve that, in conjunction with the contributions of the bishops participating in next year’s Extraordinary General Assembly on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”.
A remarkable initiative from the Synod of Bishops – newly tasked to spearhead Pope Francis’ reforms under its new Secretary General, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri (right) – will have many wondering (some with much hope, undoubtedly), if the Church has finally discovered democracy.
In a letter (via this link, scroll one age down) to the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, Archbishop Baldisseri asked for an attached poll to be held among the parishes and deaneries, asking the Church’s faithful about many hot-button topics, as a quick review of the questionnaire reveals.
The poll should not be considered as an attempt by the Vatican to find out what the faithful want the Church to teach and believe, but rather how the teachings – especially those about the family, marriage, sexuality, children – take root in the smallest cells of the Catholic world: the parishes and other faith communities. In a way, this is democracy, in that the voice of all faithful is listened to, and in another way it is not, since that voice will not dictate teachings and faith. It can, however, and this may well be the intention the Synod of Bishops has, have influence on how these teachings and faith are communicated, promoted and accepted.
The unique effort is part of the preparation for the upcoming assembly of the Synod, on the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” The bishops are asked to return the answers to the Synod by the end of January.