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The Dutch bishops have not yet spoken much in public about the upcoming Synod, but today Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, does. And he makes a point that has been emphasised before by both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke: the Synod is not about divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist. The question is a bigger one, as Bishop Mutsaerts explains:
“With the extraordinary Synod of the Family which opens on 5 October, Pope Francis mostly aims for a greater appreciation of the Christian marriage as a sacrament. It is clear that in today’s culture the Biblical vision on marriage and family is considered to be virtually unattainable, and is seen more as a burden than as good news. Perhaps that is the reason for Pope Francis to have scheduled the beatification of Paul VI at the end of the Synod, as a closing statement.
Paul VI was a staunch defender of Christian marriage. His famed and infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae, however, achieved the opposite according to public opinion. The Biblical ideal was almost completely forgotten. It is to be hoped that October’s Synod will not result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. Expectations, after all, are high. Some fervently hope that the Pope will change the Church’s teaching about divorced and remarried people; others fear he will. That would result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. And that is exactly what Pope Francis is afraid of: “I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point”, the Pope told reporters on the return flight from Israel.
The questions is much broader. The family is in crisis. Young people rarely choose marriage. They choose others ways of living together. The family is in crisis because marriage is in crisis, according to the firm opinion of Francis.
I hope that the Pope will get the Synod he has in mind, and not the Synod which is mainly concerned with the single question of divorced and remarried faithful. That is certainly a genuine problem, but a far more complex problem lies at its root: few understand marriage as a Christian vocation, strengthened by sacramental mercy. Not without reason did the Pope give it “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelisation” as title, and he placed it as such emphatically within the context of evangelisation. Evangelisation is without meaning if we consider it without the Gospel. The words of Jesus to both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery was hard to accept for those who heard it then and those who hear it now. Don’t forget that the Apostles thought that Jesus’ teachings about marriage were so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the Synod is true to the Gospel – can she be otherwise? – she can expect the same response, and it will be her duty to inspire confidence that the Christian marriage is still recommendable.
Pope Francis is keen to emphasise that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion surrounding marriage and divorce arises when we lose sight of the fact that marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is not indissoluble because two people make a promise for life. The Church can dispense people from their promises. That is een true for the vows of religious. But the Church can’t undo a sacrament. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles: a consecrated host can’t be ‘deconsecrated’, just like Baptism or the ordination of a priest can’t be undone. Even a priest who has ben laicised remains a priest, even though he can’t exercise the office of priest (although he can hear confessions in emergencies). Nobody, no Synod and also no Pope, can undo a valid sacrament. That’s simply how it is. We shouldn’t therefore expect a relaxation of rules regarding divorced and remarried people in regard to their receiving Holy Communion. Those who do expect this will be disappointed from the outset.
Most Catholics are unaware of the sacramental character of their marriage. Marriage, by the way, is the only of the seven sacrament which is not administered by a priest or deacon, but by lay people, by husband and wife when they say yes to each other. This is the sacrament that gives strength and mercy to be able to keep promises. That is what it is about for the Pope.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper has come increasingly under fire from fellow cardinals and others in the Church for his comments about marriage, divorce and Communion. While some are concerned by these visible disagreements, and Cardinal Kasper himself having even suggested that his critics are personally attacking him and Pope Francis, this really is simply what Pope Francis has said he wanted: open and free discussion about the topics that the Synod will devote its time to next month. And while I usually don’t want to commit myself to stark distinctions between left and right, orthodox and liberal, in this discussion it really does seem that those who want the Church to change or loosen up her teachings are honestly insulted by those who disagree.
In an interview for Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper commented on the situation. I have translated some of his answer which I think are most interesting in this context.
“Of course everyone has the right to publicly state their opinion. Nothing can be brought against that. But I wonder if the entire Synod is not being reduced to a single point. It is about the pastoral challenges in the context of the new evangelisation. That is far broader field. An insider problem is being place at the centre here. What matters is to be able to speak again and discuss the beauty and the Christian understanding of the family, which many today no longer know – it is about far more fundamental problems than simply this one. And secondly: what sort of understanding of the Gospel is this? It is the Good News. One can’t turn it into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not. The Pope wants an open discussion, and that should be held. Then, in the Synod, to listen quietly to one another, in an atmosphere of prayer, and the in the end make a decision for the good of the faithful. I will not enter into polemics.”
“Without doubt the family is the cell of society and the cell of the life of the Church. In the family, in marriage and family, life and faith come closest together. It is an essential reality of life which has been raised to the glory of a sacrament. In that way it is a very vital and central issue for the Church to stand for marriage and family and offer solutions for the crisis that exists today. It is about these pastoral challenges, which is the theme of the Synod, not a war of doctrine. Of course, pastoral care is impossible without being oriented on the truth. But the truth is not an abstract system, but in the end it is Jesus Christ in person, and we need to bring the people close to Christ. In that sense the Synod must be oriented on the truth and understand Tradition as a living and bubbling spring and not as a rigid system.”
“I have posed a question, not simply suggested a solution. And I posed that question in agreement with the Pope. That’s very important for me. I asked, “When a marriage has failed one should do everything to repair it. But when there is no way back, when someone has entered into a new relationship which is, humanly speaking, a happy one, lived in a Christian fashion, when there are children, one can’t give up this new relationship without serious consequence. And we must also see how God offers new chances – and God does. That is His mercy, that He does not let go of anyone of good will. And everyone does what he can in their situation. And I think that this should be pastorally clarified in every individual case, after a period of orientation. That is called the ‘Via poenitentialis’ – but those involved suffer enough already without it. They do not need to perform great acts of penance. But a new orientation is necessary. That should be the sacrament of penance – that is why we have it – and the sacrament of penance also means re-admission to the Eucharist. But as I said, that is not the solution for all cases, presumably for a minority of all people who live in our communities, who suffer from it and have an honest desire for the sacraments, who urgently need the sacraments to deal with their difficult situations.”
In general it is hard to disagree with much of what the cardinal says. He is very right that the entire Synod is indeed being reduced this single topic (and his perceived opponent Cardinal Burke recently said the exact same thing). His words about the importance of family and the Church’s defense of and communication about it are also very important, as are his concerns for those who are involved in a good, Christian, loving second relationship while their first marriage is still canonically valid. There is a problem there, but not with the quality of the second relationship.
And that’s were the problem of the discussion lies. Too many people shift the focus to those second relationships and how the mean Church wants to destroy them and the happiness of those involved. That is a clear untruth. The fact remains that a marriage is a sacrament, and therefore something that can’t be broken by human hands (we simply need to listen to Christ’s words: “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9)). So when a marriage exists (we’re looking at pure existence here, not quality), there can’t be a second marriage next to it. This is, in essence the basis of the argument. All discussion and, indeed, pastoral care needs to be built on it. And at the latter the Synod will look in detail.
Cardinal Kasper’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he sweeps aside this basis when he says, “One can’t turn [the Gospel] into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not.” There must be discussion, certainly, for the good of the faithful. But there are also parameters, which are set by Christ. If we want to follow Him, we must accept and work within His parameters. The Codex of Canon Law is the result of centuries of understanding these parameters and translating them for a host of situations, places and times. There must always be such development, and in that sense the law can change. But it can not be overwritten, swept aside or corrected as if what was once true no longer is. In the end it reflects the Truth that is its founder, Jesus Christ.
The Synod will certainly look at the law, but not in order to change it. No, it will concern itself with translation and communication. How can the pastoral care that the Church now offers be improved, so that what she asks the faithful is also possible for them to achieve. In a recent interview Cardinal Burke said, “It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?” He’s right. Truth and mercy are not separate. How is it merciful to encourage someone to move further away from the truth that he or she wants to follow? And how are we true to what Christ’s asks of us if we show false mercy?
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.