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In 2012 the diocese did it at one university and now it is preparing to do it at a second. A return to the Catholic fold seems imminent for the student chaplaincy at Nijmegen’s Radboud University.

bodarFr. Antoine Bodar, media personality but also appointed to manage the contacts with schools and universities in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, is looking ahead to the upcoming retirement of Fr. Theo Koster, the current student chaplain in Nijmegen. And things will be a bit different after he retires in 18 months. A new priest who, in his teaching, will be more in line with the Catholic faith, for one.

The situation seems very similar to the one I described earlier regarding the Maranatha church in Tilburg (see the link above): a liberal approach to the faith of the Church, and actions that are not in line with that faith (the media picks out the blessing of homosexual unions, but also the distribution of Communion to non-Catholics). Of course a change was going to come at some time.

Some call this is a return to conservatism, but Fr. Bodar claims this is in fact a progressive step, calling the situation is it exists now a throwback to the 1960s and 70s. The Church should be clear about her faith, even if there are sometimes tensions between that faith and our personal conscience. A priest should not share his personal opinions in the Mass and other celebrations, but the word of God and the teaching of the Church. He is not there for himself, but with a mission from the Church: the share the Gospel, to welcome and teach in the name of Christ, instead of his own name. Does that mean that some people are suddenly not welcome in the student chaplaincy? Of course not, but everyone deserves to be treated as adult and intelligent individuals who don’t need to be talked down to. Present our faith in its entirety, and not according to an interpretation fueled by personal preference, just to make things easy. Life is not easy, a university education is not easy. Neither should our faith always be. A challenge is an opportunity for growth, questions allows for better understanding.

EDIT 18-12: In commentaries today both Fr. Bodar and the chaplaincy council have underlined that there is no intention of firing Fr. Koster or actively changing the praxis at the chaplaincy, but that the normal process of retirement of a priest, as provided for in canon law, would result in said changes. Fr. Koster will offer his resignation to the bishop when he reaches the age of 75 and the diocese will launch the appointment procedure for a new priest. The confusion regarding blessings of homosexual relations, which exist now, will then be removed.Fr. Bodar stresses the importance of clear communication of the faith of the Church. This includes avoiding confusion. Those in the know will realise that a blessing is not the same as performing same-sex marriages, but for outsiders it is a different matter.

Both parties offered these commentaries after Fr. Bodar said that certain media incorrectly quoted his words from an interview about this subject.

In his letter for Advent, Eichstätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke delves into the Incarnation, and specifically how the Incarnation of the Son of God also shows the way to our own incarnation. In other words, how we can become fully human according the plan of the Creator.

hanke“Dear sisters and brothers!

Anticipation for the birth

A married couple expecting a child prepares for the event. The pregnant woman takes medical advice and denies herself a number of things. Long before the due date, the hospital bag is packed. Everything is guided by joy. Family and friends are also full of expectation. With the first Sunday of Advent, this week, a time of joyful expectation begins also for us. We prepare ourselves for the feast of the birth of the Lord. God becomes man in Jesus Christ!

The incarnation of God is a permanent invitation

The incarnation of God is not simply history, but a permanent invitation from God to us, here and now, to start on His way of becoming human. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the World, explains the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God for our humanity: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. […] The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”[1]

Humanity as personhood in crisis

A look at the Son of God become man and His way as a man shows a need for a way of becoming man. It seems as if man of today has become a question himself,  as if his recognition as human, as a person with value, is in crisis.

Worldwide crisis of humanity

Despite progress, the accumulation of knowledge and growing global awareness of the unity of humanity, the dignity of people is trampled in many parts of the world. Economic and political power interests, or even fanatical religion will be their own end. Man in his dignity is left behind. At present we experience this dramatically in conflicts and hostilities. Millions of people are on the run, minorities are threatened. We think first of all of Syria and Iraq, where our Christian sisters and brothers suffer the hardships of persecution.

But the crisis of humanity is also visible around us:

Crisis of human dignity: debates on assisted suicide

We are in the middle of the debates about assisted suicide. Here the fear for unbearable suffering, the financial burden on relatives and loneliness are used as arguments to legalise assisted suicide. Even someone who is “religiously unatuned” and is not able to understand the inviolability of human life, which is rooted in the image of God, can see the danger in that. The legality of euthanasia can lead to sick people being subtly or openly forced to finally die. This trend is already clearly visible when it is indicated, always outright, how high the costs of caring for the dying is. In reality palliative care has already advanced so much that it can respond to existing fears without assisting in suicide: even in severe cases, doctors can provide a painless [2].

Identity crisis of people: Theory of gender

In another area the crisis of humanity is also visible. The ideas of “gender” are in opposition to a Biblical-Christian image of humanity. This constructed theory postulates that being man and woman is interchangeable in all areas of life. Upbringing and cultural conditions primarily shape the gender roles of man and woman. These are considered to be cultural stereotypes that need to be overcome. Under the gentle-sounding term of gender diversity many claim that there aren’t any objective genders like men and women. Instead they propagate a gender diversity with many gender-identities. The individual can choose his gender himself.

This view of humanity is surprising in a time in which many are concerned with protecting creation. They advocate preserving the ecological balance, which can only be lauded. They are convinced that the structured order of creation serves the whole.

On the other hand many on society suffer from disorientation and confusion when the nature of man and the meaning of the human person is at stake.

God created humanity as man and woman

At the beginning of Holy Scripture we read, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. […] God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1: 27,31).

Let us, as baptised, not be discouraged in our witness to humanity. Let us make the Word of the God and the guidance of the Church our own. The holy Pope John Paul II has left us a valuable legacy in the form of the message of the beauty of humanity, which the Creator desired as maleness and femaleness. In his catechesis which became known as the”Theology of the Body” he explains the order of Creation as an expression of the love of the Creator, for man is desired and loved by God for his own sake.

Their physical difference already shows that man and woman are ordered towards one another. This mutual orderedness once again reveals that, in order to be fully human, we need unity with a personal opposite. The highest form of this personal union is the mutual gift, the reciprocal giving of man and woman in the loving bond of marriage [3]. This mutual giving is at the same time, of course, also a reciprocal receiving and accepting of the other.  As each partner is accepted for his own sake, he will find himself through his self-giving. From this discovery of himself he is once again able to give himself anew and more deeply: this self-giving becomes a new source of life [4].

From the manger shines the light of true humanity

Dear sisters and brothers, Christmas touches many people, also today. The deepest reason is that God confirms and renews this order of love through the incarnation of the Son. From the manger and through the life of Christ shines the light of true humanity. The many people who are no longer deeply rooted in religious practice obviously also feel this.

Let us allow Christ to invite us to His way of becoming man, in order to become man ourselves. We, the baptised, can then give witness of how fulfilling the way of becoming man according to God’s order of creation and in the Spirit of Jesus is.

Encounter as the key to incarnation

The key to our own incarnation lies in encounter. Only in my opposite do I recognise myself and can I become the man according to God’s plan. In the reaction of the other I see my own “I” reflected, which I would not have been able to see otherwise. Encounter is therefore essential.

Three manifestations of human encounter can play a special role on the road to our incarnation. In a certain way they can also be understood as answers to the three symptoms of the crisis of humanity outlined above.

Incarnation in hospitality

Conversation with family members and friends, when I take them time for it, is one such encounter which can contribute to the formation of my own “I”, my own incarnation. Because of the reciprocity of encounter the same is of course also true for those who encounter me. There where we express hospitality and accept the stranger in Christian charity, an additional aspect is added. In the encounter with the stranger elements can be revealed which remain hidden in an exchange with people I already know. The hospitality towards refugees as a step in my own incarnation can then also be a first answer to the inhumanity in the world, which is shown in persecution and repression.

Incarnation in friendship

A second way of personal encounter is friendship. The essential characteristic of friendship as a human encounter is the personal attachment to one person. Precisely the friendship with Christ gives us the strength for such a deep personal connection. In friendship we learn to exceed ourselves and go beyond our urge for self-realisation. The acceptance of a friend for his own sake is the essence of friendship. True and lasting friendships are also a remedy for the desire for legalised suicide, which is in essence nothing but a cry of desperation.

Incarnation in marriage

The mutual acceptance of the other for his own sake finds its highest form in marriage. The personal bond of friendship is in the marriage between a man and a woman once more exclusively directed at one single partner. Through their reciprocal commitment and simultaneous acceptance of the other for their own sake, the partners encourage each other in their self-discovery and incarnation.

The marriage partners living in mutual love and commitment strengthen each other not only mutually, but also give direction to people who are still looking for the fullness of humanity in the spreading identity crisis.

All of you, who are travelling from the manger as roadside communities, as families, circles of friends, communities, parishes and organisations, the Triune God blesses, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Eichstätt, on the feast of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia, 19 november 2014.

Yours,

Gregor Maria Hanke OSB
Bishop of Eichstätt”


(1) Gaudium et Spes, 22.
(2) Cf. Gisela Klinkhammer, Mit großer Sorgfalt und klinischer Erfahrung, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 111 (38) , 19 September 2014, 1552f.
(3) Cf. Theology of the Body (TOB) 14,4; quoted in: John Paul II, Human Love in God’s Plan of Salvation. A Theology of the Body (republished by Norbert und Renate Martin), second revised edition, Kisslegg 2008, 161.
(4) Cf. TOB 17,6.

Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:

bisschop de korte“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.

Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.

We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.

Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.

Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?

An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”

The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.

The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.

In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:

Cardinal-Timothy-Dolan“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”.  That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”

We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.

Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.

But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.

I have to wonder about all those people who claim that poor Pope Francis has been thwarted by those mean old bishops in getting the liberal result of the Synod they wanted? They act as if the only possible conclusion could be what the Pope wishes for: Communion for all, approval of same-sex marriage and an end to difficult and nasty words about sin and exclusion. If only it weren’t for those bishops who are simply afraid of change and don’t want to lose their luxury positions of power.

Except that this is about as far removed from reality as possible.

There is an image of the Pope that is only about being nice. Those who hold to this image quote such statements like the infamous “who am I to judge?” about homosexuals seeking God, but conveniently ignore the fact that no other modern pontiff has spoken as much about sin and the Devil as Pope Francis. According to this line of thought, the Synod must be Pope Francis’ attempt to make the Church nice: to get rid of the difficulties surrounding Communion, marriage and sexuality (never mind the tendency of pretending that these are the sole topics discussed at the Synod is an extremely narrow view).

Now that the Synod is over and the concluding remarks have been published, the followers of this train of thought claim that it is not Pope Francis who holds to the carefu language about homosexuality, about Communion for the divorced and remarried, language that does not go as far as they would want, but those mean old bishops who hijacked the debate. Never mind that Pope Francis has expressly denied that there are opposing sides among the Synod fathers, or that the purpose of the Synod itself says nothing about pushing through any agenda. The Pope called for free and open discussion, no holds barred, and that’s what, and we, he got.

The idea that Pope Francis is disappointed in the result (a temporary result, I might add) of the Synod is unrealistic and presumptuous, a result of seeing the Church as a mere political arena, with opposing side; one conservative, clinging to what is old and familiar, and the other liberal, hoping to change the Church to align to the times.

“Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church, the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.”

Many people talk, few listen or read. A proper read-through of the documents of the Synod should be enough to know that both secularist and extreme conservative conclusions are unrealistic. The Church has not closed doors to anyone, and nor has she thrown out the deposit of the faith that she has been given to keep and share.

Today, it seemed as if the Church has turned a whole bundle of pages, made a full 180 on several high profile subjects and basically “got with the times”. Of course, reality is quite different, but you wouldn’t know it from certain sources, both left and right.

Peter+Erdo+Synod+Themes+Family+3tjyhEsy4E_lThe Relatio post disceptationem, which was presented today by Cardinal Péter Erdö, summarises the discussions and presentations of the first week of the Synod, and tries to paint a picture of the major topics discussed and field of further study and development identified. As such there is nothing conclusive in it, nothing authoritative, nothing but a update on where the discussion now stand.

In order to understand what the contents of the document mean, it is always good to read all of it. Not just part 3, which outlines the pastoral areas that the discussion will focus on, but also part 1 (the challenges of the family in our modern world) and part 2 (the Biblical and traditional basis of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family). Only when read together can each part be understood fully and flights of fancy and wishful thinking be avoided.

We must never forget the theme of this assembly of the Synod: The pastoral challenges of the family on the context of evangelisation. There are several keywords here: The Synod participants will deal with pastoral challenges, not dogmatic. The teachings of the Church are not under discussion. It is about the family: their challenges, not the teachings, are what dictate the discussions. The context is that of evangelisation: pastoral care for families, the ways of facing their challenges, has evangelisation as its goal.

The outlines, which are not recommendations, and certainly not changes in the Church’s teaching, deal with people, and the Church has never ceased encouraging the innate dignity of human beings and the respect we are obliged to have for it. That is regardless of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, language or whatever element of their being you’d care to mention. It’s in the catechism, so anyone displaying surprise as the Relatio‘s emphasis on respect for all people, has some reading up to do.

The Relatio post disceptationem is interesting, worth reading and studying, and a good reminder of the importance of mercy, but it is not the earthquake some have made it out to be.

Read it, all of it. Don’t be satisfied with headlines.

Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe

It is a shame that none of the interventions presented by cardinals, bishops, laity and other participants at the Synod are made public, a sentiment I share with more than a few, among them Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But we can take a look at at least one, which was given yesterday afternoon by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Danneels was one of the Synod fathers personally selected by Pope Francis.

danneels synod

^Cardinal Danneels (right) leaves one of the Synod sessions. Also pictured are Bishop Anders Arborelius (left) and Cardinal Béchara Raï (centre).

“God is just and merciful. He can’t contradict himself. He can separate good and evil in a great straddle. We, we have difficulty because we are only poor ballet dancers for a moment in the whole of history.

It is up to us, poor sinners, to find ways of mercy which do not deny the truth; to find a way for the times in which we live and for every culture. It is up to us to find ways of mercy.

I will limit myself to a single way of mercy, which is so necessary today. Many are confronted with the failure of their first marriage and have committed themselves to a second marriage which, however, is neither valid for the Church, nor sacramental. Today there are many people in this situation. What do we do for them? They often desire regularisation but known that there are no options. While many fall away there are others who suffer much. What do we do for all these brothers and sisters who desire to be able to marry anew for the Church?

I regularly think that we could established something in the Church like the catechumenate and the ordo penitentium of the past, for which the Church could be a mother. Actually, what matters is more is to organise some pastoral care for divorced and remarried people, and less about an institutional change. How to form priests and laity for this specific ministry like, in the past, for the catechumens and for those in the process of receiving pardon for their sin?

In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion.

The same respect is due to every actual marriage. Some carry within them the seeds waiting for spring. Very often divorced and remarried faithful are consciously or subconsciously looking for a way out. But there is no way out. In many cases couples are on the way to the ideal they so desire. Respect must be the ministry of our Mother the Church a ministry which sees the growth, the journey.

How to create space in the mission of the Church for a ministry for divorced and remarried people? In the first place, let us try and find these people. Many are hiding and dare not speak about it, sometimes not even with their partner. There is much hidden suffering. It is up to us priests to search for the sheep who want to come home but do not have the courage to say so.

Let us invite these people to come together, to meet and listen to one another, but in the presence of the shepherd. A shepherd who listens with his heart. There should be no immediate focus on the painful question of Communion being denied to those who have entered into a second marriage. True listening carries healing within it.

It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”. Pulchrum est splendor veri.

Among our contemporaries there is much scepticism about the truth; even goodness can discourage, but beauty disarms. Beauty heals. Archimedes said about our world today, “Give me a place to stand and I will lift the world.”

The divorced and remarried are not the only suffering children, but there are far more than we think. My appeal – in all simplicity – is: to love God’s children. Their pain and suffering is often great. They don’t immediately ask for the regulations of the Church to change. Their cry is rather one to the shepherds with their hearts in the right place, why carry the wounded lamb on their shoulders. Beauty disarms. We hold the cards: there is indeed nothing more beautiful than Christian marriage and a deeply faithful family. But we must communicate the truth to divorced and remarried people – delicately – with the words of Saint Francis in mind, which he spoke to the superiors of his small communities, “never let anyone leave you in sadness”.

+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels,

Rome, 8 October 2014

Photo credit: Siciliani Gennari/SIR

My own bishop, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, has also released a short statement about the Synod. His hopes and expectations are realistic and, I think, what we should expect from the Synod. Bishop de Korte holds the portfolio for Church and society in the bishops’ conference.

mgr_de_Korte3“In the media there has, rightly, been much attention for the tension between current Church teachings about sexuality, marriage and the family, and the concrete realities of stubborn life. For many modern Catholics much of the teaching about marriage and family have become incomprehensible and petrified.

That is why I very much hope that the Synod will choose a third way. Not a repetition of words which no longer express anything, but neither an adaptation to modern liberal culture. It will have to be about putting the Catholic wisdom about marriage and family into comprehensible words. For without a clear teaching which is near to life, many (young) Catholics receive no spiritual guidance in the fields of sexuality and forming families. They very easily go along with the ethics as shown in movies, video clips and soap operas. Those are often ethics of brief pleasure and fleeting relationships. The Church faces the challenge of speaking clearly about the importance of faithful love, especially for the happiness of people. Within marriage the Golden Rule is of great import: treat your neighbour as you would want to be treated.

The Synod will undoubtedly maintain the indissolubility of marriage. The teaching of Christ on this point is clear. Marriage is a covenant for life: not a temporary contract. But we can’t close our eyes to the enormous marriage crisis in our modern (western)  world. In our country one in every three marriages ends in divorce. Against that background the Synod will probably and rightly plead for a more intense marriage preparation.

For the many people who fail in marital fidelity the Synod will hopefully choose a ‘ministry of mercy’. Like the youngest son in the parable, God is also a father for people who divorce, a father who watches for and embraces with unconditional love. That may hopefully be a source of comfort for people in a relationship crisis. God remains faithful, also for failing and sinful people.”

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte

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:

Bisschop Rob Mutsaerts“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.”

kasperCardinal 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?

“Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways. He told her to sin no more.”

Cardinal George PellWords from Cardinal George Pell, until recently the archbishop of Sydney and today the Secretary for the Economy of the Holy See and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. He writes these words in the foreword to a book that will be publishes in the runup to the Synod of Bishops which is set to begin on 5 October. Like so many before (and undoubtedly after) him, Cardinal Pell is speaking about one of the topics of the Synod: the question of whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.

The quote above refers to the first part of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, which relates the meeting of Jesus with a woman accused of adultery. While the Pharisees are intent on stoning her for he misdeed, Jesus offers no accusation, but looks at the scribes and Pharisees instead, turning their eagerness for condemnation against them. If there is one among them without sin, He says, let him throw the first stone. None does, and they leave. Left alone with the woman, Jesus does not condemn her, but sends her on her way with a simple command: “Go away, and from this moment sin no more”.

In the discussions about the Synod and the questions about doctrine and pastoral practice it is expected to tackle, it often seems as if there is a division between mercy on the one hand and doctrine on the other. This is an unnatural division and one that does not reflect the Catholic faith and should not be expected to be honoured by the Synod. Cardinal Pell also writes that “doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory”.

The example of Jesus given above is, I think, a very important one. For here we have a situation in which someone has sinned and is subject to God’s judgement. Jesus’ way of acting here offers a blueprint of how we must act in similar situations. Approach with mercy: Jesus does not speak unnecessarily, He does not expound on the whys and wherefores of law and condemnation. He expects all involved to know enough about that anyway. Only in the end does He refer to the relevant teachings when He tells the woman to go and change her ways. So He does want her to stop doing hat she has done, and reorder her life to the teachings that He offers and the law He has come to fulfill.

Mercy and doctrine are not mutually exclusive, but strengthen and enrich each other. Those who pretend that we must between one and the other are, quite simply, wrong. We must be merciful like Jesus, and we must fulfill His law. That is why I do not think that the Synod will change the rules in any significant way. What it will look at is how mercy can help in upholding the law, how the pastoral side of the equation can be improved to better allow us and others to follow Christ. A legalistic culture will not achieve that, and neither will a culture that allows everything for the sake of mercy.

About this blog

I am a Dutch Catholic from the north of the Netherlands. In this blog I wish to provide accurate information on current affairs in the Church and the relation with society. It is important for Catholics to have knowledge about their own faith and Church, especially since these are frequently misrepresented in many places. My blog has two directions, although I use only English in my writings: on the one hand, I want to inform Dutch faithful - hence the presence of a page with Dutch translations of texts which I consider interesting or important -, and on the other hand, I want to inform the wider world of what is going on in the Church in the Netherlands.

It is sometimes tempting to be too negative about such topics. I don't want to do that: my approach is an inherently positive one, and loyal to the Magisterium of the Church. In many quarters this is an unfamiliar idea: criticism is often the standard approach to the Church, her bishops and priests and other representatives. I will be critical when that is warranted, but it is not my standard approach.

For a personal account about my reasons for becoming and remaining Catholic, go read my story: Why am I Catholic?

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The above means that I have the right to be recognised as the author of both the original blog posts, as well as any translations I make. Everyone is free to share my content, but with credit in the form of my name or a link to my blog.

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Over the years, my blog posts have been picked up by various other blogs, websites and media outlets.

A complete list would be prohibitively long, so I'll limit myself to mentioning The Anchoress, Anton de Wit, Bisdom Haarlem-Amsterdam, The Break/SQPN, Caritas in Veritate, Catholic Culture, The Catholic Herald, EWTN, Fr. Ray Blake's Blog, Fr. Z's Blog, The Hermeneutic of Continuity, Katholiek Gezin, Katholiek.nl, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, New Liturgical Movement, NOS, Protect the Pope, Reformatorisch Dagblad, The Remnant, RKS Ariëns, Rorate Caeli, The Spectator, Vatican Insider, Voorhof and Whispers in the Loggia.

All links to, quotations of and use as source material of my blog posts is greatly appreciated. It's what I blog for: to further awareness and knowledge in a positive critical spirit. Credits are equally liked, of course.

Blog posts have also been used as sources for various Wikipedia articles, among them those on Archbishop Pierre-Marie Carré, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Archbishop Sergio Utleg and Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki.

Latest translations added:

1 December: [English] Archbishop Stephan Burger - Advent letter 2014

29 November: [English] Bishop Frans Wiertz - Homily for the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life

29 November: [English] Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke - Advent letter 2014

27 November: [English] Bishop Johan Bonny - Advent letter 2014

27 November: [Dutch] Paus Franciscus - Toespraak voor het Europees Parlement.

25 November: [English] Bishop Gerard de Korte - Advent letter 2014.

17 November: [Dutch] Paus Franciscus - Toespraak voor de conferentie over de complementariteit tussen man en vrouw.

10 November: [English] Pope Francis - Letter to the Church of the Frisians.

22 October: [English] Bishop Gerard de Korte - The doctrine of the Church must always be actualised.

9 October: [English] Godfried Cardinal Danneels - Intervention at the Synod.

Sancta Maria, hortus conclusus, ora pro nobis!

Sancte Ramon de Peñafort, ora pro nobis!

Pope Francis

Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the Servants of God

Bishop Gerard de Korte

Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Willem Cardinal Eijk

Cardinal-Priest of San Callisto, Metropolitan Archbishop of Utrecht

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