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“The question [of artificial means of birth control] is not that of changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”
Thank you, Holy Father. Pope Francis said this in a new interview which is published today in Italian newspaper Corriere della sera. It’s what I have been saying all along, and so has – more authoritively – Cardinal Müller, for one. The quote above, which is preceded by papal praise for Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vita (“His genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise [a] ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism”) can be equally applied to the Church’s teachings about sexuality and marriage.
Changing doctrine, even dogma, when it is difficult or seemingly illogical for us to follow, is not the answer. The Church claims the truth, and the truth is not subject to majority opinion. That does not mean that practices are unchangeable, as a casual glance at Church history shows. But, as Pope Francis, indicates, our practice must be based on both the truth expressed in doctrine, the situation in people’s lives and the possibilities these give us. The Church must be creative in that, which means we must all be, but it must be a creativity that makes use of all that is given her, not just a selection that suits us. So, doctrine, reality and possibility, these three dictate the way we must go.
The Diocese of Trier has come with some sort of explanation for Bishop Stephan Ackermann’s confusing comments on the Church’s moral teaching, which I wrote about before. The response comes in a response to a long letter by Austrian student Victoria Fender (pictured). In it, she expresses her concern for Bishop Ackermann’s reasoning, stating that while reality is one thing, a bishop has a duty to share and promote the Church’s ideal of Christian marriage and sexuality, not give in to what society thinks it is today (and maybe something else altogether tomorrow). And, she adds, there is a very real desire among young people for this countercultural teaching, if only they heard about it.
Part of the response to Ms. Fender’s letter goes as follows:
As Ms. Fender writes, she is personally very enthused by the message of the Gospel and is generally respected for her witness of faith and life by her fellow students. One can only rejoice about that. The responses to the Synod survey have also clearly indicated that the great majority of Catholics shares the basic values of what the Church teaches about marriage and sexuality: lifelong fidelity, openness to the transmission of life, respect for one’s partner… But it also an undeniable truth that every person’s life needs a very personal development to come nearer and nearer to the goal of Christian truth. This way is not always linear.
All nice and true, but the fact that different people come to the truth in different ways does of course not mean that the truth is different for everyone. Marriage is still marriage. Human sexuality still has the same nature and purpose. The letter continues…
In his service a bishop is both teacher and pastor. In her letter, Ms. Fender herself referred to the words of Jesus about the Good Shepherd. For a bishop that means that he is also responsible for those who do not particularly live up to the ideals of Christian morality. Should he, like the Good Shepherd, also not go after the sheep that got lost, to show it, in the mercy of Christ, the way to full community? In his words, Pope Francis reminds us time and again not to discourage people, but to help them to discover the beauty of the faith, so that they can grow in that faith. Bishop Ackermann is committed to this task. In more than a few responses that have come to us in the last few days, this is perceived gratefully.
To me, this sounds like a classic mistake. Of course, bishops and priests (and all faithful) should do their best to find the lost sheep and bring them back to the herd. But we can’t do so by telling those sheep that they were right to get lost or purposely leaving the herd. We can’t change the truth in order to bring them back. Rather, we should show them ever more clearly the beauty of that truth, of the faith, not adapt it to what some think it should be. A bishop has the duty to shepherd and teach, but also to communicate the faith and make sure it is represented truthfully. By saying, as Bishop Ackermann did, that homosexuality is not intrinsically disordered, that contraception is not a problem because it is hard to understand, or that the indissolubility of marriage is no longer valid, he basically admits that the truth that the Church has been teaching for centuries is not set, that it can be changed according to the wishes of the people. That is not good shepherding, that is confirming people in their error, that is telling sheep to get lost and stay away because they think it is best for them.
A bishop should teach the truth, lead people to that truth and show the fullness and beauty of that truth. Even when it is difficult or when people need time to understand and achieve it. That last part is only human, and we should give people all the time and support they need. Telling them that it takes too long, so it must be wrong, is the road to disaster.
Someone pointed out to me that bishops are teachers, so we must let them teach. But what if we find problems with their teaching? Should we not ask for clarification, or even share our concerns. Ms. Fender did the best thing anyone can do. She sent a letter to the bishop, pointing out what she found hard to understand about what he taught. It is a shame that the response is quite unsatisfactory.
In the countries around us the results of the Synod of Bishops questionnaire have been published and they show a worrying image. While the data differs slightly per country, the general trend seems to be that Catholic faithful in general do not agree with Catholic teaching about sexuality and gender. In Germany the bishops have said that the faithful considering same-sex marriage a matter of justice and equality. Celibacy for priests is equally considered outdated and should be abolished.
This points to a serious problem: the Church in these countries has not succeeded in communicating her teachings very well, and where it has, it has done so according to the stereotype of the Church who forbids everything. Catholic teaching about sexuality is rooted in a profound understanding of human nature, according to his being created by God who has created man with a purpose.
This teaching, founded in that of Jesus Christ and unchanged (if developed) since then, is one that often exists at direct angles with society. Society in the west teaches something radically different than the Church: sexuality is a commodity, gender is self made, free choice trumps all. In essence, it says that the human being is the sole interpreter of who he or she is or can be. The Church, on the other hand, teaches that the human being is called to something greater in all aspects of his being. God calls him to Himself and shows us the way in His Son. That means that we are not limited by what we think, feel or know ourselves, but also that we should take our nature seriously. And that latter part is where we struggle. With those around us who tell us something different, but also with ourselves.
It is certainly easy to go along with what society tells us about sexuality. It is easy, comforting, uplifting even to fight for the happiness of others in love and marriage. It is a measure of control and seeming self-knowledge to decide on our own sexuality and practices. But God tells us something different. He says that we are called to look beyond ourselves, to listen to what He tells us and how He created us.
And that is something that must be communicated well. Until now, it hasn’t. The keyword in this communication is love. We must communicate, teach, inform with love. The love of the Father for us, but also our love for our neighbours and for ourselves. That love can’t be withdrawn when we or others stumble or decide to go another path. We are, after all, people with free will. That is how God created us and that is what we must respect.
What sort of love must we show to others and ourselves? In essence it is the love of the Father, and the best analogy I can think of is the love of parents for their children. Parents want what is best for their children, even when the children disagree. The children know that their parents love them, even when they sometimes forbid them things or correct them. We must emulate that love when we share the teachings of the Church on these very personal and sensitive matters.
Don’t turn anyone away.
Be honest and open. People deserve no less.
Love the person, not their actions.
Condemn actions, not persons.
Lead by example.
People will still disagree when we do, of course. But we are called to share and spread the faith, and to do so fully. Faith without love is nothing.
One day before his 80th birthday, and his retirement from Curial functions that comes with it, Cardinal Joachim Meisner makes some bold and critical statements in an interview for Deutschlandfunk. The archbishop of Cologne is known to be in disagreement with most other German bishops about if, when and how divorced and remarried Catholics can be allowed to receive the sacraments. In that respect he is very much in agreement with Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
He also speaks about being critical of Pope Francis, in a personal conversation no less. He says:
“During my last visit to Pope Francis I was able to speak very freely with the Holy Father about all kinds of topics. And I also told him that his proclamation in the form of interviews and short statements leaves many questions unanswered, questions which should be explained further for the uninformed. The Pope looked at me with surprise and asked me to please give him an example. And my reply was that, in his return from Rio to Rome, on the airplane, he was asked about the question of divorced and remarried people. And as the Pope said, divorced people can receive Holy Communion, remarried divorced people can not. In the Orthodox Church it is possible to marry twice. That was his statement. And then he spoke of mercy, which in my experience, which is what I told him, is only understood in this country as a substitute for all human failings. And the Pope very energetically replied that he is a son of the Catholic Church and is not saying anything but the teachings of the Church. And mercy must be identical to truth, or it doesn’t deserve the name mercy. And in addition, he emphasised that when theological questions remain, then there is the important Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to formulate and explain the details. And you must always remember that this Congregation, which before the Council was chaired by the Pope himself, is still the first in the Curial order. And you can’t relate to the Prefect as a private person, just because he was once a member of the Bishops’ Conference.”
This is pretty unheard of, that a cardinal so freely discusses his disagreements with the Pope. Pope Francis’ reaction is no less interesting, of course. It shows how he wants the Curia, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the lead, to function. Not as a behemoth controlled by the Pope, but as a body assisting the Pope in his ministry. And I think that also shows us how we should all act as Catholics. We should be willing and able to explain and clarify in love, to proclaim, not just by speaking about Jesus Christ, but also by knowing and living our faith, even in the face of misunderstanding and adversity.
Cardinal Meisner was also asked about demands from certain groups that the Church should adapt to the times. Such sentiments were heard anew in the wake of the Synod of Bishops’ questionnaire. Although this was never intended as a means to ask the faithful for their opinions on Church teaching, many have used it as a chance to express theirs nonetheless.
“The Church must conform to the Word of God and not to the opinion of people. As Church we must know the opinions of people, to be able to proclaim the Word of God accordingly. But conforming, as they are asking, is not a part of the Gospel. It is amazing that the Evangelical Church has defined, with her position paper on questions of sexuality, a total alignment to the so-called spirit of the times. And what does the state of the Evangelical Church look like? As I understand, the number of people leaving it are even higher than ours. That can’t, ultimately, be because of the question of sexuality.”
Isn’t the cardinal afraid to stand alone, to become isolated, because what he says is not in accordance with what others are saying?
“I am not afraid to stand alone. During my school days in Thuringia I was the only Catholic boy, pupil. And I was always a part of everything and never allowed myself to be isolated. The mission of the ZdK (Central Committee of German Catholics) is to make the Gospel visible and have effect in the secular dimension, as it’s called, in the world. And here this group must seriously ask itself if they have remained true to their mission and vocation? You are asking if, in this context, I have no fear of being isolated? I have real concern for those people who bend their faith to themselves and who make their own faith, and who do not accept in awe what Christ Himself has entrusted to us. There is no solution there.”
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.
At a European conference on the emancipation of homosexuals in The Hague, an Amsterdam alderman has called for all religious leaders in the world to take their responsibility regarding the acceptance of homosexuals and transgendered people.
“As long as the Pope and most Muslim leaders do not accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation, millions of people will consider violence against gays, lesbians and transgendered people to be justified,” Andrée van Es (pictured), who holds the diversity and integration portfolio in the Amsterdam city council, said. This sweeping generalisation, putting religious leaders in all their diversity in the same corner, is not only a gross misrepresentation of reality, but also a worrying example of the imposition of one society’s political philosophy on others.
Writing as a Catholic and as a blogger with some knowledge of Catholic teachings on these matters, I will limit myself to the Church and her faith, leaving Muslim thoughts about homosexuality aside.
To begin with the very first words of the statement quoted above, I must explain that the Church does accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation: she accepts that it exists, that people can experience sexual attraction to people of the same gender. However, she does not accept it as a true expression of the ordered nature of man as created by God. That is why she will always be opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, as it is an impossibility. However, that is far from the same thing as advocating violence against homosexuals. The Church always upholds that ancient teaching of hating the sin, loving the sinner. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, he or she has an innate dignity and should always be treated in accordance with that dignity that all men have been given. The Church will always defend that dignity, which is most visibly in her pro-life attitude, but also in her pastoral relations between individual faithful, laity and clergy alike.
However, and this is an important distinction that is often misunderstood or overlooked, this loving understanding of people’s equality in their human dignity is far from the same as accepting everything a person does (not is or has, but does). Indeed, when we love someone, we are bound to correct that person if he or she makes mistakes, and we should guide and help them in their lives, whatever the difficulties are that they may face over the course of it. Be it illness, poverty, social issues or a disordered sexuality, we must be there to stand with them, help them in their lives, to achieve the fulfillment of life as God has willed it. We are people with a purpose, created for that purpose, and God has given us the possibility to achieve that purpose, to live in unity with Him for all eternity, despite the obstacles and barriers that we find on our path. He has given us the means to overcome them, and we often find those means through the help of others.
That reality governs the actions of the Church. God has willed to reach out to us through her, that she may be there to lead us to Him. As members of His Church, we are called to make that possible. We do so through the love that Christ has showed us, and that is not a sappy kind of love which sees everything through rose-tinted glasses and accepts everything. No, that love wants the best for its object: us. And therefore it guides, corrects, teaches.
The Church accepts reality, but does not accept that that is all there is. We can and must always strive for something better, for the very best. God is that very best, and He is what we strive for.
All of the above commits us to something which is not easy, certainly not in our modern society. It can come across as discriminatory, hateful even. But just like a parent correcting a child, there can be no hate between God and man. The Church does not hate homosexuals. She loves them like she loves all men, and she teaches them through the faculties given to her by the Lord, in love, like a parent teaches, guides and sometimes has to correct a child.
When suggesting someone to do something, the first step to is to make sure you know what you are talking about. Ms. van Es has clearly failed to do this, as she so clearly links the Pope, and thus the Catholic Church, to violence. A cursory search soon comes up with Paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
In 2008, while offering some criticism, the Holy See welcomed
“the attempts made in the statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity – presented at the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2008 – to condemn all forms of violence against homosexual persons as well as urge States to take necessary measures to put an end to all criminal penalties against them” [source].
In 2009, the Permanent Mission to the UN reiterated much the same sentiments:
“The Holy See also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person. The murder and abuse of homosexual persons are to be confronted on all levels, especially when such violence is perpetrated by the State” [source].
Three quotes found through a short search via Google and Wikipedia. Ms. van Es could and should have known much better.
Photo credit: Gemeente Amsterdam
Amid all the excitement pertaining to the concave and a new Pope comes a sobering report. The Deetman Commission has issued its second report about abuse in the Catholic Church. Where the first one dealt chiefly with sexual abuse of which mainly boys were victims, this second one dealt with cases of “excessive violence”, both sexual and physical, against girls under the care of Catholic institutions. While the Commission admits that it is not possible to formulate a definition of “excessive violence” that can be used in all cases, and the number of cases s far smaller than in the first investigation, there are several conclusions to be reached.
Concerning sexual abuse:
There is no quantitative difference with the results of the first investigations. There have been several tens of thousands of victims in the period between 1045 and 2010.
- Older and newer cases show similarities in important elements.
- In more than forty percent of the cases of sexual abuse of underage girls that were investigated there has been serious sexual abuse.
- Abuse of underage girls was more prevalent at home (40%) and in the parish (more than 30%). Sexual abuse of boys took place more often in institutions.
- In cases of “light” sexual abuse there have been male and female perpetrators within the Catholic Church. In “stronger” categories of sexual abuse the perpetrators were mostly male.
- In fifty percent of the cases sexual abuse was coupled with physical and/or psychological violence.
- The question of sexual abuse was discussed within monastic communities, courses, meetings and days of study on several levels, as early as the 1960s. The context then was completely limited to the monastic community itself and the relationships between sisters.
Concerning physical and psychological violence, environment and behaviour:
- Both the new and the older cases generally report a combination of physical and psychological violence, whether coupled with sexual abuse or not. The nature of the violent acts is also generally consistent, as are the duration and the frequency of the violence, which was longer than a year and repeatedly.
- The majority of the female victims was between 6 and 14 years of age when the sexual abuse and/or violence started. Most cases took place in the 1950s and 1960s.
- Whereas sexual abuse of girls most often occurred at home and in the parish, violence against underage women seems to have mostly taken place in institutions such as boarding school and hospitals.
- In cases of physical and psychological violence (without sexual abuse) both the new and the old reports indicate mostly female perpetrators, especially female religious who worked as teachers and caregivers.
- In roughly half of the cases the abuse and/or the violence was reported before, although often only after many years.
- A detailed investigation of archives, including those of ten sister congregations, offers no direct indications of violence and violent incidents. The commission found no reports of such incidents.
- From the archives investigated an image can be created of relations between sisters and girls and sisters among each other in a cold and cool environment in the 1950s and the early 1960s.
- In the 1960s school conferences under professional guidance paved the way for a change in behaviour. This was more on a level with new insights and by then standard developments in education.
The Commission found no current cases which it could forward to the Public Prosecutor to be investigated and submitted to a court of law. It did forward three older cases because of the serious nature of the abuse, although these too fall under the statute of limitations.
There is no evidence of structural abuse within the congregations, as far as sexual abuse is concerned. There are, however, doubts if the same can be said about physical violence.
A striking difference with the first report is that reports of abuse do not need the proof of evidence to be eligible for compensation, although the complaints do need to be plausible within the framework of the abuse that most likely occurred, as drafted by the Commission.
Although the extent and the nature of the abuse suffered by girls is generally and in important points different from that suffered by boys, it is of course no less serious.
On behalf of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Hans van den Hende offered a first comment in an interview for RKK. He agreed that the report was “shocking”, and said that it “is chilling to read, because it is about real, actual people.” Bishop van den Hende frequently speaks with victims and their representatives as chairman of the contact group tasked with solving those cases which have suffered a communications breakdown or came across some other obstacle. He says that, following the publication of this second report, the focus of the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious must be on engaging with the victims in conversation, to hear their stories, recognise them, and reach a satisfactory solution.
Photo credit: ANP