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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
With the conclave approaching rapidly, and Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk being the sole voting Dutch cardinal, Amsterdam-based priest Fr. Pierre Valkering writes an ill-considered open letter to him, published today in populist newspaper De Telegraaf.
He writes to urge Cardinal Eijk to vote for a candidate who will change Catholic teachings on sexuality, and, as he admits in the opening paragraph, he is writing “based on my own understanding of [the] Holy Spirit in these matters.” Already there does a main problem become clear. As faithful Catholics, clergy or laity, we do not, first and foremost, act on our own understanding of the Spirit, but understand Him through the Church. Any personal understanding (or misunderstanding) must always be considered in the relationship between God and His people, as the one can’t contradict the other: God won’t be telling His people as a whole one thing, and tell an individual something else altogether.
Fr. Valkering criticises the previous Popes’ promotion of sexuality finding its fullest fruition within the marriage between a man and a woman who are open to new life. “All other forms of sexual experience, heterosexual and homosexual, are rejected.” This, he says, gives the vast majority of people the message that they don’t live properly. This, too, should not be surprising. It has become not done in modern society to criticise anyone about their personal life, but isn’t that what jesus Himself also did? Isn’t that what teaching is? Correcting people if necessary and teaching them what is right and wrong? The Church has been tasked with the same thing, and that has nothing to do with rejecting people. And if a person has a crisis of conscience about such matters, as the author writes about later, the right response is not automatically to disregard or change the teachings of the Church and follow your own wishes and desires. If you accept Christ as the Teacher you want to follow, you must also be open to letting Him teach you, even when the lesson is perhaps difficult to understand. The right course of action is then to try and find out why it is so difficult. Only then, by bringing our own motivations, conscience and obstacles to the light of Christ, can we start the process of change that Christ desires for all of us. And no, that is not always easy. But with trust and faith in the Lord, we know it is right.
Fr. Valkering continues,
“In an increasing number of countries, and certainly in the Netherlands, [...] the balance between the “moral right” and the sympathy in public opinion undoubtedly falls to people who live in all openness and honesty, even if they do not life in conformity to the Church’s sexual morals.”
This is a very slippery slope, and basically subjects the unchanging truths that Christ taught us to the wishes and opinions and, even vaguer, the feelings of the people. As if these truths are somehow changed as people think differently about them. As people of faith we profess that reality and truth are not what we make ourselves.
“People of the Church, on the other hand, make that same Church and everything she stands for implausible and unattractive when they do not really show themselves in their personal thought and action concerning sexuality, but do measure and judge the people who are honest and open, and do not approach them with the respect [...] that every person has a right to.”
As Christians and as people who strive to better ourselves we can’t sit down and adapt ourselves to our failings which keep us from following Christ in our actions and our entire being. But that is what Fr. Valkering is proposing. He essentially says that people can’t help who they are, that teaching people that they can change, that Christ asks us that, is akin to a lack of respect. That is, of course, rather at odds with what our faith has taught us over the centuries.
We must always respect and love our neighbours, regardless of who they are or what they do. However, criticising actions (or lack thereof) is never the same as criticising a person. Teaching a person that change is good and possible does not put a person down, but rather elevates him.
There is one thing that I will give Fr. Valkering credit for, and that is accusation that some workers in the Church can be hypocritical when they teach people about change but refuse it in themselves. But if a teacher has a failure, we can’t conclude that his teachings are incorrect, but we can ask ourselves if he is the right person to do the teaching.
At Ars Vivendi,we find English translations of statements from Joachim Cardinal Meisner and the spokesman for the press office of the Archdiocese of Cologne about the bishops’ conference’s decision to allow for the use of certain types of morning after pills in Catholic hospitals. For topics like this, it is always good to get information from the source, since there is such a risk of words being twisted, taken out of context and changed to suit a particular agenda, and not just in secular circles.
Although the bishops’ reasoning makes sense, and fits with what the Church has consistently taught about these matters, it is an enormous leap of faith: since the reasoning hinges upon the apparent existence of pills which prevent fertilisation rather than the implantation of a fertilised egg, it is at the mercy of the medical lobby. I fervently hope that the bishops have some very good independent Catholic experts on their side in this matter.
Although many would have us believe otherwise, this does not change much in the Catholic teaching about contraception and the dignity of life. Drugs like the morning after pill, even if they only prevent fertilisation, still can not be used without consequence. Sexual relations are inherently open to life. The willful blocking of the possibility of new life, such as happens with the use of condoms or, indeed, anti-fertilisation pills, is counter to Catholic teaching and sinful.
So, no, the German bishops are not saying that the morning after pill may be used whenever we want to. Rather, it is allowed in cases such as the one that triggered the whole debate: hospital treatment after a rape or other sexual crime, where the morning after pill may be used as part of the treatment. Treatment or medication which, as a side effect, may lead to the death of an unborn child, can in some cases also be used, but the intent can never be the willful killing of the child.
A humpback whale stranded alive on an uninhabited island southwest of the Dutch island of Texel, earlier this week. Despite much effort, rescue workers were not able to return the beast to sea and it was eventually killed to end any further suffering.
The result? People suggesting there should be a silent march for the animal. Rescue workers being threatened with bodily harm for failing to succeed. A politician treating this as a national tragedy.
In the meantime, killing unborn children remains fully accepted. Few march for them or mentions them in parliament. Families remain in poverty, even in this country, and food banks keep struggling to provide them with basic necessities. Super markets, in the meantime, throw away tons of unsold produce every day. Elderly people can be killed with full support from government and populace. No one thinks to suggest this should not be so. Coffee shops selling marijuana can continue to set up shop near schools, where children increasingly smoke it in between classes. These same children become sexually active at younger and younger ages, since everything is allowed, after all… I could go on.
Whales dive deep for their food. Our society seems to be sinking equally deep, but there is no sustenance waiting there…
Saturday we marked the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (which refers to the conception of Mary, not of Jesus, as many mistakenly think) and in The Hague the annual March for Life (picture at left) braved the freezing cold to make a stand for the right of life of all people. And life is the common denominator between these too. Mary was prepared since before her birth to carry, nurture and protect the perfect life in her womb, and today we are called to extend the same protection to the life of all people, born or yet unborn, healthy or ill, rich or poor.
Being a Catholic, I can’t be anything but pro-life. This is admittedly a moniker laden with political and other connotations, but for me it simply means that I choose life over death. Life is the original and ultimate gift we have been granted by God. And as with all His gifts, He doesn’t simply give and then walk away. No, He is with us forever, there when we reach out to Him when life gets difficult or even seemingly impossible.
But being pro-life is not the exclusive territory of Catholics, or even of Christians. All it requires are open eyes and a compassionate heart. Eyes that are open to the reality of both the difficulties and the beauty of life. A heart that is compassionate towards the person suffering, for whatever reason, and willing to help overcome that suffering.
I live in a society where abortion and euthanasia are generally considered to be human rights. As a result, they are seen as medical procedures aimed at curing a patient from the illness of pregnancy or pain. The very nature of life, as a gift from God and a responsibility for all of us, is thereby completely forgotten. Not even wilfully so, but out of ease or ignorance. Especially among younger people – teenagers, children even - this stance on abortion has lead to an increase in abortions, teenage pregnancies and a liberal attitude to sexuality that was unheard of even ten years ago. Children aged 12 or 13 are engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse, which from their standpoint is understandable if the unwanted consequences are so easily dealt with. Add to that the fact that abortion and euthanasia are both presented as having little to no psychological consequences on the person in question or their families, and these procedures indeed become simple cures for a disease.
But these are lies. Pure and simple.
Life is not a disease. Life is a gift, and a gift that brings with it responsibilities. Life is not subject to opinion, not a subjective value attached to an object. We can’t therefore decide who is worthy of life, or decide on when it starts or ends. Our active contribution to and participation in the life that we have been granted is delineated by these absolutes: it begins and ends at times that are beyond our qualification and competence.
Does that mean an immovable attitude on our part? Although there are boundaries we cannot cross, we can be compassionate and moved within those boundaries. We not only can, we should.
The concerns of people who do not share our standpoints are nonetheless legitimate. Questions about a child conceived in rape, or a lingering illness which will certainly end in death are ones we should confront. While we can’t say that the life of an unborn child of a patient should be terminated, we must work towards easing any suffering, be it physical or psychological. Unwanted pregnancies are a reality. They are not always easy, and they can be painful. Illness by itself is never enjoyable, and nor is pain without a chance of a cure.
Life, as a gift, transcends all this, however. The pain it sometimes brings us is never all it brings. In ways that we can’t conceive, an unborn child may prove a blessing for those around him. The natural death of a person can be a positive formative experience for others. We are not islands, and we are called to live in relation to others. That is not any different when illness, pain and being unwanted is concerned.
Life is immeasurably valuable. This is something we must never forget, because the risks are too great when we do.
I am pro-life. I can’t be anything else.
Photo credit: “A nation born out of prayer”, Mars voor het Leven/Facebook
In a recent interview (available as a PDF file here) for Trouw, Father Johan te Velde expounds on the major forthcoming change in his life: his entrance as a postulant in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Willibrord. He is now wrapping up his duties as parish priest and diocesan vicar in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, and his new life will start on 1 September.
Following a description of his first encounter with monastic life when he was 17, and his decision not to pursue it at as a student and young priest, Fr. te Velde goes on to explain why he has decided to do so now that he is 58. And this, in my opinion, offers an interesting insight into the motivations of this thoughtful and erudite priest, which have a poignantly current element.
“I never stopped visiting monasteries. Taizé in France, the Poor Clares in Megen, Chevetogne, an ecumenical monastery in Belgium. Three years ago, in Chevetogne, the desire for a pure and sober life in a small community returned. A return to the heart.
I am quite fed up with the society that we life in. It’s all about consumption, entertainment, about satisfying needs. People are finding it very hard to remain faithful to each other. I also see it in my parish, the sort of confusion that young people and young families are living in in that respect. Divorces, parents who are finding it hard to pass something good on to their children.
The Christian faith does have an answer, but we don’t always succeed in presenting it properly. We can say that sexuality is about love and loyalty, but when you see what we have done ourselves, as priests and monastics… As Church we have also been put in the dock.
There are bishops who have held penitential services. They laid down flat on the ground and asked for forgiveness. Others have spoken to victims. Entering the monastery is my contribution. I chose repentance, a life of simplicity, meditation and prayer. I also do this for the Church.”
Freedom of expression and religion is apparently a flexible concept. At least as far as the city council of the town of Alaca in Spain is concerned. Apparently, the aforementioned freedoms are rights which only apply if you say things that the popular majority agrees with. That is what the Catholics of the Diocese of Alcalá de Henares recently discovered as the aforementioned city council called for the removal of Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Plá, following statements which were deemed homophobic.
Following Bishop Reig Plá’s Good Friday homily, in which he formulated the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are inherently disordered and criticised sexual behaviour in modern society, several leftist organisations, together with Spain’s Socialist Party, tabled a motion to have the bishop transferred to another diocese, as well as banning him from all official functions in the city.
The diocese’s response rightly called this “a sad and intolerable violation of human rights and of the principle of the separation of Church and state”. Bishop Reig Plá has the support of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, his own priests, the International Federation of Associations of Catholic Doctors, and, strikingly, some 20 individuals with same-sex attraction from his diocese.
Reading all this, I have to wonder why people continue to be surprised when a bishop supports Catholic teaching? Is it because they somehow assume that the Church is in favour of current sexual morality and the behaviour of some homosexual people? Do they think that a bishop who says something that is difficult and challenging is out of touch with the Church? Bishop Reig Plá’s words are nothing new. Sexual behaviour in modern society is a source of serious concern, and certain examples of homosexualist behaviour, such as gay pride marches, do nothing but sexualising the human person under the banner of tolerance. Well, it should be clear that exactly these groups, as well as many on the left side of the political spectrum, are the ones who are intolerant. It is they who do not allow different opinions and apparently consider basic human rights and freedoms to be selectively applicable.
The modern response to some undesired statements is the call for the banishment of everyone and everything that is not in full agreement with the opinion of the popular majority (or what some people think the popular majority should think and want). That is not freedom or tolerance. It is intolerance and the dictatorship of relativism.
Everyone enjoys the right to freely express themselves and to live according to their faith. These are basic human rights. No one has to agree with what a person says, but that person still has every right to say it, without suffering criminal prosecution or political harassment. Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Plá is a shepherd and teacher of his people. On Good Friday he taught about sexual morality. He has every right and duty to do so, and no one has a right to force him from performing the duties he was consecrated for.