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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.”
In the abuse crisis that we, for better or worse, have gotten somewhat acclimatised to, one of the most painful chapters is that of the castrations that took place to ‘cure’ men from homosexuality. Although this was, for a while, accepted medical practice, both in Church-run facilities and in secular institutions, the commotion about it is nothing but understandable.
Things seemed to get a bit worse this week, when medical historian Mart van Lieburg announced that he had evidence that an unnamed bishop had ordered the castration of a man sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. And that bishop would have still been alive. That last statement would have narrowed the number of possible names down to two. Of the Dutch bishops in the 1960s, only Bishops Jan Bluyssen (‘s Hertogenbosch, 1966-1983) and Huub Ernst (Breda, 1967-1992) are still alive today.
On Wednesday, during the same set of hearings in which Mr. Bakker of the previous blog post spoke, Professor van Lieburg came back from his initial statement, as Trouw reports today. He explains that a surgeon had been in contact with a bishop about castration: “The discussion with the surgeon took place over the telephone. I first want to hear on tape what he said precisely. But the conclusion that a bishop ordered castration is, as far as I’m concerned, premature. Perhaps, under the pressure of time, I didn’t express myself clearly.”
Contact between medical ethical committees and a bishop is not something that is cause for concern, Professor van Lieburg says.”There were medical ethical committees which discussed sensitive forms of treatment. There were Protestant ministers and also Catholic theologians on those committees. In the south, a surgeon would have likely had contact about that with someone from the Catholic Church.”
If anything, all this goes to show how much public perception has changed in the past 50 years. Although we don’t know the exact details of the contact that a bishop may have had with a surgeon who was to perform a castration, the response to even the possibility of it having happened is wildly different from the response that it would have received in the middle of the last century.
But that is no reason to say that, just because it was somewhat accepted at the time, we should just accept it now. It is in fact a very Catholic attitude to say that there is a morality that is not dependent on public opinion, but which exists because it is an integral part of creation. What was good and right in the past, is still that. The very same goes for what was bad and unjust.
Photo credit: RosaMedia
A small update on the bishops front. Bishop de Korte has responded to the concerns raised by Archbishop Eijk, which would validate the claims made by bloggers and Trouw. In a press release from the diocese, Bishop de Korte called the current situation “a difference of opinion between the archbishop and the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden”. He gives good mutual cooperation “the highest priority” and said that the issue should be resolved “through consultation”.
I have to wonder how such a sensitive letter got leaked anyway. Either certain people have impressive means to get their hands on such correspondence, or people around the bishops’ conference or the office of the archbishop are just clumsy.
This certainly doesn’t help the public image of the Church, which is already seriously damaged. But I’m happy to agree with Bishop de Korte when he says that this is something that he and the archbishop need to resolve together.
But do keep an eye on those communication channels, bishops. There’s something still not working properly there.
I have been asked to share with my small international audience some thoughts about a public initiative in the Netherlands, which aims to give the elderly the right to choose their moment of death. In the proposal, this is a right to be given to everyone over the age of 70. In the Trouw newspaper, philosopher Paul van Tongeren goes over some of the objections against this proposal, in an article titled Self-chosen death is impossible.
Outright discussion of the affairs of society and politics is something which I have general avoided. Not because I consider it unimportant, but mainly because I fear my knowledge is lacking. Not that I have an extensive knowledge of Church and theology, but those topics are this blogs objective. Society is not, although the two obviously and rightly influence each other.
Euthanasia, like abortion and any other practice involving the murder of humans, is a grave sin. That much is clear. It is directly stated in the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill. As far as historians can trace it, the wilful murder of people has always been considered intrinsically evil, although there have been societies which allowed it (and continue to do so) in certain circumstances. But what a society chooses to do has no effect on the objectivity morality of an action.
This as an introduction. Now let’s take some of Mr. van Tongeren’s arguments against the ‘free choice of death’ initiative.
His first point, a relative argument, is the question how we can know what the death wish means. Is it a result of bad living conditions and can it therefore be remedied by improving those conditions?
He then questions the arbitrary age limit of 70. It is said that that age has been chosen because a death wish occurs more often in people over 70. But there is a risk in establishing that age as a boundary. Once implemented, we’ll see that the death wish occurs more often in people over 60. It is a boundary that demands adjustment downward. And there is another risk: people will have to explain themselves once they’re 70 and don’t want to die just yet.
Another point is if and how outsiders can decide if someone is ready to die. Would outsiders be so keen to decide in favour of death? Mr. van Tongeren says yes. One of the people behind the initiative, Hedy d’Ancona, said twice in an interview on Radio 1, that she know a few people of whom she thought that they were ready to die. There is then an outside pressure on the elderly to choose in favour of death.
The discussion that goes into more philosophical principles, most notably the principle of autonomy, related to the opinion that we are autonomous people who decide over our own life and death. Kant, one of the staunchest defenders of autonomy, said that when you do what you want because that seems attractive, you are not autonomous, because you don’t decide what you want, but are being led by your desires. Then you are heteronomous. You are only autonomous when you fully act according to reason. That means, among other things, that we have no automatic right to do whatever we please when, at the same time, we claim to act according to the principle of autonomy.
Self-determination does work ‘horizontally’. Someone who wants to order me about, has to justify himself, not the other way around.
In the history of philosophy we encounter a problematic but intriguing argument against self-chosen death: suicide is impossible. Of course, it happens and it that sense it is possible, but it can be countered logically, so it is a logical impossibility. Someone who wants to commit suicide chooses death, but that is not a choice between one thing and another (as when we normally want something). It is a choice between something (life) and nothing (death). And philosophy says: you can’t want nothing.
Van Tongeren explains to two forms of wanting: the object wanted, and wanting to be the wanter. We choose to want. Someone who wants to die, wants to stop being the wanter, which is a denial of wanting anything.
All that will not change the mind of someone who wants to die, but it indicates a problem. It’s not something we can want like we want other things. denying that problem is denying that there is any difference between wanting to die and wanting to go on a holiday. That is ultimately a denial of the very nature and identity of the death wish.
Van Tongeren closes with emphasising the importance of taboos in western civilisation. Taboos indicate boundaries that can’t be defended or defeated by logical arguments, but which society possible. Crossing them has destructive consequences.
Does it make sense to want to decide to die? We don’t decide we want to live. If we have no self-determination at the start, would it not be fitting to not have it at the end?
It’s a difficult social and ethical problem, this question of whether or not we should allow the free choice of death. I do think, like Mr. van Tongeren, that such a choice is the top of a downward slope. Not only is it a choice based in nothing more than gut-feeling, and as such it fails to acknowledge the differences between this choice and the choice of what you want for lunch today, it also tackles a taboo.
Taboos are not popular. Many people in our postmodern society consider them limits to our freedom. But are they? Are they not guidelines that lead to freedom? After all, any society without rules will quickly descend into chaos. Is that the freedom we want? Does that not limit us even more? I would say it does.
A life is sacred, in the religious and the social sense. We have neither the ability nor the right to give or take that life. There is not self-determination involved in the beginning and end of life. That does not make it easy. But do we measure our existence by the amount of pain we have? No. A person’s life is measured by his or her achievements, by the positive influence it has on us and on society.
We have a duty, an obligation to always choose life. The other choice is nothing but the easy solution and anyone knows of situations in their own lives where nothing is gained by the easy way out.
In a totally unrelated conversation, the following quote, from The Dark Knight of all things, came up: “It was always going to get worse before it got better.” The value of our goals can often be measured by the difficulties we have in achieving them. Difficulties are not inherently evil, although we rarely recognise them as such while we suffer them.