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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.
Following the media bust-up by charity Solidaridad - who ended their cooperation with the bishop’s conference (giving a fabricated story as a reason) and then sent a letter to all parishes encouraging them to do the same – the bishops have sent a letter to all parish councils explaining what really happened.
They are obviously not feeling particularly charitable towards Solidaridad, and rightly so: Solidaridad’s actions were very much out of bounds, and ignorant to boot.
Anyway, below is the letter as drafted on the authority of Bishop Punt on behalf of all the bishops.
Last week you received a letter from Solidaridad. This has led to indignation, not just with the bishops but with many in the missions. More about that later. First I want to inform you, admittedly prematurely – the discussion is ongoing – about the state of business. From the media alone you can impossibly form a good picture.
Changes in the missionary field
For a significant amount of time the missionary field in the Catholic Church has been changing a lot. In the past decades various missionary organisations have gone through important developments: increase in scale, mergers and a greater government participation. This often also led to statutory changes of adaptations of goals, blurring the specific religious identity. By cooperating with new partners church funds now represent but a small part of the total budget of large missionary organisations. In itself this development is understandable. But the missionairy visibility of the Church ahs become somewhat threatened because of it. To protect this and to reformulate the relations with the Church, Msgr. Dr. J. Punt, as referent for Mission and Development, has entered into discussions with a number of missionairy organisations on the following criteria:
By including Church missionary actions into larger aid and development organisation, many parishes experience their own missionary actions as not transparent enough. In dialogue with the implementing partners, the bishops strive to offer the faithful openness and transparency on projects, the spending of funds, overhead costs and the goals achieved.
2) Churches help churches.
This means that we want to use as much as possible our own channels for aid. The Church after all has a unique global network with very short lines through missionaries, dioceses, congregations, Church institutes, partner parishes, etc., making adequate and fast aid possible. Many parishes are already using this to the full. It is about allowing churches in the south to state their own priorities, help the poor themselves and fulfill needs, instead of us deciding it for them. This way of working prevent organisation dictating what the people need from western paternalism or ideology. Churches in developing countries continuously identify projects, not just in church development, but especially in education, health care, agriculture, etc.
This is about the question of how to realise these principles in new agreements and a new structure. It after all is about the efforts of faithful and parishes and the funds that have been collected in and by the churches. The new structure includes the establishment of an ‘Episcopal Commission for Mission and Development Cooperation’. This will have the task of guaranteeing a balanced campaign or project lost. It will do in close dialogue with the implementing organisations, but will keep the final say in the matter. Where else would that lie? Where is the logic in Solidaridad’s desire for the board of an independent aid organisation to have full say in how to spend church funds?
In good consultation
missionary organisations will surely recognise the principles above. The dialogue about this 0 which is still ongoing – has always taken place in a constructive atmosphere. Solidaridad too understood the need for renewal. For themselves, however, they envisioned a different future and broadening of their identity and they took concrete steps to that end. On 11 November 2009 the board of Solidaridad requested the bishops per letter to be allowed to drop to final regulations that still tied them to the Catholic Church. They also added that the Protestant Church in the Netherlands had already ended their ties with Solidaridad. The letter from the board describes this as a win-win situation: “From our side the return of the mandate of implementing organisation for the Advent Action, and from your side the release of a statement of no objection for passing the new statutes. In our opinion creating a mutual space is the best approach.” It is their clear wish to continue as an independent, not-ecclesiastic organisation. The Church would get the space to give a new missionary structure to the Advent Action.
After the bishops had agreed to this proposal, the roles are suddenly reversed in a dramatic press release from Solidaridad on 10 February. Solidaridad suddenly attacks the bishops with allegations and suggestions. The purpose seems clear: One the one hand, Solidaridad wants to completely separate from the bishops and on the other hand they want to take the parishes with them to keep receiving money from them and the faithful. To the bishops this is obviously unacceptable. The commentary in the Trouw newspaper was equally surprised: “It is peculiar that Solidaridad urges the parishes to be disobedient and ignore the new Advent Action of the bishops. For clarity’s sake, let this means of collection go.”
We will trust in your own wisdom to inform your parishioners in due time about the disappearance of Solidaridad from the collection schedule, without burdening them needlessly with details. As soon as there is news about the new content of the Advent Action we will inform you.
Wishing you a fruitful Lent,
Drs. G.H.A. Kruis, secretary general a.i.
It turns out that a rather bad mistake snuck into the interview with Archbishop Eijk. He claimed that the letter that the emeritus priests sent to him was printed in Trouw, and that he blamed them for that. That never happened. The fact that the letter was sent was made public, but the contents are still private, and rightly so. But the error does mean that my hints that these priests are playing the ‘blame game’ is not correct.
I can only guess the reason for the mistake, but perhaps the archbishop was referring to Nelly Stienstra’s letter, which was made public (by her own lawyer, no less). The situation is somewhat similar.
A surprising article on the website of Katholiek Nieuwsblad. Surprising in that the author, Jan Peeters, takes the unpopular position and manages to given an overview of the recent decisions of Archbishop Eijk, which have caused so much discussion in his archdiocese these past months. Peeters’ position is, in my opinion, the unpopular one, in that he defends the archbishop who has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. Granted, not all of that criticism was unjust, but the article below shows that much can be defended.
I agree with the main point that Peeters makes; that the Dutch Church needs a doctor who is able to make the drastic decisions to heal things. And such decisions rarely make anyone popular, certainly not immediately.
That’s not to say that I agree with everything in the article. Especially the points he makes about Ms Stienstra and her reasons for acting the way she did are, in my opinion, unverifiable by anyone but herself.
In closing, an article that shows the big picture, although some emotion, or should I say frustration, shines through here and there.
A courageous bishop
Church historian Peter Nissen is a strange man: his long-held wish dream of a ‘bishop with balls’ has finally come true, and it’s still not right, because he is immediately ‘stalinist’.
For the strangers in Jerusalem: it concerns Wim Eijk, de archbishop of Utrecht, who was sharply attacked in Trouw over his policies. Eijk has the thankless task to safeguard the archdiocese, with drastic measures, from bankruptcy. He also considers I his task to have the financial side secure enough to assure continued wellbeing for the next ten years.
Eijk is probably the first Dutch bishop who has publicly indicated that the situation of the Catholic Church has gotten so precarious that he lets money flow back to local faith communities, through cuts in staff and supporting services. How hard the times are for them is something we’ll hear in the coming week during the start of the Kerkbalans fundraising campaign.
Or simply from the numbers: Between 1998 and 2008 the number of Churchgoing Catholics in Utrecht dropped with 41.9 percent to a meager 55,400 per week. These have to support 306 parishes: on average 181 often elderly parishioners per parish.
Eijk is the first to couple action to all concerned mutterings by turning every penny from the pockets of the faithful twice. Sadly and unavoidably that leads to job cuts. Even our national unions can’t avoid that. Eijk’s willingness to take that step shows backbone, because it is not easy and provides ammunition to his opponents.
A ‘bishop with balls’ therefore, to use the vocabulary of Peter Nissen. The image of a cold sanitiser that this creates works strongly to his disadvantage. We see another man than the likeable one in the interview after his long illness.
Playtime is over
The fact that Nissen does not welcome Eijk’s deciseveness may have to do with the fact that he became a ‘victim’ of it himself. Eijk’s opponents may shout that he can’t handle criticism, but on the other, the people are unable to deal with shepherd who truly lead. The playtime that has paralysed the Dutch Church province for the past forty years seems to be over now that there is an archbishop who firmly takes control. That is relatively new.
Nissen probably expected Eijk to concede when he pulled the university of Nijmegen out of the partnership with the Catholic universities of Utrecht and Tilburg which would lead to the Faculty of Catholic Theology. But he lost for his own university the long-desired Vatican recognition: Eijk was not fooled. Nissen is therefore not the objective oberser people take him for.
Resentful of consisten?
The same goes just as much for fellow church historian Ton van Schaik. He too has some unfinished business with Eijk. The latter, when he was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, though it unacceptable that a certain Van Schaik, who had publicly declared that Eijk was unfit to be not only a bishop, but even a priest, was a teacher at the Bovendonk seminary in which the diocese participated. He lost his position as teacher.
In Trouw Nissen calls these actions “almost stalinist practices. You may cheer for the leader and agree with his policies, or you’re out.” Disregarding the fact that the qualification ‘almost stalinist’ is a grave one for any historian, let alone a Catholic one, the reaction, no matter how ridiculous, is understandable in the Dutch context.
Our native Church is stuck in the anti-authoritarian attidude of the 1970s, when bishops barely acted out of fear for attack, as happened to Bishop Gijssen of Roermond and, later, his colleague Bomers in Haarlem, who suffered a fullblown coup.
The ultimate example is the affair around the recently deceased theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, who had received an official Vatican conviction for heretical ideas, but who was not sanctioned in any way, neither against his person nor his ‘teachings’. He was even given, with the support of several bishops, a university chair, which was then rapidly turned back by Rome.
In this context the rumoured friction between the current and previous archbishops is not unthinkable. But is that not primarily a confrontation between two cultures? One who think that you can’t take drastic measures, and the other considering lack of action unacceptable? Eijk did not just inherit a financial mess, but also an atmosphere of everyone going their own way.
It is well know that Cardinal Simonis worked towards at least one weekly Eucharist in each parish, but encountered shrugs and mockery in his own diocesan council.
Changing of the guard
It is fully understandable that newly-arrived Eijk wanted to clean up. A new policy requires new people, and that causes resistance by definition, since for certain people it will mean a loss of power. It is foolish to accuse the archbishop of ‘power politics’ en ‘power concentration’ when he used his responsibility and makes decision. As if the former deans who formed the diocesan council did not play power politics or, according to some, even had the actual power. Together they were responsible for the policy of squandering that brought the archdiocese to the edge of bankruptcy. Former economist Jacques Klok’s statements in Trouw, that the diocese pumped 1.5 million euros annually into the ‘missionairy Church’, are evidence of utter recknlessness.
‘It wasn’t me’
Klok thinks it not opportune for Eijk to constantly nag about the financial mismanagement under Cardinal Simonis, but wasn’t that first and foremost Klok’s responsibility, who was the financial genius at the head of the economic council of the Dutch dioceses for years?
Did not Klok in 2003 gather a surprised press corps to deny that the archdiocese was bankrupt? It seems that Jacques Klok is trying to clear his own conscience to the detriment of the cardinal.
What some consider not calssy, let alone sympathetic is Eijk’s mentioning of impending bankruptcy at his installation. Was that kick at the departing people or an emphasis that the required measures were not his fault? Or was to wake everyone up to the looming measures? It worked, because the dismissal of the diocesan council caused very little discussion among the fauithful. That was well thought-out.
What does not fit in the negative image of Eijk as ‘ambitious job hunter’, is the closing of his own seminary, always a bit of prestige for a bishop. Some priests replied to the violent reactions with the understatement that they ‘never knew the konvikt was that good.’ There were three equal elements in the decision: lack of funds, too hew students and a good alternative, at least second best: the Tiltenberg seminary in Haarlem.
Out of the backyard
The archbishop also yielded his much-appreciated rector, Norbert Schnell, to the Bovendonk seminary, which had gone without a rector for two years, and which also delivered priests for Utrecht. Was that an attemopt to ‘buy off’ his colleague Van den Hende, or did he really want to optimally use his few means, even outside the boundaries of his own diocese? That is highly unusual in the Netherlands.
Everyone admits that seven seminaries for the Netherlands is foolish, but the willingness to end that waste of energy, manpower and means was missing until now.
And that is how the archbishop was the first to do what many thought should have been done a long time ago: concentrate the seminaries in one or two locations. Until now no bishop wanted to be the first. That too is being courageous.
CRK chair Nelly Stienstra sees this all very differently. Cardinal Simonis was a regular visitor, just like Wim Eijk who was a ‘friend’. Those relations originated with former auxiliary bishop of Utrecht Th.G.A. Hendriksen, with whom Stienstra had a special bond and who became her housemate. That is how she became involved with the circle of orthodox priests and later bishops around Hendriksen. Those relations continued after his death in 2001 and next to cordial and fruitful contacts, resulted in open doors and influence for Ms Stienstra. That was also the case for the Ariënskonvikt: Stienstra lived across the street from one of its locations where she often came, went to Mass daily and which was a window into the heart of the archdiocese for her. Its closure abruptly ended that and the cordial contacts at the Maliebaan [location of the diocesan offices] are for now also seriously disrupted.
Complicating factor is the fact that Msgr. Hendriksen saw the konvikt as one of the two seminaries for the Netherlands. That made Stienstra’s objections against its closure intensely personal. It must have been an enormous loss for her.
The bishop lies?
In late December Eijk removed Ms Stienstra as a volunteer from his cathedral, because she had publicly declared that there were millions available for the konvikt. These statements have not been proven yet. She also accused the archbishop of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”.
She accuses the archbishop of being a despot, now that he has removed her for her criticism, after so much work on her part and despite their ‘friendship’. But wasn’t it ‘friendly’ Nelly Stienstra herself who initially publicly doubted the integrity of the archbishop and accused him in Trouw of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”?
Crisis of authority
Are Eijk’s actions truly vindictive, ‘stalinist’ or ‘despotic’? Or does the archbishop tyr to make clear that not everything should just be said? That some acts are not without consequence? He makes clear that he won’t be mocked. And that had became habit in the past forty years.
In 1984, Archbishop Simonis told young Catholics in Utrecht that there was not crisis of faith, but a crisis of authority in the Church. His succesor now tries to reassert that authority. That takes getting used to. That is necessary. Our terminally ill Church province, that saw the average percentage of regular churchgoes drop from 23.7 percent to a paltry 7.1 percent in 28 years, urgently needs a doctor. An able surgeon who saves what can be saved and removes what’s necessary and who does what is medically best. A cool person you can trust with your life. The rest is secondary for now.