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.