Bishop Bonny looks ahead to the Synod – an ongoing analysis

johan-bonnyBishop Johan Bonny has been making headlines in Catholic media, first in Germany but today also in his native Belgium. In an extensive note the bishop of Antwerp outlines his thoughts and expectations for this autumn’s Synod of Bishops. Various media have presented this as an attack on Popes Paul VI and St. John Paul II and their documents on difficult subjects related to marriage, family and morality. But reality is somewhat different. Bishop Bonny does not exclusively discuss the contents of various magisterial pronouncements, but does offer strong criticism on how they came about, and how they are put it into practice.

In this post, I will summarise the text and offer my opinion here and there. As it is a fairly long text, this post is a work in progress. Expect updates over the coming days.

In the first part of his document, the bishops explains that he sees the development of an ecclesiastical question within the discussion about marriage and family, which he traces back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on  contraception and sexuality, Humanae vitae. The way in which the Pope developed this text, apparently ignoring the advice of experts he had appointed himself, stands in stark contrast with how the Second Vatican Council went about matters: in strong collegiality which led to a virtually unanimous passing of documents.

This lack of collegiality in such an important matter has led, so the bishop explains, to a gap between the Church’s moral teaching and the moral understanding of the faithful. And we do see this happening: statements, decrees, encyclicals and the like do not play much of a role in the lives of the faithful, even though they can be important for properly living as Catholic faithful. Of course, a perceived lack of collegiality can not be the only explanation for this, as Bishop Bonny admits. I would even go so far as wondering if many faithful are even aware of how documents are developed, at least not in our time.

Among bishops, Curia and Pope, more collegiality can have positive results (and also negative), since we should not be afraid of talking about such important matters. But the Church is no democracy. The very nature of the papacy, of the body of apostles and disciples that Christ established, is at odds with that. The Pope has magisterial primacy, and he must be free to exercise it. But of course it is good to do everything to avoid needless division and even opposition, although that can probably never be rooted out completely.

In Cologne, a modest home for the cardinal

woelkiWhen it comes to bishops, the foremost issue in the minds of many in Germany is that of finances. That’s certainly so for Cardinal Rainer Woelki as he prepares to move from Berlin to Cologne. In what has been presented as his farewell interview in Berlin, the cardinal was asked about his new living arrangements. Exchanging a rented house for an episcopal palace, he said:

“The Bishop’s House in Cologne is a giant box from the 1950s. It was built for an archbishop who lives there with a court, with religious sisters and a secretary. For me the house is far too big. To have to live there is no reason for pleasure. I have had a wall built where in the past the religious sisters used to live, in order to create a somewhat separate living space. That way another apartment is created on the other side.”

You can house a refugee family there.

“That has been suggested. I will consider these and other ideas with my staff in Cologne this autumn.”

While refurbishing and restoration work has been ongoing, reporters were invited to come and take a look at Cardinal Woelki’s living arrangements in the building which also houses several  offices of the archdiocese. In the Aachener Zeitung we find a lighthearted report, which starts with considering the cardinal’s bathtub: “The bathtub, always the bathtub. It is white, a bit creme-coloured, quite a small bathtub. [The cardinal] himself is quite tall, but this is the one he wanted,” said Achim Schmitz, head of the construction office.

seminary cologne^The central square of the seminary of the Archdiocese of Cologne. Cardinal Woelki will live in an apartment behind these buildings.

The name of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose allegedly luxury bathroom was part of the problems that led to his leaving the Diocese of Limburg for a rented home in Regensburg, surrounds these considerations. So when it became clear that Cardinal Woelki will have a swimming pool in his basement, expectations of unwarranted luxury appeared. But reality is far more sober. The pool was built in the 1950s for the adjacent seminary and today it is being used for swimming classes by local schools, and to teach a group of Muslim women how to swim.

Still, the renovation is not cheap at 1.45 million euros (1.9 million dollars). But financial director Hermann-Josef Schon is quick to explain that these costs cover long-overdue work as the building has not seen any renovation in 25 years and it covers such necessary things as heating, electricity and water.

So while Cologne is known to be one of Germany’s richest dioceses, little beyond the necessary will go to the daily needs of its new archbishop. Cardinal Woelki is pleased to have what he needs and little more. He will run his own household, without a secretary, housekeeper and only a modest bathtub.

Photo credit: [1] dpa, [2] wdr