“A defeat for humanity”? The wisdom of the cardinal’s words

parolinCardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has commented on the Irish referendum which resulted in a major vote in favour of same-sex marriage, and called it a “defeat for humanity”. Was that the wise thing to say?

The Irish vote was certainly a defeat for the Christian argument, if such simplistic wording can be properly used in this context. Seen from the Catholic position, the very nature of marriage is being redefined, changing its essential role in building healthy societies. It is being downgraded to a mere legal acknowledgement that two people love each other and want to be together, with no eye for their duties towards society and future generations (duties that are also increasingly being forgotten in marriages in general, it must be said). The complementarity of man and woman, which finds its ultimate expression in marriage, is deemed unimportant enough to deny it its defining place within the concept of marriage. In essence, it is being said that marriage need not have all the defining characteristics in order to be marriage.

As hinted above, same-sex marriages can have worthy elements that we also find in true marriage, such as love and responsibility, but it lacks other elements: the openness to new life as a product of the (physical and emotional) love of the spouses, and the ability for full complementary love which flows forth from their identities as man and woman (more than just a physical characteristic).

Many critics will say that many heterosexual marriages are equally closed to life and fullfilment, and they are right. Married partners have an obligation to love and take care of each other and raise their children in that same love and care, and when they refuse that, for whatever reason, marriage becomes a mockery of itself, denied to be what it is called to be.

The wisdom of the phrase “a defeat for humanity” can be debated. I am not too keen on getting overly dramatic about every setback, but as humanity consists of men and women who are called to find fullfillment in each other and so contribute to humanity as a whole (marriage, after all, is not only for the spouses), I can understand the sentiment expressed by the cardinal.

Is it wise, then, to use these words in the public debate? I don’t think so. While Cardinal Parolin can’t be faulted for being clear, his words are so easily distorted, misunderstood, taken out of context and presented as nothing but a blunt attack. Cardinal Parolin is right in disagreeing with the vote, but I have already seen his words being used to contrast the cardinal with Pope Francis, who has also been quoted and understood out of context on this subject more than once. The cardinal also stated that the result of the referendum must be an invitation for the Church to do more in the field of evangelisation, and that is certainly necessary. In order for the Church to be understood, she must make herself understood. Headlines have their use, but not when they don’t invite to further reading. Any discussion about marriage must either presume knowledge about Catholic doctrine, or explain it.

In this debate, I think that one element is being forgotten: holding on to the traditional definition of marriage is not in any way an invitation to discriminate. When it comes to equal rights in work, income, finances, housing and other opporunities, sexual orientation can be no reason to deny people anything. Even when two people of the same sex decide to share their lives, we should support their equality. We may not agree with it, but it’s  really not our place to refuse basic social rights and opportunities. But society as a whole, as well as children, also have their rights and opportunties. Marriage, however, is more than rights and opportunities. It is the God-given way in which men and women find each other and themselves and in which children receive the home and basis they need to be raised in.

In the end, any debate on topics like this must be based on reason, as it has strong emotional connotations for many. We must acknowledge and understand the emotion, but also know that emotion alone won’t lead to an understanding, a solution or willingness to learn and grow.

Road signs – how changing the teaching of the Church leads us nowhere

In Germany the Central Committee of German Catholics, the ZdK, has been calling for pastoral and doctrinal changes to the Catholic understanding of marriage and family. Earlier this week, it seemed as if the Conference of Dutch Religious, the KNR, was following suit.

Towards the end of April, the KNR, through its commission for women, was involved in the organisation of a symposium on relationships and family, with a special focus on divorce, homosexuality and migration, in the light of the Synod of Bishops’ assemblies about the same topic. The symposium’s closing statement, which appeared on the KNR website on the 20th of May, summarises the conclusions and outlines what the participants – some 70 priests, religious and laity in all – think the bishops should decide and promote at the upcoming general assembly. Some of their points, such as simplifying the process of nullification of marriages or increasing pastoral sensitivity towards the divorced – are already being investigated and developed in the Church. Others are rather problematic and clash with the Catholic understanding of marriage and family, and thus ultimately with the sacrament of marriage and the order of Creation as has been given to us by God.

The symposium suggest the following in addition to the non-problematic points I already mentioned. I have added my comments in [red].

  • More respect for the decisions and the conscience of remarried faithful. [There is  a difference between respecting decisions and conscience and allowing things. One can respect a decision and still point out the consequences. The reverse is also true: the person making a decision must be aware and respect the consequences of it. Of course, no one should be forcing anyone towards or away from a decision, but the Church does have a duty of honesty towards people. In the end, we are free people, free to make informed choices, but that is not the be-all and end-all.]
  • Finding a new word for “annulment” as many people do not want to deny the relationship that existed. [To me this sounds like a superficial nicety. Sure “annulment” is a legalistic term that does not sound nice, but the end of a marriage is not nice. It should be remembered that an annulment does not mark the end of a marriage, but the conclusion that there never was a sacramental marriage to begin with. Nothing is ended, since there was nothing to begin with. Is that denial of a relationship? Of course not. Everyone, and the couple involved certainly, will see that there most certainly was a relationship. We should not need to change words to realise that.]
  • Reconsidering doctrine and practice regarding divorce, using the Orthodox Churches as an example. [This is problematic in a way that I know little about, but Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, explains in Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church that there is no single Orthodox understanding or praxis regarding these issues, in addition to other problems. Taking the Orthodox example may not be as straightforward or desirable as it seems.]
  • Marking the end of a marriage with some sort of ritual [This is vague enough to be hard to disagree with. What sort of ritual? Is it one of celebration or mourning? A ritual for people or for God? Is there even something to mark the ending of?]

Regarding homosexuality, the closing statement lists three points:

  • Considering the relationships of people of the same sex, who love each other and take care of each other, as equal to heterosexual relationships and respecting them as such. [This is a difficult one. A distinction must be made between people and relationships. People are always equal, with the same human diginity that God has given all of us. And this should be the basis of how we interact with each other. Relationships, a vague enough term to encompass everything from being neighbours, colleagues at work, up to and including marriage, are not equal. There may be similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, but there are also differences. When we start to consider them as fully equal we disregard the differences, which are not inconsequential. Sure, we can respect the love and responsibility in all relationships (these are inherently good things), but at the same time we acknowledge a fullness that we are called to strive for as far as we can. When we say that all relationships are the same, we deny this, and thus deny God].
  • Re-assessing the anthropology of the Church on the basis of modern insights from psychology, biology and philosophy. [While the Church must always be open to what we learn of the world and humanity through science, this must never be a reason to close the door to revelation. God has taught us about ourselves, and continues to do so through Scripture, Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church. The Church must remain careful to not be swept away with the winds of time. The teaching, including that about sexuality, marriage and family, can not be subject to the whims of the times. Besides, discovering new facts about human nature and sexuality is not in itself reason to change doctrine and practice, but an invitation to work out how both are compatible and can be understood through each other. The Church does not teach primarily because she discovers things (although she does that too), but because she has been given a teaching.]
  • If so desired to bless unions other than the classical marriage between man and woman. [There are two things to consider here. First, there is the blessing itself: in order to bless something, the Church must be in favour of it, and consider it something that must benefit from the blessing in order to flourish. Same-sex relationships (or, if we keep to the language of the statement, any relationship one can think of – even including between adult and minors, people and their pets, with multiple spouses and so on) do not in themselves meet these criteria, regardless of the good they can manifest, such as love and care. Secondly, the Church blesses publicly, not in secret. Assuming a way was found to bless the love and care in a relationship, but not the relationship itself, the Church must take care to show that this is what it is doing. Today, there is a high risk that any such blessing is seen as a sacramental marriage, something which the Church cannot support].

This will sound like a whole bunch of negatives, and that is in itself problematic too. The message of the Church is not a negative one, but it is different to what comes to us in society. The whole of love, family, sexuality and everything connected to it, the Church teaches, is more than just the desires of individual people. That is what it begins with, of course, but it can become so much more. That is what God has called us to from the very beginning, and that is what the Church continues to uphold.

It is exceedingly important for the Church to look at how she presents this, which is why, I believe, Pope Francis called the Synod to begin with: not to change doctrine, but to revitalise the pastoral work of the Church in this field. In order to so, the Church must be honest and open, truthful and welcoming, even when her conversational partners are not. She must speak, but also listen, for the feelings, desires and questions of people are very real, and they deserve acknowledgement and answers.

By changing teachings, the Church shows she does not take herself seriously. So why should anyone else? Listening and acknowledging is not automatically the same as accepting, although society would often have us believe it is. Not agreeing is the same as disrespecting or opposing, we so often hear or read, sometimes bluntly, sometimes between the lines. Instead, we should always look to Jesus, who did not agree with the Pharisees, tax collectors and other sinners, but who nevertheless sat down and ate with them and listened to their stories. He took them seriously enough to listen and then correct them when necessary. And we know that that approach worked, far better than bluntly pointing fingers and calling someone a sinner.

We are people called to great things, to fully become ourselves in love. None of us is perfect, and we all have our particular challenges on the road towards the fullness in God. We are not called to sit down and give up, or to walk past those who have sat down (or worse, encourage them to sit down and give up), but to continue, to help those who struggle and can’t see where to go anymore. And to do that, we need clear signs along the road, not arrows towards side roads that lead nowhere.

Fourteenth Station – Jesus is placed in the Tomb

“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea… asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:38-40)

station14The thoughts of two followers of Jesus:

The bodies of those condemned to crucifixion were judged unworthy even of burial. Yet two men of standing, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, were concerned to protect the body of Jesus.

“How fortunate for you and me” – Joseph tells us – “that we became disciples of Jesus! Before I was a secret disciple. But now I have found great courage. I even approached Pilate to obtain Jesus’ body. More than out of courage, I did it out of affection and joy. I am happy to have provided a new tomb hewn in the rock. To all of you I say: Love our Saviour!”

Nicodemus could well add: “I first met Jesus by night. From him I was invited to be born from above”. Only slowly did I come to understand his words. Now I am here to honour his body. I readily brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes. But in fact Jesus did much more for me: he brought new fragrance to my life!”.

The thoughts of Mary:

“John stood close to me. Beneath the cross my faith was sorely tried. As in Bethlehem and then in Nazareth, now once more I ponder these things in silence. I have put my trust in God. My hope, the hope of a mother, is not spent. You too need to trust! For all of you I implore the grace of a strong faith. And for those experiencing dark days, consolation”.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus, sometimes we can do only do what seems to us to be too little, too late. Your followers left You in Your tie of agony, but they returned to do what they could to honour You with a proper burial.May we see that, no matter how small it seems to us, our efforts to help others have value and are worth doing. May we also do those things with hope in our hearts, looking forward to Your return.

Twelfth Station – Jesus dies on the Cross

station12Jesus’ words on the Cross:

Jesus cried with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Then, turning to his Mother, he said, “Woman, here is your son!”, and to the disciple John, “Here is your mother”. He said, “I am thirsty”. He said, “It is finished”. And finally, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus, no words can express our prayer at this time, except the words of children. Be with us. Accept us as your children. Quench our thirst. Accept our spirit when we come to you.

Remembering Baptism – Archbishop Schick’s Letter for Lent

schickIt’s time again for bishops writing their faithful on the occasion of the season of Lent. I will share a selection of these letters here over the coming weeks. First of is Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, who writes about Lent as the season of preparation for Baptism, or, as in the case of many faithful, a remembrance of our Baptism.

“Oh Blessedness of being baptised”

Dear sisters and brothers!

In the liturgical year, Lent is the time in which the “joy of the Gospel” is to be renewed. We are invited to engage deeper into the imitation of Jesus. We will experience anew: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

The year 2015 will be celebrated as a “Year of Orders”. Pope Francis has set it is a “Year of the Vocation to Religious Life”. Additionally, in the Archdiocese of Bamberg we celebrate 1,000 years of religious life among us since the establishment of the Benedictine monastery on the Michaelsberg in the year 1015. In this year we will get to know above all the orders and other religious communities better, consider religious life, express our appreciation for the religious Christians and pray for and promote vocations for them.

But this can only be meaningful and successful when we strengthen the meaning and feeling of the vocation and consecration of all Christians. Not just the religious and the priests, but all Christians are called by Jesus Christ and consecrated by the Baptism of God. In the second reading from the First Letter of Peter we have heard: “It is the baptism corresponding to this water which saves you now — not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has entered heaven and is at God’s right hand, with angels, ruling forces and powers subject to him” (1 Pet. 3:21-22).

I have been baptised and consecrated to God

All Christians are consecrated to God through Jesus Christ, who in Baptism gave us a clear conscience and has inextricably linked us to Himself; in HIM, the Risen One, we have “life in full”, here in faith, hope and love, there in unending joy with all who are saved. All baptised are also called to cooperate in building the Kingdom of God, “the saving justice, the peace and the joy” (cf. Rom. 14:17). Pope Francis expressed this as follows: “This offering of self to God regards every Christian, because we are all consecrated to him in Baptism. We are all called to offer ourselves to the Father with Jesus and like Jesus, making a generous gift of our life, in the family, at work, in service to the Church, in works of mercy.”

Ik would ask you to think about your calling to Baptism and the consecration to God through Baptism in the time of Lent that lies before us.

Above all, Lent, the time of penance before Easter is in the Church dedicated to immediate preparation of the catechumens, who will receive the sacrament of Baptism at Easter. With the catechumens, those who have already been baptised will experience anew the gratitude and joy of their Baptism. In the Easter night, then, all baptised are called to solemnly renew their baptismal promises, a burning candle in their hand. Before all individual callings in the Church, who all have in common “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, over all, through all and within all” (cf. Eph. 4:5-6).

Baptism as a gift and a task

We are Christians since Jesus Christ has given us his irrevocable yes. It was His initiative – not of our making – to call us into his “wonderful communion”. In Baptism we say our yes to this calling and are consecrated to God.

Almost all of us were baptised as small children. Our parents and godparents spoke the yes of our Baptism on our behalf. This has been common in the Church, the family of Jesus Christ, since the beginning. Like the parents give their children everything what is important to themselves and what they consider valuable for life from the start, they also let their children receive the divine gift of Baptism immediately after birth. Over the course of life every Christian, independently and on their own responsibility, will then discover their calling to Christian life ever deeper and confirm his consecration to God. Our being Christians is never complete. Ever deeper we will “grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth” of God’s love for us (cf. Eph. 3:18-19). We will express this love ever more in our daily life through active love of God and neighbour. That is what are invited to do in every Lent.

Considering the baptismal promises

Dear sisters and brothers!

Baptism effects our belonging to Jesus Christ, our following and becoming similar to Him. At the beginning of Lent 2015 I would cordially invite you to think about your calling of Baptism and your consecration to God through Baptism. Suggestions for “remembering Baptism” can be found in our Gotteslob, n. 576. In the coming weeks, read the baptismal promises. Speak about your Baptism in your family and among your friends, in the parish council, youth group, society and seniors’ club. Ask yourself what it means for you to be called by and baptised in Jesus Christ. Read – or even better sing – the hymns in Gotteslob: “Ich bin getauft und Gott geweiht” (GL 491) or: „Fest soll mein Taufbund immer stehen” (GL 870). Think about what it means to answer the question “Do you believe?” every time with “I believe” and “Do you renounce?” with “I renounce”! A good confession should be a part of Lent: it can encourage the joy of being a Christian. The sacrament of Penance is called a “second Baptism” by theologians. It renews the grace of Baptism as it frees one from sin and makes a new start in one’s Christian life; put differently: the sacrament of Penance renews the vocation of following Christ and the consecration to God.

We Christians need more self-awareness, which makes us humble and modest, like true Christians. We find this self-awareness in the living encounter with Jesus Christ, who, through Baptism, “called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”. This allows us to work zealously and firmly for the propagation of faith and to cooperate in the building of the Kingdom of God. Thus prepared, we can join joyfully in the celebration of Easter and renew our baptismal promises.

Baptism – Life in the Church

Baptism is always a calling to the Church, to a life in the mystical Body of Christ and to walking with the people of God towards Heaven. We can also better serve one another in the community of Christians with the gifts that each has received, and which also have an effect on the community. For that we regularly need spiritual support; the most important of which is the Sunday Eucharist. When attended the Eucharist is not possible, we should come together in a celebration of the Word of God or a prayer service, in which we hear God’s Word, pray and sing together. In our pastoral plan “Den Aufbruch wafen – heute!” from 2005 everything relevant for the celebration of the Eucharist is outlined on the pages 52 to 54. The daily morning, evening and table prayers are connected to the Eucharist. These should all be a matter of course for us. It is also important that we show ourselves publicly, in word and action, as Christians. That strengthens us and helps maintaining Christian standards and values in our society. The spirit of Jesus Christ is  indispensable for a good future and a good working relationship between us and the world.

 Blessed Lent

Dear brothers and sisters!

I wish you a blessed lent in the “Year of Orders” and in the “Year of the Vocation to Religious Life”. May the time of penance before Lent help us increase the joy of our Baptism, the joy of the community with Jesus Christ and the Gospel, the joy of the Church and the cooperation in the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis writes to us: “During the season of Lent, the Church issues two important invitations: to have a greater awareness of the redemptive work of Christ; and to live out one’s Baptism with deeper commitment.” Let us accept this double invitation.

May the good God therefore bless you, the + Father and the + Son and the + Holy Spirit.

Your Archbishop,

Dr. Ludwig Schick

Going green – Christians and the environment

VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE-CANONISATIONBefore summer we may expect Pope Francis’ second encyclical, and its topic will be the environment. For some reason the prospect of a green encyclical has a some Catholics all riled up. Apparently, it is not something the Church should be overly concerned with.

I do notice that this subject is quite politicised, especially in the United States, which is where most of the criticism comes from. It is a left-wing or liberal pet subject, it’s true, and that side of the political spectrum quite often clashes with Catholic faith, to be fair.

But concern for the environment is, in fact, quite Christian. Pope Francis touched upon the subject in his homily this morning, when he said:

It is our response to the ‘first creation’ of God. It is our responsibility! A Christian that does not care for creation, that does not make it grow, is a Christian who doesn’t care about the work of God; that work born from the love of God for us. And this is the first answer to the first creation: to care for Creation, to make it grow.”

The creation story in Genesis, which prompted the Holy Father to make these comments, is the clearest indication of our relation to the world we live in. Not as independent agents, even parasites, whose only effect on the natural world is destruction, as some would have it, but as integral parts of it with a clear duty.

God created us and the world we live in. These are not separate things. Humanity has a role to play in the world: we are to be stewards of it. A good steward is not afraid to use the world around him, but does so with responsibility, in the knowledge that, like him, his world is also a creation of God. He is not the master of it, but he has been given a duty, as we my deduce from Genesis chapter 1, verses 28 and 29:

“God blessed them, saying to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth.”

God also said, ‘Look, to you I give all the seed-bearing plants everywhere on the surface of the earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this will be your food.””

There is no debate about man’s use of the world around him. Considering the human influence parasitic and undesirable  is therefore incompatible with Christian teaching. But looking at the larger context of creation as being a product of God given to man for his benefit, we must develop a responsibility. God’s creation is not ours to destroy or give back. It is for us to use and maintain.

In that context environmentalism is a thoroughly Christian concern, and it is no stranger a topic for an encyclical than, say, faith, charity, hope or love.

Paul and Francis – a selective reading of two Popes

Paul-VIIn this month’s edition of our diocesan magazine I came across an odd statement: Pope Francis has freed the Church from the strict doctrines regarding human sexuality and procreation as laid down by Pope Paul VI (pictured) in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The same Pope Francis who has beatified Paul VI and repeatedly called him a courageous prophet, exactly for Humanae Vitae

Where do these claims come from? It isn’t the first time I’ve come across similar statements. Pope Francis is undoubtedly a people’s person, even more so than Saint John Paul II was, I suspect. But Pope Francis is also Catholic, and is unafraid of underlining even the unpopular teachings: he is staunchly opposed to abortion and euthanasia, continuously speaks of the dangers of sin and the devil, and, like I said above, is fully in line with the teachings of Blessed Pope Paul VI.

It is risky business to isolate Popes from one another. Humanae Vitae does not show us the full person of Paul VI, and today’s General Audiences don’t tell us everything about Francis. Both those parts of their teaching and person are important, but if we do not look any further, we run the risk of making such faulty and misleading statements as the one that opened this blog post.

In the case of Pope Francis, let his open personality be an invitiation to find out more about him and thus about the faith. His appreciation for Paul VI should likewise be reason to read Humanae Vitae anew. The papacy is no popularity contest, and nor does it revolve around superficial niceties. It is a teaching office, and sometimes that teaching reaches across the years, decades and centuries. And sometimes it is expanded or we look at it from a new perspective. In the case of Paul VI and Humanae Vitae, it is more than policy, more than old-fashioned opinions that need correcting. On the contrary, as Pope Francis has said, it is prophetic.