Popes opposed? Some thoughts about the negative reactions to Benedict XVI’s essay

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay on what he perceives to be the causes for the sexual abuse crisis in the Church (and beyond) is causing much discussion on social media, which can be divided in two debates: the first on the content, and the second on the author.

I want to share some thoughts on that second debate. There are those who believe that a pope emeritus should never be heard from. And should he be heard from, that means he is undermining the policies and pastoral activity of the current pope. That is an untenable position in the case of Benedict XVI’s essay, as he is not proposing any policies or criticising anything that Pope Francis has said or done. Benedict writes that he informed both Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin about the essay before publishing it in a minor periodical for Bavarian clergy. All involved, however, must have known that the essay, coming from the retired pope, would not remained limited to the audience of that publication for long. It is a safe assumption, therefore, that both the pope emeritus and the current pope are at peace with the essay being read across the world.

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To claim that this text is an attack or criticism on Pope Francis is symptomatic of the politicising happening in the Catholic Church. Everything, it seems, has to be seen as either right- or left-wing, with the pope emeritus being taken as a spokesman for the right and Pope Francis as one for the left, This is not only a simplification, but also seriously harmful. If we take successive popes as being automatically contrary to each other, the conclaves and the papacies of each vicar of Christ become nothing but political spectacles. The papacy has its political elements, sure, but it is in the first place a pastoral ministry, if at a global scale. And that ministry has its continuity, although the person exercising it periodically changes. What Pope Benedict XVI said and did is not by definition contrary to what Pope Francis says or does, even if both men, having different personalities, focus on different elements and express themselves differently. The continuity remains, and that is why it is also entirely irresponsible to see what one pope says and does in isolation from what his predecessors did and said (and from the deposit of the faith in which they stand and act). If that happens, you get radically different (mis)interpretations, the likes of which we have seen on an increasing scale in recent years.

The knee-jerk reactions I see in the wake of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay reveal that there is a strong tendency among many to place him in automatic opposition to Pope Francis, and whatever they see the latter standing for. This is not only unjust, but also dishonest.

Photo credit: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

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German bishops speak out in favour of celibacy

Despite assurances to the contrary, the German episcopate as a body continues to be seen by many as plotting a course independent of Rome when it comes to questions about the sacraments, the priesthood and synodality. That said, several bishops have recently spoken out in defence of one topic which, certain circles claim, should be abolished if the Church is to change for the better: mandatory celibacy for priests.

HOP_9503.jpg_1287107163The main contribution, certainly in word count, comes from Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary bishop of Cologne, who wrote an article about the topic for the Tagespost (subsequently also published on Domradio), with a focus on the issue in the context of the abuse crisis. Identifying the call to abolish celibacy as conservative because it is, by now, a somewhat old-fashioned position, the bishop asks, “Why is my celibate way of life always criticised so strongly by people who don’t have to live it at all? Didnt I make that choice, not you?” He adds that no one forced him to choose to live celibate. Bishop Schwaderlapp explains the value of celibacy for a priest:

“It is not just a fitting oneself into the order of the Church. Celibacy is not limited to a – sometimes painful – denunciation of an exclusive two-way relationship of one’s own in order to have time and space for the many. And as such it is more than “just” the adoption of Jesus’ lifestyle – it is after all Him whom the priest is to make tangible in his life. Celibacy means a self-giving to Christ. with body and soul. And with and through Christ it means a self-giving to the people. It is about making the open heart of Jesus tangible through the celibate way of living. Being a priest is a matter of the heart, otherwise it becomes a caricature.”

The bishop likens this act of self-giving, which includes the priest sexuality, to what a husband and wife do in marriage. Rather than giving themselves to each other, with body, soul and sexuality, a priest gives himself to God.

Not blind to the challenges facing the Church and society, Bishop Schwarderlapp nonetheless concludes that allowing priests to marry is not an answer.

“This charism makes the purpose and mission of the priest “physical”: to make Jesus Christ visible, audible and tangible in this world. Incidentally, celibacy is always outdated because it refers, across time, to the one who was, who is and who will come. It is fatal if this charism is put up for discussion, and when we bishops take part in it. There are no new factual arguments against celibacy. [Abolition]  would not serve as a remedy to abuse, nor as an impetus to the – much needed – inner renewal of the Church. There has never been renewal by less, but always only through more devotion.”

helmut_dieser_40840234Bishop Helmut Dieser of Aachen expresses himself in similar words. He too emphasises that celibacy is not something negative, nor something that is forced upon a priest. It is, he states, “a Biblical way of life in imitation of Jesus, a charism”. However, he also says, should a situation exist when there are no men choosing celibacy, the Church should keep “suitable married men” in mind. This openness to the practical situation, which at this time does not exist in Germany, is echoed by Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. His position in an interview, which he shared on his website, caused some confusion as it appeared as if he was in favour of loosening the celibacy rules. “I am not, even when I consider it possible,” he tersely explains. Bishop Oster also explains that there is room to discuss the question of celibacy: “The question is not dogmatic. Unlike with sexual morality there is more leeway, and the pope has already encouraged the search for new ways in this regard.”

About celibacy itself, the bishop says:

oster1130“Celibacy is the way of life of Jesus and as such a great spiritual treasure, which is worth fighting for. But I do not rule out the possibility (of a loosening of the celibacy rules). When the majority of priests say that it is no longer possible to live celibately in this time and society, then it becomes difficult. On the other hand I do not want the priest who is already struggling with his way of life, but who has made an oath, now reading, “the bishop also says that it is difficult, so I’ll also give it up.” I do not want to demotivate, I want to say: the struggle is worth it.”

The new bishop of Fulda, Michael Gerber, who will be installed today, has also said that he is opposed to abolishing mandatory celibacy, and prefers to focus instead of assuring that priests remain part of a ‘network’, thus preventing any of them from falling prey to loneliness.

Other bishops, such as Peter Kolhgraf of Mainz and Georg Bätzing of Limburg, have expressed their support for voluntary celibacy, showing that, if anything, the German episcopate is no monolith.

Photo credits: [1] Erzbistum Köln, [2] Elisabeth Schomaker/KNA, [3] Bischöfliche Pressestelle Passau

The synodal path – German bishops to put global truth to popular vote?

dbk logoIn their spring assembly, which this year took place in the Emsland town of Lingen, in the Diocese of Osnabrück, the German bishops discussed, among other things, several hot topics. First and foremost the abuse crisis, of course, on which they heard from various experts and were told that the Church is losing (or even already has lost) all her credibility as a result of the sexual abuse committed by clergy and the subsequent coverup by bishops and superiors.

In order to perhaps recover some of the credibility, and find a permanent solution to the scourge of abuse, which the bishops see as an expression of abuse of power, they opt to go the synodal path. The buzzword which has been the go-to solution for a lot of things in recent years is perhaps hard to define, but if anything, it amounts to less power for bishops and more listening and taking advise from lay faithful and experts outside the Church. There is of course a risk that any expression of episcopal authority comes to be seen as undesirable, thus pretty much negating the power and fucntion of bishops, but this is another story.

marx-XIn the post-meeting press conference (text here), Cardinal Reihard Marx (at right) discusses this synodal path and explains that the bishops have decided to employ it also on the topics of power abuse, priestly celibacy and the Church’s sexual morality. Does this mean, as some have commented, that the German bishops will put these topics to a popular vote? For the first, the abuse of power by clergy, this may be a good path, but I have my doubts if a singular bishops’ conference can and should take the teachings of the Church, which is not limited to Germany, and single-handedly change them if the people demand it.

Below is my translation of the relevant passage from the press conference:

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“The Church needs a synodal development. Pope Francis encourages us to do so. And we do not begin from zero. The Würzburg Synod (1972-1975)  and also the processes of recent years have prepared the ground, also for the many challenges of today. We have decided in unison to go a synodal path as Church in Germany, which enables a structural debate and takes place in a scheduled timeframe, and in fact together with the Central Committee of German Catholics. We will create formats for open debate and committ ourselves to processes which allow for a responsible participation of women and men from our dioceses. We want to be a listening Church. We need the advise from people outside the Church.

I will therefore list three points which played a part in the study day and upon which we will focus:

  • We are aware of the cases of clerical abuse of power. It is a betrayal of the trust of people seeking for support and religious orientation. What has to be done to achieve the required development of power and create a fairer and legally binding order, will become clear on the synodal path. The development of administrative tribunals is a part of this.
  • We are aware that the way of life of bishops and priests requires change to show the inner freedom of of the faith and the orientation on the example of Jesus Christ. We consider celibacy to be an expression of religious unity with God. We wish to work out the extent to which it should be a part of the witness of priests in our Church.
  • The Church’s sexual morality has not yet accepted several findings from theology and humanities. The personal meaning of sexuality has not been given sufficient attention. The result: the proclamation of morality offers no direction to the majority of the baptised. We see how often we are unable to respond to questions about modern sexual behaviour.”

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The bishops plan to have a plan for this synodal path ready by September, when it will be discussed in a meeting of bishops, members of the Central Committee of German Catholics and others.

In the mean time, I wonder if this is not taking the same course as the Communion for remarried Catholics debate? That was also taken to Rome by some bishops who understood that a single group of bishops can not pretend to speak for the entire world Church. The question of priestly celibacy and sexual morality can certainly be discussed, even by a single bishops’ conference, but they can not take unilateral action contrary to what the Church as a whole teaches. These changes, if they must be made, must be made at the top.

I am leaving the bishops’ first point, about combating abuse of power, out of this, as that is something they can act on by themselves.

The Pell Case – how question about a trial unite Catholics

It is quite remarkable. In a time when we are all learning to take up a zero-tolerance position against sexual abuse within our ranks (and, subsequently, outside our ranks as well), Catholics of all stripes are coming together in their opinions on one particular case. But on the side of the alleged abuser.

cardinalAustralian Cardinal George Pell, former archbishop of Sydney and, it turned out yesterday, retired Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy as well (his mandate, which ended this month, was quietly allowed to end), has been convicted of the sexual abuse of two boys in late 1996. But, while official statements from the Australian bishops and the Vatican underline their respect for the legal establishment and their hope that the victims find some form of consolation and peace, manny commentators have expressed their doubts. Looking at the evidence available to the public (which, it has to be said, is not a complete picture as not all evidence and statements have been released by the court) many wonder if the events for which Cardinal Pell has been convicted could really have happened.

Father Frank Brennan, who attended part of the court proceedings, has an excellent article about his questions on the case. In short, he wonders not just how the alleged abuse could have taken place when and where they did, but also why some of the very convincing arguments regarding location and the liturgical vestments said to have been worn by Cardinal Pell when he is said to have abused the two boys, were not taken into consideration. A least, they seemed not to have been.

Again, we do not known everything about the court proceedings. But what we do know has been enough reasons for Catholics on both sides of the spectrum – both those who think an orthodox cardinal like Pell can do no wrong, and those who automatically suspect him for being conservative – to wonder at the truth behind the conviction. The facts as we know them remain very hard to reconcile with the details of the allegations.

It is important to ask in how far a recollection of 20-year-old events by people who were teenagers at the time can ever be wholly accurate, and the jury must have taken this into account, reaching a verdict based on facts as well as the victims’ situation. In the end, a verdict must take their emotional involvement and the passage of time into account as well.

In the meantime, Cardinal Pell has been barred from exercising any form of ministry by the archbishop of Melbourne, where the trial took place – a standard precautionary measure – and remains in custody awaiting his sentencing, currently scheduled for 13 March. The cardinal’s legal team is appealing the verdict.

Photo credit: AAP Image/Erik Anderson via Reuters

After four days, a successful summit?

As Pope Francis delivered his closing remarks of the abuse summit, which took place last week in Rome, what should have been a game-changing event came uncomfortably close to a failure. While it was perhaps optimistic to expect concrete measures within hours after the summit’s close, the papal speech should have been much more than a generic overview of abuse across society and (again) a statement that it should not be tolerated in the Church. We know this (and those who don’t have no business holding any position of authority in the Church). Although the insistence on appropriate steps is to be welcomed, the responses, especially those of victims, were understandably angry and disappointed. But the words of Pope Francis will not be all that comes from the summit.

A press conference revealed that we can expect a follow-up meeting (which took place on Monday with the heads of Curia departments and the pope), a Motu Proprio on the topic, a ‘rule book’ for bishops and religious superiors to outline the laws and procedures, and last but not least, the conduct we must expect from them in cases of sexual abuse, as well as task forces available to assist dioceses and bishops’ conferences in fighting abuse. But, the real work must take place across the world, in dioceses, parishes, and religious orders and movements, down to every single Catholic everywhere. There is no way that this can be the final word. The work continues.

But, as this step has been taken, we can ask, has it been a good step? What has the summit given to the 190 participants, that they can take with them and use to make the Catholic Church a safe environment for everyone?

During the three-day meeting, nine presentations were given by various clergy and laity. These, together with the opening and closing remarks by Pope Francis, are the most substantial elements of the summit that were shared with the wider public (in a welcome change from recent Synod practices, the presentations were streamed live and the texts published soon after the presentations were held). In order, these presentations were:

  1. Smell of the sheep. Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd’s task“, by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.
  2. Church as field hospital. Taking responsibility“, by Archbishop Charles Scicluna.
  3. The Church in a moment of crisis – Facing conflicts and tensions and acting decisively“, by Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez.
  4. Collegiality: sent together“, by Cardinal Oswald Gracias.
  5. Synodality: jointly responsible“, by Cardinal Blase Cupich.
  6. Communio: to work together“, by Dr. Linda Ghisoni.
  7. Openess: sent out into the world“, by Sister Veronica Openibo.
  8. Transparency in a community of believers“, by Cardinal Reinhard Marx.
  9. Communication: to all people“, by Dr. Valentina Alazraki

Together, these presentations served as reminders of the correct conduct towards victims, the regulations that are in place or which should be created, but also the consequences that follow when the Church and her members stick their heads in the sand and look out for themselves and their reputation before the wellbeing and rights of the victims. Dr. Alazraki, speaking as a reporter, did not mince words when she said that the media wants to stand next to the Church in her efforts to uncover the truth, but if she tries to hide that truth, the media will be the Church’s greatest enemy.

The only claim to success that this summit has is the future. If the words spoken over the past days remain just that, nothing will change. They must lead to action. Abuse, sexual or otherwise, has no place in society, and least of all in the Church. The only response to abuse can be to stand with the victims and the truth.

 

As the summit opens, Bishop van den Hende on what the Dutch experience brings

One of the first things that Pope Francis asked of the bishops he has called to Rome to take part in the meeting on the protection of minors in the Church, which opens today, was that they meet with victims. This is something that victims themselves had also generally demanded, as a part of the recognition of their suffering: that the Church see them, hear them, understand what they had gone through. In the Netherlands, the Dutch bishops have made efforts to do so since the crisis broke here some nine years ago.

20160412_Utrecht_MgrVanDenHende_©RamonMangold-e1478072701381-280x267Bishop Hans van den Hende, chairman of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and as such a participant in the meeting, decribes the context of his meetings with victims as follows:

“Several times I have met and spoken with victims of sexual abuse. Sometimes they were people who did not want a procedure, but who did want to tell their story. Most often the meetings were a part of the sessions of the complaints commissions of the reporting authority. Also in the framework of the socalled contact group, there has in some cases been direct contact with victims, because their procedures had stagnated. These meetings were a confrontation every single time. As a bishop you act on behalf of the community of the Church. Often the accused had already passed away. Many people have been marked by the abuse and I could see that speaking about the personally suffered abuse is difficult and requires courage.”

Bishop van den Hende sees the meeting as a unique event, the first in its kind, and forms his expectation around the goals expressed by Pope Francis:

“The pain and shame for the abuse of minors has been felt for years inside and outside the Church. This is the first time that the problem of abuse of minors in the Church is discussed in a special meeting of the worldwide Church. Pope Francis has indicated that he has three things in mind with this meeting: to make bishops across the world aware of the abuse and make them recognise it, commitment of the worldwide episcopate to engage this problem, plus communal moments of prayer and penance.”

The Dutch approach has always had a sharing with the rest of society in mind. This was a recommendation of the Deetman Commission, which executed the independent investigation into abuse in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. As part of this effort, the Commission’s final report was translated into English and communicated to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Dutch experience, Bishop van den Hende explains, is in a sense unique and may well be a valuable contribution to the meeting:

“In the Netherlands the bishops and religious are fully aware of the seriousness of the abuse of minors by people of the Church. Together they chose at the time for an independent investigation and an independent procedure to achieve recognition and compensation for victims, and also support. Elsewhere in the world you do not often see such cooperation or joint approach.”

Source

In the run-up to global abuse meeting, Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman look to its outcome

Thursday will see the beginning of perhaps the most charged and certainly most anticipated Vatican event in some time: the bishops’ summit on abuse, in which the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, representatives of religious movements and  the heads of a number of curia dicasteries will meet over the course of three days to discuss a unified approach to sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.  Expectations about its outcome are high, although they may be too high considering the brief length of the meeting and its focus, not on formulating unfified policies – these often already exist – but on getting every single bishop on the same time. After this week, no bishop should have the excuse of saying he did not know of any abuse or how to deal with it.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166On behalf of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Hans van den Hende will attend the meeting in his capacity as the body’s president. The bishop of Rotterdam already met with the pope in December, together with Dr. Wim Deetman, who headed the Dutch investigation into the abuse that took place over past decades. This audience took place out of the pope’s desire to be informed about what the Dutch bishops had done to combat abuse and to compensate the victims. Some have seen that approach as an example for the rest of the world. Bishop van den Hende, in a recent interview, agrees with that, saying, “The joint approach of bishops and religious as it took shape in the Netherlands, in combination with an independent investigation and an independent procedure, is, I think, a good example of recognition and commitment with regards to the victims.”

About the expectations of the summit and its outcome, Bishop van den Hende is catious.

“Much will depend on the results of the meeting, that is to say if the goals established by the pope will be fully achieved. You can only come to plans of actions out of the recoginition of the seriousness of the abuse and the joint willingness to come to a true commitment. I am not sure if this can be achieved in the short timespan granted to the upcoming meeting, but it is necessary to take true steps forward in the world Church.”

In another interview, Dr. Deetman showed himself a bit more optimistic:

“I don’t know what the pope plans to do, he did not express himself about that to me. But if Pope Francis, in those four days in Rome, is able to convince the bishops that the abuse is a major problem which concerns the entire Church, and which requires a thorough approach, the meeting will in a sense already have been successful. Then something can be done on a global scale. That also means that a second meeting must soon follow.”

2018-12-18-Audientie_WimDeetman_00011_19122018-klein-465x300Dr. Deetman, shown at left while meeting Pope Francis, believes that the Dutch investigation and program of compensation is indeed an example of how things should be done in other locations as well.

“You must outsource such an investigation [into abuse]. Multidisciplinary and with free access to the archives. I emphasised that to the pope. Also very important: it concerns facts. Make sure that nothing remains swept under the carpet. If you want to properly investigate what went wrong in the various Church provinces and in the Vatican itself, it must be independent, and the results must be made public, with anjustification of the methods of investigation. Without any doubt.”

But Dr. Deetman also urged for caution:

“You must be careful, also when it concerns perpetrators. We have had to conclude that someone had been accused, but it later turned out that he or she could impossible have done it. You do damage someone’s reputation and name. And something else: something may be ‘plausible’, but even then there all kinds of degrees of plausibility”.

This is a good reminder. In recent headline cases in which prelates have been accussed of knowing of the actions of abusers – I mention a Cardinal Wuerl or Farrell – conclusions are drawn before the facts have been studied. This is not something that should be encouraged, although it is understandable when it comes to such horrible acts.

Photo credit: [2] Servizio Fotografico – L’Osservatore Romano