The ‘problem’ of celibacy and male priests, once more

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has no problem with married priests. He also thinks the Belgian faithful would welcome women priests. Well, that’s nice for him and them. No really, what more can be said about it?

While some things are certainly subject to desires and wishes, these two issues, for the most part, are not. I say for the most part, because the rule of priestly celibacy at least can theoretically be changed at some future time. Unlike the ordination of men only, it is not part of the body of faith that was handed down to us by Jesus Christ. Priestly celibacy was instituted for different reasons and, over the course of the centuries, turned out to have rather a few spiritual and practical benefits.

Today, for different reasons, priests are required to be men and live celibate*. Why both these topics need to be rehashed time and again is, quite frankly, beyond me. Stating one’s objections to them will not change them. It’ll only add to the confusion, especially when, as in this case, it is a bishop saying it. For many faithful, the bishop is the face of the Church, and rightly so. With his priests, it is he who teaches, explains and defends the faith and he may be expected to do so in accordance with the faith as given by Christ to the Church to spread and defend. So, what a bishop says will by many people be understood as something that the Church says, thinks and believes. In the case of Bishop Bonny that clearly isn’t so.

These times call for clear voices that can explain, communicate and, if need be, defend the faith and the teachings of the Church that flow from that faith. Rather than saying that, yes, he too would love to see married priests and women ordained, a bishop should rather explain in charity why this can’t be the case. Failing to do so only works to enhance the sheer ignorance about these topics that many people, faithful and non-faithful alike, sadly have.

*There are exceptions to the rule of celibacy. Fr. Dwight Longenecker explains.


A new Dutch translation of the missal is going to take a while longer

In an interview for Tertio, Cardinal Eijk spoke about a future new and more accurate translation of the Mass texts. Preciously little has been revealed about this project, which apparently is still ongoing. It’s good to now have some new information about the effort, even though the instruction calling for a revision of the existing texts dates from 2001.

Cardinal Eijk explained:

“Because our language area is not that big, we do not have very many experts available. The procedure takes a lot of time because there has to be a continuous exchange between the experts, the mixed committee in which two Dutch and two Flemish bishops have a seat, and the other bishops. Additionally, the pontifical instruction ‘Liturgiam Authenticam‘ expressly requires [a new translation] to be as faithful to the Latin source text as possible. That needs to be reconciled with a sufficiently fluent and understandable language in Dutch. That is not an easy task because there are a fair number of differences between northern and southern Dutch. For example, it is unlikely that we will be able to achieve a unified version of the Our Father.”

In the mixed committee for the new translation, Bishops Hans van den Hende, Antoon Hurkmans, Jozef De Kesel and Johan Bonny have a seat. But, now that the liturgy portfolio within the Dutch Bishops’ Conference has gone from Bishop Hurkmans to Bishop Liesen, the latter could conceivably take a seat in the committee.

Bishop Liesen’s installation tomorrow: “sowing to take root and bear fruit”

“You don’t control the results, but that does not change the obligation to do the best we can. There is an essential element of freedom in there. You belong to the Roman Catholic Church because you want to, as conviction you gladly have. Many “enrolled” as children, but it must be confirmed at some point. If it isn’t, it remains something superficial and will not bear fruit. For the intended effect of sowing is for it to take root and bear fruit.”

Words from Bishop Jan Liesen, spoken in an interview with Katholiek Nieuwsblad, prior to his installation as bishop of Breda tomorrow. The installation Mass, which will be concelebrated by Bishop Liesen, his predecessor, Bishop Hans van den Hende, Archbishop Wim Eijk of Utrecht, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans of ‘s Hertogenbosch (where Msgr. Liesen has been auxiliary bishop), other bishops present, and members of the cathedral chapter. The new Nuncio to the Netherlands, Archbishop André Dupuy, will not yet be present. Instead, the Holy See will be represented by Msgr. Habib Thomas Halim, secretary of the nunciature in The Hague.

With some 500 people invited, the Mass is closed to visitors, simply because of the relatively small size of the Cathedral of St. Anthony. Priority has been given to representatives of the parishes of the diocese, as well as various dignitaries. In addition to the bishops mentioned above, Bishop Wiertz, De Korte, Punt, Mutsaerts, Hoogenboom and Hendriks will also be present, as well as Bishops Bonny and De Kesel from the two Belgian dioceses that border Breda, and the emeriti Cardinal Simonis, and Bishops Ernst, Muskens and Van Burgsteden.

On a plaque in the cathedral, Bishop Liesen's name has been added to the lists of bishops of Breda

The Queen’s Commissioners in the provinces of Zeeland and Noord-Brabant, the mayor of Breda and the governor of the Royal Military Academy, which is located in Breda, will also attend the Mass or the following reception.

Communication skills, or avoiding communicating the polar opposite of what we want to say.

In a recent interview for, Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny spoke about the recent initiative from hundreds of laymen and priests in Belgium to challenge such teachings as priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.  It has triggered, as may be expected, a heated debate with some reaching the conclusion that priests signing the initiative are automatically excommunicated. While I won’t go into the reasoning for that here, I will take a look at what Bishop Bonny says about it all:

“I fully understand it. The Church can not avoid the debate about the criteria for ordination. Personally, I strongly believe in the value of the unmarried priesthood and a full availability for Christ and the Church community. But I also think that the ordination of a number of married men or deacons to the priesthood can be an enrichment for the Church. In the eastern Catholic Churches married priests are more the rule than the exception. That fact is therefore not unfamiliar for the Catholic Church. The ordination of women to priests is theologically far more difficult. In the west that concern is present in broad layers of society, but worldwide the support is extremely small. But I do think that there needs to be more discussion about the place and role of the woman in the Church. Women must be allowed to take on responsible duties in the Church, on all levels.”

The bishop’s reasoning, while necessarily simplified, makes a certain amount of sense – the celibacy debate does not concern the suitability of individual married or unmarried priests, for example – but it also raises problems. For one, the way the bishop presents his points leaves the door wide open for misunderstanding. People in the know may grasp what he tries to say – or not – but those outside the Church will not. Men and women must indeed be allowed to take on duties in the Church according to their individual competencies. But what are the ‘levels’ the bishops mentions? Are those the levels of government, pastoral care, parish council duties, or even Holy Orders? Probably not the latter, considering what Bishop Bonny said earlier about the value he attaches to the unmarried priesthood and such, but many will not see it as such.

And this is indicative of the communication problem of the Church and her bishops. Their intentions may be good, their reasoning sound, but they can still inadvertently communicate the polar opposite of what they mean. We – bishops, priests, religious and laity alike – have the duty to be open, honest, but certainly also clear about what we belief, and why. A comment like the one above will only strengthen the opinion of many that married men and women should be ordained as priests. And that is not something a bishop can and should say, even if he does so inadvertently.

Photo credit: Filip Van Roe

A bishop punished too mildly?

Almost a year after one of the biggest blows that the Catholic Church in Belgium had to take – the resignation of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe after he admitted having abused a minor – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the steps to be taken against the former bishop of Bruges. As the statement issued by Papal Nuncio Archbishop Berloco, says:

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, qualified to judge the most serious offenses against morality, has investigated the case of Roger Vangheluwe. The Congregation has decided that Msgr. Vangheluwe, even though the offenses of sexual abuse committed against his nephew fall, according to the norms of canon law, under the statute of limitations, has to leave Belgium and has to undergo spiritual and psychological treatment for a period.”

In many circles this punishment is deemed to be very light, but I think it should be considered for what it is, and what it can be. The Catholic Church owns no prisons and can therefore not incarcerate criminals. And even if they could, Msgr. Vangheluwe could not be held under the terms of the law, as his crimes fall under the statute of limitations: canon and secular law agree that his crimes were committed too long ago for him to be punished now.

Even so, as the nuncio’s statement says, this is no reason to leave things be. The former bishop is not permitted to remain in his native country, where his family and friends reside. Instead, he is to go somewhere else, presumable where the Church can keep tabs on him easily, to undergo treatment. Not just psychological, but also spiritual. This may not seem like much, but it touches upon the very core of one’s identity.

The fact that Msgr. Vangheluwe remains a priest and bishop, even though he will not be permitted to exercise any pastoral or liturgical duties, plays a part in that. As Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said yesterday: “If you liacise him, you outlaw him. He will go where he pleases. That means you can’t impose any sanctions, which you can do now, because he remains a priest and bishop.”

In short, Msgr. Vangheluwe’s punishment is not called for by law, but is morally just. It is also not a mild punishment, but a considered one, and one that falls within the options available to the Church. And this may not yet be the end of it. Belgium could call for the extradition of the Vangheluwe, which means that whole new chapter opens in the case.

EDIT: Catholic News Service now confirms that these steps are part of the ongoing investigation.

Belgian bishops outline future plans

Archbishop Léonard, Bishop Harpigny and Bishop Bonny at this morning's press conference

In a press conference earlier today, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, of Malines-Brussels, together with Bishops Johan Bonny (Antwerp) and Guy Harpigny (Tournai), outlined the new plans of the Belgian bishops to deal with the ongoing abuse crisis. Since the Committee headed by Prof. Peter Adriaenssens stepped down in June, after all their files had been seized in an illegal police raid, the bishops have been working to revitalise their efforts the come clean with the horrors of the past decades and to offer recognition and healing to the victims.

A Dutch report on the press conference, together with a link to the press statement as read by Bishop Bonny, may be found here. A translation of that statement, which outlines the future plans, is available here.

A personal appeal from the bishop of Antwerp

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has written a letter for the upcoming World Day of Prayer for Vocations (25 April). Nothing extraordinary: the pope has published a message and so did the Dutch bishops. But Bishop Bonny’s letter has a very appealing personal tone, aimed exactly at young men who, at most, have only fleetingly considered some career in the Church.

Like large parts of Europe, Belgium too suffers from a shortage of priests. The practical problems caused by that will be evident, but another problem caused by this shortage is that the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood is no longer considered by many young men. After all, they don’t see many priests around them and if they do, they’re often old men, distant in age and experience. To counter that, to reach people again at their own level and in their own experiences, the Church must adopt a tone that can achieve that. In the case of finding prospective candidates for the priesthood the Church can’t take anything for granted: discerning a vocation must be presented as something new, something different, not as something that is normal and logical to aspire to. For many people it isn’t. But we do need those people, and they need to be aware of what their vocation may possibly be.

I think Bishop Bonny, in being open and inviting, and by very personally appealing to the reader, achieves that. I doubt that the Diocese of Antwerp will immediately see a massive influx of candidates, and I don’t think the bishop does either. These things take time. But, together with the new archbishop in Brussels, this letter may be another step in the right direction for the Church in Belgium.

Read the letter in Dutch or in English.