For the sin of abortion, Papal letter gives priests power to absolve and lift excommunication

In his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera, published today, Pope Francis looks back on the Holy Year of Mercy, which ended yesterday, and announces some special decisions made for that year, which he wishes to continue. Among these is the faculty of all priests to absolve penitents from the sin of abortion. While this faculty was already given to priests of various countries, including the Netherlands, by local bishops, it is now a worldwide step. It is hoped, like it was when the Pope first announced it at the start of the Holy Year, that this makes it easier for people who performed an abortion or had one performed to come forward and receive the Lord’s forgiveness.

Abortion, as the Pope also emphasises in his Letter, remains a grave sin, and that means that there is a little more involved than only absolution. Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam and a doctor in canon law, explains things in a blog post today and refers to various canons from the Code of Canon Law:

jan_hendriks“There is an excommunication attached to the committing of an abortion (c. 1398). The Pope does not expressly mention this. He only speaks about ‘absolving’, freeing from sin. Being freed from the excommunication is a requirement for receiving absolution and being freed from sin. Therefore, the words of the Pope implicitly include for all priests the faculty to lift the excommunication.

So a priest can absolve for abortion and this faculty can, in principle, be exercised everywhere in the world (unless a local bishop or vicar would, in particular cases, deny this (c. 967, par.2), but that will not happen often).

The Pope once again emphases both the serious nature of the sin of abortion and the need to approach those who have committed abortion with love: there is no sin that can destroy the mercy of God!”

There has been some criticism against the papal letter for its lack of clarity in this matter. Bishop Hendriks’ explanation would indicate that the ability to absolve the sin includes the faculty to lift the automatically incurred excommunication. A penitent person who’s sin has been forgiven in the sacrament of Confession, is therefore automatically free to participate in the life of the Church again, as he or she is no longer excommunicated.

Seven months in, no sign of a new bishop yet

359px-Wapen_bisdom_Groningen-Leeuwarden_svgThere was some hope that October would see the appointment of a new bishop for the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but as the month progresses, it seems increasingly likely that Bishop Gerard de Korte, who was transferred from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s Hertogenbosch in March, was more accurate when he said that a new bishop would come before the end of the year. And the year still has more than two months to go.

A recent article in the Leeuwarder Courant claims to know where the problem lies: the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, is faced with two contrasting ternae, which he has somehow to merge into one to send on to Rome. The first terna, a list of three names of possible candidates to succeed Bishop de Korte, was compiled by the cathedral chapter and consists, the article has it, of the names of three priests, all from outside the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. One of these is Fr. Ad van der Helm, former Dean of The Hague and currently parttime professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Louvain. The other terna comes from the bishops’ conference, and consists, it is said, of three currently serving auxiliary bishops, of whom Bishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary of Utrecht, has the best chances. He, the article states, is the preferred choice of Cardinal Eijk.

he-nuncio-aldo-cavalliIf the two lists show no overlap it would mean extra work for the Nuncio (pictured at right), who has to create a file on each candidate, add his own opinions and advice and then send it to the Congregation for Bishops. And the appointment of a new bishop would consequently take more time. The article mentioned above, however, chooses to see evidence of infighting among the bishops in it…

Cardinal Eijk, it is suggested, is blocking, or at least strongly opposed to, any of the candidates of the cathedral chapter. That is his right, but there is nothing he can change about it (and I suspect he is well aware of this). As a member of the bishops’ conference, the cardinal has a voice in creating the terna of the conference, but that is about where it all ends. He has no influence on the ultimate choice and can not block it. That choice lies with the Pope, who makes it based on the information provided by the Nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops, who in turn base themselves on their own investigations and the advice of the cathedral chapter and the other bishops of the Netherlands.

Why the cardinal is singled out to explain the choice of the bishops’ conference has probably more to do with his perceived influence than anything else. Cardinal Eijk is no longer the conference president, but just a member. The other members have equal influence in the process, and while some bishops will have similar preferences as the cardinal, others will not.

Besides, if, as the article claims, there are two ternae on the Nuncio’s desk, it is there were the slowdown lies, not with any perceived infighting or disagreements among bishops or cathedral chapter members.

Whoever our new bishop will be, be he a priest from The Hague or an auxiliary bishop from Utrecht, or someone else altogether, his appointment will be the end of a long and careful process in which many people have an advisory capacity. This process sometimes takes longer than expected, and the reason may lie either in the diocese in question, with the bishops’ conference or the Nuncio, or in Rome. Whatever the case may be, the vacancy of Groningen-Leeuwarden is close to becoming the longest in the last decade. Only Utrecht was without an archbishop for longer: 8 months in 2007.

Thoughts about the next bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Apparently there are people who look to me to predict who the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden will be. Well, surprisingly, I don’t know. I am not privy to the deliberations of the seven-priest cathedral chapter of the diocese, let alone the thoughts of the other bishops, the nuncio or the Pope.

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Bishops de Korte and Hurkmans in Den Bosch, on Saturday. Behind them Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts.

But we can make guesses, for whatever that is worth. To do so, we can first take a look at the recent history of bishop appointments in the Netherlands. While auxiliary bishops are virtually always chosen from among priests and therefore need to be consecrated as bishops first, ordinaries – bishops who lead a diocese – rarely are. It is more usual for a new ordinary to be transferred from another diocese, as happened with Bishop de Korte on Saturday, or an auxiliary bishop being chosen. This happened, for example, when Bishop Jan Liesen was picked for the Diocese of Breda in 2011. He was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch before that.

There are currently five auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands. In order of precedence they are:

  • Bishop Everard de Jong, 57, Titular Bishop of Cariana and Auxiliary Bishop of Roermond
  • Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, 55, Titular Bishop of Bistue and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Herman Woorts, 52, Titular Bishop of Giufi Salaria and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, 57, Titular Bishop of Uccula and Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch
  • Bishop Jan Hendriks, 61, Titular Bishop of Arsacal and Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam

dejong_hulpbisschop_0Of these, Bishop de Jong (at left) may have the best cards. A bishop for 17 years, he was allegedly in the running to succeed then-Bishop Eijk in Groningen-Leeuwarden back in 2008. Ultimately that appointment went to Bishop de Korte, but his time may now have come. Coming from a large diocese, he has relatively little experience with the process of parish mergers and consolidations as it is taking place in Groningen-Leeuwarden. This could speak against him.

Of the other four, most attention has been on Bishop Mutsaerts. Seen as the opposite of Bishop de Korte in several ways, many assume that he will be removed to another diocese fairly soon. The likely choice is, of course, Groningen-Leeuwarden. In how far there is a basis in fact for this assumption remains to be seen. It is said that Bishops Mutsaerts and De Korte get on fine personally, and the latter would see the advantage of having an auxiliary bishop at his side as he familiarises himself with his new diocese.

Bishops Hoogenboom, Woorts and Hendriks are possible choices to come to Groningen, but at the moment none really stands out as being more likely than the others. When it comes to the communication and opennes of Bishop de Korte, Bishop Hendriks perhaps comes closest. For the cathedral chapter he could be an option if they want to see the line of Bishop de Korte continue. The auxiliary bishops of Utrecht are reputed to be more in line with Cardinal Eijk.

Of the other ordinaries in the Netherlands two are certainly too old to be transferred to another diocese: Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam is 70 and Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond 73. With the mandatory retirement age of bishops set at 75, they can safely assume that they will remain in their dioceses. Another ordinary who will not be appointed is of course Cardinal Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht. He was the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden from 1999 to 2008 and as a rule bishops do not return for a second shift, so to speak (although canon law does not preclude it). A return would be seen as a demotion anyway, what with Eijk being an archbishop and cardinal.

bishop van den hendeThis leaves only two other ordinaries to be considered: Rotterdam’s Hans van den Hende (at right) and Breda’s Jan Liesen. Bishop van den Hende is a native of Groningen-Leeuwarden, serving as its vicar general before being appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda in 2006. If he was to come home, it would mean his third appointment as ordinary, after Breda and Rotterdam. While not impossible, it is quite unlikely. And with only four years as bishop of Breda and almost five years and counting in Rotterdam, he may be excused for wanting to stay in one place for a while longer. That’s better for his diocese, too.

Bishop Jan Liesen has been in Breda since 2011 and before that he was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year and change. There is nothing really excluding him as an option for Groningen-Leeuwarden, except for his short time in Breda. Stability must be considered: it is probably not a good idea for the diocese to start looking for its third bishop in les than ten years.

So, in my expert opinion (ahem…), if the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden is to be picked from among the other bishops of the Netherlands, Bishop Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks have the best odds, with Bishops Liesen, Hoogenboom and Woorts as possible runners-up.

Pope Francis’ second Dutch appointment, which will certainly not happen before the end of May, and perhaps, as Bishop de Korte suggested, not before the year’s final months, could be a surprise. A priest native to Groningen-Leeuwarden may be a bridge too far just yet, but whatever will happen, it should be an interesting couple of months before us.

Photo credit: [1] Chris Korsten

In surprising move, Bishop de Korte goes south

It was one of the more unexpected choices, and for the new bishop the change will be big in several ways: he goes from the north to the south of the country, from a diocese with few Catholics to one with many, from a part of the country where people are fairly down to earth, to one where the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ has a natural home and where people are sometimes brutally honest. It will be interesting to see what bishop and diocese bring each other.

Mgr. Hurkmans en Mgr. de Korte
Bishop Hurkmans and his successor, Bishop de Korte

The new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is 60-year-old Gerard de Korte, until today the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. And this scribe’s bishop at that. In yesterday’s blog post I already characterised Bishop de Korte as a popular shepherd. He is personable, interested, with a keen sense of the hearts and minds of other people. That makes him well suited to represent the Catholic Church in relations with other Christians, a talent he has made one of the focal points of his mission. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, such ecumenical effort is a necessity and a value. How it will take shape in ‘s-Hertogenbosch will be very interesting to see.

In a message leaked prematurely via Twitter, Bishop Hurkmans congratulated Bishop de Korte, and expresses a few wishes to him and the faithful of ‘s-Hertogenbosch:

bisschop Hurkmans“I wish very much that you, as a society, may live in confidence with the new bishop. You and I, we, live in a time of many and great changes. Especially now it is good to stand on the solid ground the faith offers us. God is our Creator and Father. He wanted all of us and included us in His plan of love.

Secondly, I wish for you all that you may remain hopeful with the new bishop. Evil and death are in the way of us all. They supplant hope. Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and opened the way to life. We celebrate this in the Eucharist and from it we draw hope every time. With that, as a new community around Christ, we can be a sign of hope in our society.

Lastly, I wish for the new bishop and you all to remain in love. That this may be the basis of your life. The Holy Spirit lives in us. He plants love in us and continuously strengthens the divine life. This makes love bloom in us. Love can reinforce our community. Love will let us live for each other in the Church and in the world.

Remaining in faith, hope and love is more than guaranteed when we participate in unity in a healthy life of the Church. I gladly wish Msgr. Gerard de Korte people who say yes to their vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, people who will work with him in the life of the Church, people who make the Church present in the world. People who support him in his prayer and proclamation, on being close to people and managing the diocese.”

Bishop Hurmans, now bishop emeritus, closes with a word of gratitude, despite beginning his letter by saying that he has said enough about his retirement.

“I thank you all for the faith, the hope and the love which I was able to keep among you. I hope to be able to be a witness of that in a simple way, trusting in the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch and living from the Holy Eucharist, until my death.”

duzijn jellema ordinationBishop de Korte has been the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden since 2008. Before that, from 2001 to 2008, he was auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, where he also worked as a priest since his ordination in 1987. He is a historian and served as seminary rector before his appointment as bishop. In Groningen-Leeuwarden he was a bishop on the road, travelling to every corner and sharing the major celebrations of Easter and Christmas between the cathedral in Groningen and the church of St. Boniface in Leeuwarden. Ordinations were also shared between the two cities: those of deacons, as pictured at left, in Leeuwarden, and priests in Groningen. He leaves a diocese in the midst of the greatest reorganisation in recent history: the reduction of its 84 parishes to 19. May the vacancy of the seat in St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen be a short one.

In my blog, Bishop de Korte has made frequent appearances, and translations of his writing may be found via the tag cloud in the left sidebar. Just click on the tag ‘Bishop Gerard de Korte’.

Despite the appointment coming before Easter, Bishop de Korte will mark the Church’s  greatest week in Groningen-Leeuwarden. His installation in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist will follow on 14 May.

In hindsight, this was perhaps the most Franciscan option in the Netherlands. Bishop de Korte fits the profile of what Pope Francis wants in a bishop (although other bishops are often unfairly depicted as being in opposition to the Holy Father): an open communicator, close to the people, a shepherd who smells like the sheep. These qualities may go a long way in resolving the polarisation that plagues parts of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In recent years more than one community has broken with the diocese, and the person and approach of Bishop de Korte, a man of dialogue and a strong voice against hate and distrust, may go a long way in setting them back on a course towards reconciliation.

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Bishop de Korte at an interfaith meeting against hate and racism in 2014.

 In his new diocese, Bishop de Korte will undoubtedly continue to stress the importance of catechesis. Back in 2012 he said, “It may sound dramatic, but I sometimes feel that only a great catechetical offensive can secure Catholicism in our country. Without it, the strength of our faith seems to continue to weaken and Catholics become more and more religious humanists for whom important aspects of classic Catholicism have become unfamiliar.” Other emphases of his new task will be ecumenism, religious life and active Catholic communities.

de korte eijkIn the Dutch Bishops’ Conference this appointment does not change much, although several commentators have chosen to see it as a blow for Cardinal Eijk, outgoing president and predecessor of Bishop de Korte in Groningen. The two prelates have not always seen eye to eye, and they have clashed on occasion, although how much actual truth there is behind the rumours will probably remain guesswork. In the conference, Bishop de Korte retains his one voice, and continues to hold the portfolios that formulate Church relations with the elderly, women and society. Actual change will only occur when a new bishop is appointed for Groningen-Leeuwarden, and perhaps not even then: if the new ordinary up north is one of the current auxiliary bishops in the country, the composition of the bishops’ conference remains the same as it is now.

Now, we could make the assumption that Cardinal Eijk would have liked to see a bishop in ‘s-Hertogenbosch who was more in line with himself, but that is guesswork. And besides, as I have pointed out before, the cardinal and the bishop may have different personalities and talents, their policies (for example, about the closing of churches and merging of parishes) are not always all that different.

In recent years, Bishop de Korte has appeared as the voice of the bishops’ conference, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. This will not change, I imagine, even if the crisis has abated somewhat. Although the bishops in general remain hesitant to embrace the resources of the media, Bishop de Korte is the one whose face and name appears most frequently. He is a blogger on the diocesan website, writes books and articles and even appears on television every now and then. This is something that he should continue to do so: he is well-liked by many in and outside the Church, and knows how to communicate to both. And that is a value we need in our Church today.

More to come.

Photo credit: [1] ANP RAMON MANGOLD, [2] Roy Lazet, [3] Leeuwarder Courant, [4], ANP, [5] edited by author

Discordant voice? Confusion about what bishops should do when confronted with abuse

Msgr. Tony Anatrella’s statement – “Bishops are not obliged in all cases to report allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities” – has led to shocked headlines and articles in the media. And it is not hard to see why. Isn’t this exactly what the Catholic Church has done in the past and what it continues to be accused of doing? Keeping the facts hidden to protect her own image? Well, yes and no.

AP3063773_LancioGrandeYes, it is true that image was often the first thing that needed protection, instead of the victims of an abusive priest, or so many in the Church thought and acted upon. And no, this is not really what Msgr. Anatrella, speaking at the regular course for new bishops in the Vatican (a previous meeting pictured), said.

He added something to the above statement: “It is up to the victims and their families to do so”. And that is true: the victim decides what should be done, not in the first place the bishop. If a victim, for example, wishes that no legal proceedings take place (and this has happened), a bishop can (and should) urge for the wisest course of action, but has to abide with the victim’s wishes. This is a consequence of the primary concern that needs to be given to this victim, a concern urged for by Pope Francis, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and many prelates and bishops’ conferences.

As John Allen points out, Msgr. Anatrella’s speech could have been much better if it did not only focus on canon law and psychotherapy, but also on the interactions between Church and state authorities in these matters: what can and must a bishop do or not do when confronted with such terrible crimes against the dignity of a person? Not just with the means at his disposal as a shepherd in the Church, but also as a person living in a modern society.

And there lies the rub: in our modern western societies (at least most of them) reporting allegations to the police is the surest and safest way to see justice being done. In many countries this is not a given. Police forces and judicial systems are not always just and safe, but corrupt or tainted by political, social and religious ideologies which are not necessarily sympathetic to the Christian churches and faithful.

As Father Lombardi pointed out yesterday, Msgr. Anatrella said nothing new. And the fact that his statements were published as part of the proceedings of the entire course does not mean that there is a new Vatican policy on dealing with sexual abuse. But Msgr. Anatrella could have phrased things differently, emphasised the continuity of his statements with those of the Popes in recent years and suggested that, all things being equal, legal proceedings are a necessity towards justice, as long as the victim desires it.

Affairs like these do muddle the issue and give false impressions of the Church’s resolve to prevent the past from repeating itself. The will is there – as is clear from what Pope Francis and other prelates have said in multiple occasions – but the execution sometimes lacks. However, I do not expect any bishops to have come away from this course with the idea that they don’t have to act when someone approaches them with the terrible news that they have suffered abuse in the one place they should have been nothing but safe.

Photo credit: Vatican Radio

For Paramaribo, a native son again

After almost 18 months, Paramaribo and the entire country of Suriname will once more have a bishop, and for only the second time in its almost 200-year history, the bishop is a native son.

Father Karel Choennie, pictured below with Apostolic Administrator Fr. Antonius te Dorshorst and episcopal vicar Fr. Esteban Kross at today’s press conference announcing his appointment, was vicar general under the diocese’s previous bishop, Dutchman Wim de Bekker, who retired in May of 2014.

Choennie

Bishop-elect Choennie was born in Suriname in 1958, He studied pedagogy at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and subsequently at the minor seminary in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He received his licentiate in pastoral theology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1985. He served in various parishes in Paramaribo, became a member of the diocesan curia in 2001 and vicar general in 2005. This office was suspended upon the retirement of Bishop de Bekker in 2014.

The diocese reports that the new bishop will be consecrated in early 2016. According to canon law this must take place within three months after the appointment, in this case before 11 February. The identity of the main consecrator is unknown at this time, but it is a safe bet that emeritus Bishop de Bekker will be the one. After his retirement he remained in Suriname, living in the town of Groningen, west of Paramaribo.

Bishop-elect Choennie, as mentioned above, is the second bishop of Paramaribo born in Suriname. The first native bishop of Paramaribo was Msgr. Aloysius Zichem, who is now 82. He was bishop from 1971 to 2003. All other ordinaries have been Dutch, reflecting the colonial history of Suriname.

The Diocese of Paramaribo, which covers all of Suriname, is a suffragan diocese of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. It was established in 1817 as  the Apostolic Prefecture of Dutch Guyana-Suriname, promoted to an Apostolic Vicariate in 1842 and became the modern diocese in 1958.

Photo credit: Gino Rozenblad

Clear communication – Cardinal Eijk on the indissolubility of marriage

eijkKerknet, the website of the Catholic Church in Flanders, features a piece on Cardinal Eijk’s contribution to the 11 Cardinals Book, and reveal some more context to his arguments, which until now have only been shared in short quotes (at least for those who have not read the book, like your blogger). Such quotes out of context do little to accurately reflect the thoughts of the cardinal, and have generally been maligned in Catholic and secular media. How I wish Cardinal Eijk or those around him would be less hesitant (afraid even?) to share his arguments and his involvement in the Synod and related events (for example, it would have been good to hear or read some comments from the cardinal himself about his involvement in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last week – this is a high-profile Catholic event which draws attention from across the globe, and a more open and sharing approach would do much good, both at home and abroad).

Anyway, the Kerknet article:

In his contribution to the book that eleven cardinals published in relation to the Synod of Bishops on the family (Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family, pp. 45-55, published by Ignatius Press), Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk argues that the Church’s  teaching about divorced and remarried Catholics must be preserved unchanged. The long history of Church practice and repeated statements from the Magisterium that divorced and civilly remarried people can not be allowed to receive Communion, indicate clearly that this is an unchangeable doctrine, according to the Dutch Church leader. The Catholic Church can accommodate them pastorally by giving them a blessing, so that they not feel excluded.

Theological sources in Scripture and the tradition of the Catholic Church are sufficiently clear, according to Cardinal Eijk. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew (“I tell you that he who puts away his wife, not for any unfaithfulness of hers, and so marries another, commits adultery”, Matt. 19:9), which is used by the eastern Orthodox Churches to allow a second or third marriage of someone who is divorced, can not be invoked to make a second sacramental marriage possible. “The magisterium of the Church has always been clear and resolute about the indissolubility of a marriage that has been consummated, as well as the absolute prohibition of divorce, followed by a new marriage.”

Cardinal Eijk does not believe that dissolution because of lack of faith, or a simplification of the procedures for the nullification of a marriage, is a pastoral way out. The Catholic Church should communicate the faith better and emphasise its basis more adequately and clearly, “something that was neglected in the past half century”. Couples preparing marriage should have “at least five to ten” sessions of marriage preparation and “priests should dare to ask couples who want a church wedding if they believe in the indissolubility of marriage. In the interest of the couples themselves they should be more selective about who they give access to the sacrament of marriage.”

“In Dutch dioceses those who want to are invited to come forward for Communion. Those who can not receive Communion are asked to come forward with their arms crossed, as a sign to be given a blessing.” The archbishop notes that this practice, which is especially common for Protestants attending a Eucharist and which helps avoid endless debates, can also be extended to those who are divorced and civilly remarried.

The Orthodox practice of allowing second and more marriages following divorce is treated extensively by Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ in the Five Cardinals Book published last year (Remaining in the Truth of Christ, also available from Ignatius Press).

weddingThe whole debate about nullification or dissolution of a marriage is an intricate one, and it should always be reminded that a marriage can not be nullified. It can only be established that it was null from the very beginning, to the effect that there never was a marriage to begin with. The reasons for this are many, but for the purpose of this blog posts it suffices to say that they establish the validity of the marriage. One of the most convincing for those outside the world of canon law and ecclesiastical courts is perhaps that a marriage must be entered into out of free will; there can be no coercion, for any reason. If someone was forced into a marriage, it can be established that the marriage was null, that it never existed.

In relation to this, there must be a greater focus on and recognition of the fact that the couple did share much, even if it was no marriage. Our eyes should always be open to reality. That is a first step towards mercy. People need recognition of themselves and their lives. But recognition can never be automatically equated to approval. It’s a fine line we must walk as Church, but isn’t that always the case when we are in the business of dealing with people?

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] author’s own