Doing more with less – how to face the challenge of church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkI recently made my Dutch-language blogging debut over at Broodje Paap, and the subject of that first post – how to respond to necessary church closing and parish mergers – remains topical. Today, Cardinal Wim Eijk, target of much criticism and often seen as personally responsible for the decline of Catholic life in his Archdiocese of Utrecht – personally reacted on Radio 1 (a very welcome development in itself – we need to see and hear our bishops in the media more often).

In his radio interview, Cardinal Eijk laid out the facts that caused him to make disconcerting predictions of more than 90% of the Catholic churches in the archdiocese closing in the next 20 years. Some of his critics have presented this prediction as active policy on the cardinal’s part, but, as the cardinal said today, he doesn’t like it any more than we do. But we can’t close our eyes to the facts.

The Church in the Netherlands is, by and large, old. There are young people, of course, but in many churches and parishes, the elderly are in majority. This has an effect on finances and prospects for the future. With ever-decreasing financial contributions from the faithful, parishes and dioceses must look to savings and investments, and those can’t last forever. Some parishes – the cardinals expects that the vast majority – will at one point have to consider if they can afford the upkeep of all their church buildings, for example. Maintenance, electricity, heating… these are not free. It is unavoidable that churches will have to be closed, and this calls for new efforts on the part of the faithful.

And that, in my opinion, is what we must really focus on. Without denying or ignoring the pain of a community losing the church where they worshipped, got married, prayed, celebrated Mass, said goodbye to their loved ones, formed a community, this closing must in the end invite us to a renewal.

A renewal of faith, of active Catholic life, perhaps outside the familiar boundaries of church building and even parish or diocese. What form this can take, I don’t know, but when we limit ourselves to finger-pointing and anger, it will certainly take no form at all.

A first step in this process is communication, which is not only speaking, but also listening. The priests and bishops who find themselves in these situations must listen to and acknowledge the pain the faithful share with them, as well as their suggestions and ideas. And likewise the faithful must listen to and acknowledge the efforts of priests and bishops to make the best of a bad situation and ideally work with them to achieve that. It is important to remember that, as Catholics, we are all on the same side.

A second step, which is closely linked to the communication I outlined above, can be an openness to the faith that the Church wants to teach and share with us. Our faith is bigger than our own desires and opinions. We can’t allow ourselves to remain closed in by those, but we must be open to Christ, His teachings, His sacraments, His Church, whatever form it may take at this moment in time. Some things, after all, are more fundamental to our faith than others. Buildings and parishes boundaries do not make our faith, the person of Christ – and all He gives us through His Church and those He has appointed to minister to the faithful – does.

In the end, I don’t  think that church closing force us to become something new and unheard of. Rather, we are invited to return to the essence of our faith. That does not require that we do less, but rather more with fewer means. Each one of us needs to make an effort. Only looking to our priests and bishops to do something is irresponsible. We must all act, together, as Catholic Christians.

Our faith is positive. Let us remain so as well.

From the front row – new interview with Archbishop Gänswein

An interesting interview in Christ & Welt, a weekly supplement to Die Zeit in Germany, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein yesterday. It sheds some interesting lights on recent developments in the Vatican, such as Pope Francis’ Christmas talk to the Curia, the Pope’s relationship with the media, the Synod and also retired Pope Benedict XVI and some personal touches. Worth a read:

Cgänswein&W: At Christmas Pope Francis caused some furore with his talk about fifteen diseases of the Roman Curia. You were seated directly next to the Pope. At what point did you stop counting?

Georg Gänswein: As Prefect of the Papal Household I sat, as ever on such occasions, at the Pope’s right. And as ever I had a copy of the talk in my briefcase, but I hadn’t had the time to read it beforehand. When the list of diseases began I thought to myself, “Now it’s going to be interesting”, and it became ever more interesting. I counted until the ninth disease…

What went through your head?

Normally the Pope uses the Christmas reception for the Curia to look back on the past year and look ahead to the coming one. It was different this time. Pope Francis preferred to hold up a mirror of conscience to the cardinals and bishops, among them a few who were retired…

Did you feel like it appealed to you?

Of course I asked myself, “Who does this concern? What disease affects you? What needs to be corrected?” At one point I had to think of my many moving boxes.

Do you mean the anecdote about the moving of a Jesuit with countless possessions? Francis had said that moving was a sign of the “disease of hoarding”.

Exactly. Since leaving the Apostolic Palace after the retirement of Pope Benedict in February of 2013 more than a few of my things are still in boxes in a storeroom. But I can’t see a sign of disease in that.

What did Pope Francis intend with this act of flagellation? It could be demotivating.

That is a question that many of my colleagues also asked. Pope Francis has been in office for almost two years now and knows the Curia pretty well. He obviously thought it necessary to speak clearly and to cause an examination of conscience.

What were the reactions?

It was a treat for the media, of course. During the talk I could already see the headlines: Pope castigates Curia prelates; Pope reads his coworkers the law! Sadly, outwardly it gave the impression that there was a rift between the Pope and the Curia. That impression is deceiving, and does not coincide with reality. But the address drowned that out.

Was the talk criticised internally?

The reactions ranged from surprise to shock and incomprehension.

Perhaps with Francis, the Curia needs to adjust to permanent spiritual exercises?

It has long been adjusted to that. Pope Francis makes no secret of his religious formation. He is a Jesuit, shaped through and through by the spirituality of the founder of his order, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

What are your thoughts about Francis, two years after his election?

Pope Francis is a man who has made it clear from the outset that he deals differently with things that he sees differently. That is true for his choice of living, the car he drives, the entire process of audiences in general and especially for protocol. One could think that he was getting used to things in the beginning and wanted a significant degree of flexibility. By now it has become standard. The Holy Father is a man of extraordinary creativity and Latin American zest.

Many still ask where we are going?

If you listen attentively to the words of the Pope, you will hear a clear message in them. Nevertheless, the question continuously arises of where Francis wants to lead the Church, what is his goal?

One year ago you said, “We are still waiting for substantial standards.” Can these now be seen?

Yes, much more clearly than a year ago. Consider the Apostolic Letter  Evangelii gaudium. In it he has presented a compass for his pontificate. In addition he has published important documents and given major addresses over the course of the year, such as in Strasbourg for the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Contours have become clearly visible and clear priorities were set.

Such as?

The most important priority is mission, evangelisation. This aspect is like a red thread. No internal navelgazing, no self-reference, but sharing the Gospel with the world. That is the motto.

Do you understand Francis George, the retired archbishop of Chicago, who criticised the fact that the words of the Pope are often ambivalent?

There have indeed been cases in which the Vatican spokesman had to clarify matters after specific publications. Corrections are necessary when certain statements lead to misunderstandings which can be collected from certain sites.

Does Francis have a better grip of the media than his predecessor Benedict?

Francis deals with the media offensively. He used them intensively and directly.

Also more skilful?

Yes, he uses them very skilfully.

Who are actually his closest advisors?

This questions always and consistently goes around. I don’t know.

With the Synods on the pastoral care for families this past and the coming autumn, Francis created a focal point. Especially the question of allowing divorced and remarried faithful access to the sacraments causes much disagreement. Some also have the impression that Francis is more concerned with pastoral care than with doctrine…

I do not share that impression. It creates an artificial opposition which does not exist. The Pope is the first guarantor and keeper of the doctrine of the Church and at the same the first shepherd, the first pastor. Doctrine and pastoral care are not in opposition, they are like twins.

Do the current and the retired Pope take opposite views in the debate about divorced and remarried Catholics?

I know of no doctrinal statements from Pope Francis which are contrary to the statements of his predecessor. That would be absurd too. It is one thing to emphasise the pastoral efforts more clearly because the situation requires it. It is something else entirely to make a change in teaching. I can only act pastorally sensitive, consistent and conscientious when I do so on the basis of full Catholic teaching. The substance of the sacraments is not left to the discretion of pastors, but has been given to the Church by the Lord. That is also and especially true for the sacrament of marriage.

Was there a visit of some cardinals to Benedict during the Synod, with the request that he intervene to rescue the dogma?

There has not been such a visit to Pope Benedict. A supposed intervention by the Pope emeritus is pure invention.

How does Benedict respond to the attempts by traditionalist circles to recognise him as an antipope?

It was not traditionalist circles who attempted that, but representatives of the theological profession and some journalists. Speaking of an antipope is simply stupid, and also irresponsible.  That goes in the direction of theological arson.

Recently there was excitement surrounding a contribution in the recently published fourth volume of the Collected Works of Joseph Ratzinger. The author changed some conclusions to the topic of the divorced and remarried in a stricter sense. Does Benedict want to involve himself with this in the Synod debate?

Not at all. The revision of said article from 1972 was completed and sent to the publisher long before the Synod. It must be remembered that every author has the right to make changes in his writings. Every informed person knows that Pope Benedict has not shared the conclusions of said contribution since 1981, which is more than 30 years! As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he has expressed this clearly in various comments.

The timing of the publication of the new edition to coincide with the Synod was then anything but happy…

The fourth volume of the Collected Works, in which the article is printed, was supposed to be published in 2013. The publication was delayed for various reasons and happened only in 2014. That a Synod on the topic of the family would take place at that time, was absolutely unforeseen when the planning of the publication of the separate volumes was made.

Upon his retirement, Benedict XVI said that he would be living “hidden from the world”. He continues to make appearances, however. Why?

When he is present at important Church events, it is because he is personally invited by Pope Francis, for example when he took part in the consistory of last February, the canonisation of John Paul II and John XXIII in April and also the beatification of Paul VI in October. He has also written a greeting for the inauguration of the Auditorium Maximum of the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, which was named after him. Pope Benedict was invited for that, but did not accept that invitation.

In the greeting, which you read out on his behalf at the time, he however makes clear theological statements. “The elimination of truth is lethal for the faith,” he wrote.

The greeting was an impressive contribution to the topic of “Truth and Mission”. You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet during the reading in the crowded auditorium. Content-wise, it was a theological classic. Pope Francis, who had received the text from Benedict beforehand, was much impressed and had thanked him for it.

Does Benedict sometimes speak about his retirement? Is he relieved?

He is at peace with himself and convinced that the decision was right and necessary. It was a decision of conscience that was well prayed and suffered over, and in that man stands alone before God.

You struggled with Benedict’s historical retirement in February of 2013. How do you look back on this step now?

It is true that the decision was difficult for me. It was not easy to accept it internally. I struggled to cope. The fight is now long since over.

You swore to be loyal to Benedict to the death. Does that also mean that you’ll remain at his side, and also in the Vatican?

On the day of his election as Pope I promised to help him in vita et in morte. Of course I did not take a retirement into account at that time. But the promise is still true and remains valid.

Bishops should be shepherds. As archbishop in the Roman Curia, do you sometimes feel like a shepherd without a flock?

Yes, sometimes. But I am getting more and more invitations for confirmations, anniversary Masses and other celebrations. Initially I responded somewhat defensive to those and accepted only a few. But that has changed lately. Direct contact with the faithful is very important. That is why I accept pastoral duties whenever it is possible and compatible with my other obligations. That is both good and necessary. And it is also the best medication against one of the diseases of the Curia mentioned by Pope Francis: the danger of becoming a bureaucrat.

Bishop in the pub – making the conference more present

dbk logoA month from now, the German bishops will be meeting for their spring plenary in the city of Hildesheim, but on the eve of that meeting on the 23rd of February, seven bishops will participate in debates about various topics in seven pubs throughout the city. Whereas plenary meetings of bishops’ conferences are usually far removed from the daily lives of the faithful, they do influence it and are an arena where important issues and plans are discussed and decided. By holding such pub debates, as it were, both the conference and their topics take a few steps towards the faithful, closing the gap between them. This is, of course, further helped by the fact that entrance is free (although some pubs have a space limit)…

The plan seems to be the brainchild of Bishop Norbert Trelle, host of the meeting and vice-president of the bishops’ conference. The Diocese of Hildesheim celebrates the 1200th anniversary of its foundation this year and its 11th century cathedral has just come out of an extensive renovation.

These are the seven bishops speaking at various pubs: Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier will speak about peace and justice; Bishop Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabrück) about the communication of faith; Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann (Würzburg) about art and religion; Bishop Heiner Koch (Dresden-Meißen) about marriage and family; Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen) about business ethics; Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (Cologne) about poverty; and Bishop Norbert Trelle (Hildesheim) about immigration and human rights.

An example worth following by bishops in other countries.

Meetings in Rome, and some thoughts about blogging bishops

hendriks paus franciscusThe Netherlands is a fairly small country, and the Catholic Church in this country is, relatively speaking, even smaller. So when a Dutch bishop or two visit Rome and meet with the Pope, it is interesting enough to mention here. But that’s not the only reason, of course…

This week, Bishops Jan Hendriks and Theodorus Hoogenboom visited the Eternal City to discuss the plight of diocesan religious institutes who no longer have enough members to supply their own superior, economist or council members. For that purpose they met with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Bishop Hendriks writes about the visit on his personal website.

Bishop Hendriks also attended Wednesday’s General Audience (where the photo above was taken) and shares an anecdote about a meeting with a Nigerian cardinal:

“Among others, I spoke with Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria, who was in Rome for a congress on the meaning and the role of women, with participants from various world religions. He had been well acquainted with the former bishop of Haarlem, Msgr. Hennie Bomers CM, who died suddenly in 1998, shortly after a visit to Nigeria where he had ordained fellow Lazarist brothers. The cardinal had good memories of the bishop’s house in Haarlem, where he had stayed in the past. I didn’t tell him we are busy selling the building…”

Bishop Hendriks is the sole blogging bishop in the Netherlands (although several other bishops regularly contribute articles and texts to various media and their diocese’s websites), and I think his is an example that deserves more following. It is good to know what our bishops are doing, to counter the unwanted image of secrecy that, in my opinion, the bishops’ conference still has. We know they meet monthly, but what they discuss remains a secret. I’m not suggesting we should all receive detailed reports of their discussions (Bishop Hendriks also supplies none, but he does explain what the meeting in Rome was about), but more openness, certainly in the personal medium of a blog or piece on a website, could help making us faithful feel more involved in their daily affairs and more understanding when difficult decisions need to be made, such as in cases of parish mergers and church closings.

Of course, a blog is not for everyone. Neither is a social media presence. But generally speaking, there is still so much to gain in the new media for our bishops. The Internet has penetrated in every layer of society and few are the people who never come into contact with it. More and more people get their news from the web first, and opinion is everywhere. As the chief shepherds of our local Church and the visible representatives of the world wide Church that they are, the bishops must also be there. Blog posts, the personal element of a social media presence, can be a great asset in that.

Musical chairs in the Curia – some thoughts about the latest changes

There’s much to say about Pope Francis’ most recent Curia reshuffle, and a lot has already been said. But, whether you think the changes are good or bad, they are most certainly interesting.

Cardinal-BurkeThe most visible change is of course the transfer of Raymond Cardinal Burke from the Apostolic Signatura to the Order of Malta. Many see this as a demotion, and in a way that is understandable. As Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura his influence on what the Church does with marriage annulments and other difficult legal issues was great. Now he is the Patron of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, a body which offers medical and emergency aid to people all over the world, boasting about 20,000 medical personnel and 80,000 volunteers to make a major difference in disaster areas and for refugees and the sick. The Order retains a level of independence from the time when it was sovereign over Rhodes and later Malta. It has the status of Permanent Observer at the United Nations and issues its own passports. Cardinal Burke has become the Patron of this order and as such does not lead it (that is the duty of the Grand Master of the Order), but is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing and its relations with the Holy See.

There have been Patrons of the Order of Malta only since 1961, and all were cardinals who ended their career in the Church in this position. Cardinal Burke is 66, and many say that his career should be far from over, so this position seems hardly fitting for him. So has Pope Francis promoted Cardinal Burke away because he was an obstacle? The simple answer is that we don’t know, because neither the Pope nor the cardinal have made statements about it. Cardinal Burke did announce that his transfer was coming up (which is unusual in itself), but that is about as far as it goes. However, there are plenty of grounds to make assumptions, and many have done so. I don’t want to that, because, quite frankly, it doesn’t interest me to do so and I think that assumptions and gossip do more bad than good.

Cardinal Burke has been quite present in the media before, during and after the Synod, and he has been a consistent defender of the Catholic faith. It is sad that many don’t hear him because, in my opinion, his communication skills are less than optimal. Too often have there been statements which just begged to be misunderstood, such as when he said that there are faithful who feel as if the Church is sailing without a rudder. Many have seen this as outright criticism of Pope Francis, something that Cardinal Burke has denied. And a reading of his words support this, but that’s not what the audience hears. Subsequent corrections rarely reach their target. That has been a major problem for Cardinal Burke in recent months. It’s not that his words are wrong or his intentions are bad, on the contrary: he deserves to be heard, for what he says is valuable and wise. But communication is difficult, especially via the media. It is never objective, and people for images of people. Cardinal Burke, sadly, has generally become to be seen as a mean old traditionalist who hates mercy and doesn’t understand people. Fro what I gather from certain people who personally know the cardinal, that is far removed from the truth.

This, at least, gives a bit of a bad taste to his transfer, but it’s not all bad. When we heard from Cardinal Burke, it was rarely because of his function at the Signatura. And as Patron of the Order of Malta he is as free as ever to speak, explain and comment, even when his focus is on the charity work of the Order and the spiritual needs of its members.

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tn_giobbe_gifMuch has been made about the fact that Cardinal Burke is very young to be named Patron of the Order of Malta. But is that really true? When we look back at previous Patrons, we see that 66-year-old Cardinal Burke is only slightly on the young side. Below I list his predecessors since the position was created in 1961, and their age upon their appointment:

  • Cardinal Paolo Giobbe, Patron from 1961 to 1969, aged 81 (pictured at right)
  • Cardinal Giacomo Violardo, Patron from 1969 to 1978, aged 71
  • Cardinal Paul-Pierre Philippe, Patron from 1978 to 1984, aged 73
  • Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, Patron from 1984 to 1993, aged 71
  • Cardinal Pio Laghi, Patron from 1993 to 2009, aged 71
  • Cardinal Paolo Sardi, patron from 2010 to 2014, aged 76

So yes, Cardinal Burke is the youngest Patron to date, but the difference in age between him and the three next youngest is only five years. And even when we look at the number of previous assignments and offices held, Cardinal Burke does not stand out. He has held six previous offices, which is more than Cardinals Sardi, Philippe and Violardo. Only Cardinals Laghi and Baggio have held significantly more positions before being made Patron of the Order of Malta.

So, according to the numbers, Cardinal Burke stands out only slightly when it comes to age. The patronage of the Order of Malta has a reputation as being an end station with little importance. The members of the Order will perhaps conclude otherwise, and there is always the example of Cardinal Baggio, who combined it with the office of Chamberlain of the Church…

***

But the other two appointments that make up this round of Curia changes are also worth the attention as they raise their own questions and conclusions.

mambertiReplacing Cardinal Burke as Prefect of the Supreme tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (and also as President of the Supreme Court of the Vatican City State) is Archbishop Dominique Mamberti. The Morocco-born French archbishop is a career diplomat, which makes his new appointment somewhat unexpected. As a diplomat, Archbishop Mamberti was Apostolic Nuncio to the ‘difficult’ countries Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia before being called to Rome in 2006 to become the second man at the Secretariat of State, the Secretary for Relations with States, often described as the Vatican ‘foreign affairs minister’. In recent years he has been especially concerned with the plight of Christians and other persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Archbishop Mamberti is titular archbishop of Sagone, and may well be a future cardinal. What the experienced diplomat will bring to the ecclesiastical courts remains to be seen, but a wide outlook influenced by various cultures and societies across the globe seems to be one aspect.

gallagherIn the final act of this curial musical chairs, the new Secretary for the Relations with States comes from England by way of Australia. Archbishop Paul Gallagher is the first Anglophone foreign minister and although he is also fluent in Italian, French and Spanish, his being a native English speaker should be a boon to the international outlook of the Secretariat of State and the Holy See.

Archbishop Gallagher comes from Liverpool and was a priest of that archdiocese until joining the Holy See diplomatic service in 1984. He served in various countries, but his first posting as Apostolic Nuncio, to Burundi, saw him succeeding an assassinated predecessor and he himself was the target of a bombing in 2008. He escaped unscathed as he was abroad at the time. He was later Nuncio to Guatemala and most recently to Australia. He is the titular archbishop of Hodelm and will likely remain so, as the position of Secretary for the Relation with States is traditionally not a cardinalatial position.

Once again, these changes show that Pope Francis does not necessarily choose the obvious candidates for the post, but does attach much weight to diplomatic experience. We see that in the choice of Archbishops Mamberti and Gallagher, and even in the transfer of Cardinal Burke, which may well serve in giving him additional international experience.

Catholic Voices launches a Dutch chapter

catholic voicesGood news this week as Catholic Voices launches a Dutch group. This weekend, a group of 20 Catholics follow the initial training in order to become informed and communicative voices for the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith in the media. Founder of Catholic Voices as a whole, Jack Valero, summarises the purpose of the initiative as follows: “It’s not about winning the discussion, but giving a positive witness.”

The original Catholic Voices was formed in 2010 in the United Kingdom, on the eve of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to that country, in order to be able to answer questions of the media and inform the public about all sort of subjects related to the Church and the faith. A Catholic Voice may be contacted via the group to be a guest commentator, a participant of a discussion or a source of information for all sorts of media.

catholic voices nederland

Since 2010, groups ave been established in a number of countries, including Italy, the United States and Australia.

In addition to training the first group of Catholic Voices, they also offer a three-part training course in Strategic Communication of the Faith, on three Saturdays in 2015. This is for people who want to be able to give good answers to the difficult questions they may get in their daily life.

In the First Letter of Peter we read, “If anyone asks you to give an account of the hope which you cherish, be ready at all times to answer for it” (3:15), and that is exactly what Catholic Voices wants to do. In our modern media, driven by concerns of a financial as nature as well as the need to offer good journalism and information, the subject of religion is often forgotten. No longer are there specific, well-informed reporters appointed to cover these topics, and often we see the results: incorrect information and subjective reporting coloured by opinions. Catholic Voices can be a tool to correct that, as well as a wonderful opportunity for individual faithful to learn more, not just about their faith and Church, but also about their own communication.

The fluidity of doctrine – looking back at the Synod

Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:

bisschop de korte“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.

Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.

We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.

Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.

Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?

An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”

The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.

The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.

In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:

Cardinal-Timothy-Dolan“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”.  That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”

We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.

Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.

But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.