Rome has spoken (maybe) – two of the seven bishops explain themselves [Updated]

At the time of my writing this there is no official word from Rome yet, but strong rumours started to surface yesterday that Rome has issued a decision in favour of the seven German bishops who had serious doubts about the proposed pastoral guide concerning Communion for non-Catholics, that the German Bishops’ Conference had voted for in February. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the rumours say, has studied the matter and the final decision is explicitly endorsed by the Holy Father. The official statement may become public, but it appears that the question was deemed important enough to lead to an unusual swift decision, made all the more significant by papal involvement.

Kardinal_Woelki_-_Weg_zum_und_Mittagsgebet_im_Kölner_Dom-3210While the letter by Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop Schick and Bishops Zdarsa, Hanke, Ipolt, Voderholzer and Oster received much attention in the media, the signatories themselves treated it as a normal matter of correspondence. Cardinal Woelki, who was visiting Ukraine when the news broke, expressed his surprise at the hype and the talk about dissent. Presenting the questions about intercommunion to Rome was not so much a matter of going against his fellow bishops, but rather came from the importance of the matter: “With several bishops, we were convinced that it would be good to universally coordinate the solution that we have discussed and established here, with an eye on the unity of the Church and the common ground with the other particular churches.” Cardinal Woelki is not so much opposed to the proposals from the conference, to allow non-Catholic spouses of Catholics to receive Communion with their partner on a case-by-case basis, but does not think it is a decision that should be made by the German bishops alone.

osterThe most extensive explanation for signing the letter comes from Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. In an article published in the diocesan magazine and on his personal website, he emphasises that the debates within the bishops’ conference have always been fraternal and respectful. He then goes on to explain his reason for signing the letter to Rome.

“The Eucharist is so central to us Catholics, that it expresses the basis of our entire understanding of faith and church. Someone who is able to say “Amen” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, says yes to the communion with the Pope and the bishops and with the saints that it implies. He says yes to the special priesthood, the prayer to the mother of the Lord and for the dead – to name just those points which distinguish us, for example in the understanding of what a church is, from our Evangelical brothers. In essence our being Church is expressed in its most dense and concrete way in the Eucharist.”

The proposal from the German bishops includes the idea that a non-Catholic with a strong desire to receive the Eucharist, and after confirming the Catholic understanding of it, can do so. They claim that this is one of the exceptions in which a non-Catholic can receive, normally in an emergency and danger of death. But Bishop Oster rightly states that a person with the desire to receive with his or her spouse is not automatically in danger of death and “has time and opportunity to enter into the Church, as he or she already shares the same understanding of Church and Eucharist.” The bishop wants to know if this desire is indeed a serious necessity or even danger which would allow a non-Catholic to receive Communion.

The proposal also creates some strange ecumenical discrepancies:

“At the same time the proposal states that the Catholic spouse can not join in the Evangelical Last Supper, since the understanding of this Last Supper is so clearly different. This means that, according to the logic of the proposal the Evangelical partner can receive both Eucharist and Last Supper, but the Catholic can not. The Evangelical partner is trusted to somehow uphold both understandings of faith, but not the Catholic, since they do not go together. I think it is very difficult to communicate this!”

Bishop Oster also no romantic notions of how such a change would be generally received by the faithful:

“Experience with past regulations show us that what are depicted as singular cases here, will be perceived by the general public as a broad permission, in the sense of: “Now the others can finally come to Communion with us.”

The first reactions support this reading, the bishop says, and that may lead to a trivialisation of the Eucharist. “After all, we rightly call the Eucharist “the most holy”, and how we treat it is, in my opinion, very important.”

The bishop of Passau ends his article with a second reminder that, despite what some media claim, there is no schism among the German bishops, and nor will there be.

“I am fully convinced that the bishops who think differently also want what is best for the Church and ecumenism. For us signatories the unity of the bishops’ conference, as well as progress in ecumenism, is also important. But we wonder if the path chosen can be taken in this way – and very much want to receive a deeper explanation.”

EDIT (19-4): The German Bishops’ Conference released a statement today in which it declares that any reports about a decision against the pastoral document from the bishops about intercommunion are false. The Holy Father has, however, issued an invitation to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the conference, to discuss the issue in Rome. Cardinal Marx has gladly welcomed this invitation. Who will take part in this discussion remains to be seen.

Photo credit: [1] Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


 

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Bishops refuse to stand up against Pope, and with good reason

Earlier this week, a group of 20 Dutch Catholics wrote a letter to the bishops of the Netherlands, asking them to take a position against the course on which Pope Francis is taking the Church. It made international headlines (such as on sensationalist LifeSiteNews).

The letter lists a number of cases which prove their point, although some are rather far-fetched (they seem to see the Holy See’s acknowledgment of the existence of people such as feminists, Protestant, Muslims and homosexuals (let alone meeting them) as tantamount to supporting their ideas and opinions). The majority of points are related to the Church’s teaching on sexuality and that footnote in Amoris laetitia. All of their points, the writers say, can be summarised under the headers of Modernism and Protestantism. In this papacy, they see a resurgence of 1960s ideas which were buried under previous Popes.

The letters asks three things from the bishops, that they express themselves:

  1. In favour of an integral upholding of Humanae vitae;
  2. In favour of teaching and practice regarding reception of Holy Communion by validly married people in a new relationship;
  3. In favour of upholding the moral teachings regarding homosexual relationships;
  4. In favour of upholding the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, following the example of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium); especially in favour of upholding the teachings regarding the supremacy of God’s Law above the subjective conscience.

They also ask the bishops to join the request for clarification, the dubia, presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner.

The signatories of the petition feel supported by comments made in recent months and years by Cardinal Wim Eijk, who has repeatedly argued that Pope Francis should clear up the confusion caused by different interpretations of Amoris laetitia.

The four points mentioned above are misleading in that they assume that the bishops are currently not upholding these teachings. As current Church teaching stands, the bishops are upholding it, and while it is true that other bishops’ conferences are interpreting papal documents and statements differently, that does not change anything about the doctrine regarding human sexuality, reception of the sacraments and the relationships with people of other faiths.

Via their spokesperson, the Dutch bishops responded as follows:

“This week, the bishops have sent a joint response to the signatories of the petition.

The bishops let it be known that, while the issues addressed are important, they will speak about them directly with the Holy Father when they wish to do so, and not with the signatories of the petition.”

Of course, it was never very likely for the bishops to sign on to the dubia in any public way. Which is not to say that they automatically disagree with any of them. As mentioned above, Cardinal Eijk has rightly been critical about the different interpretations allowed by Amoris laetitia and the lack of any kind of clarification from the Pope. But, and I think they are right in this, the bishops seem to be of the opinion that no doctrine has changed since Pope Francis was elected, and they have acted accordingly, at least as a conference.

But the signatories of the petition write from a position which is not only highly critical of Pope Francis, but also from a world view which is wont to see conspiracies everywhere (with the traditional teachings of the Church as the main target of these conspiracies). This is a problem with a significant part of more conservative Catholic groups. They see enemies everywhere, and non-Catholics are especially suspect. This colours their views on ecumenism and relations with other faiths, as well as on people who do not live according to the ideals of the Church. So, while the petition is correct about the need for clarity, it presumes too much when it asks that the Church essentially stops talking to people with different outlooks (at least until they confess and convert). This negates the need for the bishops to agree to the petition, as they have already asserted that doctrine hasn’t changed, clarity is desirable in the case of Amoris laetitia, and cordial relations with non-Catholics are necessary and do not necessarily constitute any agreement with them.


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Breakaways – seven German bishops go against the conference’s grain

In Catholic social media, the German episcopate is frequently represented as a singular monolith, and a liberal one at that. Following their recent decision to explore ways in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholics can receive Holy Communion together with their partner, cracks start to appear in that image. Although the decision, which I wrote about here, was made after a two-thirds majority of the German bishops voted in favour of it, seven bishops have expressed their concerns to the Vatican.

sevenbishops

Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, and Bishops Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg, Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt, Wolfgang Ipolt of Görlitz, Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Stefan Oster of Passau (above) have signed a letter in which they asked the Holy See to clarify the extent to which a bishops’ conference can decide on the accessibility of Holy Communion. They wonder if the decision is not contrary to the doctrine of the faith and the unity of the Church, and claim that the bishops exceed their limits of competence when they say that non-Catholic spouses can receive Communion, albeit under certain circumstances (a formulation that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has denounced as mere lip service). The letter was sent to Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Kardinal-Marx-beklagt-in-Weihnachtsbotschaft-sinkende-GeburtenratenCardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, responded with a letter to all German bishops – a decision motivated by the fact that the letter concerns a decision made by the entire conference and was sent to the Holy See and the Apostolic Nuncio. In his response, he emphasises that no decision has been made to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion, but that there is a working document which may still be amended or changed. The cardinal also reminds the authors that bishops’ conferences and individual bishops have the right, according to canon law, to determine when Holy Communion can be given licitly to non-Catholics.

It is a rare event for members of a bishops’ conference to go beyond their elected president and appeal directly to the Vatican, especially in the case of a majority decision. But on the other hand, it is the ordinary, not the bishops’ conference, who has final say about and responsibility over what happens in his diocese. The concerns of the seven bishops is directly related to their duties as shepherds of their diocesan flocks, and deserves to be taken seriously. Will there be an answer forthcoming from the Holy See? It is not unlikely, even in a time when honest concerns about matters of doctrine have remained unanswered. But unlike the dubia cardinals, the seven German bishops are not appealing to the Pope, but to two curial departments. And it is especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s duty to clarify matters of doctrine and, in this case, to delineate the limits of freedom of bishops’ conference. In that sense, this may be something of a test case in the relationships between bishops and conferences, as well as conferences and the larger world Church.

Photo credit: [2] dapd/sjl


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The Church grows, if slowly

baptismEaster is the time for Baptism, and every year, the Church rejoices in welcoming new faithful to her flock. Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad asked the seven Dutch dioceses how many Baptisms they added to the books at Easter this year. The number: at least 147.

The standout diocese is Rotterdam, with 80 new Catholics. They are followed by Haarlem-Amsterdam with 48, Groningen-Leeuwarden with 13 and Breda with 6. The Archdiocese of Utrecht and the Dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond provided no exact numbers.

Like myself 11 years ago, the majority of new Catholics also received the sacraments of Confirmation and first Holy Communion. The number mentioned above does not, however, consist solely of newly baptised. Some people had aready been baptised in other church communities and now entered the Catholic Church.

For Belgium the number stands at 239, Kerknet reports. The numbers only refer to (young) adults becoming Catholic.

German bishops to explore access of non-Catholics to Holy Communion

dbk logoThe German bishops have been rather popular targets in more conservative Catholic media for their supposed liberal policies and decisions, and sometimes rightly so. In their spring meeting in Ingolstadt, which concluded yesterday, they made another such decision. One that will undoubtedly will be heavily criticised and presented in terms of heresy (looking at you, Gloria TV). However, in this case, the criticism is generally unwarranted.

The bishops have been discussing when non-Catholic partners of a Catholic can receive Holy Communion with their husband or wife. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, said that there had been an intense debate and many serious objections against opening up access to the Eucharist in such a way. A great majority of the bishops nonetheless voted in favour of creating a pastoral guide for situations when a non-Catholic may receive Communion alongside his or her partner.*

Communion-WafersCardinal Marx stated that the bishops have no desire to change dogmatics. The pastoral guide they are proposing will be based on canon 844 §4 in the Code of Canon Law, and it will help a pastor decide if an exception to the rule is possible. Canon 844 §4 discusses the conditions under which a non-Catholic can receive Communion. If there is a danger of death or some other grave necessity (according to the judgement of the local bishop or the bishops’ conference), and if the person involve has no recourse to a minister of their own community, a priest can licitly administer Communion to him or her. The person receiving must also seek the sacrament of their own volition and must manifest the Catholic belief in the sacrament and be otherwise able to receive (just like all Catholics). The bishops claim that there can be such a strong desire in mixed marriages to receive Communion together that not responding to this can endanger the marriage and faith of the spouses. This, they claim, can be the “grave necessity” the Code of Canon Law refers to.

“We don’t want to say that everything is equal,” Cardinal Marx stated. This decision in no way means that all non-Catholic Christians in Germany can now receive Communion in Catholic churches. But as there are allowances in canon law, the bishops have deemed it prudent to help priests and pastoral workers decide if such possibilities actually exist in individual cases.

The document will be published in the coming weeks.

*The main obstacle in this context is the fact that receiving Communion is also a profession of faith. A non-Catholic Christian professes a different belief in the transsubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and for this reason the Catholic Church prohibits them from receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion.

Not against the Pope, but against confusion – Cardinal Eijk wants clarity

In an interview published today, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his installation as archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk once again repeated his opinion that Pope Francis should remove all doubt about the question remarried Catholics and heir receiving Communion (or not). He says:

Kardinaal dr. W.J. Eijk“Following both Synods on the family a document was written by the pope, Amoris laetitia. This has caused confusion. Can divorced and remarried Catholics receive Communion or can’t they? What you see now is that one bishops’ conference deals with it in one way, and the other in another way. But, what is true in location A, can’t suddenly be not true in location B. At some point you’d want clarity. […] People are confused and that is not right. […] I would say: just be clear. On this point. Remove that confusion. For example in the form of a document.”

It is also clear to Cardinal Eijk what such a clarification should say.

“We have the words of Christ himself, that marriage is one and can’t be broken. That is what we maintain in the archdiocese. When an ecclesiastical court has declared a marriage null, it is officially confirmed that there has never been a marriage. Only then, one is free to marriage and receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion.”

The interview covers far more ground than this single point – from church closings and the abuse crisis to Pope Francis and the perceived differences between cardinal and pope and divine providence… – but this is making the headlines. And is being misinterpreted. Cardinal Eijk’s position is no surprise. He participated in both Synod of Bishops assemblies on the family, was one of the alleged signatories of a letter sent to the pope asking him to defend traditional Church teaching on marriage, and he has since maintained that the different interpretations of Amoris laetitia on this topic is problematic. Some may choose to see this as his attacking the pope, but in reality he, not unlike the “dubia cardinals”, is simply noting that different opinions and interpretations exist and that that is something that should be remedied. That he is no enemy of the Holy Father, is something that Cardinal Eijk also repeats in this interview, by saying, “Nowhere has Francis ever said anything that is contrary to the teachings of the Church.”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

The question of a decoration – pro-abortion politician inducted in the Order of St. Gregory

31763202376_be0cc71348_zLilianne Ploumen, member of the Dutch parliament and formerly Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, recently showed off a papal decoration she received, the insignia of commander in the order of St. Gregory the Great. This decoration is one of five papal orders of knighthood and is granted in recognition of “personal service to the Holy See and to the Roman Catholic Church, through [the recipient’s] unusual labors, their support of the Holy See, and their excellent examples set forth in their communities and their countries.”

This recognition is problematic in more than one way: Ms. Ploumen has been a staunch advocate of abortion, setting up the She Decides campaign to raise money after American President Trump discontinued the use of taxpayer’s money to finance abortions abroad. In 2010, she also urged people to disrupt Mass at St. John’s cathedral in Den Bosch, after an openly homosexual man was denied Communion. Ms. Ploumen’s public persona, at least, is one decidedly at odds with Catholic teaching and even openly hostile against parts of it.

It is hard to see exactly why she received this recognition, given in the name of the Holy Father, who, it must be said, is rather emphatically opposed to what Ms. Ploumen supports. However, there is a chance that the recognition was given for what she does in private life, in her parish or other organisation. In the past she also headed Catholic relief organisation Cordaid, which could possibly also play a part in this.

GregoriusordenIncreasing the surprise, even indignation, about this is the fact that neither the bishops’ conference nor the nuncio are aware of this decoration having been awarded. Normally, nominations are relayed to Rome via the bishops and apostolic nuncio, the the representative of the Holy See in a country.

Assuming that this is not a bit of fake news – and I see no reason to believe it is – there are two conclusions to draw from this: someone either seriously messed up, thus (un)wittingly making a mockery of the Catholic teachings about abortion (and also the Pope’s vocal opposition to it); or the entire process of awarding decorations is not to be taken too seriously. It is safe to assume that Pope Francis was not personally informed about the decorating, but someone in his staff was. What value do decorations have if they are automatically rubber-stamped, as could have conceivable happened here?

Whatever the case may, as the situation stands now many Catholics feel offended by the fact that a known supporter of abortion, and a person who has called for the disruption of the celebration of Mass to make a political point, has received this high papal decoration.

EDIT 1: The Archdiocese of Utrecht today issued an official reaction to this affair, which I share here:

“In response to many questions from both The Netherlands and abroad, Cardinal Eijk says that he was not involved in the application for the title Commander in the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, which former minister L. Ploumen received last year. Cardinal Eijk was also unaware of the fact that this papal award was requested for her.”

EDIT 2: In a commentary for Nederlands Dagblad, Vatican watcher Hendro Munsterman offers a possible explanation for Ploumen being awarded the title of commander in the Order of St. Gregory. In 2017, he explains, Ms. Ploumen was part of the delegation accompanying King Willem Alexander on the first official state visit of a Dutch head of state to the Holy See. On such occasions it is customary for visitors and hosts to exchange decorations, and ten members of the Dutch delegation received such from the Vatican, among them then-Minister Ploumen. However, many people will obviously be unaware of such diplomatic niceties, and Munsterman is right when he says that Ploumen should have prevented the journalist interviewing her from turning a simple matter of protocol into a statement. To Catholic Herald, Ms Ploumen said that she also assumed that she received the decoration for being a part of the Dutch delegation.

EDIT 3: Late last night, the Vatican released an official comment, stating:

“The honor of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great received by Mrs. Lilianne Ploumen, former Minister of Development, in June 2017 during the visit of the Dutch Royals to the Holy Father, responds to the diplomatic practice of the exchange of honors between delegations on the occasion of official visits by Heads of State or Government in the Vatican.

Therefore, it is not in the slightest a placet [an expression of assent] to the politics in favor of abortion and of birth control that Mrs Ploumen promotes.”

This should put to rest this current affair, although it leaves questions open about the wisdom of issuing automatic decorations to politicians and diplomats with no regard of their standpoints and actions.

Photo credit: [1] Lex Draijer