A politician’s take on the Vatican

Boris_Dittrich_croppedFormer Dutch parliamentarian Boris Dittrich (pictured) has been treating several media outlets to the story of his visit to the Vatican and his conversation with Archbishop Müller. There are some serious problems with his comments, which I will try to address by fisking this article, which was written by Frans Wijnands and was published today on “meeting place for Christians” Het Goede Leven (all bold text in between square brackets are my comments):

The Pope does not decide the doctrine of the Church, says Archbishop Müller

Under the current Pope Francis there is no relaxation imaginable in the Church’s strictly dismissive opinion on homosexuality. So states the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is not the Pope who decides the doctrine, the dogmas of the Church [well, in the case of dogmas, it is]. Concerning doctrine, that is a matter for the Curia. That is the response that Dutch former (Liberal Democrat] politician Boris Dittrich received from Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when Dittrich suggested out loud that the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards homosexuals could change in a positive way under Pope Francis.

Dittrich was in Rome and the Vatican these past days on behalf of Human Rights Watch, a worldwide human rights organisation which, among others, strives for equal rights for homosexuals [including the right to change truth, it would seem]. Dittrich is its director for ‘rights of sexual minorities’.

Open Letter

Earlier he had explained the position of Human Rights Watch in a more or less open letter of twelve pages [talk about losing the point in words, perhaps?] With the letter, Human Rights Watch encouraged Pope Francis last month to denounce violence towards and discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals, and to stand up to priests and other workers in the Church who support violence against and discrimination of sexual minorities [Because no Pope has done that before. I’ll just share this link again; in it I quote some sources which state exactly what Dittrich wants].

Dittrich travelled to Rome to personally explain the letter, but did not get to speak with the Pope [Did he think of making an appointment, or did he just assume the Holy Father would make time for him on the spot?]. The former D66 member of parliament was at the weekly audience with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday and was able to hand the letter to an assistant when Francis’ car stopped near him.

MüllerHe did get to speak with Msgr. Müller (pictured), the head of the most important Vatican Congregation, that of the Doctrine of the Faith. Dittrich told Müller that he attended an opening of a campaign for more rights for homosexuals in Rio de Janeiro in 2008 and there spoke extensively with the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires: Msgr. Bergoglio, the current Pope. He told Dittrich that he was or is [odd and suggestive use of words] opposed to gay marriage, but could imagine that an alternative was possible, for example the legal recognition of homosexual relations. [Where did we hear that before? Oh, right: here.] A sort of cohabitation contract [as it exists in the Netherlands for both same-sex and separate-sex couples].

Cold and Stiff

To Dittrich’s suggestion that under the current Pope a relaxation of the Church’s strictly dismissive position was imaginable, Müller’s reply was that the Pope does not make policy, but that that was a task for the Curia.

“The entire conversation was cold and stiff. Very detached. Not a single sign of thinking along or sympathy, “says Dittrich. “I senses a tension, a sort of self defense.” [Probably because some research will show that the teaching of the Church is not subject to the personal opinions of whoever, and that Pope Francis is indeed a son of the Church, as he said himself].

In Rome and among Vatican watchers it is known that the public actions of Francis are not received well be everyone in the highest governing body. The Pope has repeatedly shown that he makes his own decisions and does not rely too much on the Curia. [On the other hand, Archbishop Müller and other Curial prelates have been confirmed in their jobs after careful consideration, a sure sign that Pope Francis supports them in their work].

Tensions

He recently appointed Msgr. Pietro Parolin as new Secretary of State, as successor of Cardinal Bertone. Dittrich assumes that this new Secretary of State will loyally execute the Pope’s policies [Of course he will]. “That obviously creates tensions with the Curia [really?] Because it could lead to the influence and power of that Curia decreasing”, Dittrich assumes. [Dittrich should do a little less assuming and some more researching. Pope Francis was given a specific mandate to reform the Curia by the cardinals who elected him. Among them many Curial cardinals. Pope Francis’ intentions to reform the Curia are hardly secret].

Shortly before resigning, Pope Benedict XVI appointed his former student, friend and confidant, Msgr. Müller as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, [well, shortly… nine months, and it was a decision most likely far longer in the making], an office that Pope Benedict held himself for years before being elected Pope.

In the conversation [which took place where and how, I wonder? Did Dittrich meet the archbishop by chance or did he have an appointment?] with Boris Dittrich, Msgr. Müller also strongly attacked the role of the media. According to him, these are, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, continuously out to hit the Vatican. [Well, many media outlets are, that’s a fact. Whether it’s wise to accuse all media of that, if the archbishop did, is the question]

I can’t help but consider Dittrich’s comments somewhat untrustworthy. He displays a lack of understanding about how the Church works and what she teaches, and a lack of preparation for his attempts to share a letter with the Pope. Add to that his clear liberal agenda, and we get an artificial image of a Curia opposed to their Pope, and image which simply is not supported by reality. It’s like what Archbishop Gänswein said when it was assumed that he and Pope Francis did not get along because he was Benedict’s man: “All nonsense”.

Pope Francis has been encouraging a more pastoral approach to and treatment of homosexuals (and anyone else on the margins of our lives, for that matter) in the Church, but that is not the same thing as changing the teachings of the Church. Pope Francis has never indicated any willingness to change those. Those teachings are also not the product of policy makers, but have been given to us and continuously explained by the Church. To say that Pope and Curia are, or even can be, opposed to each other as if they were two politicians in parliament is a gross misrepresentation of reality.

Photo credit: [1] Sebastiaan ter Burg, [2] Catholic.org

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Blasphemy to be legalised?

A bit of a misleading title, but with a hint of truth in it. Although there is a law in the Netherlands, that prohibits blasphemy or the use of God’s name in vain, it has not actually been used since the 1960s. It’s a dead law which does not look to be resurrected anytime soon, so politicians from the Socialist Party and the liberal Democrats 66 are now out to have it struck from the criminal code.

Although the initiators of the plan show an expected but disturbing disregard for religious sensibilities (“It’s something for the enthusiast who believes in it,” one of them said), is this really something to get up in arms about? I would say it is.

The State Council has said that the freedom of expression does not mean that this law should be struck, but it also doesn’t mean that blasphemy should remain illegal. The freedom that many will cite in this context is quite neutral on the matter.

Striking a dead law from the code sends a message. The existence of the law does no longer have any effect or consequence, but the fact that it exists also sends a message. And what message do we want to send out?

Maintaining a law that forbids the use of blasphemous words, even if it is not upheld, tells us that we have certain standards in our use of language. Some utterances are contrary to those standards and should therefore not be promoted. Striking the law in question would in essence communicate the message that we no longer hold to these standards. We are free to use any words we please, and that trumps any concerns, insult or characteristics of civilisation.

As Catholics we shouldn’t be too thin-skinned; we may not like certain words and utterances, but the correct response is not to hide from them. Rather, we must intelligently counter the underlying reasons that people have for using them. The existence of a dead law, a hint of standards which were once actively pursued, but today still underlie our society, can be a form of support in our efforts to maintain this civility, this intelligent defense.

For all of us, Christian or not, the law that forbids the use of blasphemous words is a reminder that it once mattered how we said things, how we related to one another, even – especially – when we disagreed. That is something worth remembering in our daily conduct. Striking the law, and so stating that it should be okay to blaspheme and curse, is the polar opposite of that..

A surprise to no one, a Dutch politician in favour of rampant secularisation

On the day that the Netherlands vote for the States Provincial, a Dutch politician in another layer of politics – the European Parliament – displays her unique concept of religious freedom. By opposing a theoretical visit of the pope to the Europarliament.

MP Sophie in ‘t Veld, leader of the D66 fraction (part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe political group) ,was alerted by a Dutch priest on Twitter about the audience that Europarliament President Jerzy Buzek had with Pope Benedict three days ago. Buzek apparently issued an invitation to the pope to come and address the parliament some time.

President Buzek and the Holy Father at the end of their audience

MP In ‘t Veld responded today to that invitation, which has not yet received an official response (if it ever will), in the following words:

“A parliament meeting is a session in which substantial decisions are made for five hundred million Europeans, regardless of their convictions, faith or religion. It is inappropriate if this official meeting would be used as a stage for religious message.”

In ‘t Veld continues by assuring us that it is not about the pope:

“The European Parliament is a place for every possible opinion, faith or religion. But religious freedom is not a collective right, but a private matter.”

So what she actually seems to say here – ignoring for now that those two sentences are in apparent contradiction to each other – is that freedom of religion is only a right for individuals, not for groups of people. It is also a right that assumes that those who have it never share their religion, faith or opinion – as if these things are the same or even similar – in public. That is a reading of this particular constitutional freedom which can be backed by exactly nothing. Freedom of religion, in the first place, protects the citizen’s right to live according to their faith without fear of persecution. It has nothing to say about religious leaders addressing politicians.

What In ‘t Veld may think she means is that this is a transgression of the separation between church and state. But that, too, is incorrect. The separation between church and state protects the rights and duties of both. Again, it says nothing about mere communication between them. In fact, communication and equal standing seems to have been assumed and intended by James Madison, when he said: “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both” in an 1811 letter. The separation of church and state limits the level of interference the one can have in the other. An address by a religious leader is of course nothing of the sort.

As an aside, I wonder what In ‘t Veld made of the visit of the Dalai Lama to the European Parliament in 2008…

Photo credit: [2] REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool

A difficult choice in the voting booth

In the Netherlands it’s time to make a difficult decision again: who to vote for in the national elections? It’s never an easy choice, with so many issues going on and so many parties to choose from. And the fact that this election was somewhat unexpected due to the government’s collapse a few months ago does not help either. And when you’re not too enthusiastic or informed about the machinations of politics, the dilemma seems complete.

But vote I will. It’s a right, but also a duty. So the choice is not if I’ll vote, but for whom. And that’s the problem. I’m Catholic (there’s a surprise) and a try to live according to Catholic social teachings, so that is why I try to see reflected in the party programs. And many parties (although some would hate to admit it) agree with what the Church has to say about many topics, but none do so for the full 100 %. In the Netherlands, a Catholic vote is not possible.

So the choice becomes negative. What party is the least divergent? Many Catholics vote left. PvdA, SP and GreenLeft (Labour, Socialists and Greens respectively) are popular. Others vote right: VVD (Liberals) mainly. And traditionally Catholics find a political home among the Christian Democrats of the CDA. And there is the PVV of madman Geert Wilders of course: a one-issue party that looks to be getting many votes out of spite. Will Catholics vote for him? Hard to say.

All these options can be defended (even the PVV, to an extent). But when it comes to combining certain specifically Christian issues (life and the role of religion in society, but also health care and education) and recent events in the media (the abuse issue and demonstrations about the ‘right’ to receive Communion), the choice becomes limited.

There it boils down to those parties who call themselves Christian: CDA, ChristenUnie (Christian Union) and SGP (Politically Reformed Party). CDA and ChristenUnie have been in government, while the SGP has always been a small opposition party, but nonetheless the most consistently Christian. They’re all chiefly or totally Protestant though, with the SGP being openly anti-Catholic.

Comparing the three, I conclude that the ChristenUnie is the best choice. Although solidly Protestant, they have been actively trying to involve Catholics in their party. Originally fully pro-life they did succumb to compromise, but that is the nature of Dutch politics. I don agree, but I understand. CDA is Christian in name only and SGP, as I said, is openly anti-Catholic. Despite the party’s qualities that is a major stumbling block for me.

What will we be getting? Perhaps a Liberal/Left combination? VVD, PvdA, GreenLeft? Maybe the PVV will get too involved (something I hope for: it may mean they´ll collapse within the year because they suddenly have responsibility). CDA will likely end up in opposition. D66 (possibly the most anti-Catholic choice we have) may turn out to be instrumental when it comes to forming a coalition, and perhaps, in a smaller way, the ChristenUnie will be as well. Chances of the end result being good are slim though. The major leftwing parties are openly antagonistic to the Church: the PvdA called for the Communion protests during Mass and GreenLeft  head Femke Halsema called the Church part of an axis of evil… Nice, that :$

But even the best options are not amazing. Dutch politics, like the country itself, is much secularised, and issues of faith, ethics and morality do not play a major part or are openly attacked or ridiculed. We will have to struggle on.

Elections: weighing the options

Next week I will be casting my vote for the city council of Groningen. I have yet to decide which party will be getting my red-pencilled ballot paper, so some research into the various parties is in order. The question I am trying to answer is: what party best represents my own views as a Catholic, and which party has the best chance – via strategic coalitions, for example – to turn those ideas into policy?

I have a choice between eleven parties, or twelve if I count the option to cast a blank vote. But I’ll only do that if I draw the conclusion that I have no confidence in any party (or if I really don’t care, but that’s unlikely). Some parties are not really options for me, of course: some of the local or one-issue parties don’t speak for me, for example. Neither do the liberal parties VVD and D66. My choice is between the left and the conservative, to simplistically delineate them. PvdA (social-democrats), SP (socialists), GreenLeft, CDA (Christian democrats) and ChristianUnion (social Christian democrats). The first three and the last two have connected lists, which means they’ll form and speak as a block in the council together. All have extensive social programs, with the left focussing on the individual and the conservatives on society as a whole.

The Christian point of view is an important one for me, and I think it should be heard in politics. Of the five parties above, only the ChristianUnion is outspokenly Christian. The CDA is as well in name, but reading through their program their Christianity is far less clear. I also don’t really like their overly blunt approach towards beggars and addicts in the city. But they are a major and thus influential party, having had  many seats in the past and they’ll probably continue to have a significant number after the elections as well.

The downside of the ChristianUnion is that they are very much Protestant, which leads to a limited approach and relation to the faith. Their founding documents which consider the Catholic faith idolatry is also an obstacle. Their advantage is stability. The ChristianUnion does not water down its beliefs, but is also not limited by them, and I think that such clarity can do much good.

There are no clear Catholic choices in these elections. Is the ‘least bad’ option good enough? Voting is always better than not voting. And perhaps a vote for any Christian party will open the door for more openly Catholic politicians in the future… I am still undecided. Online election guides keep directing me to the CDA or the SP, so until 3 March I’ll probably keep weighing the options.

A cabinet has fallen. Now what?

I’m no politician, and I’m not really interested in politics and I don’t know a lot about politics. I knew that the cabinet had been discussing a possible extension of the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan and that the PvdA (social democrats) had been against that. Last night the cabinet fell over the issue, as the socialist cabinet ministers collectively quit.

Below is the statement made by Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende:

———-

“Later today I will offer Her Majesty the resignation of the ministers and state secretaries of the PvdA.  I will place the portfolio’s, the office and the functions of these ministers and state secretaries at her disposal. As chairman of the council of minister I have sadly had to conclude that there is no fruitful means by which this cabinet of CDA, PvdA and Christen Unie could continue.

In the past days you have been able to see that the unity was tarnished by established facts. By statements that are contrary to recent decisions as made by the cabinet and reported to the House. Those statements put a political mortgage on amicable debate. They got in the way of diligence. Towards our men and women in Afghanistan, but also in our relationship with our NATO partners.

Today we have tried to see in the council of ministers if trust could be re-established. A reaffirmation of the agreements we made ten days ago in the Treves Hall and which were published in the letter of notice to the House would have laid a foundation for a continued cooperation. The ministers responsible would have been able to propose an option that was satisfactory to the cabinet – if possible before 1 March.

For a minority in the cabinet this was a bridge too far. When trust is lacking, an attempt to agree on content is doomed to fail. At most it would mean the start of a new controversy in the future. Especially concerning the challenger facing the Netherlands: they don’t require the easy way, but decisiveness.

The continued existence of a cabinet can never be a goal in itself. It should be about work and welfare in the Netherlands – now and in the future. And about the influence that the Netherlands can reasonable have on a better world. That is the intention of my colleagues and me when we started three years ago. Collectively and individually we experience the defeat of having failed in this. But that does not change the facts and the conclusion we have had to draw.

Now is not the time to delve deeper into the question of blame – let alone to provide a definite answer. I trust that you will respect this.”

Source 

———-

Law dictates that national elections must be held within three months. And with the public opinion polls heavily favouring populist and right-wing tendencies, I fear the result. While the Christian democrats of the CDA still take the highest share in prospective votes, Geert Wilders’ populist PVV is a very close second. It’s a scary prospect, although there is always the example of earlier populist parties: Pim Fortuyn’s LPF or Rita Verdonk’s TON. They started out with a bright future, but soon imploded.

Judging by the media, the general trend would be towards the right, with both D66 and the VVD likely to win seats. The left-wing has already started to block off options, with Green Left leader Agnes Kant axing any possible coalition with D66, whom she accuses of being to right.

So, we don’t just have municipal elections to look forward to on 3 March, but also national elections between now and May. No idea yet who I will vote for, so I guess some studying of programs is in order.