Church teachings – the clash between authority and respect

pierre-valkeringWith the conclave approaching rapidly, and Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk being the sole voting Dutch cardinal, Amsterdam-based priest Fr. Pierre Valkering writes an ill-considered open letter to him, published today in populist newspaper De Telegraaf.

He writes to urge Cardinal Eijk to vote for a candidate who will change Catholic teachings on sexuality, and, as he admits in the opening paragraph, he is writing “based on my own understanding of [the] Holy Spirit in these matters.” Already there does a main problem become clear. As faithful Catholics, clergy or laity, we do not, first and foremost, act on our own understanding of the Spirit, but understand Him through the Church. Any personal understanding (or misunderstanding) must always be considered in the relationship between God and His people, as the one can’t contradict the other: God won’t be telling His people as a whole one thing, and tell an individual something else altogether.

Fr. Valkering criticises the previous Popes’ promotion of sexuality finding its fullest fruition within the marriage between a man and a woman who are open to new life. “All other forms of sexual experience, heterosexual and homosexual, are rejected.” This, he says, gives the vast majority of people the message that they don’t live properly. This, too, should not be surprising. It has become not done in modern society to criticise anyone about their personal life, but isn’t that what jesus Himself also did? Isn’t that what teaching is? Correcting people if necessary and teaching them what is right and wrong? The Church has been tasked with the same thing, and that has nothing to do with rejecting people. And if a person has a crisis of conscience about such matters, as the author writes about later, the right response is not automatically to disregard or change the teachings of the Church and follow your own wishes and desires. If you accept Christ as the Teacher you want to follow, you must also be open to letting Him teach you, even when the lesson is perhaps difficult to understand. The right course of action is then to try and find out why it is so difficult. Only then, by bringing our own motivations, conscience and obstacles to the light of Christ, can we start the process of change that Christ desires for all of us. And no, that is not always easy. But with trust and faith in the Lord, we know it is right.

Fr. Valkering continues,

“In an increasing number of countries, and certainly in the Netherlands, […] the balance between the “moral right” and the sympathy in public opinion undoubtedly falls to people who live in all openness and honesty, even if they do not life in conformity to the Church’s sexual morals.”

This is a very slippery slope, and basically subjects the unchanging truths that Christ taught us to the wishes and opinions and, even vaguer, the feelings of the people. As if these truths are somehow changed as people think differently about them. As people of faith we profess that reality and truth are not what we make ourselves.

He continues,

“People of the Church, on the other hand, make that same Church and everything she stands for implausible and unattractive when they do not really show themselves in their personal thought and action concerning sexuality, but do measure and judge the people who are honest and open, and do not approach them with the respect […] that every person has a right to.”

As Christians and as people who strive to better ourselves we can’t sit down and adapt ourselves to our failings which keep us from following Christ in our actions and our entire being. But that is what Fr. Valkering is proposing. He essentially says that people can’t help who they are, that teaching people that they can change, that Christ asks us that, is akin to a lack of respect. That is, of course, rather at odds with what our faith has taught us over the centuries.

We must always respect and love our neighbours, regardless of who they are or what they do. However, criticising actions (or lack thereof) is never the same as criticising a person. Teaching a person that change is good and possible does not put a person down, but rather elevates him.

There is one thing that I will give Fr. Valkering credit for, and that is accusation that some workers in the Church can be hypocritical when they teach people about change but refuse it in themselves. But if a teacher has a failure, we can’t conclude that his teachings are incorrect, but we can ask ourselves if he is the right person to do the teaching.

25 years after the pope came to visit

Pope John Paul II with Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus

Twenty-five years ago today, Pope John Paul II set foot on Dutch soil, for the start of a papal visit that has gone down in history as rather disgraceful. Interest among Dutch Catholics was low and many of those who did pay attention to the visit, did so to protest against the Church. It was the start of the notorious 8 May movement of liberal ‘Catholics’ who thought (and still think) that the faith is something we all make for ourselves, that individualism is the holy grail (if you’ll pardon the pun) of personal fulfillment. The fruits of what’s mistakenly called the ‘fruits of Vatican II’ became painfully visible, and we are still recovering from that.

De Telegraaf has a short article that looks back on this visit. In it, Cardinal Simonis, at the time the archbishop of Utrecht and not yet a cardinal, says: “‘Interesting’. Those were the words of Pope John Paul II after his visit. I apologised for the cold reception. The Netherlands was the worst papal visit ever. He reacted very sportsmanlike.”

The cardinal says the reason for the failure was that everyone wanted to enter into discussion with the pope. “The elderly wanted to discuss getting old. The young wanted this, the gay people wanted that. But that’s what bishops are for. The pope is not a superbishop.”

The end of the four-day visit was a relief. “There had been death threats. Also to me. I spent ten days under police protection.”

“It was a failure. There was no enthusiasm but antipathy. And the unavoidable dose of Dutch antipapism.”

And how about a visit from the current pope?

“Oh no, please not. That would not be wise. The pope has other matters to attend to now.”

“Apart from a shepherd, this pope is an intellectual. He has better uses for his time. Besides, he is 83 years old. You shouldn’t do that to the man at that age. The Dutch are also rather stubborn and headstrong, so there is a great risk that Pope Benedict XVI will be received the same way.”

I don’t fully agree with the cardinal about that last part, but I do think a papal visit would be very unwise. There is very little to gain by it, no matter how much I would personally like it. To an extent, the antipapist trends that developed around the 1985 visit have died down. The 8 May movement no longer exists and its supporters are overwhelmingly elderly. But there is still a lot of antipathy, and society as a whole is not very pro-Catholic, let alone pro-pope. While protests won’t be as vocal from the Catholics, I fear they’ll be all the more vocal from the secular camp.

The state of the Church in the Netherlands is, as my bishop put it in a different context, fragile but hopeful. It does not yet warrant the pope coming here. Instead, for the foreseeable future, it is more proper if we (ideally represented by our bishops) go to him when needed.

So, when’s that ad limina visit? Scandinavia and England and Wales have recently been, Belgium is in Rome now, so I would not be surprised if it’s coming up soon.