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.

Regensburg and Rome – Bishop in the spotlight

Pope Francis added three new members to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this week.Membership is not a fulltime job, but does entail regular visits to Rome to attend meetings. Virtually all the world’s cardinals are members of one or more congregations, councils or commissions, and others can also be appointed, be they bishops, priests or lay faithful.

The three new appointments are Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poznań in Poland, and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg in Germany.

pope francis, rudolf voderholzer

Bishop Voderholzer, pictured above with Pope Francis, is making a proper space in the spotlight for himself these days, as he is also the host of the 99th Katholikentag and thus the recipient of a personal message from Pope Francis, which I shared here in the blog earlier. The professor of dogmatics was the final German appointment of Pope Benedict XVI in December 2012, when he was tasked to head the Diocese of Regensburg. His predecessor there, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, now heads the Congregation for the Doctrine the Faith that Bishop Voderholzer is joining as a member. The bishop and the cardinal already had many things in common, from the see of Regensburg to the collected works of Benedict XVI, the publication of which Bishop Voderholzer now oversees. A sign of continuity, not just between the former and current bishops of Regensburg, but also those of Rome.

Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano

Cardinal Baldisseri clears some things up

According to EWTN, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri has confirmed what I have been saying since an interview two weeks ago caused some fear and confusion about the goals and focus of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family.

In the earlier interview the cardinal seemed to be hinting at possible changes in the Church doctrine on marriage. While I did not share that conclusion, many others did. I already wrote that Cardinal Baldisseri’s comments did, in my opinion, not so much deal with doctrine but with pastoral practice, which, I still think, will also be the focus of the Synod. In the EWTN interview, the cardinal emphasised the following:

baldisseri“Regarding the possibility for the synod of bishops of changing the doctrine of the Church, I underscore that the First Vatican Council’s document Dei Filius affirmed that “understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained, which Holy Mother Church has once declared; and there must never be recession from that meaning under the specious name of a deeper understanding.”

And I also remind you that John XXIII said in the inaugural speech of the Second Vatican Council that “authentic doctrine … should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.””

Whether these comments come in response to the fears mentioned above, are a form of “backtracking”, or are simply a timely reminder about the nature of doctrine in the Church, they should go some way in clearing up misconceptions about the upcoming Synod. The Church will not be changing the truth. That is the same in the past, now and the future. What she can – and should – look at it how that truth can be communicated, shared, explained and lived most effectively. So no, divorce will not suddenly become an option for validly married couples, and the very nature of marriage will also not change. The sacraments will not be devalued, and we should still be properly disposed to encounter the Lord in them. Objective obstacles will remain so. The Synod will not change the ‘what’, but will look at the ‘how’.

The ‘Popetition’ and how the faith is misunderstood

pauspetitieIn the runup to the first ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops in nine years, one of the more successful initiatives by lay faithful has been the so-called ‘Pauspetitie‘ on Facebook. Probably best translated in English as ‘Popetition’, it aims to collect the wishes, hopes and desires of lay faithful across the Netherlands, asking readers the question, “What do you want to tell Pope Francis?”

The range of questions, reflecting the page’s rapid popularity, is great, but can generally be divided in two major categories, both of which are somewhat concerning.

First there is the popularity of Pope Francis. Of course, there is nothing wrong with faithful loving their Holy Father. But it seems that for many, Pope Francis is the great reformer who will do away with all the hard parts of being Catholic. No matter that he speaks more than any Pope before him about such topics as the Devil, the radical following of Christ in poverty and Confession, and has authorised the excommunication of an Australian priest who was very publicly in favour of same-sex marriage and non-mandatory celibacy for priests, Pope Francis is seen by many as a great teddy bear who will make being Catholic easier for all of us by allowing women priests, abolishing celibacy, allowing everyone, Catholic or not, to receive Communion… you name it. Reality is different, but that doesn’t change the image that people have of him. Related to that is the thought that the popes before him, even the very popular Blessed John Paul II were somehow wrong, and bad popes.

Second there are the wishes that the Church change her doctrine and dogmas, elements of the faith which can not be changed, independent of what people think of Pope Francis. This indicates a serious lack of knowledge of their faith on the part of many. Catechesis in the past decades has been sorely lacking, as the number of people who simply do not recognise the nature of faith and religion is – perhaps shockingly – great.

In both these points, and perhaps inherent to personal wishes and hopes, is the fact reflected that personal opinion and desire takes precedence over the thoughts and teaching of the Church, which is the teaching of Christ. In essence, we may say that many people who profess to be Catholic do not follow Christ as much as themselves and the society they live in. Even when confronted with the Biblical basis of any of the ‘hard’ teachings of the Church, these people are not swayed.

People simply no longer know what the Church they are part of is: the community of faithful established by God through His Son, led by St. Peter and his successors in unity with the other Apostles and their successors, in other words: the Pope and the bishops. This Church is tasked to share the faith in Christ, but als to safeguard it. Christ, after all, is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow (Heb. 13:8), and so is His message, both the appealing parts and the difficult ones. Faith is not dependent on society or people. The Pope, be he Benedict or Francis, is not the one who decides what the faith is, and so he will not be able to change it to fit the wishes of the faithful. Rather, the faithful are called to change to fit the wishes of the source of the faith, God. And He makes us able to do that, by following Him through His Church and the shepherds He has given us.

So what do we do when we find an aspect of the faith hard to accept or understand? We don’t demand it be changed to make it easier for us. Rather, we try to reach a level of acceptance or understanding. And most of all, we try to gain some trust and faith in the Church and Her shepherds, for that is the same as trust in the Lord. Does that mean we shouldn’t think, or express hopes and wishes? Of course not. Thinking is required to be faithful, and hopes and wishes motivate us to grow in faith. There is much to improve in the Church, but the faith, the very heart of the Church, is not among those. How that faith is communicated, taught and shared, however, is. But when we are asked to hear, learn and accept what is being shared, we should try to do just that and not cling desperately to our own personal convictions. We must allow ourselves to be transformed by the Lord. And the first obstacle to be removed for that transformation is ourselves.

Does all this what I’ve written above make the Popetition something wrong or bad? No, it doesn’t. It invites people to hope and share, to be open to one another and hopefully to the Church and the faith. Perhaps all the hopes and wishes shared there can be an inspiration to many to change what can be changed at the local level, in parishes, homes, schools and other communities where the faith must be kept alive. Pope Francis is not going to be able to change the goings-on in the parish. The bishop sometimes is, but we, the faithful as well as the local clergy, always are. If we reignite the faith our communities in the light of Christ and in union with His Church, we put hope into practice.

Today’s dogma – looking back at the declaration of the Assumption of Mary

Almost 62 years ago, on the first of November 1950, Pope Pius XII published Munificentissimus Deus, the Apostolic Constitution by which he declared what we celebrate today to be a dogma. It became a binding teaching, something that we are required to hold as Catholics. It goes so far that if we don’t agree with it, we can’t properly call ourselves Catholics. It’s like claiming that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God and still calling oneself Catholic. One of the identifying markers of one’s ‘Catholicity’ is missing, so whatever the person in question is, he is not Catholic [MD 45, 47].

This may all sound negative, focussing on what we must and what the consequences are if we don’t, but in essence a dogma is a positive. A reading of Munificentissimus Deus shows that the dogma we mark today, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grew organically from the heartfelt desires of many faithful and from the earlier dogmatic teaching of her Immaculate Conception, as defined by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854 [MD 6-9]. This dogma is then not something imposed from above, but a confirmation of what many had long held to be true. It is also a confirmation that the Assumption of Mary has always been “contained in the deposit of Christian faith entrusted to the Church” [MD 8].

The Venerable Pope Pius XII offers an extensive list of historical examples of this faith, even conviction, that the Blessed Virgin was assumed into heaven [MD 14-38], and then presents the official declaration of the dogma as such:

For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. [MD 44]

Once more, the positive nature of this dogma, and others as well, is outlined a bit earlier in the Apostolic Constitution:

We, who have placed our pontificate under the special patronage of the most holy Virgin, to whom we have had recourse so often in times of grave trouble, we who have consecrated the entire human race to her Immaculate Heart in public ceremonies, and who have time and time again experienced her powerful protection, are confident that this solemn proclamation and definition of the Assumption will contribute in no small way to the advantage of human society, since it redounds to the glory of the Most Blessed Trinity, to which the Blessed Mother of God is bound by such singular bonds. It is to be hoped that all the faithful will be stirred up to a stronger piety toward their heavenly Mother, and that the souls of all those who glory in the Christian name may be moved by the desire of sharing in the unity of Jesus Christ’s Mystical Body and of increasing their love for her who shows her motherly heart to all the members of this august body. And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective. [MD 42].

And in the meantime, a happy feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin to all!

Stats for October 2011

It’s been a good month here at the blog. Evidently, there have been several topics which drew much interest, since, numbers-wise, this his been the second-best month since I began. There have been 6,343 views, breaking the record of May and June of this year, when the numbers came close to 6,000. Still, this last month saw only a quarter of the views of that crazy July of 2010.

The top 10 of best viewed posts contains many local topics: the appointment of a new auxiliary bishop and the San Salvator soap opera which came to a conclusion this month. Older topics also remained of interest, with the previous archbishop of Berlin, the late Cardinal Sterzinsky, seeing some renewed interest. Let’s have a look.

1: Berlin is vacant: herald of things to come? 85
2: Bishop Mutsaerts vs San Salvator 67
3: A long expected appointment 58
4: Two years in the making, a new archbishop for Luxembourg 53
5: Twittering Cardinal Ravasi now turns to blogging 51
6: Het probleem Medjugorje 49
7: Assisi 2011, the official announcement, Bishop decline Mariënburg proposal to Protestantise Dutch Church 46
8: The artificial opposition of faith and dogma 45
9: Now official: San Salvator no longer Catholic 44
10 All Saints Day 42

The artificial opposition of faith and dogma

With a sign proclaiming 'We remain San Salvator', protesters continue being stubborn

Over the past week or so, I have come across a number of instances in which the faith of the average churchgoing people is put in opposition to the rules or dogmas which are handed down from Rome. Some examples:

  • The ongoing dispute between the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch and the parish of San Salvator (they have now claimed to be expecting a break with the diocese, looking for alternative locations to continue their ‘services’, and they will bar Auxiliary Bishop Mutsaerts from entering the church through passive resistance (although he is invited to attend one of their priestless Masses – what Masses?!)).
  • An announcement of the Mariënburg-old-codgers’-club-of-‘critical’-Catholics’ upcoming annual symposium centered around the question of what they still believe (judging from the words of chairman Erik Jurgens, who said he doesn’t need to believe in the Trinity or take the Creed seriously to be a good Catholic, they don’t believe in anything much).
  • Retweets by the Dutch Dominicans of an article by a one of their own warning us against believing that Christ is, in fact, God.
  • And, lastly, an assurance from theological publishers’ Berne Heeswijk that one of their new publication “will not be going the way of dogma, but the way of the faithful”.

Just some examples, but indicative of a trend that, although often not very visible, is still well alive. To me, the division between the faithful on the one hand and dogma on the other is an artificial separation, which is potentially very dangerous. It’s not as if these are not related or connected in any way.They are, and we need both.

Faith is our answer to God. As the Catechism tells us: “Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life” [26]. God takes the first step, we respond. The faith is our response to God’s active revelation and gift. Since it comes from God, this gift is perfect, but our faith is not automatically perfect: it is, after all, our response, and we are merely human. Were our response perfect, the relation between God and us may have been something like that between a programmer and a computer: the programmer inputs something and the outcome of his input is perfect and predictable. We’d be mindless automatons when it came to faith. But we are not. God created us with free will, we are free to act and to choose in all we do, including our quest for God or our denial of Him.

A consequence of that free will is that we have to be active partners in our relationship with God, in our faith. God helps us, but we need to do some of the work ourselves as well. Otherwise, again, we’d be left without choice and freedom. God offers his assistance in that through the Church he founded (Matthew 16:18-19). In the Church we find the means to develop our faith, to allow it to grow.

In the Gospel of John we read the Parable of the Vine (15-1-11). Jesus tells us there: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a branch — and withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire and are burnt” And later: “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”

Jesus asks us to remain in Him, to keep His commandments and His teachings, lest we be thrown away and come to nothing. Now, Jesus’ teaching includes some very clear dogmas, so to speak: He is God, there are various things we need to do and understand to be able to follow Him. In other words, there are certain rules we need to follow.  Just like the sabbath was made for us, and not we for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), the rules are there for us, not we for the rules. They allow us to grow in faith, to reach our full potential. The rules are also educational: they teach us about God and His identity, and likewise about ourselves, through the things we say do and believe.

What’s the consequence of we do not follow the rules that Christ gave us, and which were later given to us by the Church with the authority given to her by Christ? We need only to look at San Salvator, Mariënburg, the Dutch Dominicans, Berne Heeswijk… and so many others.  Places were faith is a matter of mere feelings and nice thoughts. We will wither and come to nothing.

There is no opposition between the dogmas and the faith of the common man, so to speak. The former helps the latter achieve his full potential, which does require a conscious effort and desire to achieve in us.

An interesting related question to this whole matter is what comes first: our conscience or the teachings of the Church? Father Juan R. Vélez offers an interesting article about that very question, offering answers based on the teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman. The article is also available in Dutch.