When money and faith clash – Archbishop Gänswein on “disproportionate measures”

Strong words from Archbishop Georg Gänswein about the notorious German Church tax, the Kirchensteuer, in a recent interview. More specifically, the Prefect of the Papal Household criticises the measures taken against people who refuse to pay the tax: excommunication.

The Kirchensteuer is a state tax for the benefit of faith communities (not just the Catholic Church). When a citizen is officially registered as a member of a church of faith community, he is obliged to pay this tax. The only way to avoid paying this tax is to stop being a member of a church or faith community. Archbishop Gänswein explains the Catholic Church’s response to this:

gänswein“How does the Catholic Church in Germany respond to someone leaving the Church? With an automatic exclusion from the Church community, in other words: excommunication. This is excessive and incomprehensible. One can question dogmas, that hurts no one, no one is kicked out. Is not paying the Church tax then a greater misdemeanor against the faith than violations of the truths of faith? The impression created is this: it’s  not so tragic when the faith is at stake, but as soon as money is involved, the game is over. The sharp sword of excommunication when leaving the Church is disproportionate and in need of correction.”

This, and the entire fact of the Catholic Church making use of the Kirchensteuer, does more bad than good, in my opinion. Not only does it create the impression that money is more important than the individual and the various reasons that people may have to not want to pay the Church tax, it also ensnares the Church in the fiscal policies of the state, curtailing its freedom to perform her mission. Of course, money is a necessity, even for the Church, but it should never be a goal in itself. And this whole business of  excommunicating people with a simple stroke of a pen gives the impression of the latter.

Archbishop Gänswein continues:

“When the goods ultimately oppose the good – the faith – there remains only one option: one must free oneself of it. Full coffers and empty churches, this is a terrible gap, that can no longer continue going well. When the cash registers ring and the pews grow ever more empty, there will some day be an implosion. An empty church can not be taken seriously. Who is served when a diocese is extremely rich, but the faith has gradually seeped away? Are we so secularised that the faith barely plays a part anymore, or is even considered to be ballast? Ballast is cast off when it is no longer needed. Are we no longer in a position to proclaim the faith in such a way that people see that it is something great, something beautiful, which enriches and deepens life?”

These comments probably continue to make him unpopular among his brother bishops in Germany, but Archbishop Gänswein is unfazed. When asked about the probability of him being appointed to a diocese in Germany, he is clear that that is not going to happen, since no cathedral chapter is likely to choose him.

“It is indeed true: I have made no secret of my convictions. I have somehow been  branded in public as a rightwinger or a hardliner, without there being concrete examples for that. If the reason is that I do not speak in a roundabout way, but with clarity, than I have to say: Yes, that’s right. That is what I stand for. Now and also in the future.”

Nor does he have a desire to return home to be ordinary of a diocese. He is content with his duties at the side of Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

Clean feet -a more inclusive Easter liturgy?

So the Holy Father went and had the Congregation for Divine Worship decree a change in the liturgy. For most parishes, at least here in Western Europe, the change will be unnoticeable, as most have made it years or even decades ago. But does that mean it is a mere formality, a change on paper only?

foot washing, maundy thursday, cathedral

^ Footwashing at St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen, last year.

Since 1955, the footwashing is a notable part of the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. The priest washes the feet of twelve men, in imitation of Jesus Christ’s washing of the feet of His disciples. As the new decree underlines, the rite revolves around the servitude of all those who wish to follow Christ, who came, after all, not to be served, but to serve. In the Gospel of John we read the following:

“Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end.

They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him. Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘Never!’ said Peter. ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said, ‘Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus said, ‘No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are’.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’, he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. In all truth I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this, blessed are you if you behave accordingly.'”

The rite of the footwashing is in the first place exactly what Jesus tells us it is: an example for us to follow, in the context of the relation between servant and master. For the priest, who washes the feet of twelve faithful, this is especially poignant. As an alter Christus he is especially tasked to lead by serving, made tangible in this subservient act.

In the Roman missal the faithful whose feet are to be washed are described as ‘vir’, men. Although many priests have not felt called to limit the faithful they chose for the rite to be only men, others, who understand that the liturgy is not just a collection of symbolic rituals, have followed what the missal stipulates. Pope Francis has now removed the rule that only men’s feet are to be washed in the ritual, stating only that they must be chosen from among the People of God: the faithful community assembled for the liturgical ritual. So not only men, but also women and children.

Of course, the changes have been met with comments far and wide. Before delving into some of those, it should be noted that this is not an issue of dogma, and that the Holy Father is completely free to make such changes. There are those who are all too keen to take every chance to denounce Pope Francis, but this is not one. This is Papal authority in action.

I have seen some comments expressing surprise that there even are rules about such things, but also pride in having been ahead of the curve in including women in the footwashing. Apparently, those who know of what the missal stated, have not felt the urge to take it seriously and keep to the rubrics. I have to wonder what the liturgy is for some people: a collection of quaint rituals to be performed or not as mood or times dictate, or something given as a task to perform by the Church, a rite reflecting the divine liturgy, which can not be changed by individual priests or liturgy committees (a silly concept in itself) as they desire. It should be clear what my position is, which happens to be what the Church herself also teaches. I may like or dislike what the missal contains, but it is not mine to change. It is, however, the Pope’s to change (as long as the changes are not dogmatic). He has that authority.

Some have also chosen to see this change as having to do with a right that until now has been denied to women. It is not. As the decree explains, Pope Francis wanted this change to better reflect the full make-up of the People of God, who all share in this commandment of service: it is therefore not a right that until now has been denied to women, but a duty that they are equally called to perform. Pridefully boasting that this is an equal rights issue is simplistic and out of place.

On the other side of the debate, more conservative commentators have taken issue with the fact that a liturgical tradition has been altered. They say that the presence of only men at the footwashing is a reflection of the footwashing as performed by Jesus. He also only washed the feet of men: His disciples. In this way it better reflected the relation between Christ and His followers, and thus reminds the priest and faithful of what the priesthood is: a service in a context of authority. I have to wonder, however, of the ritual itself, even if it includes only men, succeeds in this. At least in my experience, catechesis makes more of a difference than the gender of those whose feet are washed. For most faithful present at the footwashing, the actual ritual is too short and too far away to be fully witnessed and taken in.

Others have wondered if this is really the most urgent liturgical change that was needed. Aren’t there liturgical abuses that need to be adressed first? Of course there are. I think of the complete lack of reference for or even understanding of Who we received in Holy Communion, to name but one. But a start needs to be made somewhere, and the fact that changs are made is more important than the order in which they take place.

In closing, I would like to comment on what some have wondered about the role of Cardinal Robert Sarah in this. As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship he is the one who issued and signed the decree announcing the change. Pope Francis made the request for the change in late 2014. It took more than a year for the decree to be published. Did Cardinal Sarah delay it, because he disagreed with it? Or is it perhaps more likely that the cardinal, who had only arrived at the Congregation in November of 2014, needed the time first to familiarise himself with his new duties, had to clear a banklog of files which had built up in the three months between the departure of the previous Prefect, Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, and his own arrival? And add to that the fact that there are other files to deal with in the course of the normal work of the Congregation, and it seems that this is a more likely reason for the apparent delay than any alleged delaying actions out of a theoritical opposition to the Pope’s reforms.


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!