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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.

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!

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

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.

On 12 June a day of prayer in honour of the Lady of All Nations will take place in Amsterdam, under the auspices and with the participation of Bishop Jos Punt of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. Lady of All Nations refers to the Blessed Virgin and specifically the alleged apparitions of her in Amsterdam between 1945 and 1959. These apparitions, like others across the world, caused much debate and also much enthusiasm. The debate still remains, and is fueled by a distinct lack of clarity.

At the root of this lie two things that the Blessed Virgin is alleged to have communicated during these apparitions; the first is a prayer that refers to her as she “who once was Mary”, and the second the wish that a fifth Marian dogma be declared, which would make her coredemptrix, saviour next to Jesus Christ. The image created from the apparitions, pictured to the left, also shows Mary in front of the Cross, taking the place of Christ.

Both these elements, the prayer and the dogma, constitute a rupture with all we know of the Blessed Virgin and her role in salvation history, and all that she has communicated in apparitions and miracles. And that, in short, is why the veneration of the Lady of All Nations is so problematic.

During his pontificate, Venerable Pope Pius XII acted against the title of ‘coredemptrix’, and had it removed from documents. The Second Vatican Council expressed exceeding caution in using the term, and even used the word mediatrix sparingly. A 1997 conference on the subject in Czestochowa also decided against the proposed dogma, citing the rupture with the Mariological beacons set forth by the Council (and, I might add, the whole of salvation history).

Much debate in the world Church, then. But things also developed on the diocesan level. According to canon law, a diocesan bishop has full authority to judge the validity of such supernatural phenomena. It is part of what he received at his consecration to the episcopate. Over the decades, at least two bishops of the Diocese of Haarlem, Msgr. Huibers and Zwartkruis, had investigations into the alleged apparitions conducted which led to the veneration of the Lady of All Nations being forbidden within the diocese. In 1996, only weeks before his death, Bishop Henny Bomers declared that he no longer had any qualms about the cultus that had developed and in 2002 Bishop Jos Punt declared the phenomena that occurred between 1945 and 1959 to be authentic. That meant that, with to the authority vested in a diocesan bishop, the veneration was allowed worldwide.

Here we have an interesting contrast; whereas the higher Church authorities, manifesting their duty and ability of guiding the faith of the Church, expressed caution in the interpretation and consequences of the alleged apparitions and messages, the local curia on the diocesan level came to the conclusion that such caution is not warranted. Some blame that latter development on Bishop Punt with his strong personal devotion to the Lady of All Nations, but the case has kept basically all bishops in Haarlem of the last 60 years busy. Twice a serious investigation was called, and at least two bishops came to the personal conclusion that everything was authentic (Bishop Huibers probably came to the same conclusion in 1955, but abided to the ruling of a committee he had established to investigate the apparitions).

That is the situation as it is now, but what tends to be overlooked are the judgements of Pope Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council and modern prelates such as Cardinal Amato, who all speak against the full authenticity. And I tend to agree with their serious reservations. I am not denying Bishop Punt’s authority, but neither am I (or any Catholic) obliged to believe in whatever apparition, be it Amsterdam, Lourdes, Medjugorje or Fatima.  And if we believe, we must do so with heart and mind. The heart may be there, but the mind has its questions which deserve answers.

And that is why I doubt the wisdom is such large-scale events like the day of prayer on 12 June. The Lady of All Nations, and the contents of the Virgin’s alleged messages, of her as coredemptrix and as something else than the human Mary, are presented as accepted elements of the faith, when they are not.

Belgian Priest Fr. Pieter Delanoy shows why Bishop Léonard is the best choice for the archdiocese of Mechlin-Brussels, although he does not intend to do so.

In VRT News he explains why he started a Facebook group against the rumoured appointment and what he thinks the problem is. His comments are in Dutch, but here are some snippets translated into English.

Fr. Delanoy: “There were a lot of people, a lot of young people, who immediately reacted, “How can I now tell friends I believe, that I go to Church. How is it possible that when we know that things work in different ways, modern ways, that someone with such a profile apparently becomes archbishop.””

Presenter: “He really only says what the pope is saying, no more, no less.”

Fr. Delanoy: “Yes, but we think those should be implemented pastorally. That is totally different than saying, “These are the position of Rome, so we stop talking to a lot of people. So, people who are divorced, people who…”

Presenter: “Homosexuals.”

Fr. Delanoy:  “Homosexuals. Women. We stop talking to them, because they are shoved aside.”

I don’t know where Fr. Delanoy had his education, but it sounds like it was seriously lacking. Where does he get the idea that Catholics can’t talk to women, divorced people, homosexuals? Disapproving of a practice is not at all the same as disapproving of people. That’s basic knowledge.

It’s interesting to see that he does not disagree with what the pope says, but refuses to implement those statements. Equally interesting, in a sad way, is that Fr. Delanoy seems to think that dogmatic teachings are nothing more than opinions or standpoints. This is a priest of the Catholic Church who is ignorant of the position he has in the Church and even what that Church is.

And in all this, I haven’t even mentioned the blatant disrespect he shows to his superior and spiritual father. Or his lack of a Roman collar.

That is why Belgium needs Msgr. Léonard: for well-educated priests who know the faith and are not afraid to defend it.

The rumours of Bishop Léonard of Namur succeeding Cardinal Danneels have become more certain today. The VRT reports that the Belgian bishops were informed yesterday, but the Archdiocese immediately stated that no news would be forthcoming until Monday. The media however, speculate heartily about the pros and cons of an Archbishop Léonard, but it is perhaps much more interesting to see who this man is.

In 2006, news outlet Knack interviewed Bishop Léonard. It is pretty thorough and portrays Msgr. Léonard as an eloquent, educated and orthodox man.

“The Belgian Church has been too passive”

“We all live off the faith,” he says. “There are few things we can control ourselves. For example, I believe that my car works . I put my faith in the people who designed and built my car. And that faith is justified. Likewise I can have good reasons to believe in other people, in people who are believable.”

He smiles. “If I wanted to get to know you, I can collect all kinds of information about your person. I can talk with people who know you personally. But I’ll get the most reliable information when you sit across from me, when you reveal yourself to me. If you’re believable I will accept that revelation in faith. That is also how my faith in God works. I put my trust in the word of God who revealed himself to us.”

André-Mutien Léonard is not only tipped as successor to Cardinal Danneels, but also portrayed as his complete opposite. The conservative bishop of Namur caused a stir recently because he questioned scientific research into embryonic stem cells. In his position on euthanasia or homosexuality he point-blank follows the strict teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

But let’s start at the beginning. At the foundation of his concept of man. “You must excuse me if I sometimes formulate things a bit philosophically,” he begins. “I have taught philosophy for more than 20 years, first in Louvain, later in Louvain-la-Neuve. I prefer to answer thoroughly. What is your first question?”

Is man a superior species of animal or a pretentious ape?

ANDRÉ-MUTIEN LÉONARD: The great Greek philosopher Aristotle already said that man is an animal in possession of logos, reason. Of course, as humans, we are also conditioned by our bodies, by our connection to physical nature. But yet we are also capable of distancing ourselves from that nature, from that environment. That is characteristic of man. He is, to use the famous words of Blaise Pascal, a thinking reed. In a way man is insignificant compared to the immensity of the universe. But if the universe would squash man tomorrow, it would not be aware of that, but man will.

Other animals also have a form of consciousness.

LÉONARD: Of course. Animals also respond in an adapted manner to their surrounding, but they are not aware of the deeper meaning of those responses. They also do not develop strategies to fundamentally change their environment. That is why animals have no history, no culture. A modern cat leads roughly the same life as a cat in ancient Egypt. Only man has the capacity to change his environment. Animals respond to what is, man can also consider that which is not. And so he has the pretense to say: things are not as they should be. And so man is an animal that creates values and norms. Animals do not do that.

It didn’t make us really happy, did it?

LÉONARD: (laughs) Exactly, that is precisely it. I used to give this example to my students: give a cat a tomcat, some kittens, a ball of wool, some milk and a basket to sleep in. I don’t think that a cat in those circumstances would long for a different world. That is totally different for humans. Give someone as much money and fun as he can handle and he still won’t be happy. That is because man is not just attuned to those who are, to paraphrase Heidegger, but also on Being itself. Man transcends this world.

What do you mean with ‘transcend’?

LÉONARD: Let me give you an example. When I ask a student to prove that the sum of the three angles of an euclidean triangle is 180 degrees, he will make a few diagrams. Everything that happens there, happens in accordance with the laws of nature. Neurological reactions in the student’s brain, chemical reaction, and so on. But at the same time something more happens. Namely the thoughts, the reflection of that student. We can’t reduce that to exclusively chemical, biological and physical reactions.

Not reduce, but explain by.

LÉONARD: Partially, but not completely. The operation of my brain cells is not enough to explain why I can think, desire and love… There is something else at work in the development of our human capacities.

You mean God?

LÉONARD: (laughs) It is interesting that you now suddenly mention God, and not I. I don’t like it when people want to introduce God prematurely into science of philosophy. Everything in its place. The question of God comes later. I just want to emphasise the fact that our thinking can not be reduced to the infrastructure of thought. By the way, there is something else which should be mentioned in this context. Why is the sum of the three angles of an euclidean triangle 180 degrees? Not because of the chemical reactions on the student’s brain, is it? Not because he has proven it is so? No, it is true because it is an eternal truth. Mathematical truths can also not be reduced to the structure of our thoughts.

Then who or what is God for you?

LÉONARD: (bracing himself) The first important question is: where does the information come from that precedes us and that works in the world? We know by now that matter is able to organise itself. But some information must be available before that. Elemental particles already contain some information. Where does that come from?

Nobody knows.

LÉONARD: But everyone wonders. There are two possible answers. Either matter has no beginning and is therefore eternal. But there is a problem with that. In our experience information is always preceded by thought. Information can never exist by itself. But it is clear that humans are not at the source of information. That is why there is a second possibility: at the origin of matter is a thought, a desire. Not ours, but a different thought, a different desire. Namely, Gods.

How do you picture that God?

LÉONARD: It is a personal God. If I were to believe in an impersonal God, God would be a sort of anonymous energy without consciousness. While I do have that. But I can certainly not be greater than God. So I picture God als someone who is also able to think and want. Another way to consider God is through Liebniz’s question: why is there something and not nothing? Why does something exist? That is also a way to God. Not just to God as the architect of those who are, but as creater of Being.

How do you see man? Optimistic or pessimistic?

LÉONARD: Both. It is typically Catholic to have a rather optimistic concept of humanity. As opposed to Luther, for example. He was convinced that human nature is thoroughly rotten. The Catholic Church has a more humanist vision. We’ll never say that man is totally rotten, but we will claim that human nature is damaged. That is what we mean by original sin. We have a deep desire for good, but also have the urge to act selfishly.

Did God want that?

LÉONARD: No, this world is not necessarily in accordance with the wishes of the creator. In the Christian faith we have an historical approach to reality. There is an original situation before man, so before sin. There is the current situation. And there are the new heaven and the new earth, which have already been announced by the resurrection of Christ.

Is it our duty to fulfill this world? Or will God do that?

LÉONARD: It is our responsibility to improve the current state of the world, knowing that we will never make it into a paradise. We can improve a lot, but we can also destroy much – but the final change will come from above. Everything we do to improve the world is like a foretaste of what is to come. Just like the miracles of Jesus in the gospel: those were also not definitive solutions. All the people that Jesus healed, fell ill again later. And the people he brought back to life, did not stay alive forever.

So Lazarus died twice.

LÉONARD: And they had to pay for his funeral twice. (laughs) Those miracles of Jesus were no definitive solutions. But they were signs, a promise, a prophecy. The message is that humanity is not created to suffer and to die.

What do you say then to people who suffer and lose their faith because of that?

LÉONARD: That I understand them. I detest it when I hear that people in the Church tone down the unacceptable character of evil. We can never say that evil is not so bad, as certain theologians do. That God created the world out of a certain didactic concern, to teach us how to fulfill this world. I don’t believe that. But a God who reasons like that would be a sadistic God. Of course fighting the troubles of life is a way to grow. But suffering can never be explained by that. I’d rather become an atheist myself.

What is your explanation of evil then? That God wanted it?

LÉONARD: No, certainly not! If I may use a philosphical term, I’d call evil contingent – something that exists, but does not necessarily have to exist. It exists, but could just as easily not have existed at all. That is why I think it is so important that we keep interpreting the original sin as a spoiling of the world, not as a required element of it.

Where does that spoiling come from?

LÉONARD: It is made possible because of the freedom of creatures. I find it normal that we were not created as creatures who perceive God’s majesty from the very start. There would not have been any room for free choice. And it is part of the dignity of man that he can choose his first steps of his existence himself. With all their conseuqences, because it also means that man can place himself above his creator. The origin of evil lies in the freedom of man.

Good comes from God, evil from what we do ourselves?

LÉONARD: Yes, that is our reasoning. The modern world, in which evil is so prominently present, is not part of the original intention of the creator. God is not content with the current situation. God has no sympathy for evil.

Why doesn’t he intervene?

LÉONARD: (sighs) That is the hardest question there is. And it is difficult to answer in words. Someone suffering does not want to hear an intellectual explanation. You could say that their decline and death are in accordance to the laws of nature. And that’s good, because life would be horrible if we lived eternally, biologically speaking. Imagine if we lived forever, who would want to be in charge of pensions? (laughs) Who would dare to promise to be faithful to his partner? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? Admit it, it would be unbearable.

Death makes life bearable?

LÉONARD: It does. (Suddenly serious) But that message will not comfort a mother who has lost her child. That is impossible. A possible answer can be found in the death of Christ on the cross and his exclamation of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (silent) I find that extraordinary. It is more than an answer. Right now, as we are talking here, there are people who ask: where is God? Well, Jesus died with that question on his lips.

Is there an answer yet?

LÉONARD: There is no immediate answer, no. But the fact that Jesus asked that question means that God is solidary with what we go through and experience here on earth. Therefore we are not alone in our misery. That is still not a satisfactory explanation, but it is something. God does not agree with evil. And it will end. The current world is not the pinnacle of God’s creation.

Don’t you ever doubt your faith?

LÉONARD: Not doubt, no. I do ask myself questions, yes. That’s very normal. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t base my entire life on an illusion. (silence) But a few seconds later I have both feet on the ground again: the figure of Christ in the gospel is so convincing that I give him back my faith immediately.

You have three brothers, who all became priests as well. What did your parents add to the food, if I may be so bold?

LÉONARD: (amused) That is rather unusual, I know. And that’s good, or our birth rate would never rise again. You know, I never knew my father. I was born on 6 May 1940 and baptised on 10 May, the day the war started. My father died on 16 May. He was mobilised to work on telephone connections and was killed during one of the first bombings. In his diary I later read that he used to dream of becoming a priest as a boy. But he couldn’t because he didn’t take humanities in school. My mother was a simple and devout woman, like most women in those days. We prayed at home, but not excessively much or anything. But when I was five I already knew for certain that I wanted to be a priest.

Why such a young vocation?

LÉONARD: I don’t know. I felt it. I thought the liturgy was beautiful, even though I didn’t understand it. I liked the prayer. Of course I didn’t know what it meant to be a priest, but I wanted to be with the Lord. At my first Communion, in 1946, I told Jesus: I want to be a priest. But my mother was unaware. When I was seven my first brother left for seminary. Two or three years later my second brother followed, and later my third brother did. And when I was eighteen, I told my mother I would also go to seminary.

Didn’t your mother tell you to choose a different profession?

LÉONARD: (laughs) No. She didn’t encourage us, but wasn’t opposed to it either. When I told her she only said that she already know I would become a priest as well.

How do you think the Church should get more vocations?

LÉONARD: When the Church no longer believes in it herself, when she given the impression that priest are no longer really necessary… well, no one is going to want to be a priest anymore. That is why it’s so interesting to be a little conservative. By that I mean: wanting to keep the things that are truly of great value.

What is your first question to a candidate priest?

LÉONARD: I must verify if that person wants to be a priest to serve the Lord and the Church and the people. Not because he has nowhere else to go. I must also verify if he is balanced, if his vocation is not a dream or an illusion.

Must you also ask if he is homosexual?

LÉONARD: That is indeed an important point. It is very meaningful for a priest that he is a man. Why don’t we ordain women? Not because they’re not capable. On the contrary. But a priest is someone who acts in the person of Christ. And theologically speaking, Christ is the bridegroom of the Church. Who does the Church symbolise? A woman: Mary. And who represent Christ as the bridegroom of the Church? Men. (shows his ring) That is why the bishop is a man and wears a ring. The ring symbolises that I must love my diocese and my people as a man loves his wife.

Why not like a man loves his husband?

LÉONARD: Since a priest must be a man, he must also be at peace with his manhood.

Homosexuals are, aren’t they?

LÉONARD: The fact that we are men and women is very meaningful. Sexuality comes from Latin: secare, to cut. Sexuality has to do with the difference between man and woman. If someone has evolved that he feels no normal attraction to the other sex, than something is wrong.

There isn’t. Homosexuality is perfectly natural.

LÉONARD: But the difference between man and woman is part of our essence. Not just our biological essence, but also our philosophical essence. Living according to our man- or womanhood is to me different than living according to only our biological nature.

Do you understand that a lot of people think the Catholic position on homosexuality is unacceptable?

LÉONARD: If you think that my position is connected to the Catholic faith, you should read Freud on homosexuality.

Freud was scientifically inconsequential.

LÉONARD: (sighs) It is an interesting problem, but I don’t think we can resolve it in a few minutes. You know my answer. By the way, my position on homosexuality is connected to a great respect for homosexuals. We may never confuse a judegment of homosexuality with a judgement of the homosexuals.

Another controversial topic is the research into embryonic stem cells. Aren’t you a member of the board of the Université Catholique de Louvain and yet you had requested a report on scientific research at that university.

LÉONARD: People want to turn that into a sort of Watergate now. But what is really going on? A friend proposed to make an inventory of the research involving embryos at the UCL. Based on public data. It has nothing to do with espionage and secrecy. And it was certainly not my intention to send everything on to Rome. They are very well aware of what happens here, by the way.

It is said you wanted to make a good impression in Rome, because you want to succeed Cardinal Danneels in 2008.

LÉONARD: (laughs) I can’t forbid anyone from thinking or writing that. But is not correct. I am not concerned with the succession of Cardinal Danneels. I don’t control it, so it’s not my problem.

What is the problem of embryonic research?

LÉONARD: Us having the pleasure of talking with each other here, is due to the fact that were respected in the past, as embryos. Across the world, there are milions of embryos confined to an absurd fate, being stuck in freezers. They remain frozen, or are destroyed, or are used for scientific research. That is all unacceptable.

Do you consider embryos full-fledged human life?

LÉONARD: Of course. There is no discontinuity bertween the embryo and the person who is born. And the embryo is the most vulnerable creature on earth. We’ve all been embryos, in our mother’s womb. No, such research is not acceptable to me. And there are scientific alternatives, such as adult stem cells.

Do you think that the Belgian Church has been too quiet in the last years on important ethical topics?

LÉONARD: I think it is painful that there hasn’t been a bigger reaction to the euthanasia laws in Belgium, for example. We are too passive. The reactions from the Church and the people is much more intense in France, Italy, Spain and even Germany. (silence) In our society we do so much to make death possible, that we eventually don’t put any effort into life.

If I ask for euthanasia, am I doing something wrong?

LÉONARD: Yes, you are doing something wrong. In the first place because it is not necessary. These days, palliative care is very effective in 98 percent of cases, allowing us to die in human dignity, without unbearable suffering.

And if I am among those two percent?

LÉONARD: Then there is still the option of sedation, eliminating consciousness. But the second and much more important reason that you are doing something wrong, is that death is never a totally private affair, but also affects the general wellbeing. I may have the idea that euthanasia is the ideal solution for you in your specific situation. But that assumes the presence of doctors and nurses and chemists who are going to help with that. In favour of your personal solution you have to demand a change in the profession of the doctor. He no longer exists to heal people, but also to let people die.

And if we define a doctor as someone who relieves suffering by healing are by letting people die with dignity?

LÉONARD: Helping to die can have a positive meaning. But our society knows a fundamental prohibition: Thou shalt not kill. When we do that anyway, it is a significant danger. And there is something else. If you use euthanasia like this, you may spread this attitude to other people who lose faith. It can lead to a certain dejection in society. I consider the problem of euthanasia to be very characteristic of our society, where individualism is always given priority. Everyone does things their way and we lose sight of the general wellbeing.

In the action for people without papers you have been getting a lot of respect from progressive circles. You have even housed people in your episcopal palace.

LÉONARD: Yes, ten people have stayed here, in a very pleasant atmosphere. These are people who speak our language, who are perfectly integrated, whose children have been going to school here for years. I think it is unacceptable that they live in uncertainty for so long. I know we can’t take care of all asylum seeker, but we need clear rules. It is my duty to help people. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus says: “What you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”

In closing: what is the purpose of life, monsignor?

LÉONARD: The purpose of life is to prepare for a life that never perishes. We are on a launch platform, so to speak. We can use the years we spend here on earth to get to know God, so that we are not homeless when we come to Him later. The purpose of life, in other words, is to know the deeper meaning of our existence as well as possible. Why do I exist? What am I doing here? What is the ultimate goal of this existence? And I find all those answers thanks to my faith.

How can someone who lost it, rediscover his faith?

LÉONARD: By being open to the figure of Christ in the gospel. Or by getting in touch with people who witness of a deep faith. Or by doing what Charles de Foucauld did. He was a French soldier in the late nineteenth century who had lost his faith and led a very frivolous life. Looking for peace, he walked into a church and there he uttered a spontaneous and honest prayer. I have often recommended this prayer to my students in Louvain. Seigneur, mon Dieu, si vous existez, manifestez-vous à moi. God, if you really exist, reveal yourself to me. That is the only thing you can do, being willing to open your heart to God.

Joël De Ceulaer

About this blog

I am a Dutch Catholic from the north of the Netherlands. In this blog I wish to provide accurate information on current affairs in the Church and the relation with society. It is important for Catholics to have knowledge about their own faith and Church, especially since these are frequently misrepresented in many places. My blog has two directions, although I use only English in my writings: on the one hand, I want to inform Dutch faithful - hence the presence of a page with Dutch translations of texts which I consider interesting or important -, and on the other hand, I want to inform the wider world of what is going on in the Church in the Netherlands.

It is sometimes tempting to be too negative about such topics. I don't want to do that: my approach is an inherently positive one, and loyal to the Magisterium of the Church. In many quarters this is an unfamiliar idea: criticism is often the standard approach to the Church, her bishops and priests and other representatives. I will be critical when that is warranted, but it is not my standard approach.

For a personal account about my reasons for becoming and remaining Catholic, go read my story: Why am I Catholic?

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The above means that I have the right to be recognised as the author of both the original blog posts, as well as any translations I make. Everyone is free to share my content, but with credit in the form of my name or a link to my blog.

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Over the years, my blog posts have been picked up by various other blogs, websites and media outlets.

A complete list would be prohibitively long, so I'll limit myself to mentioning The Anchoress, Anton de Wit, Bisdom Haarlem-Amsterdam, The Break/SQPN, Caritas in Veritate, Catholic Culture, The Catholic Herald, EWTN, Fr. Ray Blake's Blog, Fr. Z's Blog, The Hermeneutic of Continuity, Katholiek Gezin, Katholiek.nl, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, New Liturgical Movement, NOS, Protect the Pope, Reformatorisch Dagblad, The Remnant, RKS Ariëns, Rorate Caeli, The Spectator, Vatican Insider, Voorhof and Whispers in the Loggia.

All links to, quotations of and use as source material of my blog posts is greatly appreciated. It's what I blog for: to further awareness and knowledge in a positive critical spirit. Credits are equally liked, of course.

Blog posts have also been used as sources for various Wikipedia articles, among them those on Archbishop Pierre-Marie Carré, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Archbishop Sergio Utleg and Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki.

Latest translations added:

20 April: [English] Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki - Easter message.

15 April: [English] Bishop Frans Wiertz - Homily on sexual abuse.

4 April: [English] Pope Francis - Interview with Belgian youth.

25 February: [Dutch] Paus Franciscus - Brief aan de Gezinnen.

24 February: [Dutch] Raymond Kardinaal Burke - De radicale oproep van de paus tot de nieuwe evangelisatie.
De focus van Paus Franciscus op liefde en praktische pastorale zorg in de grotere context van de Schrift en de leer van de Kerk.

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Sancta Maria, hortus conclusus, ora pro nobis!

Sancte Ramon de Peñafort, ora pro nobis!

Pope Francis

Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the Servants of God

Bishop Gerard de Korte

Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Willem Cardinal Eijk

Cardinal-Priest of San Callisto, Metropolitan Archbishop of Utrecht

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