For the sin of abortion, Papal letter gives priests power to absolve and lift excommunication

In his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera, published today, Pope Francis looks back on the Holy Year of Mercy, which ended yesterday, and announces some special decisions made for that year, which he wishes to continue. Among these is the faculty of all priests to absolve penitents from the sin of abortion. While this faculty was already given to priests of various countries, including the Netherlands, by local bishops, it is now a worldwide step. It is hoped, like it was when the Pope first announced it at the start of the Holy Year, that this makes it easier for people who performed an abortion or had one performed to come forward and receive the Lord’s forgiveness.

Abortion, as the Pope also emphasises in his Letter, remains a grave sin, and that means that there is a little more involved than only absolution. Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam and a doctor in canon law, explains things in a blog post today and refers to various canons from the Code of Canon Law:

jan_hendriks“There is an excommunication attached to the committing of an abortion (c. 1398). The Pope does not expressly mention this. He only speaks about ‘absolving’, freeing from sin. Being freed from the excommunication is a requirement for receiving absolution and being freed from sin. Therefore, the words of the Pope implicitly include for all priests the faculty to lift the excommunication.

So a priest can absolve for abortion and this faculty can, in principle, be exercised everywhere in the world (unless a local bishop or vicar would, in particular cases, deny this (c. 967, par.2), but that will not happen often).

The Pope once again emphases both the serious nature of the sin of abortion and the need to approach those who have committed abortion with love: there is no sin that can destroy the mercy of God!”

There has been some criticism against the papal letter for its lack of clarity in this matter. Bishop Hendriks’ explanation would indicate that the ability to absolve the sin includes the faculty to lift the automatically incurred excommunication. A penitent person who’s sin has been forgiven in the sacrament of Confession, is therefore automatically free to participate in the life of the Church again, as he or she is no longer excommunicated.

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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.

An ‘existential document’- Cardinal Eijk present Amoris laetitia

Per the request of Pope Francis, bishops’ conferences everywhere officially presented his Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris laetitia today. In the Netherlands, Cardinal Wim Eijk, president of the conference and two-time participant in the Synod of Bishops assemblies that are now concluded with this document, did the local honours here. Below is my translation of his remarks:

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^Cardinal Eijk with Patrizia, Massimo and Davide Paloni at the presentation of Amoris laetita this afternoon. The cardinal attended both Synod assemblies, and the Paloni’s, including little Davide, participated in the second. (photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters)

“Today is an important day in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Today is the crowning moment of an extensive journey which he began soon after the start of his pontificate: a journey with the goal of starting a process of reflection in the Church regarding pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family. There are different reasons for that: the Christian vision on marriage and family is understood, accepted and practised less and less in a world which is getting increasingly secularised. This is manifested most clearly in the western world, where secularisation has advanced so much that in many places, and especially in western Europe, Christians have become a minority. But a secularisation trend is manifest everywhere in the world under the influence of social media, albeit not to the same extent in all places and in some parts of the world only in certain circles. Partly because of distrust towards institutions and the reluctance to make definitive choices for life, certainly in western Europe a minority of Catholics enters into sacramental marriage. In addition, there are fewer people who get married civilly and the choice for simply living together is generally made. On the other hand we see many people who have chosen marriage and get stuck in it and – often after a painful process for both – divorce.

The openness of marriage to receiving and raising children, as the teaching of the Church upholds on Biblical basis, is also no longer seen as an essential value of marriage. Other relationships than that between man and woman are increasingly treated as equivalent to marriage, either de facto or by law. Under the influence of gender theory, the differences between the genders are generally no longer traced to the biological differences between man and woman, but seen as a personal and autonomous choice.

The pressing question with all these developments is: how can the Church find ways of pastoral care and proclamation to present her teachings about marriage and family in such a way that it is understood better and reaches more people? Ways by which she can also help couples and families to live according to God’s intentions. In order to find answers to these questions Pope Francis started this aforementioned journey of reflection. This journey included two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. An Extraordinary Assembly, in which the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the entire world Church took part and which took place in October 2014. Subsequently an Ordinary Assembly took place in October of 2015, in which bishops who were selected by the conferences they belonged to took part. I attended the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In 2015 I attended the Ordinary Synod as elected representative of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.

For both Synods, Pope Francis appointed a number of Synod fathers of his own choosing. He also invited married couples to witness of the way in which they put the Catholic vision of marriage and family into practice. He also invited a Dutch couple for the last Synod, Massimo and Patrizia Paloni. They attended with their youngest child, Davide. They will speak later.

It should be clear that this was a major journey, requiring a lot of work, when we realise that a preparatory document, the Lineamenta, was written for both Synods by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. A worldwide consultation was held about it. Based on this a working instrument, an Instrumentum laboris, was created for both Synods. Both Synods recorded the result of their deliberations, each in their own final document. The final documents were the Synod fathers’ advice to the Pope.

Today we witness the conclusion of this major journey, with the publication of the so-called Post-Synodal Exhortation, with the title Amoris laetitia (The joy of love). In it Pope Francis presents his final conclusions about the Synod’s discussions. Regarding the journey’s length and the importance of the topic for the Church we can comfortably charactise the publication of this Post-Synodal Exhortation as a decisive moment in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

As before he surprised Church and world with this publication, in several ways. Personally, I had to re-arrange my agenda for this week to prepare this presentation of this document of 325 paragraphs and almost one hundred closely-printed pages. It will take some time before one has absorbed the complete and rich content. The Pope himself advises not to read the Exhortation hurriedly, but study it and take it in in peace.

Also surprising is the character of the document. I would qualify the Post-Synodal Exhortation as ‘a Church document with a notably existential character’. This is something we are used to with Pope Francis, you will say, but here, at least, it is even more notable than in his other publications. Of course in the first place Pope Francis presents the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding marriage and family. He also devotes plenty of space to the difficulties that people experience in understanding, applying and upholding those teachings.

Pope Francis is aware that this does not always involve resistance to the teachings of the Church. The choice for a civil marriage alone or cohabitation alone is often not motivated by a rejection of Christian marriage, but also by cultural and contingent situations: prevailing distrust towards institutions in general, the difficulties many have in accepting a specific state of life and obligations for the rest of their lives, problems finding work, finding permanent employment or assuring themselves of an adequate income, because of which they consider marriage a “luxury” (n. 294).

Regarding so-called irregular situations, that is to say situations in which people are in a relationshop which is not, or not in all aspects, in accord with the demands of Church teachings, the Pope urges all who work in pastoral care to approach these people with great mercy. Without letting go of Church teachings or compromising them, but by accompanying and being close to these people with a lot of love and patience. People in irregular situations should not be excluded from Church activities, but be integrated as much as possible. It is essential, according to the Pope, that priests and others who work in marriage care try and make the best possible ‘discernment’. He understands this as the constant effort to illuminate the concrete reality of life, the situations and relationships in which people live, with the Word of God. And he also recommends that they look for the openness that may be present in people in irregular situations, to yet shape their relationship according the teachings of the Church.

The Exhortation has nine solid chapters. It is of course no surprise that Pope Francis describes the Biblical vision on marriage and family in the first chapter “in light of the Word”. In the second chapter he comprehensively discusses modern reality and the current challenges of the family. The Pope emphasises in Chapter III that amidst all modern difficulties for the family, we must look towards Jesus, who will fulfill God’s plan with us, and so (re)discover the vocation of the family. In short, this chapter present a summary of Church teachings regarding marriage and family. Chapter IV continues this line with an exposition on marital love, based on the canticle of love written by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:4-7; n. 90). In Chapter V, “Love made fruitful”, the Pope emphasises that conjugal love presumes an openness to new life. In Chapter VI, “Some pastoral perspectives”, the Pope discusses the need to find new ways for marriage and family care, limiting himself to several general starting points. He sees the development of more practical initiatives as a task for the various bishops’ conferences, parishes and communities. Chapter VII is about the raising of children and Chapter VIII about the accompaniment of fragile relationships. The final Chapter IX, about the spirituality of marriage and family, is emblematic for the existential character of the document, as it points out some ways to develop a solid faith life in the family, as well giving common and personal prayer an established place in it.

I want to address one other topic seperately, which has played a major role during both Synods, and this is the question of whether people who are divorced and civilly remarried can receive Communion. In the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Pope Francis addresses this topic in two places, but he does not speak of people who are divorced and civilly remarried, but more broadly about people who are divorced and live in a new relationship. These people, the Pope says, should not have the feeling that they are excommunicated (n. 243 and 199). It is important to emphasise that he is not saying anything new here. Excommunication is an ecclesiastical punishment which someone can legally incur automatically, which can be legally declared after having been incurred or which can be imposed by verdict after serious misbehaviour or crimes. The situations in which this happens are limited: they includes a limited number of situations, and the situation of people who are divorced and have begun a new relationship is not among these. But nowhere in the Exhortation does the Pope say that they can receive Communion. Regarding people who are divorced and in a new relationship, this means that the traditional praxis, that they can not receive Communion, and which was formulated as follows by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio in 1981 remains current:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (n. 84)

In Chapter VIII of the Exhortation Pope Francis answers the question of what the Church could offer people in these situations, and says what has been mentioned above: people working in pastoral care must accompany these people and consider how they can be involved in the life of the Church as much as possible. It is important to realise here that God’s mercy is not only received by means of the sacraments, but also by listening to and reading the Word of God and through prayer.

As mentioned, this papal document has the title Amoris laetitia, the “joy of love”. It is our duty as Church to promote and protect that joy, convinced that that joy is beneficial for married couples and families as well as for us as society. It is therefore our duty to be close to married couples and families and accompany them according to our abilities with our prayer and pastoral care, especially when they carry the heavy and painful burden of a marriage or family life that is broken. With this Exhortation the Pope urges us to do so.

Pope Francis concludes his Exhortation with a prayer to the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph):

“Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.””

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.

Diocese is playing it hard in conflict with rebellious priest

Yet another conflict erupts in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch as the diocese removes a priest and a deacon from their parish. The reason: they refuse to cooperate with the diocese’s plans to merge parishes. As has become standard, it seems, in these situations, the parish council has resigned and the clergymen announced to hold and alternative Mass in a nearby school, despite the diocese’s decision to remove both men from active ministry for now.

Richard Schreurs smmBut Father Richard Schreurs (pictured) and Deacon Hans van der Laar, formerly of the parish of St. Anthony in Best, have relented from doing the latter after the diocese pointed out that, in holding alternative services, both men would place themselves and their faithful outside the Church, which can be understood as being excommunicated. It is important to note here that the diocese does not threaten to punish the priest and deacon, but excommunication is something that we call upon ourselves by our actions, without any formal declaration from ecclesiastical authorities. In that sense, it is not so much a punishment levelled against a person by a priest, bishop, or even the Pope, but the recognition, by the Church, of a situation that has come into being.

In the past few years there have been several instances of local clergy, faithful and communities disagreeing quite audibly with the diocese. In more than a few cases, this was triggered by the diocese acting against trends which had been allowed to develop for years, but it’s not completely honest to lay the blame with the diocese. Reinforcing Catholic teaching and spiritual life can only be a good thing, but it is also understandable that feelings get hurt if people have the impression that things that seemed to have been allowed for years are suddenly no longer allowed. The standard Catholic situation has, in the minds of the people, become the exception, after all.

st. antonius, bestThe situation outlined above is somewhat different, however – not a difference in teaching and practice, but a refusal to go along with the wishes of the diocese – but the way both parties act is quite the same. And much of the reason why this happens must be a clear lack of communication to the outside world. If people feel misunderstood and attacked by the other party, like in St. Anthony’s (church pictured), they turn to others to have their stories heard. In this case that is often the media who, sadly, often spin the stories in their own ways. Of course, conflicts needs to be able to be resolved by the parties involved, if necessary through mediation by a third party. This situation has somewhat escalated, so it may be a bit more difficult to resolve as it should be. Part of that resolution is a clear understanding by the parish in question that it is not an island, but part of a diocese. Likewise, the clergy must realise they owe a level of obedience to their bishop and can’t just strike out on their own. On the other hand, diocese and bishop must work towards the best resolution for the conflict, and that includes making sure that a level o trust and confidence is maintained. If the other party feels to need to go public with their story, some of that confidence has already been lost.

salvatorIs that the end of the story, then? Happily, it is not. We need only look back at some other recent conflicts in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch. In the parish of San Salvator, faithful refused access to Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, who had been appointed as administrator of the rather liberal parish. Faithful broke away and held their own services just around the corner. Today, the parish is young and alive under the guidance of Fr. Geertjan van Rossem and recently ordained Fr. Patrick Kuis (both pictured, with a group of children preparing for their First Communion), is active in social media and has a newly refurbished church as the architect intended. But, it must be added, the breakaway community still exists and continues to be active outside the Church.

Similarly, in Tilburg, the student chaplaincy received a new priest who intended to return Catholic practice and faith to the daily proceedings of the community, which lead, once again, to the parish council resigning and many hurt feelings displayed in the media, even before the new priest, Fr. Michiel Peeters, had been able to start his work for the chaplaincy. In this case, the faithful who quit did not take a group of faithful with them, but the ‘success’ of Fr. Peeters’ appointment and the new direction of the chaplaincy still remains to be seen, although it seems that there is definitely some successful outreach to students.

Photo credit: [1] montfortanen.nl, [2] Irene Wouters, [3] San Salvatorparochie