Bishops react to Laudato Si’

They’ve all received the encyclical in advance, with a personal note from Pope Francis, so more than a few bishops were ready to offer their thoughts and opinions as soon as Laudato Si’ was launched yesterday. Here are a few reactions I came across in my corner of Europe.

archbishop ludwig schickArchbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg writes: “The Biblical call to subdue the earth, can no longer be used by anyone as a justification for the plundering of nature and the wasting of resources.”

hesseFrom Hamburg, Archbishop Stefan Heße comments on the fact that Pope Francis addresses his encyclical to all people in the world: “He makes clear what urgent future issues must be solved for the entire world and for all people. That is not possible without a radical change in mentality”. And later, “Thus he underlines that the problems, which concern all, can also only be solved by all.”

101020marx250Cardinal Reinhard Marx, speaking on behalf of the bishops’ conference, said: “This encyclical is a great work of the Pope, which I gladly make my own. Today the Pope speaks to the conscience of the world and also of the Church, whether it is convenient or not. His message is not comfortable, it wakes us up and warns us to take responsibility. There is a great concern from the Pope not to separate ecological and social problems, commitment to the environment and to the poor, under any circumstances. In the sense the often used label of environmental or climate encyclical falls short. It is rather about an entanglement of the issues of environment and development.”

overbeckBishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen continues in much the same vein as Cardinal Marx: “With this text Pope Francis once again places himself in the tradition of his patron saint, as he – like Saint Francis – emphasises the interconnectedness of the world … It’s about the triad of God – Man – Creation, but also concretely about, for example, the various connections of climate change … This make the Encyclical a strong sign of the responsibility of our universal Church for the world, of which I hope, with an eye on the UN climate summit in Paris this autumn, that it does not miss its effect.”

dekorte2In the Netherlands, Bishop Gerard de Korte spoke at a press conference to present the Encyclical, and emphasised the fact that the Pope wants to address all people: “The Encyclical is a new impulse for the efforts of Catholics for a more just and sustainable world. But the words “our common home” in the Encyclical’s subtitle makes clear that the Roman Church wants to address all people. Not just other Christians and other believers, but all people of good will (par. 13). Together we are one human family (par. 52) … Addressing all people, believers and unbelievers, indicates that the best of the world religions and philosophies needs to be tapped to reach a global ethics of Creation. Mobilising the spiritual and ethical power of all people is extremely important. Christians have faith in Gods Spirit who blows where He wants and can renew people. The Spirit breaks through lethargy and despondency and gives us joy and peace (par. 222 etc).”

Bischof-Norbert-Trelle-Foto-Bernward-MedienHildesheim’s Bishop Norbert Trelle starts with the criticism of Pope Francis against modern economic systems: “These exclude a large number of people alive today, does not take future generations sufficiently into account and creates a throwaway culture, which exploits resources without concern for the people or the environment and accepts with open eyes the changes in the climate. Opposite that, the Pope places the worth of individual people, his relationship with Creation and with the Creator in the heart of it. He connects these theological statements with an invitation to fundamental economical change and concrete action of individuals …

BischofGenn_Klauser_05-2009Bishop Felix Genn of Münster emphasises that the Encyclical is not just an environmental tract: “Certainly environmental problems are at the heart of Laudato Si’, but it is much more than an ‘environmental Encyclical’. It concerns the common home of Creation. In essence, Pope Francis answers the question which each of us should also ask: “What kind of world do we want to leave for those that come after us, the children who are now growing up?” This then leads to us asking about the reason for our existence and about the values that form the basis of our coexistence: “Why do we got through this world, what do we work and tire ourselves out for, what does this earth need us for?” Only when we ask ourselves these questions, so Pope Francis thinks, in my view quite rightly, the care for the environment will produce effective results.”

bode_purpur_240Lastly, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, one of the German delegates to the Synod of Bishops, connects the Encyclical with the theme of the Synod’s upcoming meeting: “And so the Synod in October about the questions of marriage and family should not supersede the concerns for the human family and its home, Creation. Marriage and family are, after all, an essential component of an integrated ecology.”

For Berlin, a Synod Father

kochWith the appointment of Bishop Heiner Koch to Berlin, the German capital has an archbishop again after an almost eleven-month vacancy. He leaves the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen, a suffragan of Berlin, vacant after less than two-and-a-half years, making it on of two empty sees in Germany, the other being Limburg.

Who is Archbishop-elect Heiner Koch? Like his predecessor in Berlin, Cardinal Woelki, he was born in the Archdiocese of Cologne, in Düsseldorf. He is less than a week away from his 61st birthday, has been a priest for 35 years (he was ordained on his 26th birthday in 1980) and a bishop for nine years. He is the third archbishop of Berlin, but the tenth ordinary since Berlin became a diocese in 1930. Six of his predecessors were made cardinals.

heiner kochThe new archbishop studied Catholic theology, philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Bonn and is a Doctor of Theology. After his ordination, he was attached to parishes in Kaarst and in Cologne itself (at the cathedral since 1993). He was also school pastor at the Heinrich Heine University in his native Düsseldorf, and in 1989 he started working in the vicariate general of the Archdiocese of Cologne, which probably set him on track to become a bishop. Made a Chaplain of His Holiness in 1993 and Honorary Prelate in 1996, now-Msgr. Koch was made the subsitute for the vicar general in 2002. In the same year he led the preparations for World Youth Day 2005, which took place in 2005.

The next year, he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Cologne, with the titular see of Ros Cré in Ireland. Bishop Koch was responsible for pastoral area South, as well as for the non-German speaking faithful of the archdiocese. In the German Bishops’ Conference, this extended to the pastoral care for Germans abroad.

In 2013, in one of his last appointments as such, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Koch as bishop of Dresden-Meißen, at the opposite end of the country. A year later, the German bishops chose him to head the Commission for Marriage and Family, which made sure he was also chosen as one of the country’s three delegates to this year’s assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

heiner kochThe Synod, then… In the entire saga about the German bishops and the Synod, Archbishop Koch has been one of the main players. He will attend the Synod with Osnabrück’s Bishop Bode and Cardinal Marx, and he also took part in what some have called the “shadow Synod” in Rome with representatives of the French and Swiss episcopates. But it is unfair to call the archbishop a liberal in matters of marriage, family and sexuality. In 2012, he stated that debating certain topics that have been authoritatively decided upon by the magisterium of the Pope and bishops is only “frustrating and ineffective”. “A productive and creative conversation,” he said, “is only possible on the basis of our mutual faith and our mutual understanding of what it means to be a Church.” More recently, Archbishop Koch has been accused of being in favour of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. In an interview in Feruary, he said:

“The questions is if we can’t allow faithful who have been divrced and remarried and are deeply pious to receive the Eucharist under certain conditions. That could take place, for example, after a long conversation with a confessor. We should consider such questions.”

His focus, however, is more on the question of how the Church can be close to people in that situation: not so much doctrine, but pastoral care, as he explained later.

In an interview on the occasion of his appointment to Dresden-Meißen, Archbishop Koch explained his priorities in relating to people, which perhaps also explain why some would falsely think that he is not overly concerned with doctrine:

“I don’t want to start with showing people the ethical consequences wihout them first knowing the reasons for them in the faith. I want to speak to them about God. I want to listen to them and hear what they can tell me about God in their lives.”

This attitude comes to the fore more often, when Archbishop Koch says that difficult questions are not resolved via headlines, but via conversations and encounters with people.

In the same interview, he also explained the Church’s position on same-sex marriages:

“The Church is convinced that a child needs a father and a mother. I also know that there are married couples which neglect children, and homosexual coupes who love them. But that does not change the fact that the family consisting of father, mother and children is a great wealth for all, not least in their gender differences. God created people as man and woman. Together they reflect the fullness of the divine life. There is not consensus in society, but that does not mean that we should abandon this position”.

220px-Karte_Erzbistum_BerlinThe future in Berlin. As archbishop in the German capital (with equal pastoral responsibility for the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, as well as eastern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), Archbishop Koch will increasingly be at the heart of the action for both state and Church. In a reflection of recent political history after the reunification, when Germany’s political institutions moved from Bonn  to Berlin, the German Bishops’ Conference has long been considering moving their offices to Berlin as well. The Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, also resides in that city. As mentioned above, six of his predecessors (including the five immediate ones) were made cardinals, so we may see a second Cardinal Koch (in addition to Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) at some point. Archbishop Koch is young enough to wear the red with influence. But even in purple he will have his work cut out for him.

His predecessor, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, quickly established himself as a bishop in the mold of Pope Francis: close to the margins of immigrants and workers. Archbishop Koch will probably have little problems taking that attitude on as well. The Archdiocese of Berlin is twice the size of Dresden-Meißen, but has about the same number of Catholic faithful. It is in the process of merging parishes to better serve these faithful, which is a sensitive process to lead for any bishop.

More to come…

“A defeat for humanity”? The wisdom of the cardinal’s words

parolinCardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has commented on the Irish referendum which resulted in a major vote in favour of same-sex marriage, and called it a “defeat for humanity”. Was that the wise thing to say?

The Irish vote was certainly a defeat for the Christian argument, if such simplistic wording can be properly used in this context. Seen from the Catholic position, the very nature of marriage is being redefined, changing its essential role in building healthy societies. It is being downgraded to a mere legal acknowledgement that two people love each other and want to be together, with no eye for their duties towards society and future generations (duties that are also increasingly being forgotten in marriages in general, it must be said). The complementarity of man and woman, which finds its ultimate expression in marriage, is deemed unimportant enough to deny it its defining place within the concept of marriage. In essence, it is being said that marriage need not have all the defining characteristics in order to be marriage.

As hinted above, same-sex marriages can have worthy elements that we also find in true marriage, such as love and responsibility, but it lacks other elements: the openness to new life as a product of the (physical and emotional) love of the spouses, and the ability for full complementary love which flows forth from their identities as man and woman (more than just a physical characteristic).

Many critics will say that many heterosexual marriages are equally closed to life and fullfilment, and they are right. Married partners have an obligation to love and take care of each other and raise their children in that same love and care, and when they refuse that, for whatever reason, marriage becomes a mockery of itself, denied to be what it is called to be.

The wisdom of the phrase “a defeat for humanity” can be debated. I am not too keen on getting overly dramatic about every setback, but as humanity consists of men and women who are called to find fullfillment in each other and so contribute to humanity as a whole (marriage, after all, is not only for the spouses), I can understand the sentiment expressed by the cardinal.

Is it wise, then, to use these words in the public debate? I don’t think so. While Cardinal Parolin can’t be faulted for being clear, his words are so easily distorted, misunderstood, taken out of context and presented as nothing but a blunt attack. Cardinal Parolin is right in disagreeing with the vote, but I have already seen his words being used to contrast the cardinal with Pope Francis, who has also been quoted and understood out of context on this subject more than once. The cardinal also stated that the result of the referendum must be an invitation for the Church to do more in the field of evangelisation, and that is certainly necessary. In order for the Church to be understood, she must make herself understood. Headlines have their use, but not when they don’t invite to further reading. Any discussion about marriage must either presume knowledge about Catholic doctrine, or explain it.

In this debate, I think that one element is being forgotten: holding on to the traditional definition of marriage is not in any way an invitation to discriminate. When it comes to equal rights in work, income, finances, housing and other opporunities, sexual orientation can be no reason to deny people anything. Even when two people of the same sex decide to share their lives, we should support their equality. We may not agree with it, but it’s  really not our place to refuse basic social rights and opportunities. But society as a whole, as well as children, also have their rights and opportunties. Marriage, however, is more than rights and opportunities. It is the God-given way in which men and women find each other and themselves and in which children receive the home and basis they need to be raised in.

In the end, any debate on topics like this must be based on reason, as it has strong emotional connotations for many. We must acknowledge and understand the emotion, but also know that emotion alone won’t lead to an understanding, a solution or willingness to learn and grow.

For the Synod, faith, opennes and courage – Bishop Wiertz’ letter for Lent

In his letter for Lent, which was read out in the churches during the first Sunday of the penitential season, Bishop Frans Wiertz looks ahead to the Synod and outlines the right attitude of the faithful towards it.

Bisschop Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

Every year in Lent we realise that we need moments of reflection and conversion in our life and in our relationship with God. They help us to be more open to God’s mercy and the Words He speaks to us. In this way we can experience those riches that God wants to give us.

In the Church there is a habit of paying special attention to a given topic over the course of the year. Pope Francis declared this year to be the “Year of Consecrated Life”. I already indicated this in my letter for Advent.

At the same time this year also has a special focus in the Synod on the family. This was held a few months ago in Rome and will be continued at the end of this year. In his message to the religious, Pope Francis writes, “I thank the Lord that the Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the Synod on the Family. Family life and consecrated life are both vocations which bring enrichment and blessings for all.”

At the end of the Synod, October last, Pope Francis urged the local Churches to think about the conclusions of the first Synod and let the issues mature. In our diocese we did so by sending the questionnaires, which are the basis of the upcoming Synod, to the parishes. The issues will also be discussed in the various advisory councils.

Now that the vision of Church and faithful on marriage and family have become such a clear topic of discussion, it is obvious that everyone has their own thoughts about it. At the same time we realise that marriage and family revolve around the merciful reality that God grants us and which we can’t invent ourselves. From that realisation Pope Francis made these issues the topic of Synods. Jointly, the bishops of the world Church can in this way manifest the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Looking for what is good and true in the faith is a process of the entire Church.

At the same time this search also and always takes place “with and under Peter”, as the Pope himself put it. Pope Francis emphasises both the importance of the input of all bishops – yes, even of all faithful – as well as the importance of his own presence as keeper of the faith and supreme shepherd of the Church.

In this sense our own thoughts and convictions regarding marriage and family are very valuable, but they are never the final words on the matter. What’s beautiful about the Catholic Church is exactly that we can experience the guidance of the Lord in the words spoken by Pope and bishops.

It may be expected that the Pope will collect the conclusions of this Synod in a so-called Apostolic Exhortation. This document will be a guide for how we deal with issues of marriage and family. No one can afford to take go separate ways in that. The divisions among the faithful which would be the result of that are by definition contrary to God’s will and will have disastrous consequences. After all, we find Him fully within the unity of the Church.

Many of the issues surrounding marriage and family, by the way, have to do with unity and division. At the same time it is somewhat improper to keep talking about the “issues” of marriage and family. We do a great injustice to marriage when we consider it as a source of problems.

Marriage and family are rather the regular way in which people fulfill their lives. The way in which they can be happy. And especially also the way in which they manifest God’s plan with humanity. It would be a grave injustice to consider marriage as a source of fighting and misfortune. What matters especially is the question of how we can respond to situations in which the intentions and convictions from the beginning do not become reality.

From us this requires an attitude of faith and trust in the word of God. And also openness and courage concerning the way which Pope and bishops show us. In that regard we can be convinced of one certainty: that way will be one in line with Tradition and according to the faith of all ages. At the same time a newness will be present which the Holy Spirit continuously grants His Church.

During Lent we want to keep our eyes fixed on God. We will see how beneficial it us to be free from our own desires and wishes. That will also be a good attitude towards the Synod: expecting in gratitude to God what is good for man. We may all be very involved with the process taking place in our Church. But it is a great mercy to have faith that the good Lord guides His Church. Through the Holy Spirit and through the successor of Peter He always remains close to His Church. Let us accept this mercy in faith and trust.

I gladly wish a you a fruitful and blessed Lent.

Roermond,

+ Frans Wiertz, Bishop of Roermond”

Bishop in the pub – making the conference more present

dbk logoA month from now, the German bishops will be meeting for their spring plenary in the city of Hildesheim, but on the eve of that meeting on the 23rd of February, seven bishops will participate in debates about various topics in seven pubs throughout the city. Whereas plenary meetings of bishops’ conferences are usually far removed from the daily lives of the faithful, they do influence it and are an arena where important issues and plans are discussed and decided. By holding such pub debates, as it were, both the conference and their topics take a few steps towards the faithful, closing the gap between them. This is, of course, further helped by the fact that entrance is free (although some pubs have a space limit)…

The plan seems to be the brainchild of Bishop Norbert Trelle, host of the meeting and vice-president of the bishops’ conference. The Diocese of Hildesheim celebrates the 1200th anniversary of its foundation this year and its 11th century cathedral has just come out of an extensive renovation.

These are the seven bishops speaking at various pubs: Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier will speak about peace and justice; Bishop Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabrück) about the communication of faith; Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann (Würzburg) about art and religion; Bishop Heiner Koch (Dresden-Meißen) about marriage and family; Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen) about business ethics; Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (Cologne) about poverty; and Bishop Norbert Trelle (Hildesheim) about immigration and human rights.

An example worth following by bishops in other countries.

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.

Forget the sensational headlines – What the Synod is really about

Today, it seemed as if the Church has turned a whole bundle of pages, made a full 180 on several high profile subjects and basically “got with the times”. Of course, reality is quite different, but you wouldn’t know it from certain sources, both left and right.

Peter+Erdo+Synod+Themes+Family+3tjyhEsy4E_lThe Relatio post disceptationem, which was presented today by Cardinal Péter Erdö, summarises the discussions and presentations of the first week of the Synod, and tries to paint a picture of the major topics discussed and field of further study and development identified. As such there is nothing conclusive in it, nothing authoritative, nothing but a update on where the discussion now stand.

In order to understand what the contents of the document mean, it is always good to read all of it. Not just part 3, which outlines the pastoral areas that the discussion will focus on, but also part 1 (the challenges of the family in our modern world) and part 2 (the Biblical and traditional basis of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family). Only when read together can each part be understood fully and flights of fancy and wishful thinking be avoided.

We must never forget the theme of this assembly of the Synod: The pastoral challenges of the family on the context of evangelisation. There are several keywords here: The Synod participants will deal with pastoral challenges, not dogmatic. The teachings of the Church are not under discussion. It is about the family: their challenges, not the teachings, are what dictate the discussions. The context is that of evangelisation: pastoral care for families, the ways of facing their challenges, has evangelisation as its goal.

The outlines, which are not recommendations, and certainly not changes in the Church’s teaching, deal with people, and the Church has never ceased encouraging the innate dignity of human beings and the respect we are obliged to have for it. That is regardless of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, language or whatever element of their being you’d care to mention. It’s in the catechism, so anyone displaying surprise as the Relatio‘s emphasis on respect for all people, has some reading up to do.

The Relatio post disceptationem is interesting, worth reading and studying, and a good reminder of the importance of mercy, but it is not the earthquake some have made it out to be.

Read it, all of it. Don’t be satisfied with headlines.

Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe