A priest breaks his vows – my thoughts about the case of Pierre Valkering

I didn’t want to devote many words to this, as I thought that, sordid as the affair is, it is not a reflection of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, nor does the priest responsible deserve his story to overshadow other, more positive news. But as it has now broken internationally (in English at Crux, and in German at Katholisch.de), I think I can at least share my thoughts. I published those thoughts in Dutch on Tuesday, and, as said, I wanted to leave it at that. But perhaps it is good to also share them in English.

First, the context:

pierre-valkeringOn 1 April, Father Pierre Valkering celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. After the festive Mass he presented his autobiography, which he had been working on in secret over the past couple of years. In it, he describes not only his homosexuality, but also his addiction to pornography (going so far as to say that something of the Gospel may be found in pornography) and his past visits to dark rooms and other homosexual meeting areas. These revelations came as a shocking surprise to the diocese. In the past, Bishop Jos Punt had spoken at several occasions with Fr. Valkering about his celibacy, receiving the assurance that the latter was dealing with it “responsibly”. That was obviously a lie.

As a response, the bishop requested that Fr. Valkering cease his priestly duties for the time being and enter into a period of reflection. In a statement issued on 2 April, the diocese states:

“Father could also have chosen to discuss his struggle with his sexuality and celibacy openly and honestly with his bishop. That honesty would certainly not have been punished. On the contrary, together with Fr. Valkering ways could have been found to reflect upon it and receive help. That has in the past also been done for several other priests.

But Fr. Valkering has chosen for a sudden and public act, in which the bishop has not been known in any way. He has also not given any indication about whether he is willing or able to maintain his celibacy in the future.”

Below follows the opinion piece I shared in Dutch via Twitter and Facebook.

The piece below is not a discussion about the doctrine of the Church, homosexuality, sexual abuse in the Church or the mandatory celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church. This is my response to articles about the Amtserdam priest Fr. Pierre Valkering who was placed on leave by Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam following the publication of his autobiography. In that autobiography Valkering describes his homosexuality, his ignoring his oath to remain celibate by actively having sexual contacts and his appreciation for pornography. Separate from a discussion about these topics, the indignation about such behaviour by a Catholic priest is justified. Had Valkering written about heterosexual contacts, that indignation and the consequences for him would have been no different.

At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. A sensible conclusion to draw when someone publishes a book by his hand on that date, in which he prides himself in his sexual excesses, appreciation for pornography and regular visits to dark rooms and other gay meeting places. And this person is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. No priest, who should have a more than superficial knowledge of what the Church teaches about sexuality and priesthood, would say something like that in all seriousness, right? It would have been a fine April’s Fools joke.

But nothing of the sort. Father Pierre Valkering apparently does not value the oaths he made at his ordination. Celibacy for priests is not a new thing. It existed long before there was a Pierre Valkering. But this priest seemingly considered it possible that an active sexual life was compatible with the priesthood, and thought he should speak about it proudly as well.

Valkering indicates that he has long struggled with his homosexuality and that his priesthood was essentialy a form of fleeing. That is something that must be taken seriously. That struggle and flight should have been prevented, and Valkering should have received the help he needed. His surroundings, including the Church, have failed him in that respect. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the period of reflection imposed upon him by Bishop Punt, can help him, and that he will not have to go through it alone.

I obviously do not know the exact cirucmstances which led Valkering to a crooked combination of priesthood and a seriously harmful form of sexuality. Bishop Punt probably also does not know, even though there have been meetings between priest and bishop in the past regarding previous publications and statements and the priest’s view on celibacy and his experience of it (he handled it responsibly, according the the diocese’s statment, but that apparently has a different meaning for Valkering than it did for the bishop). But with the bishop’s responsibility for assuring the correct communicatuon of the faith and the doctrine of the Church by his priests, Msgr. Punt could do little else than asking Fr. Valkering to lay down his duties, at least for now, and reflect on his actions.

The bishop shares the responsibility mentioned above with his priests. From his ordination and mission a priest has the duty of communicating the faith, by celebrating and teaching it, but also by being an example. The sexual excesses of Pierre Valkering, and the way in which he made them public, are an example which is contrary to the faith in all respects: he not only repeatedly broke his oath, but he also ignores his priestly mission and so leads others away from the faith. The way in which he thinks to express his sexuality are at odds with a healthy sexuality as the Church understands it. This is something one can disagree with, obviously. Discussion is always possible, but Valkering did not choose that option. Instead, he chooses a prideful form of deceit. He is a Catholic priest, but does not feel bound to the tasks and responsibilities of a priest. Instead of living for God, he chooses living for himself. He choose to lie to his bishop, to all the faithful for whom he was responsible as parish priest, and ultimately also to God.

With his autbiography, Valkering inflicts damage to the Church, to the people around him, and most of all to himself. Let us hope and pray that he may learn to see that and is offered and can accept the help he needs. The damage done in the past can’t be taken away, but perhaps its impact can be softened.”


Stats for March 2013

What a month it has been. Beginning with the farewell of Pope Benedict XVI, we rode the waves of the sede vacante, the conclave and the election of Pope Francis, and various other events that added some lines to this blog. All in all, it took quite some work to keep these pages filled as things developed, so I hope that a few days of less communication is forgiven. But all the effort brought its own reward, as there was interest from across the globe in my writings. In total, I could chalk up 15,933 visits to these pages. That’s triple the number of a regular quiet month. Thank you!

On to the top 10 of most popular blog posts of March:

1: Countdown to papal Twitter launch 745
2: Meeting of the Popes 431
3: Enter the electors 329
4: The fall of Cardinal Piacenza 318
5: Continuity – Pope Francis’ coat of arms 214
6: Church teachings – the clash between authority and respect 147
7: ‘Bel Giorgio’ takes over the household 82
8: First Sunday – the Dutch cardinals in Rome 80
9: Holy Week 2013, an overview of cathedral celebrations 79
10: The seagull vigil 77

March has been crazy as far as the blog was concerned. I write these words in my free time, which is not always available in abundance. If you like what you read here, and appreciate the information I try to provide and keep as up to date as possible, think of making a donation to this blog’s upkeep. You will find a PayPal donation button in the left sidebar, and also below. Any donor can count on prayers and much appreciation from my part, and will contribute to a continued Catholic voice in new media.

Church teachings – the clash between authority and respect

pierre-valkeringWith the conclave approaching rapidly, and Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk being the sole voting Dutch cardinal, Amsterdam-based priest Fr. Pierre Valkering writes an ill-considered open letter to him, published today in populist newspaper De Telegraaf.

He writes to urge Cardinal Eijk to vote for a candidate who will change Catholic teachings on sexuality, and, as he admits in the opening paragraph, he is writing “based on my own understanding of [the] Holy Spirit in these matters.” Already there does a main problem become clear. As faithful Catholics, clergy or laity, we do not, first and foremost, act on our own understanding of the Spirit, but understand Him through the Church. Any personal understanding (or misunderstanding) must always be considered in the relationship between God and His people, as the one can’t contradict the other: God won’t be telling His people as a whole one thing, and tell an individual something else altogether.

Fr. Valkering criticises the previous Popes’ promotion of sexuality finding its fullest fruition within the marriage between a man and a woman who are open to new life. “All other forms of sexual experience, heterosexual and homosexual, are rejected.” This, he says, gives the vast majority of people the message that they don’t live properly. This, too, should not be surprising. It has become not done in modern society to criticise anyone about their personal life, but isn’t that what jesus Himself also did? Isn’t that what teaching is? Correcting people if necessary and teaching them what is right and wrong? The Church has been tasked with the same thing, and that has nothing to do with rejecting people. And if a person has a crisis of conscience about such matters, as the author writes about later, the right response is not automatically to disregard or change the teachings of the Church and follow your own wishes and desires. If you accept Christ as the Teacher you want to follow, you must also be open to letting Him teach you, even when the lesson is perhaps difficult to understand. The right course of action is then to try and find out why it is so difficult. Only then, by bringing our own motivations, conscience and obstacles to the light of Christ, can we start the process of change that Christ desires for all of us. And no, that is not always easy. But with trust and faith in the Lord, we know it is right.

Fr. Valkering continues,

“In an increasing number of countries, and certainly in the Netherlands, […] the balance between the “moral right” and the sympathy in public opinion undoubtedly falls to people who live in all openness and honesty, even if they do not life in conformity to the Church’s sexual morals.”

This is a very slippery slope, and basically subjects the unchanging truths that Christ taught us to the wishes and opinions and, even vaguer, the feelings of the people. As if these truths are somehow changed as people think differently about them. As people of faith we profess that reality and truth are not what we make ourselves.

He continues,

“People of the Church, on the other hand, make that same Church and everything she stands for implausible and unattractive when they do not really show themselves in their personal thought and action concerning sexuality, but do measure and judge the people who are honest and open, and do not approach them with the respect […] that every person has a right to.”

As Christians and as people who strive to better ourselves we can’t sit down and adapt ourselves to our failings which keep us from following Christ in our actions and our entire being. But that is what Fr. Valkering is proposing. He essentially says that people can’t help who they are, that teaching people that they can change, that Christ asks us that, is akin to a lack of respect. That is, of course, rather at odds with what our faith has taught us over the centuries.

We must always respect and love our neighbours, regardless of who they are or what they do. However, criticising actions (or lack thereof) is never the same as criticising a person. Teaching a person that change is good and possible does not put a person down, but rather elevates him.

There is one thing that I will give Fr. Valkering credit for, and that is accusation that some workers in the Church can be hypocritical when they teach people about change but refuse it in themselves. But if a teacher has a failure, we can’t conclude that his teachings are incorrect, but we can ask ourselves if he is the right person to do the teaching.