Looking ahead to this year’s big trip

Last year all eyes were on Pope Benedict’s successful visit to the United Kingdom, and now we are at the brink of what I think could be an equally momentous visit: the first official state visit to Germany. And while 100 parliamentarians plan to be somewhere else than the Bundestag tomorrow (and Archbishop Zollitsch optimistically hopes they’ll give the pope’s address a good read afterwards), while protesters claim to be able to muster several tens of thousands to their cause (and the Holy Father is rumoured to have some trepidation because of that – not that it’ll keep him away from his native country), and while even Hans Küng is stirred from his slumbers to make some old-fashioned comments, many thousands of people from Germany and abroad eagerly await to papal shoes setting foot on the concrete of Berlin’s Tegel airport.

A giant reproduction of their April 5, 2005 front page decorates the publisher's headquarters of the Bild newspaper in Berlin.

If the UK visit is anything to go by (and that remains to be seen), this visit certainly has the potential to stir things up and reinvigorate the German faithful and Church, and even those beyond. And what with Germany’s leading position in Europe, this visit is in many ways a visit to Europe as well. What the pope will say and do will have a bearing on Germany, but. I expect, no less on all Europeans, especially those in the secularised west. As the Holy Father said in his televised address three days ago: “[I]n these days we want to try to return to seeing God, to return to being persons through whom the light of hope might enter the world, a light that comes from God and helps us to live.” The hearts and minds of the people of the secularised west must be reopened to God, so that He may become visible again in our lives. The visit will therefore be a missionary visit: like Saints Paul and Peter travelled to strengthen the faith of small Christian communities, so does the Successor of Peter visit the Christian communities, Catholic or not, of Germany this week.

Archbishop Woelki is still getting to know the people of his new diocese, here a group of Roma in Berlin.

For Archbishop Rainer Woelki, installed less than a month ago as Berlin’s ninth bishop (and second archbishop), this will the big event he never had the time to prepare for, and the one his predecessor, Cardinal Sterzinsky, had hoped he would live long enough to see. But Archbishop Woelki, who will welcome the pope upon his arrival in Berlin tomorrow, will be used to the rocky start of his heading the Church of Berlin; one day after his own installation, he was called upon to consecrate new Bishop Ipolt of Görlitz, one of Berlin’s two suffragan dioceses. Having the pope come for a visit will perhaps be something of a matter of course now. Although his joy, his awe and his desire to impress the magnitude of this occasion on the people of Berlin do shine through in a letter which was read in all churches of the archdiocese this weekend.

And it is a momentous occasion. For the pope, certainly, who has few chances to visit the country where he grew up and which he clearly loves. But also for the Church in Germany, for the people of all faiths and also for the political world in and beyond Germany. The pope comes as a head of state, certainly. He was invited as such by the federal president. But the pope can never be just a head of state. He also comes as the Successor of Peter as the visible head under which all Catholic faithful are united, as the man to whom Christ Himself entrusted the care of His Church in these times. We do well to give him our ear and our mind, and pay loving attention to what the Holy Father will teach and express in the coming days.

Because, as the motto of this papal visit says, Where God is, is the Future!

Photo credit: [1] Reuters/Tobias Schwarz , [2] Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Nissen’s departure, good or bad?

Dutch historian Peter Nissen, one of the go-to Catholics in the Dutch media landscape, announced yesterday that he has left the Church and joined the Remonstrants. This after a history of criticism against the Church and the pope. Only last week did he call for the pope to abolish himself and dismantle the entire apparatus of the Catholic Church. He’s sort of the Dutch Hans Küng, in that respect.

Should we welcome his departure? I don’t think so. In the first place because it is never good news when someone leaves the Church (out of ignorance or for other reasons). Nissen consciously distances himself from Christ and His sacraments, with all the risks that entails.

A second reason why it’s not good news is that it may not change anything. Nissen was certainly an unwelcome critic in the Church, using his status as professor of history to voice opinions which showcased, paradoxically, his ignorance. Will that change now that he is outside the Church? He’s still a historian, the media still have his phone number…

Maybe he will keep quiet about pope and Church now, to focus on his newfound home among the Remonstrants, and my concerns may turn out to be unfounded.

But I hesitate to share in the opinion of those who say that Nissen couldn’t have left soon enough. The question of why he still considered himself Catholic when he attacked so many Catholic concepts is a valid one, and at the very least Nissen was honest enough to act upon his opinions and leave. How many people who think likewise still cling to a claim of Catholicity?

Ignorance and personal pain has led someone astray. That is never good.

Denouncing Küng

Father Z writes: “I suspect Fr. Kung was getting nervous about not reading his name in the paper for a while, and so he staged another little nutty for the press”. Well, said nutty wasn’t the only one the dissident priest staged. He also contributed an opinion piece to NRC, a piece which is almost to easy to poke holes in.



The Roman Catholic Church should not only be open about abuse by clergy, but also about the  impossibility of celibacy [I think we can guess where this is going.]

by Hans Küng

From the United States, Ireland and now also from Germany come reports about massive sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic clergy. The fact that the chairman of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, called the abuse cases ‘terrible crimes’ and that the conference as a whole asked for forgiveness from the victims on the 25th of February, are the first steps to come clean about this unforgivable behaviour. But further steps must follow. Besides, Zollitsch’s declaration contained three errors which must be corrected [for a given value of ‘error’].

Firstly, the statement that sexual abuse by clergy has nothing to do with celibacy [Not what the German bishops said, exactly. Here’s the line from the statement in question: “Der Zölibat der Priester ist, wie uns Fachleute bestätigen, nicht Schuld am Verbrechen sexuellen Missbrauchs. Ein zölibatäres Leben kann aber nur versprechen, wer dazu die nötige menschliche und emotionale Reife hat” (source). Off-the-cuff translation: “Priestly celibacy is, as experts assure us, not the cause of the crime of sexual abuse. A celibate life can only succeed in someone who has the necessary human and emotional maturity”. Reality is not as simplistic as Küng would have us believe.]

It can not be denied that abuse also happens in families, schools and churches that do not know celibacy.  But why does it happen so excessively in the Catholic Church with celibate leaders? [It does not. Statistics show that celibacy actually occurs less in Catholic institutions than in families or other Christian denominations. See here for some arguments.] Of course celibacy is not the only cause of misbehaviour. But it is the most important – and it is structurally the most decisive expression the of the strict attitude of the ecclesiastic hierarchy towards sexuality in general [Ah, now we get to the bee in Küng’s bonnet].

A look at the New Testament makes it clear: Jesus and St. Paul lived in exemplary celibacy in service to their priesthood, but allowed every individual total freedom in that area [Any theologian and Church historian worth his mettle would agree: celibacy is not based on the Bible, at least not totally, as will become clear. Küng use of the New Testament to disprove the value of celibacy is therefore pointless].  Seen from a biblical perspective celibacy can only been considered a freely chosen vocation, not as a generally applicable law [True, and every man or woman still makes that choice freely]. Paul expressly argued against people who were of the opinion that it is “a good thing for a man not to touch a woman” by answering: “yet to avoid immorality every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband” (1 Cor. 7: 1-2). According to the first letter to Timothy, “the presiding elder must have an impeccable character. Husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). It does not say, “Husband of no wife.” [The Timothy passage addresses the impeccability of the elder in general, and does not make express statements about being married or unmarried. 1 Corinthians too has a lot to say about married life, and also states that those who are unmarried can try to remain so, to follow the example of St. Paul. He never demands that priests can’t live celibate.]

Secondly, that it is not right to blame the abuse cases on a systematic error within the Catholic Church [I am not sure what Küng refers to here, to be honest.]

The rule of celibacy practically did not exist during the first millennium of the Church [Not true. Church fathers such as Origen (185-254) advocated it, and since Pope Saint Siricius (late 4th century) it is discussed in papal decretals. It didn’t become mandatory until the 11th century, but that is not the same as ‘practically not existing’]. It was introduced in the 11th century in the West by monks (who freely chose celibacy) – especially by Pope Gregory VII – and was enforced despite heavy resistance by the clergy in Italy and Germany, where resistance was so strong that only three bishops dared enforce the Roman law. Thousands of priests protested against the new law [In itself, protest says nothing about the validity of a law, only about its popularity. Küng skilfully uses this emphasis on protest to depict the Roman hierarchy as evil and oppressive].

The rule of celibacy – coupled with the absolute rule of the pope and mandatory clericalism – became one of the central pillars of the ‘Roman system’. In contrast to the clergy of the eastern churches [which also maintain a distance between clergy and laity], the clergy in the west was completely separated from the rest of Christian society, especially because of celibacy: a unique and dominant class which was radically superior to the lay population, but totally subject to the pope in Rome [This is peripheral to the abuse issue, if factual at all]. Mandatory celibacy is responsible for the disastrous shortage of priests today, for the fatal neglect of the Eucharist and the sad deterioration of the personal pastoral priesthood in many places [These are all problems of the last fifty years, whereas celibacy has been around for at least sixteen centuries. Küng’s reasoning falls flat]. What would be the best solution for the recruitment of future priests? Simple: get rid of the rule of celibacy and allow women into the priesthood [That last point came out of the blue, but it’s not unexpected from Küng: it’s his other pet peeve. But since Christian denominations without celibacy and with female ministers suffer much the same problems as the Catholic Church does today, it is, at the very least, highly doubtful that these are any sort of solution].

Third, that the bishops have taken enough responsibility [I can’t find any statement to this effect in the bishop’s declaration either].

Of course it is good to hear that concrete steps are taken to reveal abuse cases and to avoid them in the future. But aren’t the bishops themselves responsible for the decades-long practice of hiding abuse cases, and often not doing much more than secretly relocating the offenders? Are the secretive bishops of the past suddenly reliable investigators? [Küng seems to assume that the bishops of 40 years ago are the same as today. People do die and new people do get appointed…] Shouldn’t there be independent committees to handle such cases? [Er… there are, both in Germany and in other countries.]

Until now barely one bishop has taken part of the blame, while the bishops can perfectly prove that they followed the instructions of Rome. For the cause of discretion [or for the cause of clarity and bureaucratic ease] the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith demanded exclusive legal jurisdiction for all cases of sexual abuse by clergy, and so, between 1981 and 2005, these all ended up on the desk of its prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger [Untrue. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not become solely responsible until 2002, on the initiative of Cardinal Ratzinger]. On 18 May 2001 he sent and Epistula de Delictis Gravioribus to all the bishops in the world, indicating all forms of abuse which fell under secretum Pontificium or ‘pontifical secrecy’ [Catholic.org has a clarification of this letter here. Note especially: “[This document deals] with the Church’s internal judicial acts, at the canonical level. Therefore they do not deal with the accusations and the provisions of the civil courts of states, which must be carried out according to their own laws. Whoever has addressed or addresses the ecclesiastical court can also address the civil court, to denounce similar crimes. Therefore the action of the Church is not aimed at retracting these crimes from the jurisdiction of the state and keeping them hidden”]. Does the Church not have a right to a mea culpa from the pope, in solidarity with the bishops [I don’t get Küng. First he calls for the bishops to stand along side the accused and now they deserve the pope’s solidarity? Besides he pretends there is a gap between pope and Church, whereas they are one]? The same openness with which the Church finally comes to terms with the abuse is now needed to confront one of the main structural causes: the rule of celibacy. The bishops should expressly propose that to Pope Benedict XVI.

Hans Küng is emeritus professor ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen. In 1980 the Vatican removed his license to teach.