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The Diocese of Trier has come with some sort of explanation for Bishop Stephan Ackermann’s confusing comments on the Church’s moral teaching, which I wrote about before. The response comes in a response to a long letter by Austrian student Victoria Fender (pictured). In it, she expresses her concern for Bishop Ackermann’s reasoning, stating that while reality is one thing, a bishop has a duty to share and promote the Church’s ideal of Christian marriage and sexuality, not give in to what society thinks it is today (and maybe something else altogether tomorrow). And, she adds, there is a very real desire among young people for this countercultural teaching, if only they heard about it.
Part of the response to Ms. Fender’s letter goes as follows:
As Ms. Fender writes, she is personally very enthused by the message of the Gospel and is generally respected for her witness of faith and life by her fellow students. One can only rejoice about that. The responses to the Synod survey have also clearly indicated that the great majority of Catholics shares the basic values of what the Church teaches about marriage and sexuality: lifelong fidelity, openness to the transmission of life, respect for one’s partner… But it also an undeniable truth that every person’s life needs a very personal development to come nearer and nearer to the goal of Christian truth. This way is not always linear.
All nice and true, but the fact that different people come to the truth in different ways does of course not mean that the truth is different for everyone. Marriage is still marriage. Human sexuality still has the same nature and purpose. The letter continues…
In his service a bishop is both teacher and pastor. In her letter, Ms. Fender herself referred to the words of Jesus about the Good Shepherd. For a bishop that means that he is also responsible for those who do not particularly live up to the ideals of Christian morality. Should he, like the Good Shepherd, also not go after the sheep that got lost, to show it, in the mercy of Christ, the way to full community? In his words, Pope Francis reminds us time and again not to discourage people, but to help them to discover the beauty of the faith, so that they can grow in that faith. Bishop Ackermann is committed to this task. In more than a few responses that have come to us in the last few days, this is perceived gratefully.
To me, this sounds like a classic mistake. Of course, bishops and priests (and all faithful) should do their best to find the lost sheep and bring them back to the herd. But we can’t do so by telling those sheep that they were right to get lost or purposely leaving the herd. We can’t change the truth in order to bring them back. Rather, we should show them ever more clearly the beauty of that truth, of the faith, not adapt it to what some think it should be. A bishop has the duty to shepherd and teach, but also to communicate the faith and make sure it is represented truthfully. By saying, as Bishop Ackermann did, that homosexuality is not intrinsically disordered, that contraception is not a problem because it is hard to understand, or that the indissolubility of marriage is no longer valid, he basically admits that the truth that the Church has been teaching for centuries is not set, that it can be changed according to the wishes of the people. That is not good shepherding, that is confirming people in their error, that is telling sheep to get lost and stay away because they think it is best for them.
A bishop should teach the truth, lead people to that truth and show the fullness and beauty of that truth. Even when it is difficult or when people need time to understand and achieve it. That last part is only human, and we should give people all the time and support they need. Telling them that it takes too long, so it must be wrong, is the road to disaster.
Someone pointed out to me that bishops are teachers, so we must let them teach. But what if we find problems with their teaching? Should we not ask for clarification, or even share our concerns. Ms. Fender did the best thing anyone can do. She sent a letter to the bishop, pointing out what she found hard to understand about what he taught. It is a shame that the response is quite unsatisfactory.
In an example of how very general words can lead to the oddest of conclusions, local and international media have taken some of Pope Francis’ comments in a three-hour dialogue with religious superiors (held in November, but published only recently) and used them to suggest that the Pope, and in extension the Church, had changed its teaching on ‘alternative forms of family life’. In other words, they claimed that Pope Francis, or rather the image that many have of how they want him to be, is now in favour of same-sex couples raising children, one-parent families and other unions in which children are raised other than complete families with a father and mother.
Jimmy Akin has a good summary and explanation of what the Pope really said.
What can we conclude from this? That, quite simply, people are not hearing what the Pope is saying. The main reason for this is that his words are not being communicated properly, even wilfully changed or erroneously interpreted, by independent media. And related to that, we can say that people are not aware of what the Church is teaching.
I have read some comments which seemed to indicate that the mere recognition of these alternative forms of family is a new thing, and thus a change in attitude. The Church, many think, considers homosexuality to be disordered and is opposed to same-sex relations because she refuses to acknowledge its existence. In that light, Pope Francis words about suitable pastoral care for children in such situations and about the importance of education can appear to be revolutionary.
But they are pertinently not. They are valuable and they must be heard and taken to heart, but they are not new. The need to provide adequate pastoral care and education to anyone, regardless of their state of life or sexual orientation, is not the same as approving of that state of orientation. The Church is not an ostrich, pretending that all the things she doesn’t like aren’t there. No, she openly acknowledges they exist. And in doing so, she can teach: that desires do no dictate what is good for us, that not everything that can be done should be done and that people are called to an ultimate destination in God. That destination is not reached or even known by allowing everything. The journey does not originate in people, but in God. We are therefore called to strive for what is God’s and make what is man’s suited to the Lord. That is process in which we are first and foremost called to see the world so that we can reach out to it.
Simply because it’s always good to read something by the great Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, I have translated an interview he gave to Belgian magazine Knack. The interview was conducted by Walter Pauli and subsequently shared in full on Facebook by Fr. Felix van Meerbergen, and covers such topics as foreign priests, Catholic funerals, the archbishop’s efforts to be everywhere in his archdiocese, the attacks on him by Femen and other leftwing loonies, homosexuality (of course), Pope Francis (including a theoretical papal visit to Brussels), and more.
A good read which shows some unexpected sides of the archbishop. Who knew he is apparently a good entertainer, and you have to admire his attitude towards the attacks against him, which I shared on Facebook yesterday:
“The Femen attack was the most enjoyable: I only got water on me. The pie I got in my face in the cathedral in 2010 was decorated with strawberries, and that tasted nice. Only in Louvain-la-Neuve it was mostly unpleasant: those pizzas were really greasy. Terrible.”
There’s more, so read my translation here.
Photo credit: Belga
Former Dutch parliamentarian Boris Dittrich (pictured) has been treating several media outlets to the story of his visit to the Vatican and his conversation with Archbishop Müller. There are some serious problems with his comments, which I will try to address by fisking this article, which was written by Frans Wijnands and was published today on “meeting place for Christians” Het Goede Leven (all bold text in between square brackets are my comments):
The Pope does not decide the doctrine of the Church, says Archbishop Müller
Under the current Pope Francis there is no relaxation imaginable in the Church’s strictly dismissive opinion on homosexuality. So states the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It is not the Pope who decides the doctrine, the dogmas of the Church [well, in the case of dogmas, it is]. Concerning doctrine, that is a matter for the Curia. That is the response that Dutch former (Liberal Democrat] politician Boris Dittrich received from Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when Dittrich suggested out loud that the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards homosexuals could change in a positive way under Pope Francis.
Dittrich was in Rome and the Vatican these past days on behalf of Human Rights Watch, a worldwide human rights organisation which, among others, strives for equal rights for homosexuals [including the right to change truth, it would seem]. Dittrich is its director for ‘rights of sexual minorities’.
Earlier he had explained the position of Human Rights Watch in a more or less open letter of twelve pages [talk about losing the point in words, perhaps?] With the letter, Human Rights Watch encouraged Pope Francis last month to denounce violence towards and discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals, and to stand up to priests and other workers in the Church who support violence against and discrimination of sexual minorities [Because no Pope has done that before. I'll just share this link again; in it I quote some sources which state exactly what Dittrich wants].
Dittrich travelled to Rome to personally explain the letter, but did not get to speak with the Pope [Did he think of making an appointment, or did he just assume the Holy Father would make time for him on the spot?]. The former D66 member of parliament was at the weekly audience with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday and was able to hand the letter to an assistant when Francis’ car stopped near him.
He did get to speak with Msgr. Müller (pictured), the head of the most important Vatican Congregation, that of the Doctrine of the Faith. Dittrich told Müller that he attended an opening of a campaign for more rights for homosexuals in Rio de Janeiro in 2008 and there spoke extensively with the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires: Msgr. Bergoglio, the current Pope. He told Dittrich that he was or is [odd and suggestive use of words] opposed to gay marriage, but could imagine that an alternative was possible, for example the legal recognition of homosexual relations. [Where did we hear that before? Oh, right: here.] A sort of cohabitation contract [as it exists in the Netherlands for both same-sex and separate-sex couples].
Cold and Stiff
To Dittrich’s suggestion that under the current Pope a relaxation of the Church’s strictly dismissive position was imaginable, Müller’s reply was that the Pope does not make policy, but that that was a task for the Curia.
“The entire conversation was cold and stiff. Very detached. Not a single sign of thinking along or sympathy, “says Dittrich. “I senses a tension, a sort of self defense.” [Probably because some research will show that the teaching of the Church is not subject to the personal opinions of whoever, and that Pope Francis is indeed a son of the Church, as he said himself].
In Rome and among Vatican watchers it is known that the public actions of Francis are not received well be everyone in the highest governing body. The Pope has repeatedly shown that he makes his own decisions and does not rely too much on the Curia. [On the other hand, Archbishop Müller and other Curial prelates have been confirmed in their jobs after careful consideration, a sure sign that Pope Francis supports them in their work].
He recently appointed Msgr. Pietro Parolin as new Secretary of State, as successor of Cardinal Bertone. Dittrich assumes that this new Secretary of State will loyally execute the Pope’s policies [Of course he will]. “That obviously creates tensions with the Curia [really?] Because it could lead to the influence and power of that Curia decreasing”, Dittrich assumes. [Dittrich should do a little less assuming and some more researching. Pope Francis was given a specific mandate to reform the Curia by the cardinals who elected him. Among them many Curial cardinals. Pope Francis' intentions to reform the Curia are hardly secret].
Shortly before resigning, Pope Benedict XVI appointed his former student, friend and confidant, Msgr. Müller as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, [well, shortly... nine months, and it was a decision most likely far longer in the making], an office that Pope Benedict held himself for years before being elected Pope.
In the conversation [which took place where and how, I wonder? Did Dittrich meet the archbishop by chance or did he have an appointment?] with Boris Dittrich, Msgr. Müller also strongly attacked the role of the media. According to him, these are, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, continuously out to hit the Vatican. [Well, many media outlets are, that's a fact. Whether it's wise to accuse all media of that, if the archbishop did, is the question]
I can’t help but consider Dittrich’s comments somewhat untrustworthy. He displays a lack of understanding about how the Church works and what she teaches, and a lack of preparation for his attempts to share a letter with the Pope. Add to that his clear liberal agenda, and we get an artificial image of a Curia opposed to their Pope, and image which simply is not supported by reality. It’s like what Archbishop Gänswein said when it was assumed that he and Pope Francis did not get along because he was Benedict’s man: “All nonsense”.
Pope Francis has been encouraging a more pastoral approach to and treatment of homosexuals (and anyone else on the margins of our lives, for that matter) in the Church, but that is not the same thing as changing the teachings of the Church. Pope Francis has never indicated any willingness to change those. Those teachings are also not the product of policy makers, but have been given to us and continuously explained by the Church. To say that Pope and Curia are, or even can be, opposed to each other as if they were two politicians in parliament is a gross misrepresentation of reality.
Photo credit:  Sebastiaan ter Burg,  Catholic.org
I just finished answering the questions in the questionnaire sent by the Synod of Bishops to the world’s bishops. Or, at least I tried to. The poll is available in Dutch via this link.
Some questions were not that hard and quite fun to answer, while others were, well… virtually impossible to answer. I suppose that’s the result of compiling questions aimed at a very broad selection of people, ranging from lay unmarried faithful, via celibate priests with a pastoral responsibility to married couples with children. Add to that the great variety of cultural backgrounds and societies that faithful are a part of, and you are bound to come across questions which you can only answer with an honest “I don t know”, or something along the lines of “I’m sure my parish priest knows, but I sure don’t”. Still, I would assume I’m not the only one answering the questions (if you haven’t done so, go, do your bit), so what I missed others will add.
Secular media have presented the questionnaire as being about “homosexuals and contraception”, but, as often, that is a gross misrepresentation. The questions do touch upon those subjects, but their focus is greater: the pastoral care for families, in which marriage and the raising of children are an integral part. The Church’s teachings on sexuality, as well as the conflicting developments in society on these topics are related to that, and so appear in the questions as well.
The Church needs governance from above, but also knowledge of the situation “on the ground”. This poll is a first step to try and achieve that, in conjunction with the contributions of the bishops participating in next year’s Extraordinary General Assembly on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”.
“Paprocki said he could accept some legal protections for same-sex couples, but that same-sex marriage is “inimical to the common good” and civil unions often are marriage masquerading under another name.”
“It is a good thing for states to regulate relations between people of the same sex, but for the Church that is not true marriage, between man and woman. So you must add a new word to the dictionary. But the fact that it is legal [...] is not something that the Church can say anything about.”
Two quotes from two different sources. In recent days, one has generally been hailed as brave and Catholic, the other as in defiance to what the Church teaches and pandering to society’s whims. The first quote is from Michael Clancy in the National Catholic Reporter, describing a comment made by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield (pictured at left) in a debate about same-sex marriage, the other from Godfried Cardinal Danneels (pictured below) in an interview for De Tijd. Bishop Paprocki is generally much appreciated in orthodox Catholic circles, and rightly so, while Cardinal Danneels is not, and often just as rightly so. But in this case, it appears as if the same thoughts and comments are treated differently, solely based upon who uttered them.
The issue of same-sex marriage is a thorny one, as it involves two different schools of thought on what marriage is, the secular and the religious. Add to that the often emotional and personal involvement of many different people, and you have what appears to be a recipe for disaster. The former point is clear, for example, in Bishop Paprocki’s distinction between civil unions and marriage: that is a distinction the Church generally upholds, also for marriage between a man and woman, who don’t actually get married in the civil ceremony. That is another type of union, a profoundly secular one. And can the Church exert any influence on that, as Cardinal Danneels asks? He clearly says she can’t, whereas Bishop Paprocki considers it harmful to the common good, and so already says something about it. The Church can’t order the state on what to do, that much is true, but she can, indeed she must, remain vocal about what is and is not allowed in a state. That is a direct consequence of the Church having and upholding a set of morals. So if we read Cardinal Danneels’ comment as a statement against the Church saying anything about same-sex marriage, we are mistaken. And if Cardinal Danneels meant to say that, he is equally mistaken.
Balancing the Church’s opposition to a changed definition of marriage is the fact that she is called to defend the dignity of all humans, regardless of sex, creed, race, language or sexual orientation. In that context, the Church must welcome legal protection and benefits for persons with same-sex attraction, just as she must for others. If a state chooses to recognise the fact that two persons of the same sex have formed a union and therefore have the right to legal protection and recognition, the Church can’t do anything but support that. That is not the same as recognising the morality of that union, but merely a recognition that the union exists and that it involves two people with their innate human dignity. But a union between people, be they friends, family, of the same sex or different sexes, is not automatically marriage.
Marriage in the original Christian definition, is not only about a union between two people. There are other factors which combined make a union a marriage: the free decision to enter into it, for example, but also, and this is the one that caps the union both parties entered into, the openness to new life. If one of those, or other, factors are not present, there can be no marriage. It is a union, but not a marriage.
All the above, the facts on the ground, the dignity of all human beings and the morality of actions, do not change the Church’s teaching about same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general. In fact, they are all enveloped by this teaching. No one, in or outside the Church, can arbitrarily change the definition of marriage. But that fact should never be understood as discriminatory towards certain people, or as a reason to look down upon or exclude them. Their human dignity means that we are not allowed to do so. We must found a middle way between impossibility and rights, between facts and desires.
So, no, we can’t call a union between two persons of the same sex a marriage, as its very nature prevents it from fulfilling what marriage calls for: the openness to life. But neither can we bar people with same-sex attraction from the legal rights and protections enjoyed by other persons. So, as both Bishop Paprocki and Cardinal Danneels have stated, the Church can support a state’s legal regulation and protection of same-sex unions, but she can’t change what marriage is, can’t support the state doing that, and nor should she be forced to pretend to.
And in closing, let’s not muddle the issue, which is sensitive and difficult enough, with our thoughts about who said what. Even people we don’t often agree with can be correct.
At a European conference on the emancipation of homosexuals in The Hague, an Amsterdam alderman has called for all religious leaders in the world to take their responsibility regarding the acceptance of homosexuals and transgendered people.
“As long as the Pope and most Muslim leaders do not accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation, millions of people will consider violence against gays, lesbians and transgendered people to be justified,” Andrée van Es (pictured), who holds the diversity and integration portfolio in the Amsterdam city council, said. This sweeping generalisation, putting religious leaders in all their diversity in the same corner, is not only a gross misrepresentation of reality, but also a worrying example of the imposition of one society’s political philosophy on others.
Writing as a Catholic and as a blogger with some knowledge of Catholic teachings on these matters, I will limit myself to the Church and her faith, leaving Muslim thoughts about homosexuality aside.
To begin with the very first words of the statement quoted above, I must explain that the Church does accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation: she accepts that it exists, that people can experience sexual attraction to people of the same gender. However, she does not accept it as a true expression of the ordered nature of man as created by God. That is why she will always be opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, as it is an impossibility. However, that is far from the same thing as advocating violence against homosexuals. The Church always upholds that ancient teaching of hating the sin, loving the sinner. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, he or she has an innate dignity and should always be treated in accordance with that dignity that all men have been given. The Church will always defend that dignity, which is most visibly in her pro-life attitude, but also in her pastoral relations between individual faithful, laity and clergy alike.
However, and this is an important distinction that is often misunderstood or overlooked, this loving understanding of people’s equality in their human dignity is far from the same as accepting everything a person does (not is or has, but does). Indeed, when we love someone, we are bound to correct that person if he or she makes mistakes, and we should guide and help them in their lives, whatever the difficulties are that they may face over the course of it. Be it illness, poverty, social issues or a disordered sexuality, we must be there to stand with them, help them in their lives, to achieve the fulfillment of life as God has willed it. We are people with a purpose, created for that purpose, and God has given us the possibility to achieve that purpose, to live in unity with Him for all eternity, despite the obstacles and barriers that we find on our path. He has given us the means to overcome them, and we often find those means through the help of others.
That reality governs the actions of the Church. God has willed to reach out to us through her, that she may be there to lead us to Him. As members of His Church, we are called to make that possible. We do so through the love that Christ has showed us, and that is not a sappy kind of love which sees everything through rose-tinted glasses and accepts everything. No, that love wants the best for its object: us. And therefore it guides, corrects, teaches.
The Church accepts reality, but does not accept that that is all there is. We can and must always strive for something better, for the very best. God is that very best, and He is what we strive for.
All of the above commits us to something which is not easy, certainly not in our modern society. It can come across as discriminatory, hateful even. But just like a parent correcting a child, there can be no hate between God and man. The Church does not hate homosexuals. She loves them like she loves all men, and she teaches them through the faculties given to her by the Lord, in love, like a parent teaches, guides and sometimes has to correct a child.
When suggesting someone to do something, the first step to is to make sure you know what you are talking about. Ms. van Es has clearly failed to do this, as she so clearly links the Pope, and thus the Catholic Church, to violence. A cursory search soon comes up with Paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
In 2008, while offering some criticism, the Holy See welcomed
“the attempts made in the statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity – presented at the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2008 – to condemn all forms of violence against homosexual persons as well as urge States to take necessary measures to put an end to all criminal penalties against them” [source].
In 2009, the Permanent Mission to the UN reiterated much the same sentiments:
“The Holy See also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person. The murder and abuse of homosexual persons are to be confronted on all levels, especially when such violence is perpetrated by the State” [source].
Three quotes found through a short search via Google and Wikipedia. Ms. van Es could and should have known much better.
Photo credit: Gemeente Amsterdam
While giving an address and participating in a debate about blasphemy at the ULB University in Elsene, Brussels, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard was assaulted by four women of the notorious action group ‘Femen’. Topless, they splashed him with water from bottles shaped like the Blessed Virgin. They had slogans written over their bodies that were intended to protest homophobia, but had the main effect of insulting people.
It is clear that notions like respect and freedom of speech, and even of civilised debate, are only applicable to people with the same opinions as these women. If you disagree with them, you are open to assault and insult, and to them that is fully justified.
In the meantime, a more civilised audience will recognise this as sheer lunacy and even a dangerous development. This women do not care about individual rights, they care about being right. It is very selfish behaviour. Perceived rights trump everything, from the rights of others to the integrity of and respect for their own bodies.
And Archbishop Léonard? He let the water fall, kissed one of the bottles as the women were removed and continued with what he came for. Exemplary.
Photo credit: BELGA/Benoit Doppagne