“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.

Road signs – how changing the teaching of the Church leads us nowhere

In Germany the Central Committee of German Catholics, the ZdK, has been calling for pastoral and doctrinal changes to the Catholic understanding of marriage and family. Earlier this week, it seemed as if the Conference of Dutch Religious, the KNR, was following suit.

Towards the end of April, the KNR, through its commission for women, was involved in the organisation of a symposium on relationships and family, with a special focus on divorce, homosexuality and migration, in the light of the Synod of Bishops’ assemblies about the same topic. The symposium’s closing statement, which appeared on the KNR website on the 20th of May, summarises the conclusions and outlines what the participants – some 70 priests, religious and laity in all – think the bishops should decide and promote at the upcoming general assembly. Some of their points, such as simplifying the process of nullification of marriages or increasing pastoral sensitivity towards the divorced – are already being investigated and developed in the Church. Others are rather problematic and clash with the Catholic understanding of marriage and family, and thus ultimately with the sacrament of marriage and the order of Creation as has been given to us by God.

The symposium suggest the following in addition to the non-problematic points I already mentioned. I have added my comments in [red].

  • More respect for the decisions and the conscience of remarried faithful. [There is  a difference between respecting decisions and conscience and allowing things. One can respect a decision and still point out the consequences. The reverse is also true: the person making a decision must be aware and respect the consequences of it. Of course, no one should be forcing anyone towards or away from a decision, but the Church does have a duty of honesty towards people. In the end, we are free people, free to make informed choices, but that is not the be-all and end-all.]
  • Finding a new word for “annulment” as many people do not want to deny the relationship that existed. [To me this sounds like a superficial nicety. Sure “annulment” is a legalistic term that does not sound nice, but the end of a marriage is not nice. It should be remembered that an annulment does not mark the end of a marriage, but the conclusion that there never was a sacramental marriage to begin with. Nothing is ended, since there was nothing to begin with. Is that denial of a relationship? Of course not. Everyone, and the couple involved certainly, will see that there most certainly was a relationship. We should not need to change words to realise that.]
  • Reconsidering doctrine and practice regarding divorce, using the Orthodox Churches as an example. [This is problematic in a way that I know little about, but Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, explains in Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church that there is no single Orthodox understanding or praxis regarding these issues, in addition to other problems. Taking the Orthodox example may not be as straightforward or desirable as it seems.]
  • Marking the end of a marriage with some sort of ritual [This is vague enough to be hard to disagree with. What sort of ritual? Is it one of celebration or mourning? A ritual for people or for God? Is there even something to mark the ending of?]

Regarding homosexuality, the closing statement lists three points:

  • Considering the relationships of people of the same sex, who love each other and take care of each other, as equal to heterosexual relationships and respecting them as such. [This is a difficult one. A distinction must be made between people and relationships. People are always equal, with the same human diginity that God has given all of us. And this should be the basis of how we interact with each other. Relationships, a vague enough term to encompass everything from being neighbours, colleagues at work, up to and including marriage, are not equal. There may be similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, but there are also differences. When we start to consider them as fully equal we disregard the differences, which are not inconsequential. Sure, we can respect the love and responsibility in all relationships (these are inherently good things), but at the same time we acknowledge a fullness that we are called to strive for as far as we can. When we say that all relationships are the same, we deny this, and thus deny God].
  • Re-assessing the anthropology of the Church on the basis of modern insights from psychology, biology and philosophy. [While the Church must always be open to what we learn of the world and humanity through science, this must never be a reason to close the door to revelation. God has taught us about ourselves, and continues to do so through Scripture, Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church. The Church must remain careful to not be swept away with the winds of time. The teaching, including that about sexuality, marriage and family, can not be subject to the whims of the times. Besides, discovering new facts about human nature and sexuality is not in itself reason to change doctrine and practice, but an invitation to work out how both are compatible and can be understood through each other. The Church does not teach primarily because she discovers things (although she does that too), but because she has been given a teaching.]
  • If so desired to bless unions other than the classical marriage between man and woman. [There are two things to consider here. First, there is the blessing itself: in order to bless something, the Church must be in favour of it, and consider it something that must benefit from the blessing in order to flourish. Same-sex relationships (or, if we keep to the language of the statement, any relationship one can think of – even including between adult and minors, people and their pets, with multiple spouses and so on) do not in themselves meet these criteria, regardless of the good they can manifest, such as love and care. Secondly, the Church blesses publicly, not in secret. Assuming a way was found to bless the love and care in a relationship, but not the relationship itself, the Church must take care to show that this is what it is doing. Today, there is a high risk that any such blessing is seen as a sacramental marriage, something which the Church cannot support].

This will sound like a whole bunch of negatives, and that is in itself problematic too. The message of the Church is not a negative one, but it is different to what comes to us in society. The whole of love, family, sexuality and everything connected to it, the Church teaches, is more than just the desires of individual people. That is what it begins with, of course, but it can become so much more. That is what God has called us to from the very beginning, and that is what the Church continues to uphold.

It is exceedingly important for the Church to look at how she presents this, which is why, I believe, Pope Francis called the Synod to begin with: not to change doctrine, but to revitalise the pastoral work of the Church in this field. In order to so, the Church must be honest and open, truthful and welcoming, even when her conversational partners are not. She must speak, but also listen, for the feelings, desires and questions of people are very real, and they deserve acknowledgement and answers.

By changing teachings, the Church shows she does not take herself seriously. So why should anyone else? Listening and acknowledging is not automatically the same as accepting, although society would often have us believe it is. Not agreeing is the same as disrespecting or opposing, we so often hear or read, sometimes bluntly, sometimes between the lines. Instead, we should always look to Jesus, who did not agree with the Pharisees, tax collectors and other sinners, but who nevertheless sat down and ate with them and listened to their stories. He took them seriously enough to listen and then correct them when necessary. And we know that that approach worked, far better than bluntly pointing fingers and calling someone a sinner.

We are people called to great things, to fully become ourselves in love. None of us is perfect, and we all have our particular challenges on the road towards the fullness in God. We are not called to sit down and give up, or to walk past those who have sat down (or worse, encourage them to sit down and give up), but to continue, to help those who struggle and can’t see where to go anymore. And to do that, we need clear signs along the road, not arrows towards side roads that lead nowhere.

The impossibilities of Bishop Bonny

Johan-BonnyIt’s no secret that Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp is a voice of the more ‘progressive’ side of the Church, if such categories can be applied to the Catholic Church (which I think they can’t to any satisfactory extent). He is a bishop able to relate easily to the faithful, addressing them effectively about the practicalities of the faith (as we have seen in, for example, his recent letter for Advent). At the same time, he is less concerned or interested in adhering to the legalities, the rules, the doctrine of the Church, although these are one of the two legs the Church stands on: mercy and the law, which support and feed each other. The one must not exist without the other.

The fact that Bishop Bonny emphasises mercy is not a problem in itself. Pope Francis does so as well. But the Holy Father does not distort or deny the teachings of the Church. Bishop Bonny, sadly, does.

In an interview with Belgian newspaper De Morgen, published on Saturday, Bishop Bonny made several statements regarding the recognition of same-sex relationships by the Church. He said that there should be a “range of forms of recognition”.

“In the Church we should look for a formal recognition of the ‘relationality’ which is also present in same-sex couples. Just like a diversity of legal frameworks for couples which exist in society, a range of forms of recognition should also be introduced in the Church.”

It is hard to understand what Bishop Bonny means here. Recognising the existence of a relation between two persons is something factual. We can all see a relation, in whichever form, between two people, whoever they are. The Church will also acknowledge this, as she is not in the business of denying reality. But we may well assume that recognition goes a bit further in this case.

“The substantive values are more important to me than the institutional question. Christian ethics assume durable relationships in which exclusivity, loyalty and care for the other are at the centre.”

Bishop Bonny makes a sharp distinction here between the substance and the institution, which is, in essence, a division between the two legs of pastoral care I mentioned above, mercy and law. Of course the content or substance of a relationship is extremely important, be the relationship a heterosexual or homosexual one, or even a friendship of family bond. But the fact, the institutional question does not go away and can not be ignored. These continue to exist, and must be recognised and understood, in addition to the substance of the relationship.

“Additionally, there is the openness to new life, or at least the responsibility assumed by partners to be generous in what is being passed on to children.”

This is pure watering-down of what the Church teaches about the nature of marriage. The sacrament of marriage is open to life, which means that the spouses are open to welcoming new life flowing forth from their sacramental bond, both mentally, spiritually and physically. Simple sharing a responsibility is quite simply not the same thing, even though it is, in itself, laudable.

In the last quote featured in the article linked to above, Bishop Bonny finally hits the mark.

“In their lives, everyone is confronted with relationships, friendships, family and the education of children. We must not deny that there are wounds and traumas in the Church about this. Too many people have felt excluded for too long.”

This is true, and not only for homosexual people, and this is a serious problem that must be addressed. The care offered by the Church must be effective, ever-present and open. There is much to win in this field, since many people are indeed excluded because the Church gives the impression that they are. But the big question is how to remedy that.

There are two options, as I see it:

  • We open our doors and listen to everyone who comes to us, share the truth with them and help them in their need, or
  • We tell these people lies and promise them impossibilities to make the pain stop.

What is the right option? It should not be hard to see.

I am not saying that the right option is the easy one. It isn’t in the least, because here too we find the two legs of pastoral care in the form of emotion on the one hand, and facts on the other.

As I have hinted at above, care and concern for homosexual people, including those in relationships, is a good thing, and it must be expressed. The pain and lack of understanding they feel is real. As Catholics we are people of mercy and this means we can not be deaf to these feelings. But that is not the complete picture of our duty as Catholics. We also represent a truth beyond ourselves, after all, the truth of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, He offers the best guidance in such situations through this passage from the Gospel of John: after He has been confronted by the scribes and Pharisees with the adulterous woman, and tells them that he is who is without sin cast the first stone, and after they have silently left, He addresses the woman: “Has no one condemned you?” She replies that no one has. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go away, and from this moment sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)

There are several lessons to draw from this: first, Jesus does not condemn the woman who has objectively sinned, but He does tell her to stop sinning. That is our example. Not to condemn or exclude anyone and to be honest to the truth, the truth of Christ.

So, in the end, while Bishop Bonny is most certainly right in emphasising the need for proper pastoral care for people in homosexual relationships (as well as anyone else, really), his chosen solution ultimately does more harm than good as it dilutes the truth and present impossibilities as attainable and desirable.

True progress – back in line with the Church at Nijmegen’s student chaplaincy

In 2012 the diocese did it at one university and now it is preparing to do it at a second. A return to the Catholic fold seems imminent for the student chaplaincy at Nijmegen’s Radboud University.

bodarFr. Antoine Bodar, media personality but also appointed to manage the contacts with schools and universities in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, is looking ahead to the upcoming retirement of Fr. Theo Koster, the current student chaplain in Nijmegen. And things will be a bit different after he retires in 18 months. A new priest who, in his teaching, will be more in line with the Catholic faith, for one.

The situation seems very similar to the one I described earlier regarding the Maranatha church in Tilburg (see the link above): a liberal approach to the faith of the Church, and actions that are not in line with that faith (the media picks out the blessing of homosexual unions, but also the distribution of Communion to non-Catholics). Of course a change was going to come at some time.

Some call this is a return to conservatism, but Fr. Bodar claims this is in fact a progressive step, calling the situation is it exists now a throwback to the 1960s and 70s. The Church should be clear about her faith, even if there are sometimes tensions between that faith and our personal conscience. A priest should not share his personal opinions in the Mass and other celebrations, but the word of God and the teaching of the Church. He is not there for himself, but with a mission from the Church: the share the Gospel, to welcome and teach in the name of Christ, instead of his own name. Does that mean that some people are suddenly not welcome in the student chaplaincy? Of course not, but everyone deserves to be treated as adult and intelligent individuals who don’t need to be talked down to. Present our faith in its entirety, and not according to an interpretation fueled by personal preference, just to make things easy. Life is not easy, a university education is not easy. Neither should our faith always be. A challenge is an opportunity for growth, questions allows for better understanding.

EDIT 18-12: In commentaries today both Fr. Bodar and the chaplaincy council have underlined that there is no intention of firing Fr. Koster or actively changing the praxis at the chaplaincy, but that the normal process of retirement of a priest, as provided for in canon law, would result in said changes. Fr. Koster will offer his resignation to the bishop when he reaches the age of 75 and the diocese will launch the appointment procedure for a new priest. The confusion regarding blessings of homosexual relations, which exist now, will then be removed.Fr. Bodar stresses the importance of clear communication of the faith of the Church. This includes avoiding confusion. Those in the know will realise that a blessing is not the same as performing same-sex marriages, but for outsiders it is a different matter.

Both parties offered these commentaries after Fr. Bodar said that certain media incorrectly quoted his words from an interview about this subject.

Some thoughts on the Synod and how some people choose to view it

I have to wonder about all those people who claim that poor Pope Francis has been thwarted by those mean old bishops in getting the liberal result of the Synod they wanted? They act as if the only possible conclusion could be what the Pope wishes for: Communion for all, approval of same-sex marriage and an end to difficult and nasty words about sin and exclusion. If only it weren’t for those bishops who are simply afraid of change and don’t want to lose their luxury positions of power.

Except that this is about as far removed from reality as possible.

There is an image of the Pope that is only about being nice. Those who hold to this image quote such statements like the infamous “who am I to judge?” about homosexuals seeking God, but conveniently ignore the fact that no other modern pontiff has spoken as much about sin and the Devil as Pope Francis. According to this line of thought, the Synod must be Pope Francis’ attempt to make the Church nice: to get rid of the difficulties surrounding Communion, marriage and sexuality (never mind the tendency of pretending that these are the sole topics discussed at the Synod is an extremely narrow view).

Now that the Synod is over and the concluding remarks have been published, the followers of this train of thought claim that it is not Pope Francis who holds to the carefu language about homosexuality, about Communion for the divorced and remarried, language that does not go as far as they would want, but those mean old bishops who hijacked the debate. Never mind that Pope Francis has expressly denied that there are opposing sides among the Synod fathers, or that the purpose of the Synod itself says nothing about pushing through any agenda. The Pope called for free and open discussion, no holds barred, and that’s what, and we, he got.

The idea that Pope Francis is disappointed in the result (a temporary result, I might add) of the Synod is unrealistic and presumptuous, a result of seeing the Church as a mere political arena, with opposing side; one conservative, clinging to what is old and familiar, and the other liberal, hoping to change the Church to align to the times.

“Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church, the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.”

Many people talk, few listen or read. A proper read-through of the documents of the Synod should be enough to know that both secularist and extreme conservative conclusions are unrealistic. The Church has not closed doors to anyone, and nor has she thrown out the deposit of the faith that she has been given to keep and share.

For Cologne, it’s 1988 all over again – Woelki comes home

Far earlier than anyone expected, and even before Erfurt, which has been vacant for 18 months, Cologne is given a new archbishop. Succeeding Cardinal Meisner, who retired in February, is Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, until today the archbishop of Berlin.

woelkiA native son of Cologne, Cardinal Woelki was a priest and auxiliary bishop of that ancient see until he was appointed to Berlin almost exactly three years ago. This German-language video profile of the cardinal gives a hint of why Pope Francis chose him to head Cologne. Responsible for the caritas of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Woelki explains that the care for the poor is one of the three pillars of our faith, next to proclaimation and worship.

“A church without caritas, without diaconal ministry, is not the Church of Jesus Christ and has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

His parents having been refugees from eastern Prussia after the war, Cardinal Woelki is especially sensitive to the plight of refugees. Himself a resident in the subburb of Wedding, where his neighbours are mainly immigrants and labourers, Cardinal Woelki made an effort to meet with representatives of the Roma and other immigrant communities very soon after arriving in the German capital.

The new appointment, despite the generational differences, can be seen in continuity with Cardinal Meisner. Cardinal Woelki worked with Meisner as a priest and auxiliary bishop and is considered to be a confidant of the retired cardinal, whose personal secretary he was before being made a bishop. But Woelki also seems to be on a line with Pope Francis, as he emphasis the need for renewed pastoral approaches to homosexuals and remarried persons.

Like Meisner, Woelki is rumoured not to have been the choice of the cathedral chapter of Cologne, who had, it is said, put the names of diocesan administrator Msgr. Stefan Heße, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier and Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meiβen (the latter, like Woelki, also a former auxiliary bishop of Cologne) on the list they sent to Rome. But, as happened in Freiburg in April, the Pope used his freedom to choose another.

Cardinal Woelki is generally quite popular with faithful and media for his clarity and pastoral aptitude in the headline topics of sexuality and the position of women in the Church. Regarding the former he has said he doesn’t want to police the bedroom, and concerning the latter he has entrusted several offices and duties in the Archdiocese of Berlin to women. The Church can not be an exclusively male club, he has said, and at the same time he supports the impossibility of ordination of women. But, as always, there are also topics for which he has been criticised, and these mainly have to do with decisions made regarding the efficiency of managing the Archdiocese of Berlin. Parishes are being merged and united into larger bodies, as they are in more than a few Northwestern European dioceses, and this has led to criticism regarding democracy, influence from the ground up and the distance between curia and faithful. Whether this will be an issue in Cologne, which has some 2 million faithful compared to Berlin’s 400,000, remains to be seen.

Cardinal Meisner headed the archdiocese for 25 years, and since Cardinal Woelki is only 57, we may be looking at another lengthy and influential period in Cologne’s history.

Photo credit: dapd

Teacher and shepherd – Trier responds

victoria fenderThe 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.

bischof-stephan-ackermann-trier-hoch_full_pTo 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.