Caught between two fires – The trials of Cardinal Marx

marx-XHe is probably the most powerful and most criticised European cardinal at the moment. As president of the German Bishops’ Conference, member of the Council of Cardinals assisting Pope Francis in his reforms of the Curia, head of one of the largest archdioceses in Europe, and former vice-president and president of COMECE (the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community), 65-year-old Cardinal Reinhard Marx is no stranger to media attention, headlines and the accompanying support and criticism that comes with it.

He is also, like all public figures, the target of plenty of calls for action, suggestions of which direction he should take the Church (or his part of it) in by leading by example and changing what he can (even if that power is sometimes exaggerated by those who address him). At this moment, the cardinal’s theoretical desk is occupied by two such calls: one, an appeal from eight theologians urging him to make all those old liberal chestnuts a reality: abolish mandatory celibacy, allowing women to become priests, a change in how the Church relates to homosexuality and a limit to her power. Another appeal, issued several weeks ago, comes from a group of priests from the Archdiocese of Paderborn (where Cardinal Marx was an auxiliary bishop from 1996 to 2001) takes a completely different direction: it, rather harshly, calls for the cardinal to return to the faith of the Catholic Church and the sacraments, which, they claim, he has been abusing for his own personal and political neo-Marxist ends.

So, if the theologians and the Paderborn priests are to be understood, here we have a cardinal who is a neo-Marxist using the sacraments and the faith as social and political tools, and at the same time upholding the traditions and teachings of that same Church… I guess he can’t win, really. Of course, it is somewhat misleading to equate these appeals too much. The first is a consequence of the abuse crisis in which the Church in Germany is equally embroiled, and which it is currently addressing, following a report detailing what took place in the past decades. The second was triggered by Cardinal Marx’s social activity, which is inspired by his faith and duties in the Catholic Church, and which have led to him being considered a leftist, even Marxist, activist too much influenced by the spirit of the times. That said, this accusation comes from people who, too often, automatically mistrust that spirit.

Like Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx seems more concerned with the practicalities of daily life and how the Church should respond and act in the situation of tragedy and triumph of everyday life. The teachings of the Church, her sacraments, her doctrine, seem to disappear from the spotlight sometimes, but it would be an untruth to claim they are therefore absent.

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Paderborn seminary opens doors for homosexual candidates, but maintains celibacy rule for all

priesterseminar-logokomplett@2xThe German Archdiocese of Paderborn will soon allow homosexual men to enter their priestly formation program. Seminary head Msgr. Michael Menke-Peitzmeyer said so before national broadcaster WDR. Like heterosexual seminarians, they will be bound to celibacy. “A person being clearly homosexually active,” the theologian, who has led the seminary since 2013, explained, “I think, would be a criterium to exclude him from priestly ministry.” Msgr. Menke-Peitzmeyer further stated that the difference between orientation and practice must be discerned.

In other words, homosexual men must be treated no different than heterosexual men when coming to knock on the door of the seminary, Both are bound to live celibate lives, and both will receive psychological support during their formation regarding their personal attitudes and sexual orientation, as already happens now.

The Paderborn decision seems to be a departure from a 2005 Instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, which was cited in the new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, issued in 2016. The 2005 document states:

[T]his Dicastery […] believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called “gay culture”.

Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” [N. 2]

Homosexual practice and support for the so-called “gay culture”, which is at odds with the Catholic teachings regarding sexuality, marriage and family, continue to be reasons for the Paderborn seminary to deny candidates, but “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” are another matter. And these, I imagine, are also the most difficult to identify or even define. What are they? Can they be limited to the mere fact of same-sex attraction, or should we understand them as urges which can’t be contained by the celibacy rule? If the latter, the Instruction is understandable.

bodarThe question is further muddled by the fact that the Church already has openly homosexual priests. The best-known example in the Netherlands is Fr. Antoine Bodar (at right), who has been highly critical of the trend that makes homosexual actions the worst sin imaginable, but equally critical of the secular tendency of making every gesture of kindness and affection homosexual. By the 2005 Instruction, Fr. Bodar should never have been allowed to become a priest. And it’s not as if he kept his orientation a secret.

The decision of the Paderborn seminary is, in my opinion, a good one, IF (and I capitalise that with reason) it maintains the clear Catholic teachings regarding sexuality, celibacy and priesthood, coupled with a thorough examination of prospective candidates. If it does, there is no reason for the bishop to refuse a seminarian only because he is homosexual.

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Tiptoeing towards understanding – Bishop co-hosts meeting between Church and LGBT community

Almost one year ago, an ecumenical prayer service in a Catholic cathedral to open a gay pride festival, and including a blessing by the bishop, was a bridge too far. This year, more exactly last night, the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch co-hosted the first of three dialogue meetings about faith and sexual diversity. Participating in the private meeting, characterised by an atmosphere of “security, openness and honesty”, were Bishop Gerard de Korte, cathedral administrator Fr. Geertjan van Rossem as well as representatives from the churches in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and from the political world.

Dialoogbijeenkomst rond geloof en seksuele diversiteit

The meeting was promised by the bishop as he announced last year’s plan to host the ecumenical prayer service on Pink Saturday at the cathedral of St. John. Those plans were later cancelled after significant protests, and the service was relocated to the Protestant Grote Kerk. Fr. Van Rossem did participate in it, but Bishop de Korte did not.

The focus of the meeting was to foster understanding. The participants spoke in groups of ten, and the bishops joined several of these groups. “What struck me in the conversations was the willingness to really listen respectfully to each other’s experiences. The participants were courteous, did not look for discussion, but spoke about what they had experienced themselves.”

Mr. Ivo van Harmelen, former Pink Saturday program manager and co-organiser of the dialogue meeting, said: “From the conversation the wish to remain in contact manifested itself especially. First show love, begin a dialogue and try to find each other in that way.” As such, the meeting had no ideological character. It was intended to listen, to create some form of connection and understanding, which can be the basis for further developments.

The interests of Christians and people who identify themselves in sexually different ways are often strained and usually diametrically opposed. The contacts between, if any, are often hostile and judgmental. But both also want to convince the other of their beliefs. Fighting and condemnation will not do that. If there is any hope of dialogue and understanding, there must be a foundation first. These meetings are an attempt to achieve that.

Two more meetings are planned for tonight and tomorrow evening, between faithful, pastors and representatives of various sexual diversity communities.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Bishops refuse to stand up against Pope, and with good reason

Earlier this week, a group of 20 Dutch Catholics wrote a letter to the bishops of the Netherlands, asking them to take a position against the course on which Pope Francis is taking the Church. It made international headlines (such as on sensationalist LifeSiteNews).

The letter lists a number of cases which prove their point, although some are rather far-fetched (they seem to see the Holy See’s acknowledgment of the existence of people such as feminists, Protestant, Muslims and homosexuals (let alone meeting them) as tantamount to supporting their ideas and opinions). The majority of points are related to the Church’s teaching on sexuality and that footnote in Amoris laetitia. All of their points, the writers say, can be summarised under the headers of Modernism and Protestantism. In this papacy, they see a resurgence of 1960s ideas which were buried under previous Popes.

The letters asks three things from the bishops, that they express themselves:

  1. In favour of an integral upholding of Humanae vitae;
  2. In favour of teaching and practice regarding reception of Holy Communion by validly married people in a new relationship;
  3. In favour of upholding the moral teachings regarding homosexual relationships;
  4. In favour of upholding the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, following the example of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium); especially in favour of upholding the teachings regarding the supremacy of God’s Law above the subjective conscience.

They also ask the bishops to join the request for clarification, the dubia, presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner.

The signatories of the petition feel supported by comments made in recent months and years by Cardinal Wim Eijk, who has repeatedly argued that Pope Francis should clear up the confusion caused by different interpretations of Amoris laetitia.

The four points mentioned above are misleading in that they assume that the bishops are currently not upholding these teachings. As current Church teaching stands, the bishops are upholding it, and while it is true that other bishops’ conferences are interpreting papal documents and statements differently, that does not change anything about the doctrine regarding human sexuality, reception of the sacraments and the relationships with people of other faiths.

Via their spokesperson, the Dutch bishops responded as follows:

“This week, the bishops have sent a joint response to the signatories of the petition.

The bishops let it be known that, while the issues addressed are important, they will speak about them directly with the Holy Father when they wish to do so, and not with the signatories of the petition.”

Of course, it was never very likely for the bishops to sign on to the dubia in any public way. Which is not to say that they automatically disagree with any of them. As mentioned above, Cardinal Eijk has rightly been critical about the different interpretations allowed by Amoris laetitia and the lack of any kind of clarification from the Pope. But, and I think they are right in this, the bishops seem to be of the opinion that no doctrine has changed since Pope Francis was elected, and they have acted accordingly, at least as a conference.

But the signatories of the petition write from a position which is not only highly critical of Pope Francis, but also from a world view which is wont to see conspiracies everywhere (with the traditional teachings of the Church as the main target of these conspiracies). This is a problem with a significant part of more conservative Catholic groups. They see enemies everywhere, and non-Catholics are especially suspect. This colours their views on ecumenism and relations with other faiths, as well as on people who do not live according to the ideals of the Church. So, while the petition is correct about the need for clarity, it presumes too much when it asks that the Church essentially stops talking to people with different outlooks (at least until they confess and convert). This negates the need for the bishops to agree to the petition, as they have already asserted that doctrine hasn’t changed, clarity is desirable in the case of Amoris laetitia, and cordial relations with non-Catholics are necessary and do not necessarily constitute any agreement with them.


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25 years in, Bishop Hofmann leaves the seat of Würzburg

ba5a6005As announced by the Nuncio yesterday, the retirement of Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann will begin today. The bishop of Würzburg, who celebrated his 75th birthday in May, has been at the helm of the diocese for 13 years.

The announcement of the upcoming retirement was made on Sunday when the bishop and diocese celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. Before coming to Würzburg in 2004, Bishop Hofmann served as an auxiliary bishop of Cologne for 12 years.

The silver jubilee of his ordination as bishop was thus also an opportunity to thank Msgr. Hofmann for his service. Numerous bishops from Germany and abroad had come to concelebrate, among them Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Friedrich Wetter, from Munich both, Archbishop Piero Marini, and Archbishop Jean-Claude Périsset, the previous nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich from Luxembourg, Bishop John Ndimbo from Mbinga in Tanzania and Bishop Bernardo Johannes Bahlmann from Óbidos in Brazil, both partner dioceses of Würzburg.

In contrast with the expressions of appreciation and gratitude for his work, from brother bishops as well as the local Lutheran bishop and the president of the Bavarian parliament, Bishop Hofmann rather more critical in his homily. Looking back on the past 25 years, he noted how the problems in society had not improved. “On the contrary, the problems became more acute and new challenges have arisen”. Examples mentioned by the bishop were the cries in the world leading to increasing streams of refugees, the increase in religiously motivated extremism, and the ethical challenges of genetic research. How can this be compatible with God’s love for us? Referring to his motto, “Ave crux, spes unica“, Bishop Hofmann said, “What may seem to us as the ultimate humiliation, is for Jesus the rising and entrance into the glory of the Father. This belief shakes us up and presupposes knowledge of the fullness of our salvation.”

In a recent interview for the Tagespost, Bishop Hofmann looked ahead to his retirement, saying:

“I am aware that I am taking a step back. I will not interfere in how my successor executes his office. I have decided that for myself. My predecessor, Bishop Scheele, did the same thing. But I am willing to help out when I am asked, for examples with confirmations. I will continue living in Würzburg.”

Said interview also contains a number of comments from Bishop Hofmann on a number of topics, comments which show that, in many respects, this is a bishop with his head screwed on right.

On same-sex marriage, promoted in Germany by the “Ehe für alle” (marriage for all) initiative, he says:

“The so-called “Ehe für alle” is, in my opinion, a catastrophe for society. Marriage is a God-willed union of man and woman, which is open to the generation of new life. An “Ehe für alle” is therefore impossible according to Catholic understanding.  Pointing this out is not remotely the same as attacking or discriminating homosexual people”.\

About the presence of Muslim immigrants (and often second- and third-generation Muslims) in German society, which in the basis remains a Christian society:

“It should be clear: when Muslims come to us and want to live here, they must accept our social rules. But for me as a Christian, the Islam is not a challenge. It is rather the failing of Christianity that we should fear. We must speak with Muslims on equal footing. We must make it clear to them that basic civilian advances such as the Charter of the United Nations of the Basic Law of Germany are based on Christian ethics. We must inform them that their freedom and wellbeing also depend on the continued existence of that Christian foundation.”

The shortage of priests is also felt in Würzburg. The number of young men knocking on seminary doors is small. Bishop Hofmann points out several reasons for this.

“These days, young men often no longer come from a Christian family. When God is not mentioned at home, when there is no prayer, it is difficult to arrive at the thought to go this path. Secondly, young people have a fear of commitment. This can also be seen with marriage. People no longer want to commit themselves to one person for their entire lives. That obviously makes celibacy a major hurdle, which many cannot overcome, although they may certainly be suitable for the priesthood. And then there is the great pressure of expectation on the priest from the community. Many priests experience this. Young people then wonder if they want to do that to themselves.”

Another hot-button topic is the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Bishop Hofmann has something to say about that, and about celibacy and the ordination of married men, too.

“The ordination of women is not possible. The priest, after all, represents Christ and must therefore be a man. The Church has no leeway there. This is a different question than that of celibacy. I consider celibacy to be a very important concept. In it, the Church makes clear that she is not a great worldly concern, but is built on a different foundation. But there have always been married priests as well in our Church, for example in the Uniate churches or converts. It is therefore possible to discuss the question of the viri probati. But this discussion should not be held in such a way that one speaks ill of celibacy and considers it superfluous. It can only be about ordaining proven men, for example deacons, who have shown themselves capable of ecclesiastical service as married men. Such a step can only be made in unity with the word Church. The pope is certainly open to thinking in this direction, but at the same time he is not one who wants to rip the Church from her foundations.”

The Church in Germany is among the richest in the world. In the past, Pope Benedict XVI, himself a German, has been very critical about the wealth of the Church. Bishop Hofmann says:

“Pope Benedict was completely right. In Germany, we are a rich Church. But in the face of the needs of the world I often wonder myself if all the reserves that we are building are justified, or if we shouldn’t give that money to the poor and hungry.”

Finally, Bishop Hofmann greatly respects the retired pope, and the way that he is sometimes discussed is a discgrace.

“Pope Benedict is one of the greatest theologians to have occupied the seat of Peter. He has given the world so much that is positive and important, in word and deed. It is a tragedy that we haven’t always positively accepted this in Germany. But I am convinced that in 20, 30 years Pope Benedict will find new listeners as a Doctor of the Church of the modern age.”

232px-Karte_Bistum_WürzburgWürzburg is the second diocese, after Hildesheim, to fall vacant after a brief spell in which every German diocese had a bishop at its head. When the retirement of Bishop Hofmann begins, at noon today, auxiliary bishop Ulrich Boom will be in charge until the cathedral chapter has chosen an administrator to oversee current affairs until a new bishop has been appointed. Würzburg is the northernmost diocese in Bavaria and a part of the Church province of Bamberg.

Photo credit: Markus Hauck (POW)

The middle ground between the cardinal and the Jesuit – the pastoral duty of the Church

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, published on Friday, is a clear-headed and factual explanation of how and why the Catholic Church relates to people with same-sex attraction the way she does, but also how she fails to relate to them. Because, like Fr. James Martin SJ says, to name but one person who looks at the issue somewhat differently than the Church as a whole does, there is room for improvement in this matter.

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There are two lines of thought to consider here which, I think, are represented pretty well by Cardinal Sarah and Father Martin respectively. On the one hand, there is the unchanging teaching, outlined by the cardinal in his article, taking seriously the message of Jesus Christ, who invites us to a high but achievable standard, to the fulfillment of our human potential and calling. On the other hand, there is the concern voiced by many people that the Church is harsh, even discriminatory in this teaching or, more often, in the way she translates it into daily practice. Fr. Martin often speaks about building bridges towards people with same-sex attraction, and Cardinal Sarah also acknowledges this when he says that the Church must “determine whether [she is] reaching out effectively to a group in need”.

BvUyZbwkI am not joining into the Catholic social media tradition of bashing either Cardinal Sarah or Father Martin for their positions or approach, even though I find myself agreeing with the Cardinal more. But that’s no excuse to attack anyone.

The Catholic teachings regarding sexuality, relationships and sin are well-developed and deserve to be taken seriously. The same is true for the pastoral obligations the Church – meaning all of us Catholics – has towards people who, for whatever reason, fail in living up to those teachings. We have no excuse to discriminate, express hate or loathing towards anyone. When people feel they are being hated or discriminated against, we must take their feelings seriously. In the first place by listening, followed by examining if we make a mistake, and if so, what mistake. Both Cardinal Sarah and Father Martin would agree with this, I believe.

If we take Jesus and His word, the foundation of the teachings of the Church, seriously, these must be the framework and basis of everything we say and do. Jesus would eat and speak with sinners – so should we. He would also explain what they should change in their lives. We are called to exercise that same respect. Father Martin says we should build a bridge – to sit and listen. Cardinal Sarah tells us to be rooted in the teachings of Christ – to admonish and teach. Both sitting and teaching are expressions of the respect due to every person.

Photo credit: [1] PA, [2] Fr. Martin on Twitter

Permission withdrawn – Bishop de Korte says no to gay pride prayer service at his cathedral

downloadLast week, Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote a letter to explain his decision to allow an ecumenical prayer service to open the gay pride Pink Saturday event at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral. I shared that letter in an English translation in the post linked above. Sadly, that letter did not have the effect hoped for the by the bishop, and today he announces that he withdraws his permission for the prayer service in his cathedral.

In his second letter, the bishop states that he failed to remove the tensions that arose in his diocese following the announcement of the prayer event. “My nuanced doctrinal and pastoral letter was not accepted by many,” he writes, and adds, “Homosexuality remains a sensitive issue in our Church.”

Bishop de Korte then explains his decision to withdraw permissions:

“Until today, priests and other faithful have protested the prayer service at St. John’s. Although I personally completely trust the prayer leaders, I must conclude that, even before the service has begun, the religious feelings of many Catholics have been deeply affected. To the, the cathedral is the symbol of our diocese and they cannot believe that the service’s serenity is guaranteed. This is a serious state of affairs. I cannot hurt the conscience of faithful and must not cause scandal to my brothers and sisters.

The commotion surrounding the intended prayer service is such that the good relationships within the faith community are at stake. In that context I feel, after careful deliberation, forced to withdraw my permission for the ecumenical prayer service in our cathedral. I really that this new decision is a disappointment to more than a few. But because of the unity in our diocese I believe I can do no other.”

This decision, the bishop explains, does in no way mean that there should be no outreach from the Church to the gay community. I think that was at the core of the intended prayer service, hence the title of my previous post on the issue beginning with that word ‘outreach’.

Bishop de Korte writes:

“Dominant secular culture is directly contrary to Catholicism on the correct experience of sexuality in general and homosexuality especially. Catholic faithful live in modern culture and are deeply influenced by it.

As I concluded in my Pentecost letter, this often leads to misunderstanding, anger and sadness. As a bishop, I will keep looking for a proper form of dialogue, both internally and externally, no matter how difficult and thankless that may often be. People, of any orientation, should find, in our Catholic community at least, kindness, security and friendship. Every person is welcome in our faith community.”

The sense of disappointment is tangible in the bishop’s words, and that is shared by many who have commented on social media tonight. What we should watch out for is fingerpointing, however. Bishop de Korte felt forced to make this decision, but he did so out his sense of duty to all the faithful entrusted to his pastoral care, not just those who may happen to agree with him on this issue. Personally, I initially had some trepidations about the wisdom of the prayer service, but on the other hand, as the bishop says, we can’t ignore the society we live in. It is in that society that we must reach people: it is impossible to remain outside it and expect to be a Church with any kind of influence or voice. The Church will simply be ignored, even more than it is already, by faithful and non-faithful alike.

Bishop de Korte concludes his letter with a sense of hope.

“When I was installed as bishop in the cathedral, on Saturday 14 May 2016, I spoke about the importance of mutual trust and unity. I strife for an clear but also hospitable and friendly Church. I hope and pray that every faithful in our diocese wants to contribute to that, especially at this moment. Especially now, we are called to hold on to each other as a community around the living Lord.”

The ecumenical prayer service is not cancelled, but will relocate to a nearby Protestant church. Cathedral administrator Father Geertjan van Rossem will be one of the celebrants of the serive, but Bishop de Korte won’t attend.

Photo credit: Marc Bolsius