German bishops say yes to Communion for divorced and remarried, but not as a rule

The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference* yesterday published their thoughts about the pastoral care regarding marriage and family in light of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ the Apostolic Exhortation which was released early last year. In it, as several media have already noted, the bishops express their support for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments in certain individual cases. Below, I share my translation of the relevant passage of the text:

dbk logo“Despite all the good intentions of the spouses and in spite of all marriage preparation, it does happen that relationships fail. People find themselves faced with the debris of their relationship-based lives. They suffer because of their failure to fulfill their ideal of a livelong love and relationship. To their own doubts more than enough economic concerns are often added. Especially affected are the children of a failed relationship. In this plight, it is the Church’s duty to accompany people and support them. In many cases this service is provided by the Church’s counselling centres and single-parent ministries. But in daily pastoral care it is necessary to have an even more open ear and heart, thus “encouraging openness to grace” (AL, n. 37).

So we may also answer the question of how the Church should relate to those people who, after a divorce, are civilly remarried and wish to receive the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist. The indissolubility of marrage is part of the indispensable deposit of the faith of the Church. Amoris laetitia leaves as little doubt about this as about the need for a differentiated view on the respective life situations of people. “[T]here is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”” (AL, n. 296). Amoris laetita highlights the three aspects of accompanying, discerning and integrating as central guiding principles, starting from the basic assessment: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” (AL, n. 297). In life situations which are experienced more often than not as exhausting and stressful, those involved should find that their Church does not forget them. In how we treat the divorced and remarried it must become clear that they belong to the Church, that God does not deprive them of His love and that they are called to love God and their neighbour and be true witnesses of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father clearly emphasises the aspect of accompaniment when he says, “Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel” (Al, n. 299).

What the Pope means in this regard with accompaniment becomes clear when he maintain in Amoris laetitia: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (Al. n. 301). Amoris laetitia does not offer a general rule for this subject and does not allow for an automatic and general access to the sacraments for all divorced and civilly remarried faithful. Amoris laetitia ignores neither the grave guilt that many people in such situations of the breaking and failure of conjugal relationships carry, nor the fact that a second civil marriage denies the visible sign of the sacrament of marriage, even when the person involved was left by is or her spouse through no fault of their own. But Amoris laetitia does not stop at a categorical and irreversible exclusion from the sacraments. Footnote 336 (to AL n. 300) makes clear that the distinction which “can recognise that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” must lead to differentiated consequences, also regarding the sacraments. Footnote 351 (to AL n. 305) also points out that in a situation which is objectively irregular, someone who is subjectively, but not, or at least not completely culpable, “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity” (AL, n. 305), when one receives the help of the Church and, in certain cases, also the help of the sacraments. This also speaks in favour of the possibility of receiving the sacraments in these situations.

Not all the faithful whose marriage has failed and who have civilly divorced and remarried can receive the sacraments without discernment. More differentiated solutions are needed, which do justice to the individual cases and come into play when a marriage can not be annuled. In this context we encourage all who have reasonable doubt that their marriage is invalid, to make use of the Church’s marriage courts, so that a new marriage may be possible if necessary. […]

Amoris laetitia presumes a process of decision-making accompanied by a pastor. Given this process, in which the conscience of all involved is required in the highest degree, Amoris laetitia allows for the possibility to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. In Amoris laetitia Pope Francis stresses the importance of conscious deicions, when he says, “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, n. 37). As it is always about integration, such a spiritual process does not lead in every case to the receiving of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. The individual decision to not, or not yet, receive the sacraments under the given circumstances, deserves respect and attention. But a decision in favour of receiving the sacraments must also be respected. An attitude of laxity without intense attention for accompaniment, discernment and integration, as does a rigorous attitude which remains in a quick judgment of people in socalled irregular situations. Instead of such extreme attitudes, the decision (Lat. discretio) must be made in personal conversation. We see it as our mission to further develop the path of conscience formation of the faithful. For that it is necessary to enable our pastors and provide them with criteria. Such criteria for the formation of conscience are provided extensively and in an outstandign way by the Holy Father in Amoris laetitia (cv. AL, n 298-300).

Much of this text is not new and echoes what Pope Francis and other bishops have emphasised time and again: the Church must find new ways and means to stand with people whose marriage has failed for whatever reason, and the suggestion must be avoided that these people are somehow no longer part of the Church. New, if not for many bishops (and not just those from Germany) is the conclusion that Amoris laetitia allows for the reception of the sacraments in what are called irregular situations, if in certain indivudal cases. The bishops stress, and this is something that, I fear, will be too often ignored, that the decision to receive the sacraments is not the standard decision to be made in all situations. Neither must it be made by a person alone, and it can certainly not be exercised as a right (but then again, that is true for every single Catholic receiving a sacrament).

What the German bishops are saying is that in some specific cases, often revolving about the guilt, or lack thereof, of a person in an irregular situation (compare a husband who leaves his wife and children with the wife being abandoned – both are in an irregular situation, but they are not equally guilty), receving the sacraments is allowed. But, they add, a well-formed conscience and the accompaniment of a pastor are required for this, and the pastors must be equipped with the tools and criteria to be able to properly accompany the people they are pastorally responsible for.

14_09_kardinalmuellerAnother German bishop had a different focus in a recent interview. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke about the interpretation of Amoris laetitia in an interview, of which Sandro Magister has a partial translation. Cardinal Müller is very critical about the personal interpretations which are not in line with Catholic doctrine, saying:

Amoris Laetitia must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church. […] I don’t like it, it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine. The magisterium of the pope is interpreted only by him or through the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. The pope interprets the bishops, it is not the bishops who interpret the pope, this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church. To all these who are talking too much, I urge them to study first the doctrine [of the councils] on the papacy and the episcopate. The bishop, as teacher of the Word, must himself be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind.”

A condition for interpreting what the Pope says does seem to be clarity on the latter’s part, it must be said. The lack thereof has led to the dubia presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner and is evident in the various interpretations that exist. Cardinal Müller is correct in stressing that Amoris laetitia must be “interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church”, but this is evidently not happening everywhere. The German bishops’ interpretation also relies solely on Amoris laetitia, not on earlier magisterial documents, although they do mention the indissolubility of marriage as central tenet of Catholic doctrine.

Cardinal Müller also explains how to avoid confusion about Amoris laetitia and the teachings it does or does not contain or change:

 “I urge everyone to reflect, studying the doctrine of the Church first, starting from the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, which is very clear on marriage. I would also advise not entering into any casuistry that can easily generate misunderstandings, above all that according to which if love dies, then the marriage bond is dead. These are sophistries: the Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage. The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity. One cannot refer only to little passages present in Amoris laetitia, but it has to be read as a whole, with the purpose of making the Gospel of marriage and the family more attractive for persons. It is not Amoris laetitia that has provoked a confused interpretation, but some confused interpreters of it. All of us must understand and accept the doctrine of Christ and of his Church, and at the same time be ready to help others to understand it and put it into practice even in difficult situations.”

Whether the German bishops are incorrectly interpreting Amoris laetitia revolves around the tension between the question of the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care for the innocent. What seems to be clear, however, is that magisterial documents such as Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Veritatis Splendor (1993) can not and should not be disregarded when reading Amoris laetitia. These earlier teachings must offer a basis and framework for understanding and realising what Amoris laetitia presents.

*The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference is made up of one representative from each diocese and consist of the following prelates:

  • Bishop Stephan Ackermann, Trier
  • Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen, Fulda
  • Bishop Georg Bätzing, Limburg
  • Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker, Paderborn
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Osnabrück
  • Bishop Karl Borsch, Aachen
  • Archbishop Stephan Burger, Freiburg im Breisgau
  • Bishop Gerhard Feige, Magdeburg
  • Bishop Gebhard Fürst, Rottenburg-Stuttgart
  • Bishop Felix Genn, Münster
  • Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, Mainz
  • Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke, Eichstätt
  • Archbishop Stefan Heße, Hamburg
  • Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann, Würzburg
  • Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt, Görlitz
  • Archbishop Heiner Koch, Berlin
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, München und Freising
  • Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, Erfurt
  • Bishop Stefan Oster, Passau
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, Essen
  • Archbishop Ludwig Schick, Bamberg
  • Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers, Dresden-Meißen
  • Bishop Norbert Trelle, Hildesheim
  • Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Regensburg
  • Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, Speyer
  • Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Cologne
  • Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Augsburg

 

2016, a look back

Another year nears its end, the seventh of this blog, which is always a good opportunity to look back, especially at what has appeared here in the blog over the course of 2016. I have grouped things loosely in various categories, so as to give an impression of cohesion.

francisPope Francis at work

In Rome, and despite turning 80 this year, Pope Francis kept up the pace, introducing several changes, expected and unexpected. First, in January, he issued a decree which opened the rite of foot washing on Maundy Thursday also for women. I reflected on it here.

On Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father sent out 1,000 missionaries of mercy, among them 13 Dutch priests, as part of the ongoing Holy Year of Mercy.

Pope Francis commented on the question of female deacons, which led to much debate, at least in Catholic social media. I also shared my thoughts.

A smaller debate revolved around an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by the Pope, about Christian burial.

The reform of the Curia also continued, first with the creation of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life and the appoinment of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell as its first prefect; and then with the creation of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, for which the Pope picked Cardinal Peter Turkson as head.

Cardinals of St. LouisPope Francis also added to the College of Cardinals, as he called his third consistory, choosing seventeen new cardinals from all over the world.

Towards the end of the year, and following the end of the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter about the absolution from the sin of abortion, a faculty now extended to all priests.

The Pope abroad

Pope Francis made several visits abroad this year. To Cuba and Mexico, to Greece, to Armenia, to Poland, to Georgia and Azerbaijan, but the last one received the most attention here. For two days, Pope Francis put ecumenism in the spotlight during his visit to Sweden. Announced in January as a one-day visit, a second day was added in June. In October, the Nordic bishops previewed the visit in a pastoral letter, which I published in English.

The abuse crisis

Still here, and unlikely to go completely away in the next years or decades, the abuse crisis continues to haunt the Church. in February there were shocked reactions to comments made by a prelate during a conference on how bishops should handle abuse allegations. I tried to add some context here. In the Netherlands there was indignation when it became clear that a significant number of abuse cases settled out of court included a secrecy clause, preventing victims from speaking negatively about the Church institutions under whose care they suffered abuse. In April, the annual statistics of abuse cases processed and compensation paid out were released.

Amoris laetitia

In April Amoris laetitia was released, the Post-Synodal Exhortation that was the fruit of the two Synod of Bishops assemblies on the family. Cardinal Eijk, the Dutch delegate to the assemblies, offered his initial thoughts about the document, followed by many other bishops.

4cardinalsWhile the document was broadly lauded, an ambuguous footnote led to much discussion. In November, four cardinals publised a list of dubia they presented to the Pope, but which received no answer. Citing the clear uncertainty about certain parts of Amoris laetitia, visible in the wide range of conclusions drawn, the cardinals respectfully asked for clarification, which they will most likely not be getting, at least not in the standard way.

The local churches

There were many more and varied events in local churches in the Netherlands and beyond. Theirs is a very general category, aiming to showcase some of the more important and interesting developments in 2016.

In January, the Belgian bishops elected then-Archbishop Jozef De Kesel as their new president. At the same time, Cardinal Wim Eijk announced that he would not be available for a second term as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In June, Bishop Hans van den Hende was chosen to succeed him.

bisschop HurkmansBishop Antoon Hurkmans retired as Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and in January he sent his final message to the faithful of his diocese, asking for unity with the new bishop. In April, rumours started floating that the bishops had suggested Bishop Hurkmans as new rector of the Church of the Frisians in Rome.

The Dioceses of Rotterdam and Groningen-Leeuwarden celebrated the 60th anniversary of their establishment.

On Schiermonnikoog, the Cistercian monks, formerly of Sion Abbey, found a location for their new monastery.

The Dutch and Belgian bishops announced a new translation of the Lord’s Prayera new translation of the Lord’s Prayer, to be introduced on the first Sunday of Advent.

church-498525_960_720A photograph of the cathedral of Groningen-Leeuwarden started appearing across the globe as a stock photo in articles about the Catholic Church. It continues to do so, as I saw it appear, some time last week, in an advert for a concert by a Dutch singer.

Speaking in Lourdes in May, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz spoke open-heartedly about his deteriorating Eyesight.

In June, Fr. Hermann Scheipers passed away. The 102-year-old priest was the last survivor of Dachau concentration camp’s priest barracks.

In that same month, the nestor of the Dutch bishops marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Huub Ernst is 99 and currently the sixth-oldest bishop in the world.

In Belgium, the new Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels closed down the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, erected by his predecessor, to the surprise of many.

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt received a personal message and blessing from Pope Francis on the occasion of the 18th Coronation Feasts held in Hasselt in the summer.

willibrordprocessie%202014%2006%20img_9175The annual procession in honour of St. Willibrord in Utrecht was criticised this year after the archbishop chose to limit its ecumenical aspect. I shared some thoughts here.

In Norway, Trondheim completed and consecrated a new cathedral. English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was sent to represent the Holy Father at the event.

The retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard, was heard from again when a new book featured his thoughts about never having been made a cardinal, unlike his immediate predecessors and, it turned out at about the time of the book’s publication, is successor.

At the end of the year, Berlin was hit by terrorism as a truck plowed through a Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding numerous others. Archbishop Heiner Koch offered a poetic reflection.

The Dutch Church abroad

In foreign media, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands also made a few headlines.

naamloosIn September, Cardinal Eijk was invited to speak at the annual assembly of the Canadian bishops, sharing his experiences and thoughts concerning the legalisation of assisted suicide. In the wake of that meeting, he also floated the idea that the Pope could write an encyclical on the errors of gender ideology.

in Rome, 2,000 Dutch pilgrims were met by Pope Francis, who spoke to them about being channels of mercy.

The new Dutch translation of the Our Father also sparked fears in some quarters that the bishops were leading everyone into heresy, leading to many faithful revolting against the new text. The truth was somewhat less exciting.

Equally overexcited was the report of empty parishes and starving priests in the Netherlands. I provided some necessary details here.

In Dutch

While my blog is written in English, there have also been three blog posts in Dutch. All three were translations of texts which were especially interesting or important. The first was my translation of the joint declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, an important milestone in ecumenical relations between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches.

IMG_7842Then there was the headline-making address by Cardinal Robert Sarah at the Sacra Liturgia Conference in London, in which the cardinal invited priests to start celebrating ad orientem again. But the text contained much more than that, and remains well worth reading.

Lastly, I provided translations of all the papal addresses and homilies during the Holy Father’s visit to Sweden. I kept the post at the top of the blog for a while, as a reflection of its importance for Dutch-speaking Christians as well.

A thank you

Twice in 2016 I asked my readers to contribute financially to the blog. In both instances several of you came through, using the PayPal button in the sidebar to donate. My gratitude to you remains.

2016 in appointments

Obituary

As every year, there is also death. Notewrothy this year were the following:

  • 26 March: Bishop Andreas Sol, 100, Bishop emeritus of Amboina.
  • 31 March: Georges-Marie-Martin Cardinal Cottier, 93, Cardinal-Priest of Santi Domenico e Sisto, Pro-Theologian emeritus of the Prefecture of the Papal Household.
  • 16 May: Giovanni Cardinal Coppa, 90, Cardinal-Deacon of San Lino, Apostolic Nuncio emeritus to the Czech Republic.
  • 26 May: Loris Cardinal Capovilla, 100, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Archbishop-Prelate emeritus of Loreto.
  • 9 July: Silvano Cardinal Piovanelli, 92, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Grazie a Via Trionfale, Archbishop emeritus of Firenze.
  • 2 August: Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, 89, Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, Archbishop emeritus of Kraków.
  • 18 August: Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert, 102, Bishop emeritus of Inongo.
  • 13 November: Bishop Aloysius Zichem, 83, Bishop emeritus of Paramaribo.
  • 21 November: Bishop Maximilian Ziegelbauer, 93, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Augsburg.
  • 14 December: Paulo Cardinal Arns, Cardinal-Priest of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Via Tuscolana, Archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Protopriest of the College of Cardinals.

“Divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages” – Cardinal Eijk on the confusion about The Footnote

eijk synod

^Cardinal Eijk, fifth from the left in the second row, participates in a session of the Synod of Bishops.

Upon the publication of the official Dutch translation of Amoris laetitia, last Thursday (yes, a whopping nine months after the apostolic exhortation was released in Rome), Cardinal Wim Eijk, who participated in both sessions of the Synod of Bishops which resulted in the papal document, provided a brief quote about the topic that continues to keep pens writing and keyboard clicking: The Footnote which may or may not open the door to the sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried faithful. About the debate about Amoris laetitia the cardinal says,

“A downside is that various interpretations of the exhortation are circulating. Doctrine or longstanding practice in the Church is not changed by divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages in a Church document.”

These various interpretations are, I believe, also the reason for the dubia presented by the Four Cardinals (Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner) . They ask for clarification, stating that confusion exists. The fact that there are rather contrasting interpretations is enough to show that they are right.

Cardinal Eijk treads carefully, speaking about “possibly unclear passages”, but makes clear that the intepretations of a passage do not change anything in doctrine or Tradition. The compentent authority, in this case the Pope, is the only who can do that. As it looks now, he has no inclination to do so directly, which means that, for the foreseeable future, the confusion will continue.

Who knows, perhaps things will settle down in time, at which point clarifications will find more open minds. At this moment, as Cardinal Eijk indicates, and more than a few others with him, Amoris laetitia has not changed anything about the Church’s doctrine. How we approach that doctrine and put it into practice, however, is open to change, adaptation and, most importantly, improvement. And that, I believe, is what Pope Francis is aiming for.

A new protopriest as Paul VI has one cardinal left

dompauloevaristoThe death of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns at the age of 95 today leads to an interesting change in the College of Cardinals, albeit a ceremonial one with virtually no effect of the day-to-day affairs of that body.

Cardinal Arns was created a cardinal by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1973. His death leaves only one surviving cardinal, albeit a former cardinal, created by that Pope. He is the Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, created in the four-man consistory of 1977 (the blessed pope’s last one).

Cardinal Arns was also the most senior of the Cardinal-Priests, one of three classes of cardinals. This gave him the office of protopriest, which entailed certain duties following the election of a new Pope. The protopriest pronounces the formal prayer for the new Pope after the protodeacon has bestowed the pallium and before the Dean of the College of Cardinals presents the Ring of the Fisherman. That said, Cardinal Arns never exercised that duty as he was not present at the inauguration of Pope Francis, and Cardinal Danneels acted in his stead.

thai01211The new protopriest is Cardinal Michael Michai Kitbunchu, 87, retired archbishop of Bangkok and created in Pope Saint John Paul II’s second consistory in 1983 (the same consistory in which Cardinals Danneels and Meisner were created. Cardinal Kitbunchu is protopriest only because his name came before theirs on the official list).

Cardinal Paulo Evarista Arns was auxiliary bishop of São Paulo in Brazil from 1966 to 1970, and archbishop of that same see from 1970 to 1998. As cardinal he held the title church of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Via Tuscolana. He had been protopriest since 2012, the third Brazilian in that role after Cardinals Sales (2009-2012) and De Vasconcelos Motta (1977-1982). Cardinal Arns had been in hospital since the end of November for pneumonia. An obituary for the ‘cardinal of the people’ may be read here.

A short reflection on the critics of the four cardinals

Bishop Papamanolis, President of the Greek Bishops’ Conference, says they are guilty of apostasy, sacrilege and heresy and their actions will lead to schism. Msgr. Pinto, Dean of the Roman Rota, suggested that the Pope should take their titles away. What have the targets of such strong accusations done, and who are they?

They are the four cardinals who, earlier this month, published a letter to Pope Francis, asking for clarification on several points from his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, which I wrote about two weeks ago. Apparently, sincere and honest questions deserve such mindless reactions.

Cardinal Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner went out of their way to prevent contributions like this to the debate. They acknowledged not just their own duty as cardinals, but also the authority and respect due to the Holy Father, and hoped “to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect”. Well, Bishop Papamanolis, Msgr. Pinto, and more than a few others, your contributions are about as far removed from calmness and respect as possible.

Any scandal in this affair does not come from the four cardinals. Their letter flows from their duty as cardinals and reflects Pope Francis’ clear and frequent request for an open and honest debate. That other prelates (and not only prelates) resort to namecalling and unfounded claims of heresy and threats of punishment is a scandalous denial of their own pastoral and fraternal obligations, and can only detract from what the Church needs and the Pope so clearly desires.

Four cardinals to the Pope – An honest contribution to the debate

Four cardinals – in some ways, four usual suspects – have written to the Pope about Amoris laetitia, asking for clarification about certain issues which have given many writers a lot to write about already. And while some – although fewer than I initially expected – have chosen to see this as a challenge against Pope Francis, it is an attempt to insert some clarity into a sensitive and difficult issue.

4cardinalsCardinals Walter Brandmüller (President emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences), Raymond Burke (Patron of the Order of Malta), Carlo Caffarra (Archbishop emeritus of Bologna) and Joachim Meisner (Archbishop emeritus of Cologne) published their September letter to Pope Francis today, after having received no papal reply. In the foreword to the letter, which can be read in full here, they express an awareness of the risk they run of being disregarded “as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy”. This is a real risk, as too often any sense of apparent disagreement with Pope Francis, or even, as here, a request for more clarity, is seen as an adversarial attack on the Holy Father. What many forget is that Pope Francis has frequently asked for such debate, not least during the Synod of Bishops, but certainly also in its aftermath across the world.

The fact that this letter has received no response seems perhaps a bit at odds with this request for open and honest debate, but perhaps it is wisest to see this, as the four cardinals do, “as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.”

The format of the letter is interesting, as it does not invite for a long explanatory answer, but a simple yes or no. This reflects the fact that underneath our pastoral action, there is a solid basis of doctrine, which does not change with the situation. This basis does not exist for itself, but for us, as it shows the way towards the objective truth that is Christ and His teaching.

There is more at stake than being nice in the discussion about marriage and divorce, and sin and mercy. The letter reflects that, as it raises important questions that need asking. It is not a matter of using the writings of one Pope against that of another, but taking the writings of both seriously.

The letter of the four cardinals deserves to be taken seriously, even though it is not something that can be directly applied in pastoral practice. Rather, it concerns itself with what comes before, what dictates the forms our pastoral practice can take. Hopefully, it will one day receive an answer from either Pope Francis or Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to whose attention the letter was also addressed.

An archbishop speaks, but some had rather he wouldn’t

erzbischof_stephan_burger_qArchbishop Stephan Burger, of Freiburg im Breisgau, has been crisitised for an upcoming speaking engagement. Not for what he is going to say, but for the fact that he is speaking.

The Forum Deutscher Katholiken identifies itself as uniting Catholics who are loyal to Pope and Church, and is therefore more traditionally-bent group than some others in Germany. At the end of April they are meeting in the town of Aschaffenburg, and Archbishop Burger has been invited to be one of the speakers. Other prelates attending include Cardinal Joachim Meisner, emeritus archbishop of Cologne, Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann, in whose Diocese of Würzburg the meeting takes place, and Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the former bishop of Limburg who is making his first high profile return to Germany since resigning amid the financial scandal there.

Some have taken issue with Archbishop Burger’s presence at this meeting of an orthodox group, and even one where a perceived persona non grata such as Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is also present. The archbishop has defended himself and wonders at the fears displayed by some. He does not automatically share any of the opinions of other guests and sees it as a chance to share his own. Speaking about aid to refugees, he explains, “From a Christian point of view, nothing goes too far when it comes to helping people in need.”

It’s hard to fathom why a bishop attending a meeting of a group of Catholics who express loyalty to the Church is reason for concern or even criticism. Such concepts as tolerance, openness to differing opinions and looking toweards the future (the latter especially when Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is concerned) come to mind.