A priest breaks his vows – my thoughts about the case of Pierre Valkering

I didn’t want to devote many words to this, as I thought that, sordid as the affair is, it is not a reflection of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, nor does the priest responsible deserve his story to overshadow other, more positive news. But as it has now broken internationally (in English at Crux, and in German at Katholisch.de), I think I can at least share my thoughts. I published those thoughts in Dutch on Tuesday, and, as said, I wanted to leave it at that. But perhaps it is good to also share them in English.

First, the context:

pierre-valkeringOn 1 April, Father Pierre Valkering celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. After the festive Mass he presented his autobiography, which he had been working on in secret over the past couple of years. In it, he describes not only his homosexuality, but also his addiction to pornography (going so far as to say that something of the Gospel may be found in pornography) and his past visits to dark rooms and other homosexual meeting areas. These revelations came as a shocking surprise to the diocese. In the past, Bishop Jos Punt had spoken at several occasions with Fr. Valkering about his celibacy, receiving the assurance that the latter was dealing with it “responsibly”. That was obviously a lie.

As a response, the bishop requested that Fr. Valkering cease his priestly duties for the time being and enter into a period of reflection. In a statement issued on 2 April, the diocese states:

“Father could also have chosen to discuss his struggle with his sexuality and celibacy openly and honestly with his bishop. That honesty would certainly not have been punished. On the contrary, together with Fr. Valkering ways could have been found to reflect upon it and receive help. That has in the past also been done for several other priests.

But Fr. Valkering has chosen for a sudden and public act, in which the bishop has not been known in any way. He has also not given any indication about whether he is willing or able to maintain his celibacy in the future.”

Below follows the opinion piece I shared in Dutch via Twitter and Facebook.

The piece below is not a discussion about the doctrine of the Church, homosexuality, sexual abuse in the Church or the mandatory celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church. This is my response to articles about the Amtserdam priest Fr. Pierre Valkering who was placed on leave by Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam following the publication of his autobiography. In that autobiography Valkering describes his homosexuality, his ignoring his oath to remain celibate by actively having sexual contacts and his appreciation for pornography. Separate from a discussion about these topics, the indignation about such behaviour by a Catholic priest is justified. Had Valkering written about heterosexual contacts, that indignation and the consequences for him would have been no different.

At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. A sensible conclusion to draw when someone publishes a book by his hand on that date, in which he prides himself in his sexual excesses, appreciation for pornography and regular visits to dark rooms and other gay meeting places. And this person is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. No priest, who should have a more than superficial knowledge of what the Church teaches about sexuality and priesthood, would say something like that in all seriousness, right? It would have been a fine April’s Fools joke.

But nothing of the sort. Father Pierre Valkering apparently does not value the oaths he made at his ordination. Celibacy for priests is not a new thing. It existed long before there was a Pierre Valkering. But this priest seemingly considered it possible that an active sexual life was compatible with the priesthood, and thought he should speak about it proudly as well.

Valkering indicates that he has long struggled with his homosexuality and that his priesthood was essentialy a form of fleeing. That is something that must be taken seriously. That struggle and flight should have been prevented, and Valkering should have received the help he needed. His surroundings, including the Church, have failed him in that respect. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the period of reflection imposed upon him by Bishop Punt, can help him, and that he will not have to go through it alone.

I obviously do not know the exact cirucmstances which led Valkering to a crooked combination of priesthood and a seriously harmful form of sexuality. Bishop Punt probably also does not know, even though there have been meetings between priest and bishop in the past regarding previous publications and statements and the priest’s view on celibacy and his experience of it (he handled it responsibly, according the the diocese’s statment, but that apparently has a different meaning for Valkering than it did for the bishop). But with the bishop’s responsibility for assuring the correct communicatuon of the faith and the doctrine of the Church by his priests, Msgr. Punt could do little else than asking Fr. Valkering to lay down his duties, at least for now, and reflect on his actions.

The bishop shares the responsibility mentioned above with his priests. From his ordination and mission a priest has the duty of communicating the faith, by celebrating and teaching it, but also by being an example. The sexual excesses of Pierre Valkering, and the way in which he made them public, are an example which is contrary to the faith in all respects: he not only repeatedly broke his oath, but he also ignores his priestly mission and so leads others away from the faith. The way in which he thinks to express his sexuality are at odds with a healthy sexuality as the Church understands it. This is something one can disagree with, obviously. Discussion is always possible, but Valkering did not choose that option. Instead, he chooses a prideful form of deceit. He is a Catholic priest, but does not feel bound to the tasks and responsibilities of a priest. Instead of living for God, he chooses living for himself. He choose to lie to his bishop, to all the faithful for whom he was responsible as parish priest, and ultimately also to God.

With his autbiography, Valkering inflicts damage to the Church, to the people around him, and most of all to himself. Let us hope and pray that he may learn to see that and is offered and can accept the help he needs. The damage done in the past can’t be taken away, but perhaps its impact can be softened.”

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Against Limburg bishop, Catholic conservatives aim, shoot and completely miss the mark

csm_Portrait-Bischof-Baetzing-im-Bischofsgarten_int_20f2d8ef34Flyers, an online petition, a banner in front of his residence, security measures at Mass… What has Bishop Georg Bätzing done to warrant such an outpouring of protest? Well, according to reports by Katholisch.de he has done nothing more than correct a mistake made by a local parish community.

In November, the community of Hochtaunus in the Diocese of Limburg  was revealed to feature a PDF-file of contact addresses for ‘people in need’ on their website. Among these was a Lutheran charity which assists people in the first bureaucratic steps towards procuring an abortion.

Following this revelation, the diocese had the address removed immediately from the list, as abortion is, of course, completely incompatible with the Catholic faith. Nonetheless, Bishop Bätzing is now being accused of directly promoting the murder of children in the womb. Diocesan spokesman Stephan Schnelle rightly condemns this accusation as “nonsense” and “perfidious”. The diocese is now taking legal action against web portal Katholische.info, which has set up the online petition against the bishop* and continues making the accusations against him, as well as to others who can be held accountable for the aforementioned protests (it is, for example, as yet unclear who actually erected the banner in front of Msgr. Bätzing’s home).

Obviously, katholisches.info was right in pointing out that the charity on the Hochtaunus list provided services which are incompatible with Catholic teachings regarding the dignity of life. While one can wonder how it ever ended up on that list, the diocese acted appropriately in removing it immediately. Asked for a comment, spokesman Schnelle stated back in November, “The protection of life is of the highest priority for the bishop and the diocese”.

The actions against Bishop Bätzing and the Diocese of Limburg are grossly disproportionate. In fact, it does more harm than good to the goal of defending human life, not just to the persons undertaking these actions, but to all who think that killing unborn children is no solution to anything.

*The petition calls for legal action against bishop and diocese. According to German law, the dissemination of advertisements for abortions “for financial benefit or in a grossly offensive manner” is punishable with imprisonment for up to two years or a fine.

All seats filled as Mainz gets its new bishop

teaser-lebenslaufAlmost a year after the retirement of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, all the dioceses of Germany have a bishop at the helm again – a situation that has not existed for several years. Succeeding the cardinal who led the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years is Father Peter Kohlgraf.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop-elect Kohlgraf has already been active in Mainz since 2012. He has been working as professor of pastoral theology at the Katholischen Hochschule in that city, and assistant priest in Wörrstadt, south of Mainz. Fr. Kohlgraf is a graduate of the Universities of Bonn and Münster, and has experience in pastoral care in the parish and for students as well as education.

The date for the bishop’s consecration is yet be announced, as is the identity of the consecrating bishops, but it would be surprising indeed of Cardinal Lehmann would decline the honour.

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Cardinal Lehmann, seated, and Bishop elect Kohlgraf

With the appointment of Fr. Kohlgraf, Cologne once again shows itself to be one of the ‘bishop factories’ of Germany. Six of the 27 ordinaries in Germany hail from the archdiocese on the Rhine. Other such bishop factories are Paderborn with five ordinaries originating from there and Trier with four. All three dioceses are among the oldest in Germany and located in the central part of western Germany, to the west and north of Mainz.

In an interview for Katholisch.de, the new bishop of Mainz touched on some of the more sensitive topics in an dbeyond the church in Germany. Asked about the trend of merging parishes to create what the interviewer calls XXL parishes, as an answer to the shortage of priests, and if he has any alternatives, Fr. Kohlgraf responds:

“I think there is no standard solution here, either. In the Catholic Church we are faced with the tension that we rightly say that the celebration of the Eucharist is source and summit of the life of the Church. That means that, on Sundays, the Eucharist is the central celebration from which the Church and the community draw life. The question is then, of course, how Catholic life should function in small communities. I myself live in a small village in Rhenish Hesse, in a Catholic diaspora situation. That is this tension in which we exist. We should not merely think centralistic, but must also consider how Church life can function in each location. People must be motivated to live out their being Christian.”

Bishop-elect Kohlgraf’s thoughts here are comparable to those of, to name one, Bishop Gerard de Korte in the Netherlands.

As an academic, the bishop elect has followed the discourse about the priest shortage and possible solutions and especially the idea to ordain married men, the so-called viri probati. On this, he says:

“It should be proven if this really solves our problems. I am not so certain about that. I don’t want to look at this from ideological, philosophical or theological perspectives. But it is not without reason that the priestly vocation has always been an academic calling with a full study program. That has meaning. I think that we must remain able to speak theologically in modern society. That quality will play an increasingly greater part. That does not mean that there are not also highly qualified men among the so-called viri probati. But we must look at how a part-time formation would work in addition to holding a job. There are many questions which are not yet answered. I do not currently see a solution for it.”

It sounds as if Bishop-elect Kohlgraf is not opposed to detaching the priesthood from a mandatory vow of celibacy, but his uncertainty has to do with the practicality of it all, especially the years of study and formation. There are, however, places where part-time formation is practiced, albeit for the permanent diaconate, for example in Bovendonk, in the Dutch Diocese of Breda. Here, men study part-time next to their fulltime job, with the exception of the final years, in which they work fulltime in a parish.

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Mainz, [2] Bistum Mainz/Blum

Fighting the resistance – Fr. Zollner on the struggle of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

In an interview published by Katholisch.de today, Father Hans Zollner SJ sheds his light on the resistance from certain persons in the Roman Curia against measures to fight sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy or other representatives of the Church. Fr. Zollner is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, most recently in the news because of the departure of Ms. Marie Collins, herself a survivor of abuse. She named the aforementioned resistance against the commission’s work as the main reason for leaving. Fr. Zollner explains:

ZollnerHans-SIR“Of course there is resistance, but not specifically against the representatives of victims or the Commission. The entire topic of abuse is deeply terrible and frightening. Dealing with it and facing it requires a lot of courage. And I believe that many clerics, but also non-clerics, find this very difficult. This is not limited to the Curia. Last Monday – three years after the establishment of the Commission – I was able to speak for the first time about this topic to the Italian bishops in Bologna. It was the same in Ecuador and Colombia a few weeks ago, and next week it will be the same in Malawi. We must conclude that the topic of abuse has not yet registered worldwide. Not in the Church, but also not in society. But it can no longer be ignored now. That is also a merit of the Commission: it has made it public across the world. The question remains if those responsible in the Church will actively pursue the topic out of self-motivation, or only when scandals become public.”

While, according to Fr. Zollner, the resistance that exists is not based on anything exlusive to the Church, but rather the human hesitation of dealing with something painful, there are specific problems in the Church that must be dealt with before the scourge of sexual abuse can be efficiently fought.

“On the one hand, people criticise Rome – in part rightly so -, which does not handle the topic of child abuse coherently. On the other hand bishops’ conferences continue to refuse to implement instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from the year 2011. Of course, one can wonder who no take them to task about this. Very simply: because the Church has no means to sanction entire bishops’ conference. Even five years after the deadline set by Rome, for example, some West-African countries have no guidelines for dealing with victims and perpetrators of abuse.”

The Catholic Church is not a big company, with the Pope as a sort of CEO. There is only so much Rome can do, even when everyone there cooperates, to enforce policies like the 2011 CDF instruction. Levelling accusations against the Curia or the Pope, while sometimes justified, is often too simplistic.

Photo credit: SIR

“More than a celebration”- Cardinal Müller on the Holy Year of Mercy

14_09_kardinalmuellerIn an interview for Katholisch.de, published today, Gerhard Cardinal Müller discusses several topics, including the Holy Year of Mercy which is in its final week. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is often imagined as an opponent to Pope Francis, since doctrine and all its annoying rules must by nature be opposed to mercy, right? But the cardinal is generally enthusiastic about the Holy Year of Mercy, and adds some nuance to how it is looked at now that we have almost completed it.

“Faith in the mercy of God, which is directed at every human being, is part of the classical doctrine of God. It was very good to emphasise this topic theologically in the Holy Year and reintroduce it in pastoral ministry and proclamation. For much indifference and misunderstanding about God is based in the false assumption that God is only power, and that man can, as such, only realise his freedom by opposing Him. The Christian image of God is completely different: out of love for man, God humbled Himself even to the death on the cross, through which we come to salvation, to freedom and the glory of the children of God.”

Mercy leads us directly to the heart of the union between man and God, he explains:

“Someone getting to know God anew in His aspect of mercy, will find that in the Christian understanding of God, love is the core of the encounter between God and man. The symbolism of the open Holy Doors here in Rome and in many churches across the world has hopefully reinforced the awareness that we can come to God as through a wide open door. Countless people have found their way to God through confession in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, which allows for a new start. I believe that many were able to experience God more deeply in the Holy Year.”

And what of those who look at the numbers and say that the Holy Year has not been as successful as hoped?

“The Holy Year is a spiritual event and can not be measured quantitatively. Regarding its great popularity across the world I don’t understand such criticism. It is after all about more than just celebrating, but about the way to Christ. I am impressed by the number of people who came to the papal audiences, the Sunday prayers and the special events. That shows that people want to hear the Pope’s  message, that he knows how the touch the hearts of people with his words; that he opens up perspectives on how to better understand their own lives in the light of mercy and make it their own.”

Other topics discussed in the interview include the Reformation, ecumenism, comparing Pope Francis to Benedict XVI, and developments regarding the SSPX. I may share some comments about those in later blog posts.

The faith in Africa grows because its people are backwards, German editor insists

In the margins of Pope Francis’ current apostolic journey to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, an opinion piece on Katholisch.de by editor Björn Odendahl has caused a stir, and not without reason. It betrays a simplistic, even derogatory attitude towards African faithful, and has caused some to accuse Odendahl of outright racism.

Odendahl discusses Pope Francis’ well-known focus on the margins of society, be it nearby (the homeless, sick and elderly of western society) or further afield (the booming Church communities in Africa, for example), and he contrasts these with the centre, struck as it is with complacency, wealth, defeatism even. But, Odendahl says, the Pope is not always right in these comparisons, and displays a romantic view of poverty.

His view on Africa, Odendahl explains, is an example of that romantic view. The paragraph in question:

“Of course the Church is growing there. She grows because the people are socially behind and often have nothing but their faith. She grows because the level of education is generally low and the people accept simple answers to difficult questions (of faith). Answers like those from Guinean Cardinal Sarah. And the increasing number of priests is not due solely to missionary power, but it is also one of the sole means of social security on the black continent.”

The tone of the passage is insulting enough, and the big question is if any of this is accurate. Pope Francis is currently in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and will soon depart for Kampala in neighbouring Uganda. Neither city fits the image that Odendahl paints in his article: they are major cities, the economic hearts of their respective countries, with major companies, facilities and educational institutions. Granted, like their western counterparts, Nairobi and Kampala have their share of poverty and marginalised people. But in Odendahl’s mind, it seems, many of their inhabitants should be backwards, socially helpless and simple-minded, because they are enthusiastically and faithfully Catholic. Which is, quite frankly, an insult.

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^A group of backwards, simplistic people await the arrival of Pope Francis in Kenya. Note: this may not be a realistic and truthful description.

In addition to this opinion on African Catholics, there is another strange tendency in Odendahl’s piece: he seems to equate the growth of the Church and the adherence to faith with social backwardness and lack of education and development. In modern societies, like Germany, faith is unavoidably disappearing because people are intelligent and socially progressive, we are apparently asked to conclude.

In short, Odendahl’s piece is simplistic, backwards (exactly what he accuses the African faithful of) and insulting to an extreme.

The opinion piece, in which an author must, by definition, have a certain measure of freedom, was published on Katholisch.de. This is the Internet portal of the Church in Germany which cooperates with the German dioceses, religious orders and other institutions, although it is not the official mouthpiece of these. It employs editors and reporters and makes use of the freedom of press to inform, report in depth and give opinions. It is not run by the bishops (who have the website of the bishops’ conference, dbk.de, for that), but they do work closely with them, making Katholisch.de one  of the major exclusively Catholic voices in Germany.

Can the bishops be held responsible for this piece? No. Would it be wise for them to denounce it? Yes, very much so.

Berlin’s big day as Archbishop Koch arrives

Pressegespräch mit Erzbischof Dr. Heiner KochBig day in Berlin today, as Archbishop Heiner Koch is installed as its third archbishop and tenth bishop overall. The installation, starting at 11 o’clock local time, will be streamed live via www.katholisch.de and www.domradio.de.

Opening the ceremony is Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt, bishop of Görlitz, as he is the senior bishop of the province composed of Berlin and its two suffragan dioceses, Görlitz and Dresden-Meißen. With that latter see vacant, he is also the only bishop available to do that job. Bishop Görlitz will lead the archbishop to his cathedra, after which the latter officially take possession of it.

Archbishop Koch will also be receiving his pallium from the Apostolic Nuncio during the installation Mass. It had already been granted and collected by him on 29 June, but as the woollen band denoting his office of metropolitan archbishop is now officially bestowed in the home dioceses, each of these is free to determine when and where it takes place. For example, Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, who was granted the pallium on the same date as Archbishop Koch, will officially be bestowed with it in November.

Cardinal Rainer Woelki, Archbishop Koch’s predecessor in Berlin, will give him the bishop’s staff that belonged to Cardinal Alfred Bengsch, bishop of Berlin from 1961 to 1979. The staff symbolises the office of shepherd.

No less than 29 bishops will be attending the installation, among them Cardinal Wim Eijk of Utrecht, and bishops from Poland and the Czech Republic, in addition to many German bishops. The ecumenical delegation consists of representatives from the Lutheran church in Germany, the Romanian-Orthodox Church, the Greek-Orthodox Church and the Coptic-Orthodox Church. Many local politicians will also attend, with the president of the Bundestag as the highest-ranking official.

In a recent interview, Archbishop Koch spoke about his years in Berlin, to which he is looking forward. But there is already some work cut out for him, as Cardinal Woelki began a number of reforms before being recalled to Cologne. What will be the new archbishop’s focus in those matters?

“In Berlin it is not just about changing certain structures. In the first place there has to be a new substantial positioning. The central questions must be: How can we be christian and Church in a major city or in the country, and how can we fullfill our mission when there are ever more people who say it doesn’t matter to them if there is or is no God.”

How does he see himself as archbishop of Berlin? Will he be mainly for the city or also for the surrounding area?

“In the first place I will be archbishop for the people in the archdiocese. Catholics from Brandenburg and Vorpommern have written to me that I should take care that it’s not only about Berlin. But of course I will also accept invitations, from the federal president to the ARD television studios in the capital, to represent Catholic positions.”

Cardinal Woelki lived in Wedding, a subburb of Berlin with low income and immigrant families. Where will Archbishop Koch live?

“In the first months in an apartment of the Military Ordinariate, and  then in a  former parish house in Lichterfelde [a more residential area in the southwest of Berlin], after it has been renovated. I want to have a very open and hospitable home, where I can eat, sit and speak with visitors. I know how much can informally be discussed over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Much more than in many meetings.”

 Photo credit: Walter Wetzler