Bishop Bonny at the Synod – Yes to family and marriage, respect for diversity and local responsibilities

Like last year, the intervention of a Belgian Synod father has been made public. This time it is Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, who used his three minutes of speaking time to discuss the chapter from the Instrumentum laboris that deals with the fullness of the family.

The Dutch original text is available here. Below is my English translation:

johan-bonnyIntervention on Part II, Chapter III (The Family and The Path Leading to its Fullness) of the Instrumentum laboris (IL)

  1. According to sociological research, marriage and family are highly regarded as values, even in modern western culture. There is an honest desire among both Christians and those who think differently for authentic friendship, lasting relationships, for children and grandchildren, for supportive family structures. For the Church this desire is a positive starting point for the proclamation of the Gospel. At the same time there are doubts in our society about the feasibility and the sustainability of marriage and family (IL 65). It is therefore important that the Church has a convincing word in favour of the choice for marriage and children, and the steps and path of growth towards making that choice. In this context, civil marriage, as institutional form of marriage and family, deserves the necessary appreciation (IL 63, 66, 102). Furthermore, our contemporaries are counting on the Church as a partner in the development of social structures and legal frameworks which benefit marriage and family life. On this point the Synod can send out a strong and, if necessary, countercultural signal.
  2. Sacramental marriage is, also among faithful, no longer the de facto only model of marriage and family life. The experiences of our contemporaries are very diverse and varied on this point. More than in the past, their life stories follow a personal course. Next to risks and limitations, this development also offers possibilities and opportunities. It is important that the Church highlight the positive or constructive elements in this development (IL 56, 98), value the “seeds of the Words” which are dormant in life stories (IL 56, 99), recognise the graduality in the process of growth that people go through (IL 60), respect and promote the “divine pedagogy of grace” on the path of life that God goes with people (IL 62), and also welcome a “praeparatio evangelica” in the “symphony of differences” (IL 83), and especially to end all exclusions (IL 72, 121). For couples and families the way of the Gospel today is the way of dialogue and mutual respect.
  3. In their local Churches bishops encounter a great variety of questions and needs, to which they must provide a pastoral answer today. Across the world, faithful and pastors have made use of the Synod and the questionnaire to present their pressing questions to the bishops and the Pope. Those questions clearly differ between countries and continents. There is however a common theme in those questions, namely the desire that the Church will stand in “the great rive of mercy” (IL 68, 106). It is important that the Synod give space and responsibility to the local bishops to formulate suitable answers to the pastoral questions of that part of the people of God which is entrusted to their pastoral care. The individual bishops’ conferences have a special role in this. The Synod not only deals with “the family as Church”, but also with “the Church as family”. Every family knows what it means to work on unity in diversity, with patience and creativity.

Msgr. Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp
Bishops’ Conference of Belgium

As the Synod begins, a short note from the cardinal

Via, a short note from Cardinal Eijk, who is the sole Dutch participant in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops which was opened yesterday with a Holy Mass.

“The opening celebration, in which we prayed for the support of the Holy Spirit, was impressive, and we are ready to begin this intense period of listening to and deliberating and discussing with each other. I hope that faithful across the world and in especially in the Netherlands pray with us for God’s blessing over this Synod.”

synod of bishops

 Cardinal Baldisseri addresses the Synod, flanked by the Pope and, at his right, Archbishop Bruno Forte, the special secretary, and Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, president delegate. Seated in the third row from the bottom, second from the right, seems to be Cardinal Eijk, flanked by Cardinals Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal and Christopher Collins.

Today was the first full day of deliberations, although for the majority of Synod father, much of it was taken up by listening. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod, once again explained the processes of the coming three weeks. Cardinal Péter Erdö, relator general, held a long exposition outlining the context and topics of the Synod. John Allen has a good analysis of the cardinal’s talk. His clear words about the impossibility of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, ruffled a number of feathers outside the Synod hall, but it should be clear by now that the Synod is not about to change doctrine. Rather, its focus is pastoral care and how it may best be developed and practiced. As Cardinal Vingt-Trois put it at this afternoon’s press conference, “If you think you will find a radical change in Church doctrine, you’ll be disappointed”. The archbishop of Paris, who serves the Synod as one of four President Delegates, stated that the Synod has two goals: to propose the Gospel of the family and the pastoral accompaniment of families in their realities.

Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano

Clear communication – Cardinal Eijk on the indissolubility of marriage

eijkKerknet, the website of the Catholic Church in Flanders, features a piece on Cardinal Eijk’s contribution to the 11 Cardinals Book, and reveal some more context to his arguments, which until now have only been shared in short quotes (at least for those who have not read the book, like your blogger). Such quotes out of context do little to accurately reflect the thoughts of the cardinal, and have generally been maligned in Catholic and secular media. How I wish Cardinal Eijk or those around him would be less hesitant (afraid even?) to share his arguments and his involvement in the Synod and related events (for example, it would have been good to hear or read some comments from the cardinal himself about his involvement in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last week – this is a high-profile Catholic event which draws attention from across the globe, and a more open and sharing approach would do much good, both at home and abroad).

Anyway, the Kerknet article:

In his contribution to the book that eleven cardinals published in relation to the Synod of Bishops on the family (Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family, pp. 45-55, published by Ignatius Press), Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk argues that the Church’s  teaching about divorced and remarried Catholics must be preserved unchanged. The long history of Church practice and repeated statements from the Magisterium that divorced and civilly remarried people can not be allowed to receive Communion, indicate clearly that this is an unchangeable doctrine, according to the Dutch Church leader. The Catholic Church can accommodate them pastorally by giving them a blessing, so that they not feel excluded.

Theological sources in Scripture and the tradition of the Catholic Church are sufficiently clear, according to Cardinal Eijk. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew (“I tell you that he who puts away his wife, not for any unfaithfulness of hers, and so marries another, commits adultery”, Matt. 19:9), which is used by the eastern Orthodox Churches to allow a second or third marriage of someone who is divorced, can not be invoked to make a second sacramental marriage possible. “The magisterium of the Church has always been clear and resolute about the indissolubility of a marriage that has been consummated, as well as the absolute prohibition of divorce, followed by a new marriage.”

Cardinal Eijk does not believe that dissolution because of lack of faith, or a simplification of the procedures for the nullification of a marriage, is a pastoral way out. The Catholic Church should communicate the faith better and emphasise its basis more adequately and clearly, “something that was neglected in the past half century”. Couples preparing marriage should have “at least five to ten” sessions of marriage preparation and “priests should dare to ask couples who want a church wedding if they believe in the indissolubility of marriage. In the interest of the couples themselves they should be more selective about who they give access to the sacrament of marriage.”

“In Dutch dioceses those who want to are invited to come forward for Communion. Those who can not receive Communion are asked to come forward with their arms crossed, as a sign to be given a blessing.” The archbishop notes that this practice, which is especially common for Protestants attending a Eucharist and which helps avoid endless debates, can also be extended to those who are divorced and civilly remarried.

The Orthodox practice of allowing second and more marriages following divorce is treated extensively by Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ in the Five Cardinals Book published last year (Remaining in the Truth of Christ, also available from Ignatius Press).

weddingThe whole debate about nullification or dissolution of a marriage is an intricate one, and it should always be reminded that a marriage can not be nullified. It can only be established that it was null from the very beginning, to the effect that there never was a marriage to begin with. The reasons for this are many, but for the purpose of this blog posts it suffices to say that they establish the validity of the marriage. One of the most convincing for those outside the world of canon law and ecclesiastical courts is perhaps that a marriage must be entered into out of free will; there can be no coercion, for any reason. If someone was forced into a marriage, it can be established that the marriage was null, that it never existed.

In relation to this, there must be a greater focus on and recognition of the fact that the couple did share much, even if it was no marriage. Our eyes should always be open to reality. That is a first step towards mercy. People need recognition of themselves and their lives. But recognition can never be automatically equated to approval. It’s a fine line we must walk as Church, but isn’t that always the case when we are in the business of dealing with people?

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] author’s own

Bishop surprise – Ghent’s Van Looy to join Belgian delegation to the Synod

van looyWe already knew that the Belgian bishops had delegated Bishop Johan Bonny to October’s Synod of Bishops assembly, and it is no surprise that Cardinal Godfried Danneels once again features in Pope Francis’ personal selection of delegates. What is surprising, not least to the man himself, is the choice of a third Belgian bishop to go to Rome next month, as we learned from the full list of Synod delegates that was released today. That third bishop is Msgr. Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent and, since a few months, chairman of Caritas Europe. And that function, the bishop believes, may well be the reason that he was selected by the Pope.

“I was surprised by the personal invitation from the Pope. I assume that the Pope asked me because of my experiences in the world Church and as chairman of Caritas Europe and member of the international administration in Rome.”

Those functions will also dictate his contributions at the Synod, Bishop Van Looy explains.

“I will focus therefore on families and poverty, families who are fleeing or migrating, as well as broken families and the consequences thereof for children. Additionaly, as a Salesian I am especially concerned with young people and their upbringing and all the concerns that parents have regarding this. Let’s not forget that the Synod is about the mission of the family in the world”.

A point well worth remembering in that last sentence, as too often it seems that the only thing to be discussed at the Synod is whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion.

Bishop Van Looy was already chosen by the other bishops of Belgium to be the substitute for Bishop Bonny, to attend the Synod if the latter would be unable to. Whetehr they will now chose another substitute seems possible if unlikely.

Two other Belgian participants are Fr. George Henri Ruyssen SJ, professor in Canon Law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and Fr. Emmanuel De Ruyver, a priest studying in Rome, who is an assistant in the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

For the Synod, catechesis – the focus of Cardinal Eijk

The 11 Cardinals book is published today by Ignatius Press, but at the end of last month, Rorate Caeli already posted a first review. One of the contributing authors of Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint is Cardinal Wim Eijk, and he is quoted in the review:

“Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk says it in his essay forthrightly when he speaks of a “faulty knowledge of the faith or a lack of faith per se” among the married couples today and says that “catechesis has been seriously neglected for half a century.” And he concludes:

True pastoral ministry means that the pastor leads the persons entrusted to his care to the truth definitely found in Jesus Christ who is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6). We must seek the solution to the lack of knowledge and understanding of the faith by transmitting and explaining its foundations more adequately and clearly than we have done in the last half century. (p. 51)

Eijk reminds us that Christ entrusted the Church “to proclaim the truth.” Practically, he proposes to make the thorough preparation for future spouses an emphatic and persevering duty of the Church, and to ask the future spouses explicitly, at the onset, whether they accept the indissolubility of marriage. If they deny this doctrine, he says, they should be denied the sacrament of matrimony.”

eijk jerusalem ccee^Cardinal Eijk, third from left, in Jerusalem at the plenary meeting of the CCEE which took place over the past week.

The forthright and objective language used by the cardinal – the concerns and focus of the book are pastoral, but that does not mean the content and reasoning should not also be doctrinal – have once again resulted in criticism in the Netherlands. The cardinal is accused of insensitivity towards the faithful, to name an example. Certainly, the Church should be pastoral and merciful when the faithful come to her to be married or receive another sacrament, but she should not deny the faith she has been tasked to protect and communicate. Catholic teaching about marriage is clear, and when a couple is clear in their intent to follow that teaching and receive the sacrament, the Church, through her ministers, will witness to their marriage. In other circumstances however, when a couple does not agree with some element or other of the sacrament of marriage, or does not intend to accept it in its fullness, the Church can’t, in good conscience, be a witness to their marriage. Marrying in Church is not some sentimental affair or a nice photo opportunity. It is a sacrament, with rights but certainly also duties, for couple and Church alike, but which ultimately helps us on our journey towards God. God invites and enables us to accept His invitation through the grace of the sacrament, to live in the fullness of marriage, and so in the fullness of our humanity according to our vocation.

In my opinion, Cardinal Eijk is spot on about the importance of renewed catechesis. Our faith is rich and beautiful and, granted, sometimes difficult. As baptised Catholics we deserve nothing less to know it and let it transform us, to come ever closer to God. God ceaselessly invites, but we should know His invitation before we can accept it.

Cardinal Eijk’s contribution to Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint is a doctrinal treatise of a pastoral problem. He sees a lack of knowledge of the faith as the root of the problem, and it is exactly the duty of the Church’s pastors to remedy that, to help people on their way to the Truth. For that journey, people need both mercy and teaching, the first to help overcome the personal failings everyone has, the second to show our destination and help us reach our fullest human potential as creatures wanted and loved by God.

Changes in ‘s Hertogenbosch – past, future and some guesses

With the announced retirement of Bishop Hurkmans it is a good time to look back an ahead. In his letter announcing his retirement, the bishop already indicated that a new period was beginning, a time of transition followed by a new bishop at the helm of the numerically largest diocese of the Netherlands.


The Hurkmans era, to call it that, began in 1998, when he was appointed on the same day that his predecessor, Bishop Jan ter Schure, retired. Unlike the latter, who had the misfortune to have been appointed when the polarisation between modernists and orthodox (in which group the bishop could be grouped) was at a final high point, Bishop Hurkmans was and is considered an altogether kinder and approachable man. That does not mean that he avoided making the difficult decisions, and especially following the appointment of two auxiliary bishops in 2010 (later whittled down to one, as Bishop Liesen was soon appointed to Breda), there were several major cases in which the diocese stood firm against modernists trends. But these things never came easy to him. The general idea that I have, and I am not alone, I believe, is that Bishop Hurkmans was altogether too kind to be able to carry the burden of being bishop. He accepted it, trusting in the Holy Spirit to help him – as reflected in his episcopal motto “In Virtute Spiritu Sancti” – but it did not always gave him joy. That said, while he is generally considered a kind bishop, there remain some who consider him strict and aloof, in both the modernists and orthodox camps. As bishop, you rarely win.

In 2011 he took a first medical leave for unspecified health reasons, and a second one began in 2014. While he regained some of his strengths, as he indicates in his letter, it was not enough.

hurkmans ad limina

^Bishop Hurkmans gives the homily during Mass at Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, during the 2013 Ad Limina visit.

In his final years as bishop, Msgr. Hurkmans held the Marriage & Family portfolio in the Bishops’ Conference. It is perhaps striking that he was not elected by the other bishops to attend the upcoming Synod of Bishops assembly on that same topic – Cardinal Eijk will go, with Bishop Liesen as a substitute. Before a reshuffle in responsibilities in the conference, Bishop Hurkmans held the Liturgy portfolio, and as such was involved with a new translation of the Roman Missal, the publication of which is still in the future.

Bishop Hurkmans was also the Grand Prior of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in the Netherlands, and as such he invested new knights and ladies at the cathedral in Groningen in 2012.

Mgr. Bluyssen

^Bishop Hurkmans buried several of his predecessors, such as Bishop Bluyssen in 2013

At 71, Bishop Hurkmans is young to retire, as 75 is the mandatory age for bishops to do so. Still, it is not unprecedented when we look at the bishops of ‘s Hertogenbosch since the latter half of the 20th century. Bishop Johannes Bluyssen retired, also for health reasons, in 1984 at the age of 57. Bishop Bekkers died in office in 1966 at the age of 58. Bishop Willem Mutsaerts, related to the current auxiliary bishop, retired in 1960, also aged 71. As for Bishop Hurkmans, may his retirement be a restful one.

mutsaertsLooking at the future, the inevitable question is, who’s next? Who will be the 10th bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch? Guessing is risky, but there are some likely candidates anyway. In my opinion, one of the likeliest candidates is Bishop Rob Mutsaerts (pictured), currently auxiliary bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch. He has been taking over a number of duties from Bishop Hurkmans during the latter’s absence, and he is at home in the diocese. Speaking against him is his sometimes blunt approach to problems, especially when Catholic doctrine is being disregarded, which does not always sit well with priests and faithful alike (although others, including myself, appreciate him for his clarity and orthodoxy.

Other possible options are one of the other auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands: Bishop Hendriks of Haarlem-Amsterdam, Bishop Hoogenboom and Woorts of Utrecht and Bishop de Jong of Roermond. I don’t really see that happening, though, with the sole exception of Bishop de Jong. He is southerner, albeit from Limburg, while the others are all westerners, and that does mean something in the culture of Brabant. Still, it has happened before.

Anything’s possible, especially under Pope Francis (and this will be his first Dutch appointment, and for new Nuncio Aldo Cavalli too). Diocesan priest and member of the cathedral chapter Father Cor Mennen once stated that he would not be opposed to a foreign bishop, provided he learn Dutch, if that means the bishop gets a good and orthodox one. I don’t see that happening just yet, though.

And as for when we may hear the news of a new bishop? Usually these things take a few months at most (although it has taken 10 months once, between Bishops Bluyssen and Ter Schure). The summer holidays are over in Rome, so proceedings should theoretically advance fairly quickly. A new bishops could be appointed and installed before Christmas then.

Cardinal Eijk joins ten other cardinals in a new book on marriage and family

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkUsually rather tight-lipped about the proceedings at and his own contributions to the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Wim Eijk is now said to be contributing to a book about marriage and family in the runup to the Synod assembly of October. He is joined by ten other prelates, cardinals all, and as such this new book can be compared to the five-cardinals book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Eijk’s contribution will be based on his work at the previous Synod assembly last year.

Like the earlier book, this will take a position which underlines the role of doctrine in addition to mercy, contrary to some who consider the latter overruling the former. In truth, both are needed and can’t survive without the other.

In addition to Cardinal Eijk, the other contributing cardinals are:

  • Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop of of Bologna
  • Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, Major Archbishop of Trivandrum of the Syro-Malankar Church
  • Paul Cordes, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”
  • Dominik Duka, Archbishop of Prague
  • Joachim Meisner, Archbishop emeritus of Cologne
  • John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja
  • Antonio Rouco Varela, Archbishop emeritus of Madrid
  • Camillo Ruini, Vicar General emeritus of Rome
  • Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
  • Jorge Urosa Savino, Archbishop of Caracas

The book is said to be criticising the “protestantisation” of the Church. What that means will remain to be seen, but we may expect a focus on the desire to adapt teaching to the wishes of interest groups and individual faithful under the guise of mercy, as we continuously see in the debates surrounding the Synod and its topics.

Immediate local reactions to the news (which for now is mostly hearsay, it has to be said) of Eijk’s involvement were not overly positive. Some see this as proof that the cardinal is in direct opposition to Pope Francis. If that’s true, the same must be said of the other contributors, some of whom were appointed by the Pope (Cardinal Sarah) or are known to enjoy his appreciation and esteem (Cardinal Caffarra), while others are not directly known for overly orthodox attitudes (Cardinal Duka). Pope Francis has asked for discussion, which includes opposing points of view. This is that discussion, and the Pope knows that full well. If his attitude towards the Curia is anything to go by, he is happy to let it do the work it exists for, and that includes defending the unpopular elements of the faith.

I am happy to see a high-profile contribution from a Dutch prelate on this topic, which has already made so many headlines in the blogosphere and Catholic media. We need more of that.

The book, titled Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint, can be pre-ordered from Igantius Press here.