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“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’
Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.
Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.
Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.
The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.
“The question [of artificial means of birth control] is not that of changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”
Thank you, Holy Father. Pope Francis said this in a new interview which is published today in Italian newspaper Corriere della sera. It’s what I have been saying all along, and so has – more authoritively – Cardinal Müller, for one. The quote above, which is preceded by papal praise for Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vita (“His genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise [a] ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism”) can be equally applied to the Church’s teachings about sexuality and marriage.
Changing doctrine, even dogma, when it is difficult or seemingly illogical for us to follow, is not the answer. The Church claims the truth, and the truth is not subject to majority opinion. That does not mean that practices are unchangeable, as a casual glance at Church history shows. But, as Pope Francis, indicates, our practice must be based on both the truth expressed in doctrine, the situation in people’s lives and the possibilities these give us. The Church must be creative in that, which means we must all be, but it must be a creativity that makes use of all that is given her, not just a selection that suits us. So, doctrine, reality and possibility, these three dictate the way we must go.
The Diocese of Trier has come with some sort of explanation for Bishop Stephan Ackermann’s confusing comments on the Church’s moral teaching, which I wrote about before. The response comes in a response to a long letter by Austrian student Victoria Fender (pictured). In it, she expresses her concern for Bishop Ackermann’s reasoning, stating that while reality is one thing, a bishop has a duty to share and promote the Church’s ideal of Christian marriage and sexuality, not give in to what society thinks it is today (and maybe something else altogether tomorrow). And, she adds, there is a very real desire among young people for this countercultural teaching, if only they heard about it.
Part of the response to Ms. Fender’s letter goes as follows:
As Ms. Fender writes, she is personally very enthused by the message of the Gospel and is generally respected for her witness of faith and life by her fellow students. One can only rejoice about that. The responses to the Synod survey have also clearly indicated that the great majority of Catholics shares the basic values of what the Church teaches about marriage and sexuality: lifelong fidelity, openness to the transmission of life, respect for one’s partner… But it also an undeniable truth that every person’s life needs a very personal development to come nearer and nearer to the goal of Christian truth. This way is not always linear.
All nice and true, but the fact that different people come to the truth in different ways does of course not mean that the truth is different for everyone. Marriage is still marriage. Human sexuality still has the same nature and purpose. The letter continues…
In his service a bishop is both teacher and pastor. In her letter, Ms. Fender herself referred to the words of Jesus about the Good Shepherd. For a bishop that means that he is also responsible for those who do not particularly live up to the ideals of Christian morality. Should he, like the Good Shepherd, also not go after the sheep that got lost, to show it, in the mercy of Christ, the way to full community? In his words, Pope Francis reminds us time and again not to discourage people, but to help them to discover the beauty of the faith, so that they can grow in that faith. Bishop Ackermann is committed to this task. In more than a few responses that have come to us in the last few days, this is perceived gratefully.
To me, this sounds like a classic mistake. Of course, bishops and priests (and all faithful) should do their best to find the lost sheep and bring them back to the herd. But we can’t do so by telling those sheep that they were right to get lost or purposely leaving the herd. We can’t change the truth in order to bring them back. Rather, we should show them ever more clearly the beauty of that truth, of the faith, not adapt it to what some think it should be. A bishop has the duty to shepherd and teach, but also to communicate the faith and make sure it is represented truthfully. By saying, as Bishop Ackermann did, that homosexuality is not intrinsically disordered, that contraception is not a problem because it is hard to understand, or that the indissolubility of marriage is no longer valid, he basically admits that the truth that the Church has been teaching for centuries is not set, that it can be changed according to the wishes of the people. That is not good shepherding, that is confirming people in their error, that is telling sheep to get lost and stay away because they think it is best for them.
A bishop should teach the truth, lead people to that truth and show the fullness and beauty of that truth. Even when it is difficult or when people need time to understand and achieve it. That last part is only human, and we should give people all the time and support they need. Telling them that it takes too long, so it must be wrong, is the road to disaster.
Someone pointed out to me that bishops are teachers, so we must let them teach. But what if we find problems with their teaching? Should we not ask for clarification, or even share our concerns. Ms. Fender did the best thing anyone can do. She sent a letter to the bishop, pointing out what she found hard to understand about what he taught. It is a shame that the response is quite unsatisfactory.
Several months ago, Raymond Cardinal Burke gave an interview in which he was critical about Pope Francis. He made some assumptions there about thew wisdom of the Pope’s giving so many interviews, assumptions and comments which I think were ill-advised, and more than a few people connected this to the perceived ‘demotion’ of the cardinal when Pope Francis re-shuffled some departments of the Curia and some of their members.
A few days ago, Cardinal Burke had an article published in L’Osservatore Romano in which he sheds a light on the priorities of Pope Francis. This article goes a long way in repairing the damage done by the earlier interview and is an interesting study on how the controversial topics of abortion, euthanasia and marriage fit in Pope Francis’ approach of pastoral love.
“It is not that the Holy Father is not clear in his opposition to abortion and euthanasia, or in his support of marriage as the indissoluble, faithful and procreative union of one man and one woman. Rather he concentrates his attention on inviting all to nurture an intimate relationship, indeed communion, with Christ, within which the non-negotiable truths, inscribed by God upon every human heart, become ever more evident and are generously embraced. The understanding and living of these truths are, so to speak, the outer manifestation of the inner communion with God the Father in Christ, His only-begotten Son, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”
It’s a good read which puts the words and actions of Pope Francis in the context of Scripture and on what some of his predecessors have said and done. I translated the article into Dutch here.
In a meeting with Pope Francis on Saturday, Karl Cardinal Lehmann, bishop of Mainz in Germany, spoke about some of the current events gripping the Church in Germany since last year. He advocated caution and expressed concern in two of these cases: the continuing ‘leave of absence’ of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his Diocese of Limburg, and the German bishops’ efforts to broaden access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried faithful without taking current Canon Law and teaching into account.
About the first topic he said, in an interview for Domradio.de:
“Francis is amazingly well and correctly informed about that. I told him that I consider the Bishop of Limburg to be a very wise, highly educated and courteous person in whom I have never noticed any sign of wasteful swank. However, the procedure [against him] was burdened with a policy of secrecy fueled by a media campaign. I am worried that if we do not reach a solution soon, the atmosphere of optimism which was triggered by the Pope’s election will be threatened. For the process encourages mistrust and a hostile mood against the church.”
Once again it seems clear that those who know Bishop Tebartz-van Elst personally do not recognise him in the image that his opponents and the media have created. Related to this, Archbishop Georg Gänswein also said that he expects that the ongoing investigation by the German Bishops’ Conference will be concluded positively for Bishop Tebartz-van Elst.
About the second topic, Cardinal Lehmann said:
“The question of receiving the sacraments is one that can’t be avoided, it must be addressed, but not in the first place. The Church must concern itself about people in broken and damaged relations – and these especially include the divorced and remarried. They have their own place in the Church. But one must accurately consider the specific situations. One can’t proclaim only mercy in all cases, justice is a part of mercy. This relationship must be reflected upon carefully.”
No one is blaming the German bishops for exploring new avenues of pastoral care for people in broken relationships, including persons who have civilly divorced and remarried. Cardinal Lehmann, while being a bit general in his comment, seems to be indicating that one sweeping reform of the whole practice of pastoral care is not something to be desired. Specific cases need to be considered well. Leaving the decision to receive the sacraments to individual person’s consciences, as the bishops are suggesting, is the opposite of that. It is very timely that the cardinal explains that mercy is far more than just being nice. Surely allowing everyone to receive the sacraments is very nice, but is it merciful? Justice, in service to the wellbeing of the faithful, is also merciful. Doing the right thing, while not necessarily pleasant at the time, is merciful in the long run.
In an interview with Die Welt, published yesterday, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, retired ordinary of Freiburg im Breisgau and President of the German Bishops’ Conference, spoke, among other things, about the proposal to allow remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. His answers are somewhat disconcerting.
On the question if the topic is now off the table, after Archbishop Müller’s opposition to the proposal which originated in Archbishop Zollitsch’s Archdiocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, the archbishop replied:
“How can this topic be off the table? 35 to 40 percent of marriages end in divorce these days. As Church we ask ourselves: How should we relate to those concerned? This is the question that our pastoral care office’s proposal asks. I feel much strengthened by Pope Francis, who has called his own Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family for October of 2014. There we want to present what we in Freiburg have drafted.”
Archbishop Zollitsch is of course correct when he says that the numbers call for us to be concerned about the large number of marriages, both sacramental and civil, which end prematurely. And in that sense his efforts to draft proposals to put that concern into practice are only to be lauded. But it is good te recall that Archbishop Müller did not nix the proposal. He told the German bishops to withdraw it and revise two points – that faithful can decide for themselves whether or not they should receive Communion, and that a sort of ‘pseudo-marriage rite’ may be celebrated in the church for people who enter into a second civil marriage – but he maintained that the proposal as a whole contains “very correct and important pastoral teachings”. The interviewer’s suggestion that Archbishop Müller wants the topic off the table, and Archbishop Zollitsch’s failure to correct this assessment, suggests a serious misrepresentation of the facts.
The interviewer continues:
Archbishop Müller has written to you that the draft should be “withdrawn and revised”.
“That is the judgement of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Müller’s position corresponds with the Tradition he represents. But the majority of people who have approached us were positive about the proposal. That tells me that we are pursuing an important issue and that it is important to find a viable solution. Pope Francis often speaks of being close to people. I think that that can be a good direction, also in dealing with civilly remarried.”
Here it gets more serious, as facts are more distorted. Yes, Archbishop Müller represents a Tradition, but this is not because of his position as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, but because of his identity as a Catholic Christian. That means, then, that we all represent that Tradition, which is the Church’s and which we all confess and reaffirm in every Mass. That many people are positive about the proposal means nothing in this case, as faith and Tradition are not decided by majority vote. Of course, the issue is important and a viable solution must be found. Not because many people want it, but because it is good for them.
Is your upcoming retirement or the general euphoria about Pope Francis the reason for being so relaxed about comments from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
“Neither. As President of the Bishops’ Conference I have, in recent years, after our spring and autumn meeting, travelled to Rome to explain our position. If a prefect of one the various Congregations would then oppose this position, I would think to go slowly. A Prefect is not the Pope. I look for dialogue, and for me that is the way of collegiality and the dialogue in the Church.”
So what Archbishop Zollitsch is saying here is that the opinions of Curial officials, who are tasked with specific duties in the Church (in the case of the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith this includes to make sure that the faith is represented completely and properly and shared in all its fullness), duties which come with the necessary amount of authority, do not matter? That it is simply a matter of diplomacy: Oh, if I can’t get my way like this, I’ll just try it like that? Ordinaries, of which Archbishop Zollitsch is one, have the same duty as I mentioned above for Archbishop Müller, but if they fail in performing them, corrections must come from a higher level: the Pope, who delegates some duties to those called to assist him in his. And among those are the members of the Curia. Simply saying, “a Prefect is not the Pope”, is tantamount to ignoring the entire existence, duty, authority and function of the Curia. And in this case, Archbishop Zollitsch also conveniently ignores the fact that Archbishop Müller clearly stated that he composed his article on the issue in L’Osservatore Romano, and the subsequent letter to the German bishops, after consultation with the Pope. It is therefore impossible to say that this Prefect is simply acting for himself. We can safely assume that Pope Francis is fully behind Archbishop Müller in this case.
Hiding behind bland statements like “collegiality” and “dialogue” (which are not meaningless in themselves, but they are as used here), is incredibly naive. Archbishop Müller, speaking after discussing hs beforehand with the Pope, has been very clear. He has the duty and authority to correct the German bishops. That is dialogue. Dialogue is not a collection of niceties without any consequences for anyone. It is the collegial correction of errors, which must be given and received in fraternity. Ignoring and pushing them aside as simple opinions of some Prefect who is just acting for himself is a distortion of facts, faith and duty.
One day before his 80th birthday, and his retirement from Curial functions that comes with it, Cardinal Joachim Meisner makes some bold and critical statements in an interview for Deutschlandfunk. The archbishop of Cologne is known to be in disagreement with most other German bishops about if, when and how divorced and remarried Catholics can be allowed to receive the sacraments. In that respect he is very much in agreement with Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
He also speaks about being critical of Pope Francis, in a personal conversation no less. He says:
“During my last visit to Pope Francis I was able to speak very freely with the Holy Father about all kinds of topics. And I also told him that his proclamation in the form of interviews and short statements leaves many questions unanswered, questions which should be explained further for the uninformed. The Pope looked at me with surprise and asked me to please give him an example. And my reply was that, in his return from Rio to Rome, on the airplane, he was asked about the question of divorced and remarried people. And as the Pope said, divorced people can receive Holy Communion, remarried divorced people can not. In the Orthodox Church it is possible to marry twice. That was his statement. And then he spoke of mercy, which in my experience, which is what I told him, is only understood in this country as a substitute for all human failings. And the Pope very energetically replied that he is a son of the Catholic Church and is not saying anything but the teachings of the Church. And mercy must be identical to truth, or it doesn’t deserve the name mercy. And in addition, he emphasised that when theological questions remain, then there is the important Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to formulate and explain the details. And you must always remember that this Congregation, which before the Council was chaired by the Pope himself, is still the first in the Curial order. And you can’t relate to the Prefect as a private person, just because he was once a member of the Bishops’ Conference.”
This is pretty unheard of, that a cardinal so freely discusses his disagreements with the Pope. Pope Francis’ reaction is no less interesting, of course. It shows how he wants the Curia, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the lead, to function. Not as a behemoth controlled by the Pope, but as a body assisting the Pope in his ministry. And I think that also shows us how we should all act as Catholics. We should be willing and able to explain and clarify in love, to proclaim, not just by speaking about Jesus Christ, but also by knowing and living our faith, even in the face of misunderstanding and adversity.
Cardinal Meisner was also asked about demands from certain groups that the Church should adapt to the times. Such sentiments were heard anew in the wake of the Synod of Bishops’ questionnaire. Although this was never intended as a means to ask the faithful for their opinions on Church teaching, many have used it as a chance to express theirs nonetheless.
“The Church must conform to the Word of God and not to the opinion of people. As Church we must know the opinions of people, to be able to proclaim the Word of God accordingly. But conforming, as they are asking, is not a part of the Gospel. It is amazing that the Evangelical Church has defined, with her position paper on questions of sexuality, a total alignment to the so-called spirit of the times. And what does the state of the Evangelical Church look like? As I understand, the number of people leaving it are even higher than ours. That can’t, ultimately, be because of the question of sexuality.”
Isn’t the cardinal afraid to stand alone, to become isolated, because what he says is not in accordance with what others are saying?
“I am not afraid to stand alone. During my school days in Thuringia I was the only Catholic boy, pupil. And I was always a part of everything and never allowed myself to be isolated. The mission of the ZdK (Central Committee of German Catholics) is to make the Gospel visible and have effect in the secular dimension, as it’s called, in the world. And here this group must seriously ask itself if they have remained true to their mission and vocation? You are asking if, in this context, I have no fear of being isolated? I have real concern for those people who bend their faith to themselves and who make their own faith, and who do not accept in awe what Christ Himself has entrusted to us. There is no solution there.”