German bishops speak out in favour of celibacy

Despite assurances to the contrary, the German episcopate as a body continues to be seen by many as plotting a course independent of Rome when it comes to questions about the sacraments, the priesthood and synodality. That said, several bishops have recently spoken out in defence of one topic which, certain circles claim, should be abolished if the Church is to change for the better: mandatory celibacy for priests.

HOP_9503.jpg_1287107163The main contribution, certainly in word count, comes from Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary bishop of Cologne, who wrote an article about the topic for the Tagespost (subsequently also published on Domradio), with a focus on the issue in the context of the abuse crisis. Identifying the call to abolish celibacy as conservative because it is, by now, a somewhat old-fashioned position, the bishop asks, “Why is my celibate way of life always criticised so strongly by people who don’t have to live it at all? Didnt I make that choice, not you?” He adds that no one forced him to choose to live celibate. Bishop Schwaderlapp explains the value of celibacy for a priest:

“It is not just a fitting oneself into the order of the Church. Celibacy is not limited to a – sometimes painful – denunciation of an exclusive two-way relationship of one’s own in order to have time and space for the many. And as such it is more than “just” the adoption of Jesus’ lifestyle – it is after all Him whom the priest is to make tangible in his life. Celibacy means a self-giving to Christ. with body and soul. And with and through Christ it means a self-giving to the people. It is about making the open heart of Jesus tangible through the celibate way of living. Being a priest is a matter of the heart, otherwise it becomes a caricature.”

The bishop likens this act of self-giving, which includes the priest sexuality, to what a husband and wife do in marriage. Rather than giving themselves to each other, with body, soul and sexuality, a priest gives himself to God.

Not blind to the challenges facing the Church and society, Bishop Schwarderlapp nonetheless concludes that allowing priests to marry is not an answer.

“This charism makes the purpose and mission of the priest “physical”: to make Jesus Christ visible, audible and tangible in this world. Incidentally, celibacy is always outdated because it refers, across time, to the one who was, who is and who will come. It is fatal if this charism is put up for discussion, and when we bishops take part in it. There are no new factual arguments against celibacy. [Abolition]  would not serve as a remedy to abuse, nor as an impetus to the – much needed – inner renewal of the Church. There has never been renewal by less, but always only through more devotion.”

helmut_dieser_40840234Bishop Helmut Dieser of Aachen expresses himself in similar words. He too emphasises that celibacy is not something negative, nor something that is forced upon a priest. It is, he states, “a Biblical way of life in imitation of Jesus, a charism”. However, he also says, should a situation exist when there are no men choosing celibacy, the Church should keep “suitable married men” in mind. This openness to the practical situation, which at this time does not exist in Germany, is echoed by Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. His position in an interview, which he shared on his website, caused some confusion as it appeared as if he was in favour of loosening the celibacy rules. “I am not, even when I consider it possible,” he tersely explains. Bishop Oster also explains that there is room to discuss the question of celibacy: “The question is not dogmatic. Unlike with sexual morality there is more leeway, and the pope has already encouraged the search for new ways in this regard.”

About celibacy itself, the bishop says:

oster1130“Celibacy is the way of life of Jesus and as such a great spiritual treasure, which is worth fighting for. But I do not rule out the possibility (of a loosening of the celibacy rules). When the majority of priests say that it is no longer possible to live celibately in this time and society, then it becomes difficult. On the other hand I do not want the priest who is already struggling with his way of life, but who has made an oath, now reading, “the bishop also says that it is difficult, so I’ll also give it up.” I do not want to demotivate, I want to say: the struggle is worth it.”

The new bishop of Fulda, Michael Gerber, who will be installed today, has also said that he is opposed to abolishing mandatory celibacy, and prefers to focus instead of assuring that priests remain part of a ‘network’, thus preventing any of them from falling prey to loneliness.

Other bishops, such as Peter Kolhgraf of Mainz and Georg Bätzing of Limburg, have expressed their support for voluntary celibacy, showing that, if anything, the German episcopate is no monolith.

Photo credits: [1] Erzbistum Köln, [2] Elisabeth Schomaker/KNA, [3] Bischöfliche Pressestelle Passau

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The synodal path – German bishops to put global truth to popular vote?

dbk logoIn their spring assembly, which this year took place in the Emsland town of Lingen, in the Diocese of Osnabrück, the German bishops discussed, among other things, several hot topics. First and foremost the abuse crisis, of course, on which they heard from various experts and were told that the Church is losing (or even already has lost) all her credibility as a result of the sexual abuse committed by clergy and the subsequent coverup by bishops and superiors.

In order to perhaps recover some of the credibility, and find a permanent solution to the scourge of abuse, which the bishops see as an expression of abuse of power, they opt to go the synodal path. The buzzword which has been the go-to solution for a lot of things in recent years is perhaps hard to define, but if anything, it amounts to less power for bishops and more listening and taking advise from lay faithful and experts outside the Church. There is of course a risk that any expression of episcopal authority comes to be seen as undesirable, thus pretty much negating the power and fucntion of bishops, but this is another story.

marx-XIn the post-meeting press conference (text here), Cardinal Reihard Marx (at right) discusses this synodal path and explains that the bishops have decided to employ it also on the topics of power abuse, priestly celibacy and the Church’s sexual morality. Does this mean, as some have commented, that the German bishops will put these topics to a popular vote? For the first, the abuse of power by clergy, this may be a good path, but I have my doubts if a singular bishops’ conference can and should take the teachings of the Church, which is not limited to Germany, and single-handedly change them if the people demand it.

Below is my translation of the relevant passage from the press conference:

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“The Church needs a synodal development. Pope Francis encourages us to do so. And we do not begin from zero. The Würzburg Synod (1972-1975)  and also the processes of recent years have prepared the ground, also for the many challenges of today. We have decided in unison to go a synodal path as Church in Germany, which enables a structural debate and takes place in a scheduled timeframe, and in fact together with the Central Committee of German Catholics. We will create formats for open debate and committ ourselves to processes which allow for a responsible participation of women and men from our dioceses. We want to be a listening Church. We need the advise from people outside the Church.

I will therefore list three points which played a part in the study day and upon which we will focus:

  • We are aware of the cases of clerical abuse of power. It is a betrayal of the trust of people seeking for support and religious orientation. What has to be done to achieve the required development of power and create a fairer and legally binding order, will become clear on the synodal path. The development of administrative tribunals is a part of this.
  • We are aware that the way of life of bishops and priests requires change to show the inner freedom of of the faith and the orientation on the example of Jesus Christ. We consider celibacy to be an expression of religious unity with God. We wish to work out the extent to which it should be a part of the witness of priests in our Church.
  • The Church’s sexual morality has not yet accepted several findings from theology and humanities. The personal meaning of sexuality has not been given sufficient attention. The result: the proclamation of morality offers no direction to the majority of the baptised. We see how often we are unable to respond to questions about modern sexual behaviour.”

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The bishops plan to have a plan for this synodal path ready by September, when it will be discussed in a meeting of bishops, members of the Central Committee of German Catholics and others.

In the mean time, I wonder if this is not taking the same course as the Communion for remarried Catholics debate? That was also taken to Rome by some bishops who understood that a single group of bishops can not pretend to speak for the entire world Church. The question of priestly celibacy and sexual morality can certainly be discussed, even by a single bishops’ conference, but they can not take unilateral action contrary to what the Church as a whole teaches. These changes, if they must be made, must be made at the top.

I am leaving the bishops’ first point, about combating abuse of power, out of this, as that is something they can act on by themselves.

Cardinal Müller’s Manifesto of Faith – refutation of its critics

I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but I was nonetheless yesterday.

Cardinal_Gerhard_Mueller_in_St_Peters_Basilica_at_the_installation_Mass_of_Bishop_Maurizio_Malvestiti_on_Oct_12_2014_Credit_Lauren_Cater_CNA_CNA_10_13_14On Friday, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now a sort of free-roaming cardinal with no specific mission, issued a “Manifesto of Faith“. As he explains in the opening paragraphs he did so on the request of various people, both clergy and laity, in order to provide some measure of clarity to the confusion that exists about Catholic doctrine. Without doubt, we must understand this to be based in the different interpretations of recent papal teachings regarding such varied topics like marriage, sexuality and ecumenism. The teachings themselves may not be confusing, but their communication and interpretation most definitely are. But Cardinal Müller’s reasons go beyond this, and back over past decades and the formation, or lack thereof, of the faithful on matters of conscience, the nature of Christ, the Church, the sacraments, morality and eternal life.

catechism-of-the-catholic-church2628lgThe manifesto is in the first place a summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at least regarding the topics discussed. It is stuffed with references to paragraphs from the document, which aims to summarise the faith, and as such can serve as a helpful reminder of what it is that we confess as Catholics and how that affects our spiritual and daily life. Cardinal Müller also offers a few interpretations and explanations, which are all the interpretations of Tradition, communicated over the years and centuries by popes and theologians alike. Until those interpretations, for example that divorced and civilly remarried faithful can not receive Communion, are changed, they stand. They are what we are beholden to as Catholics. And, despite footnotes and desires expressed in interviews, under Pope Francis no steps have yet been taken to change this.

On to my surprise.

The reception of Cardinal Müller’s manifesto, especially in social media, has been as expected. Some quietly welcomed it, presenting it as a text worth reading, without, I must say, a lot of further comment. Others, however, including a significant number of Vatican commentators and reporters, have taken the text to frame the cardinal and his supporters:

Cardinal Müller, they say, is opposed to Pope Francis, and with this manifesto he presents an alternative Magisterium. Some have gone so far as calling him an anti-pope. How on earth, I wonder, can a text so rooted in the Catechism, in the faith that we all claim to confess as Catholics, be an alternative Magisterium? It is as if the critics claim that this is not the faith they confess, and, worse, not the faith that the pope confesses. If that were true, we would indeed have an anti-pope, but it would not be Cardinal Müller.

The criticism they level at Cardinal Müller is also marked not by theological refutations, but limit themselves to superficialities. The cardinal is angry at the pope for being dismissed as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they say. We know this because of the way he signed his manifesto. He must be opposed to Pope Francis, because the Holy Father chooses not to discuss doctrine that much, instead focusing on social and charitable issues. Thus, they insist, the manifesto should not be taken seriously, even mocked (and not just the text, but in the first place its author).

Worst of all, those critics continue to insist that there is no confusion. There is therefore no other reason for Cardinal Müller to publish his manifesto than to position himself as an alternative authority to the pope. In reality, though, the different interpretations of various recent papal communications, and the spiritual and formative developments of the faithful over the past decades, are clear as day.

In the minds of Cardinal Müller’s attackers, a cardinal’s duty is to quietly fall in line with what the pope says and does. Their mission is not that of a shepherd, but of a sheep. Any hint at them overstepping that role is seen as an attack against them and what they consider the “fluffiest pope ever”, to borrow a phrase. This is an unhealthy attitude that changes the nature of the Magisterium and the hierarchy of the Church into a dictatorship. Some say that’s due to Pope Francis, but it’s his supposed self-appointed supporters who do the most damage.

The manifesto is text worth reading. As I’ve said above, it offers a reminder of what our faith actually entails in various matters. It says little about practical applications, but theologically it is a reminder of the rich foundation and intricate beauty of our faith. The manifesto is also a call to action, to rediscover that foundation and beauty, and grow beyond the earthly superficialities, which have their place and value, but which do not define our faith and unity with Jesus Christ.

The English text of Cardinal Müller’s manifesto is available in several places, such as here, while my Dutch translation can be found via this link.

 

After McCarrick, Viganò and Francis, Dutch bishops comment

It took some time for the Dutch bishops to comment on what I have seen being called ‘the summer of scandal’: the revelation of past abuse and cover-ups in dioceses in Pennsylvania, accusations of similar cover-ups as far as the Vatican and the pope himself, and the silence that remains a too-frequently employed answer. Of course, as none of the developments involves the Catholic Church in the Netherlands in particular, and considering that we have been through a coupe of years of revelations and their fallout in recent years, it is in some way understandable that the bishops have kept their silence. After all, what else could they say that they haven’t been saying already? On the other hand, the abuse and accusations have been making headlines, also in Dutch media, and as Pope Francis remains highly popular inside and outside the Church, faithful in the Netherlands have been looking for answers and explanations, even if they are the same as those given a coupe of years ago.

bisschop-de-korteBishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was the first to comment directly on the letter by Archbishop Viganò and the steps taken by Pope Francis to combat sexual abuse and to promote openness in the Church concerning that issue. Last week he stated for Nieuwsuur:

“I think the debate is about how to deal with bishops who have consciously kept things secret and are guilty of abuse themselves. Bishop obviously can’t do that themselves. Someone above them, in this case the pope, must take those measures.”

Bishop de Korte admitted that it would be good if the pope displayed more decisiveness:

“He has already done some in a number of cases. But he could perhaps do a bit more. And I also think that many Catholics hope that he will do so in the near future.”

jan_hendriksIn his blog, Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, shares his thoughts about recent developments, following his summer vacation pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis de Sales. Describing the cases of former Cardinal McCarrick and the testimony of  Archbishop Viganò, the bishop states:

“It is clear that I am not able to judge this and that is not my task anyway. I condemn every form of sexual abuse: justice must be done to victims, who have been done great harm by people who, as clerics, must stand for a completely different morality. We must continue making clear that we want to and must stand on the side of the victims. Obviously, this is not only true for people who have been the victim of the actions of representatives of the Catholic Church, but thought must also be given to proper procedures for people who have been the victim of abuse in youth care, families, schools or other parts of society. In that regards the Catholic Church is a clearly definable worldwide ‘organisation’ and things work differently for sport clubs, youth movements, schools or youth care.”

Bishop Hendriks continues by emphasising that recent investigations in both the Netherlands and the United States have revealed few abuse cases from recent years. Most were committed decades ago. This, the bishop says, could be due to improved procedures to fight abuse and help victims in the Church. He also adds that, in his experience, the reactions to accusations of abuse are sometimes exaggerated, leading to acceptance of accusations which turn out to not always be true.

“Personally, I see an advantage in clear procedures – also for the judging of abuse of office by bishops – which can establish a proper and public jurisprudence. A bishop who systematically fails to uphold celibacy, can not remain in office. How else can he proclaim the ‘Gospel of the family’?

In closing, Bishop Hendriks looks to the future, saying:

“We must expect that the topic of abuse will demand our attention for years to come. Country by country, abuse in the Catholic Church will have to be dealt with, and we haven’t gone through to all countries yet… I hope and pray that it may lead to something good, in any case to a greater awareness of the problem of sexual abuse an a more adequate means to preventing abuse, fighting and condemning it and supporting the victims.”

First Advent – Bishop van den Hout looks ahead to Christmas and beyond

Advent is nearly upon us, which means that bishops write letters for the season to their diocese’s faithful. Over the coming days and weeks, I will share a selection of these here, and the first one is from my own bishop. It is Msgr. Ron van den Hout’s first Advent letter as bishop, as he was consecrated and installed in June of this year. As a result, his letter is a sort of look back at the first months in his new diocese and forward to the time to come. Whereas Bishop van den Hout was initially hesitant to say much about any policies he may have, he now says a few things which reveal about his focus as bishop. As Advent is a time of preparation for what the bishop calls the threefold coming of Christ, it is a fitting time to look forward to the future.

Inwijding nieuwe bisschop Groningen-Leeuwarden“Today is the start of Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas. We celebrate that the Lord has come, but also that He is the one who is coming. We speak of a double, or even triple, coming. This thought is dear to me and nourishes my faith life.

The first coming of Christ is a historical one. The birth of Jesus took place in the history as we will hear it in the gospel of the Mass of the night of Christmas: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and in the Gospel of Christmas day: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” These texts belong to Christmas and are recognised by everyone. Even those who do not expressly believe in God often appreciate the Church and church buildings as an important historical and cultural heritage. Many are concerned about the future of our church buildings and others concern themselves with maintaining Christian values and the sharing of stories from the Bible and the meaning of Christian iconography.

The second coming of Christ is that which takes place in our own faith life now. The becoming present of Christ can be especially experienced in the liturgy, prayer and receiving the sacraments. In order to experience this coming, personal faith and personal engagement are required. It requires more than a general religious interest: submission and openness to God’s revelation through and with the Church.

I would connect the third coming of Christ with moral life and charity. At the end of times Christ will come in His full glory. The last part of the liturgical year, when we make the transition towards Christmas, presents us with the idea that all earthly things will one day cease existing and that God will be all in all. With this in mind we are asked to lead a good and just life in this time and to be prepared to join Him when He comes. Being prepared not only means expecting Him, but also to live accordingly.

The coming of Christ is about then, about now and about later Believing is about history and what once took place, it is my faithful and moral life now, and it is about what we may hope for and look forward to, the fullfilment.

Since my consecration as bishop of our Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden I have been through an intensive period of introductions. The first impressions I have made of a for me new area. The visits to the parishes were informative for me, but also relaxing. At home in the bishop’s house I have spoken one on one with various people, and I was introduced to the various parts of and in the diocese. The introduction will continue for a while longer.

If I may be allowed to give a first impression of what struck me. The different parts and areas are markedly different. The historical, cultural and social developments of Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe and the Noordoostpolder have been very diverse. That makes our diocese interesting. In a demographical context, the remark was made a few times that there are more than a few shrinkage areas. The diocese contains many small communities: none of the merged parishes have a nominal number of Catholics larger than 10,000. The communities are far apart. There are old Catholic enclaves with beautiful old churches, but there are also young parishes which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from an influx of Catholics from other parts of the Netherlands and even from Germany. This process of establishment continued into the 1960s. The number of pastoral ministers is, compared to other dioceses, relatively large, but absolutely speaking their number is small. The mutual relationships are generally good. There are also many and intensive contacts with other Christians.

The development of cooperation which began decades age has now resulted in a nineteen processes of merger. I think it is a good thing that a single clear model was chosen for the parishes and parochial charity institutions. During my visits there was some mention of the shrinkage that exists in our parishes. Everyone is well aware of that. We will not be able to turn this development around. The question is what we must do and where we should best invest our valuable energy. The cooperation between the different locations in a parish will increase in the coming years; I would like to encourage that process. Seek out each other’s strong points, dare to trust on the strength of the other and embark on new activities together.\

Formulating a new policy is not an issue in this first year. But I am able to indicate a few things. Development of one’s own Catholic identity is, I think, important. Clarity of one’s own mission is necessary in order to play a part in the relationship with other Christians and in society. From one’s own identity, one can enter into conversations and can a  conversation prove to be fruitful. Interior development of one’s own religion seems to me to be indispensable.

Beginning with the substantive interests for the faith we could ask ourselves a few questions which could play a guiding role in organising pastoral care:

  • What does it mean that I believe?
  • Why do I do that with others?
  • What do we need to do so together?
  • What should a pastoral team offer and organise, in cooperation with the parishioners?
  • How can a parish council facilitate this?

We never start anything from nothing and we can only build on what our ancestors provided as foundations. Yet the time has come to rethink parish life and to look at how to adjust to the new circumstances. The priests, deacons and pastoral workers can no longer provide the ‘service’ they used to. The parishioners are asked for more efficacy and more willingness to look for new ways themselves; all this of course within the normal and familiar framework of our Church and in unity with the diocese and the world church. Pastoral care will have to be organised more soberly. And we will have to make choices and bring together and concentrate activities.

Concerning liturgy and the sacraments I would like to one again draw attention to the celebration of the Sunday with the Eucharist. Within the given circumstances everyone will work towards that as far as possible. I would like to ask each of you to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for a climate in which vocations in general can be recognised and responded to. The Church needs priests. There are the close cooperators of the bishop and put their lives completely to the service of the Church, through their celibate state of life.

In the official visits to the parishes I experienced much positivity and willingness to work for people. I admire the energy that I have seen and the enthousiasm for the work. I have also seen, in a number of parishes, what charity work is being done. It is once again time for us as Church to take up our role in society, to be there for the poor, the needy, migrants et cetera. The examples that I have seen have strengthened me in the conviction that it is possible. We also become more Church when we show our charitable face.

As Church we have a social position that we must try to maintain. We carry a culture with us that has defined Europe, which was and is good. We also have moral convictions – for example about life and death – which must continue to be heard, especially in this time. Additionally, as Church we have a responsibility towards ourselves and our fellow faithful, that we are nourished and strengthened and become more convinced of the working of God’s Spirit in our lives.

May I end this letter with a prayer? As a parish priest prays for his parishioners, a bishop prays for the faithful of his diocese.

“God, the time of Advent begins and we prepare for the coming of Christ and the celebration of His birth, At the start of this powerful and expectant time I want to pray for the part of your people entrusted to me, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. That everyone, personally and with others, may take part in the Kingdom of God, that You bring near to us in your Son.”

I wish you all a good time of preparation or Christmas.

+ Dr. Cornelis F.M. van den Hout, Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Photo credit: ANP

Outreach – Bishop de Korte explains why his cathedral hosts a prayer service to open a gay pride event

Recently trickling into international Catholic media was the planned ecumenical prayer service at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist, planned expressly to open the annual Pink Saturday gay pride event. There has been much concern and criticism that a catholic church, a cathedral even, is used in a manifestitation that revolves around something that is so at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some feared that the service could be construed as a form of support of the extravagant lifestyle so often associated with pride manifestations.

Following the first meeting of his new presbyteral council, and upon that council’s request, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written the following letter to not only explain the reasoning behind holding the prayer service, but also to delve into the Catholic Church’s teachings surrounding homosexuality and the balance between doctrine and life.

It is a careful letter, but one that should be admired for the bishop’s sensitive treatment of the issue, and attitude that is often lacking in debates about this issue. The bishop acknowledges his own duties as shepherd and has stressed that the prayer service can not contain anything that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

In the end, the cathedral administrator and the bishop have made one of two choices. They could have kept far away from any acknowledgement of the pride events taking place in their city, or they could have taken the bold step towards some form of dialogue. They have chosen the latter. A prayer service is in the first place about meeting God, the bishop argues, and not supporting or protesting anything.

The location, St. John’s, is also striking since in 2010 it was the site of protests, supported by gay right activists and even some politicians, during Mass against the denial of Holy Communion to a practising homosexual.

bisschop-de-korte“Brothers and sisters,

On Thursday 1 June the new presbyeral council met for the first time. Among other things, we discussed the ecumenical prayer service which will be held at the start of Pink Saturday (24 June) in the cathedral. Some priests were concerned; others were glad about the breathing room provided. The planned ecumenical prayer service not only triggered discussion among priests, but also among other faithful. Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in our Church, leading to much emotion. The presbyteral council has asked me to clarify my own position in a letter. It will in the first place be about the prayer service in St. John’s, but also about the topic of Church and homosexuality in a broader sense.

Ecumenical prayer service

The ecumenical prayer service at the cathedral is the primary responsibility of the pastoral team, especially the cathedral administrator. I know that administrator Van Rossem carefully deliberated it. He obviously discussed the service with the church council, but also with me. The cathedral is, after all, the bishop’s church. I left the decision with the administrator, under the condition that nothing will be said during the prayer service that goes against Church teaching. The contents of the prayer service can not be allowed to hurt the religious feelings of our faithful.

The cathedral administrator ultimately made a positive decision. It is very important that the service is prepared by the administrator and three preachers from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. They trust each other and are aware of the concerns of a part of the faithful. I have full confidence that the service will be serene. Every worship service revolves around the worship of and encounter with God. Liturgy requires stillness and can never be used for protests or demonstrations. Those present at the prayer service will hopefully be encouraged and strengthened in their faith that God loves us unconditionally in Christ. The cathedral administrator and the preachers have asked me, as bishop, to conclude the service with a brief word and a blessing.

During Pink Saturday there will probably be things taking place in the city which are strongly disapproved of by Catholics and other Christians, including homosexual Christians. In that regard I recall the remark of one of our priests during the presbyteral council meeting on 1 June. During the days of carnival there are also things taking place which are hard to reconcile with Catholic ethics. That is, however, no reason to abandon carnival services.

Church and homosexuality

I have the need to not only discuss the planned ecumenical prayer service in this letter, but also the topic of Church and homosexuality. In the Roman Catholic view marriage, the life bond between man and woman, is the framework of an ordered experience of sexuality. The unconditional love and faithfulness of God as thus reflected in marriage. Other forms of sexuality are considered disordered. As a Roman Catholic bishop I am called to uphold this teaching.

This vision is, however, at odds with the dominant ideas about relationships and sexuality in modern Netherlands. A great part of our own Church people is influenced by modern secular culture. The result is a deep chasm between the word of the Church and the experience of many outside, but also inside our Church. One thing and another often leads to misunderstanding, anger and regret. As a bishop, however, I feel called to continue seeking out dialogue, no matter how difficult it often is.

Every bishop, but also every priest, is not only a teacher, but also a shepherd. He is aware of the tensions between teachings and life, also and especially in the area of sexuality. The Church’s ideal and stubborn reality regularly clash. It is pastoral wisdom to not use the teachings of the Church as a stick to strike with, but as a staff to lean on.

Traditionally the Church has known the saying: a lion in the pulpit, a lamb in the confessional. This implies that a wise shepherd tries to find an accessible way with every faithful. The Church’s norms are rarely achieved in concrete existence. In those cases we are not called to throw stones. When God starts counting sins, no one remains standing. But God is forgiveness and that nourishes us. We can and must appear before the face of the Lord with all the rough edges of a life lived.

Now what?

Faithful homosexuals, but also their parents and other family, often struggle with many questions. Which way to go? Is it possible to find a relationship of love and trust within the limits of Catholic morality? The Church asks homosexual people to live in abstinence. Such a life can only be lived healthily and happily when one experiences true friendship with other people and with God. This is also a duty for our parishes. Within the Catholic community, homosexuals should find kindness and friendship. Christians are called to honest charity. It is about the acceptance of every person as God’s creature.

The Church’s norms about experiencing sexuality are clear and the bar is set high, certainly according to dominant Dutch culture. Faithful are called to relate to the norms of the Church and form their conscience. Every faithful goes his or her way with God and conscience is the final and ultimate authority. A tension may possibly continue to exist between the truth of the Church and the conscience of every individual faithful. When parents find that one of their children is homosexual, they are called to surround that child with all care and love. The same is, I am convinced, true for the Church as mother.

United in Christ,

Msgr. dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

‘From Conflict to Community’ – Nordic bishops on the eve of Pope Francis’ ecumenical visit

The members of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference – covering the countries of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have written a pastoral letter looking ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Lund and Malmö, as well as the state and future of ecumenical relations with the Lutheran church in their countries. They rightly indicate that the anniversary of the Reformation, which will begin with the events in Lund that the Pope will attend, is no reason to celebrate for Catholics.

My translation of the document, which generally aligns itself closely with ‘From Conflict to Communion’, the 1999 document in which the Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the doctrine of justification. My translation follows:

7904248_orig“In 2017 we mark an event which has had great consequences for the Christian faith, in the first place in Europe. In the year 1517 Martin Luther initiated a process which became known in history as the Reformation and which, especially for our Lutheran fellow Christians represents an important moment in the development of their ecclesiastical tradition and identity. But since the Reformation would have been impossible without the Catholic basis, it is appropriate that we, as Catholic Christians, also think about it. That is already expressed in the document ‘From conflict to communion’, the result of dialogue in the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for the Unity of the Church. This tekst is directed towards a common commemoration, which is based on reflection rather than triumphalism.

Despite all explainable reasons, the Reformation caused a split in Christianity, which remains painful to this day. In the Nordic countries this split meant that the Catholic Church could only start again after many centuries. That is why the 500th anniversary of the event of the Reformation can not be observed as a celebration in the true sense. Rather it should be recalled in contrition. The process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation began many decades ago. But we can not tire of striving for the full unity in Christ.

At the start of the 16th century, the Catholic Church was in need of reform, something that not only Martin Luther, but also others acknowledged and expressed at that time. But instead of dealing with the necessary doctrinal questions, Christians of different confessions have instead done much harm to each other. At the closing of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Francis prayed for “mercy and forgiveness for the unevangelical behaviour of Catholics towards other Christians”. In Sweden several Lutheran ministers have responded to that and also asked us Catholics for forgiveness.

The important questions is now, how we can continue together to come closer together in faith, in hope and in love? We, the Catholic bishops in the north of Europe, want to go on this path of reconciliation with our Lutheran brothers and sisters and do everything to promote unity.

Ecclesia semper reformanda

The Church must always let herself be converted and renewed by Christ. We are indeed a holy people, but a people of sinners on pilgrimage to eternity. Conversion, contrition and maturing in the faith are important stations on this path. Through the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opened herself to many things that are also important to Lutheran Christians, for example the role of Holy Scripture and the meaning of the priesthood of all baptised. Thus, many difference have actually disappeared.

What still divides is, among other things, the sacramentality of the Church, as well as the understanding of the sacrament and the office. As Catholics we believe that the Church is the fundamental sacrament in which the incardinated word becomes present through the sacraments, in order to unite with us in love and transform us in Himself.

At the same time we see that many faithful Lutheran Christians become increasingly open to these aspects. A questions that remains pending and which is painfully felt on both sides is that of the common Eucharist. As much as this desired is justified, the unity of the Lord’s Table must also reflect the full unity in faith.

The Petrine office is also difficult to understand for many Lutheran Christians. But the personality of Pope Francis has made it more understandable. Pope Saint John Paul II already invited all non-Catholic Christians to think about other ways of  exercising the Petrine office (Ut Unum Sint, N.95).

Traditionally, the role of Mary and the saints has also been contentious. But among many non-Catholic Christians the meaning of Mary as the Mother of God and example in faith is being re-acknowledged.

Despite the mutual approach in question of doctrine, greater differences in questions of ethics and morality have recently appeared. But even when these make the dialogue in some respects more difficult, it should not be given up.

Definition of the Christian faith

In all ages Christians have formulated teachings to clearly define doctrine, distinguish them from false ideas or to convey them intelligebly. Often such formulations evolved into bones of contention, which for a long time created great frontlines between Christians. The principles of the reformers were similarly divided for many centuries. It is nevertheless fruitful, also for Catholics, to constructively engage with them.

Sola fide

The faith is undoubtedly necessary for justification. We share the central mysteries of the faith – for example, about the Trinity, about Jesus Christ, about salvation and justification – with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. We rejoice in this unity of faith which is based in baptism and expressed in the joint declaration about justification. That is why it is our mission to be witnesses of these truths of faith in our secular society. In our Nordic countries, where few practice their faith, it is important to proclaim the good news together and with one voice.

Sola Scriptura

Only through Holy Scripture can we receive the full revelation about the salvation which is offered to us in Christ. This revelation in received and shared in the Church. Through the teaching office of the Church this living tradition in Holy Scripture is codified. For us Catholics Church, teaching, tradition and Scripture belong together. In the Church and with the Church, Scripture is opened for us.  In this way the faith becomes ever more alive for us. Recently the number of Lutheran Christians who agree with  us believe that Scripture and the tradition of the Church are closely connected, has been on the rise.

Sola gratia

“Everything is mercy”, the saintly Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux, who can be considered as the Catholic answer to Martin Luther, says. Without God’s mercy we can do nothing good. Without His mercy we can not come to eternal life. Only through God’s mercy can we be justified and holy. Mercy can truly transform us, but we must also respond to this mercy and work alongside it. In the Mother of God, Mary, full of mercy and immaculate, we see how much can God can do in a person.

For many Lutheran Christians it is still difficult to agree with this truth. But we also see that many of them are open to similar questions about growth in prater and in holiness.

Simul iustus et peccator

We are all at the same time justified and sinners. As Catholics we believe that we are really sinners; but through the mercy of God we can receive forgiveness of all guilt in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As baptised Christians we are called to holiness. The Church is a school of holiness. The saints, who we can ask to intercede for us, are shining examples and role models of this holiness. One of these role models is a woman from our countries, Saint Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was recently canonised. She is an incentive to all of us to go the way of holiness more consciously.

We see that many Lutherans are also open to the saints, such as, for example, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our secularised world we need such witnesses of faith. They are living and credible witnesses of our faith.

Martyrium

We know that also in our time many Christians are persecuted for their faith and that there are also many blood witnesses. Martyrdom unites Christians from various churches. We think of all Christians, also in the Middle East, who are persecuted and yet remain true to Christ and His Church. Their example also strengthens us in our faith. Many Christians from these countries have also come to us in the north. it is therefore important that we, all Christians in our countries, maintain, protect and deepen what we share in faith. Then we can also increasingly give and common witness of the risen Lord.

Future perspectives

The joint declaration ‘From conflict to communion’ closes with five ecumenical imperatives, suggested to us Catholics and Lutherans to take further steps on the common way to unity. They are:

  1. Beginning from a perspective of unity and not of division, and promoting what we have in common.
  2. At the same time allowing oneself to be transformed by the witness of the other.
  3. Committing oneself to the search for visible unity.
  4. Rediscovering jointly the power of the Gospel of Christ for our time.
  5. Witness together of the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Also when these five imperatives speak of great and not always simple concerns, their message is clear, but only when we devote outself completely to Christ and together rediscover the power of the Gospel (cf. 4th imperative).

We are happy and thank God that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will be coming to Lund on the occasion of the commemoration of the Reformation, to strengthen us in faith.

We therefore invite all Catholics to accompany the preparations for the papal visit with their prayer and to participate in as great a number as possible in both the ecumenical meeting in Malmö Arena and the Mass in Swedbank Stadion. In that way we will show both the joy, as Catholics, of being with Pope Francis, and also respect for the identity of our Lutheran fellow Christians, grown from the Reformation. Despite the still existing differences we are convinced, confident in the mercy of God, that ways towards common unity can be found.

On the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016

+ Czeslaw Kozon, Bishop of Copenhagen

+ Anders Arborelius OCD, Bishop of Stockholm

+ Bernt Eidsvig Can. Reg, Bishop of Oslo, Administrator of Trondheim

+ David Tencer OFM Cap, Bishop of Reykjavik

+ Teemu Sippo SCJ, Bishop of Helsinki

+ Berislav Grgic, Bishop-Prelate of Tromsø

+ Gerhard Schwenzer SS.CC., Bishop emeritus of Oslo”

csm_vollversammlung_01_37cd1858a6^Bishops Grgic, Sippo, Eidsvig, Kozon, Arborelius and Tencer, with Sr Anna Mirijam Karschner CPS, the general secretary of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference.