Cardinal concerns – 13 cardinals write to the Pope

Note: This story is developing as many questions have arisen about the contents of the letter and the names of the cardinals who signed it. Treat it with much care.

First there was the 5 Cardinals Book and the 11 Cardinals Book, and now we have the 13 Cardinals Letter. Via Sandro Magister comes a letter that 13 cardinals sent to Pope Francis on the eve of the Synod, on 5 October. In it, they express their concerns and questions about the revised processes of the Synod.


The cardinals, among them Cardinal Eijk, claim that the Instrumentum laboris is flawed in parts and has an excessive influence on the discussions and the final document (if there is even going to be one). The fact that debate is limited to the small language groups and that there is no voting on propositions or the composition of the drafting committee of the reworked Instrumentum are also points of concern. The cardinals also say that anyone tasked with drafting anything should be elected, not appointed. The new procedures, they say, are not true to the spirit of the Synod and their reason for having been made remains unclear.

Their concern that the deliberations of the Synod on a pastoral topic will become dominated by the theological/doctrinal question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried has in part proven to be unwarranted. Many Synod fathers, not least from the west, have insisted that the Synod is about much more than that question. But as this issue continues to make headlines and dominate the reports and opinion pieces, the letter’s final paragraph remains interesting to read:

“If [the question of Communion for divorced and remarried faithful dominates the deliberations], this will inevitably raise even more fundamental issues about how the Church, going forward, should interpret and apply the Word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture.  The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.”

The letter has been signed by the following cardinals:

  • Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna
  • Thomas Cardinal Collins, archbishop of Toronto
  • Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York
  • Wim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht
  • Péter Cardinal Erdö, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and relator general of the Synod
  • Gerhard Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Wilfrid Cardinal Napier, archbishop of Durban and one of the presidents delegate of the Synod
  • George Cardinal Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy
  • Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, Major Penitentiary
  • Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
  • Angelo Cardinal Scola, archbishop of Milan
  • Jorge Cardinal Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas
  • André Cardinal Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris and one of the presidents delegate of the Synod

Some have chosen to see this letter as an act of opposition to Pope Francis by overly orthodox prelate who don’t much like the Pope anyway, which, in my opinion is overly simplistic. While a number of the thirteen also contributed to the aforementioned 5 an 11 Cardinals Books and are know to be more conservative in theological and doctrinal matters, others (such as Cardinals Dolan, Collins and Vingt-Trois) are at least less vocally so. Their presence on the list of authors may reflect the more universal nature of the concerns.

These concerns over the Instrumentum laboris are hardly limited to these 13, judging by the commentary by, to name but one, Archbishop Mark Coleridge in his delightful blog posts from the Synod. Another prelate, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, hardly a mean old orthodox reactionary, has also said that the Instrumentum is flawed, but that its purpose is to be sacrificed.

The Synod is a venue of discussion, and that is exactly what we’re getting. Not only about the topic at hand, but also about the best ways of running these affairs. This is all the more prudent as rumours have begun to circulate that the Synod of Bishops will become an even more permanent and regular fixture of Church governance.

Edit: four of the alleged signatories of the letter, Cardinals Angelo Scola, André Vingt-Trois, Mauro Piacenza and Wilfrid Napier have now denied signing this letter. It remains to be seen what this means for the reliability of the letter and other cardinals on the list.

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.

Stats for May 2012

7,252 views last month show that April’s peak was indeed a fluke, if a welcome one. May was also a slower news month, at that. But there were still some well-read blog posts with a nice variety of topics. Here’s the top 10:

1: Letter to the German Bishops’ Conference 612
2: Why am I Catholic? 136
3: After 66 years, a new bishop 87
4: Het Probleem Medjugorje 77
5: Cardinal confusion – Woelki comes around? 62
6: Affirmative orthodoxy – faithful with a smile 61
7: Strong words for clarification 55
8: Adoro te devote, two versions and a translation 54
9: Why am I Catholic? – a new tab at the top 51
10: A new definition of offensive in Britain 45

I much enjoy blogging and am continuously encouraged to  keep on writing, but sadly the bills don’t pay themselves. Certainly not as I am currently without a job. A voluntary donation is ever welcome via the Paypal donation below or in the sidebar. Financial supporters will be remembered in my prayers.

Strong words for clarification

Some strong statements from German bishops these past few days. First Bishop Heiner Koch, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Cologne, reminds us that there are topics that need not be discussed ad infinitum, since they have already been decided upon by the Magisterium. Repeating arguments against, for example, celibacy is nothing but frustrating and ineffective. The bishop states that it is more useful to recognise the boundaries that have been set and avoid fake discussions.

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, of Essen, later criticised ongoing discussions about female deacons. “The Church has no authority to allow women into the priesthood,” he said. “In this context we should certainly understand the diaconate for women as well.”

Bishop Gerhard Müller (pictured) of Regensburg – a seemingly likely candidate to succeed Cardinal Levada as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – today accused the ‘We are Church’ movements of leading a parasitic existence. The Church must not conform itself to society, but to the Gospel, he said. Applause and decibels can not be used to exert pressure.

These topics – celibacy, the ordination of women, democracy in the Church – are almost standard among opponents of the Church, but few realise that the Church has long since spoken out about these topics. By ignoring these past statements, those who speak about these issues are, wilfully or not, ignorant and guilty of misleading those who hear them. Statements like those by the three German bishops above serve to offer clarification about issues that keep rearing their heads.

Photo credit: Lennart Preiss/dapd

Pilgrimage time again

As Brother Hugo rather passionately suggested on his Twitter, May is a good time to find your nearest shrine and go on a pilgrimage. Now he happens to take care of a shrine himself, the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, and that is where I will be pilgrimaging to tomorrw. Well, me and several dozen others, for two kilometers, following Mass in the parish church of nearby Wehe-den Hoorn. The photo above is an impression from last year’s pilgrimage and as you can tell, there is a lovely traditional element to it in the banners, crosses and, since last year, a shrine with relics of St. Gerlac. In the fairly short space of a few years, this annual pilgrimage has developed into a fixture of the tiny village and surrounding countryside, and an oasis of, there we go again, affirmative orthodoxy. It is all thoroughly Catholic, but with a veneer of northern groundedness and humour – an essentially Catholic attitude to life, although people in these parts are usually not in for such exuberance. But if it’s there, it’s there: no use in denying nothing happens.

Affirmative orthodoxy – faithful with a smile

“Somehow we have to recapture the notion that the Church isn’t primarily about running institutions or winning political debates. It’s about reaching deep inside the human heart and stirring what’s best in it, and then boldly going out into the world and insisting that the better angels of our nature can prevail, that cynicism and ego don’t have to be the last word about the kind of culture we pass on to our children, and that the Church is an ally in every positive stirring and hopeful current in that culture. That’s a vision worth devoting one’s life to, and if that’s not affirmative orthodoxy, what is?”

Timothy Cardinal Dolan,
from A People of Hope: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Conversation With John L. Allen Jr.

It’s strange and sad that we find it so hard to be faithful Catholics – faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church – without descending into arguments and disagreements. Apparently, it is often easier to pillory a person that we disagree with, be there a good reason or not, instead of communicating our disagreements in accordance with the joy that our faith calls for. But that’s also understandable: it is, after all, something very personal. Faith is, by definition. If someone then says or writes something that we think is in error, we feel the natural urge to correct them.

But what would be the Catholic approach to this correcting and the debate that will follow? I think the answer to that question is ‘affirmative orthodoxy’. True to Our Lord and the Church, but in a positive way. John L. Allen Jr., in a 2009 column, defines it as follows: “No compromise on essential points of doctrine and discipline, but the most positive, upbeat presentation possible.”

Our message is a very joyful one. How can we not present it with a smile? When we engage other people, we do so out of love: Christ teaches us to work towards what’s best for others. His salvation is the best thing that has ever, and could ever happen to us. While our presentation should not be of the “I’m okay, you’re okay” kind, it should reflect the content of what we try to communicate.

Faith in God also entails faith in the people He created, and that faith should not be crushed underneath relentless attacks, insinuations and arguments, but should flourish as we are open, honest and loving. Does that mean we can’t disagree? Of course it doesn’t. Errors are there to be corrected, and we have a framework by which to determine what is error and what is not: the teachings that the Church communicates.

In the Gospel of Matthew we find what to do if someone does something wrong:

“If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: whatever the misdemeanour, the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain the charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a gentile or a tax collector” [Matt. 18:15-17].

Our first recourse should never be to publicly pillory a person for the mistake he made. Instead, we must discuss it one-on-one with that person, and if need be with one or two others. Only then does the community of faithful come into view. This is the honest approach, and it fits in well with affirmative orthodoxy, for some errors  are serious indeed, and should be treated as such, but they are never reason to disavow the person making them. Even gentiles and tax collectors are able to mend their ways. We are all evidence of that.

And, lastly, let’s not forget that we are equally prone to mistakes. What we consider I mistake may not turn out to be one upon closer consideration, just as our own understanding of what is correct must also be properly considered and understood.

Full circle – Cardinal Simonis on the Council

On the Italian Zenit today, an interview with Ad Cardinal Simonis, emeritus Archbishop of Utrecht, on the post-conciliar period in the Netherlands. The title, In Olanda c’è stata una sbagliata interpretazione del Concilio (‘In Holland there was a wrong interpretation of the Council’) leaves little doubt about the gist of the interview.

Once the voice of orthodoxy at the pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout, the cardinal now looks back and summarises what went wrong:

“Yes, it’s true: there has been a wrong interpretation of the Council. Not reading the documents, but merely arguing, based on the so-called “spirit of the Council”, that is: anything goes, everything can change.”

Cardinal Simonis, who studied in Rome during the years of the Second Vatican Council, offers a misleadingly simple solution: “Catechesis, catechesis, catechesis,” especially for the youth. That is a sentiment that the bishops today share, but which has yet to reach anything approaching its full potential.

It is a bleak but accurate picture the cardinal paints: the Dutch, Catholics included, generally do not know the concept of sin, hence the virtual disappearance of the sacrament of Confession over the course of the recent decades. The cardinal’s message to Dutch seminarians is an urgent one:

“I tell them that they should first learn to think and reflect. And then to pray, pray, pray. Prayer is important, and it must be the foundation of human life, but in Holland we do not pray because we do not believe in a personal God but only in a vague entity.”

The cardinal concludes the interview with a reflection on his 27 years as cardinal, in which he tried to maintain “the spirit of service to the Church and the Lord”.

“I tried to live in this spirit as a cardinal for 27 years. Now I’m an old cardinal, I turned 80 and I can not elect the Pope, but I can still be elected! (Bursts into laughter) But do not worry, that will not happen!”

I think the cardinal is pretty realistic, but that does not mean there are no signs of hope. There are, but these must be cared for and cultivated. A first step towards that is indicated by the following quote from the interview:

“The truth is that in the Netherlands we need a total conversion.”