Hidden dangers – Bishops of Belgium on decriminalising abortion

logo bc_0As Belgian politics are once more on the verge of discussing the topic of abortion and whether or not it should be decriminalised, the bishops of Belgium warn against the risks of doing so. Their concerns are not unrealistic, as recent developments in other countries have shown. The slippery slope of further liberalisation, actively sought out or not, is real, When abortion comes to be seen as a right, the room to disagree, to conscientiously object, starts to disappear. The bishops write that there are only ever losers in these cases, especially when abortion is considered as a normal procedure.

“In our country, abortion has been legalised under certain circumstances for quite some time now. Several proposal have now been presented to the Belgian parliament to completely depenalise abortion. Current practice will perhaps not change much because of it, but it is nonetheless a serious decision with a strong symbolic meaning. The opinions on the termination of pregnancy will fundamentally change. And the consequences are significant. Hence, we ask ourselves questions. These are questions which transcend ideological boundaries.

In a democracy the criminal code guarantees the protection of human dignity and the physical integrity of every person. Can this protection be disregarded when it is about human life developing before birth? The life that many people desire, which many protect and fight for, for which medicine makes the greatest progress, that precious life. Why should that life in its earliest beginnings not be protected as if it isn’t life yet?

Abortion will never become commonplace. Not even when it is removed from the criminal code. It will never become a normal ‘operation’. It will never happen gladly. There are only ever losers. Certainly, circumstances can make people desperate and hopeless. Exactly then man is so distraught en lonely. If the law would then only suggest that it is a normal operation, no justice is done to what those involved experience and go through. Why then look for advice or assistance? The requests themselves run the risk of not being taken seriously from the start. It will only increase the desperation and loneliness.

That is the danger we wish to point out: when abortion is removed from the criminal code, there is the risk that it becomes a normal medical intervention like any other. It is no longer an infraction in those cases provided for by the law. It becomes a right. Those questioning it or refusing abortion, will then have to justify themselves. And that is true for both the doctor and the woman involved. Even when the clause of freedom of conscience is maintained, it will be able to be invoked increasingly less. A medical intervention requires a medical decision, after all, and not so much a decision of conscience.

Our society increasingly struggles with everything that blocks our plans, with everything that disrupts our way of life. That goes for people who are old or sick, for people with physical disabilities, for the poor, strangers or refugees coming to us. It is also true for unborn life. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says that this is all connected: “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n. 120).”

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel and the bishops of Belgium

By acknowledging that abortion is never considered gladly, never becomes normal, and that those seeking it out are often desperate, seeing no other option, the bishops show the way in how to deal with such situations. Not by presenting abortion as just another medical operation, but by acknowledging the pain and loneliness felt by the people involved, and by finding new ways of alleviating that. Not by killing an innocent person, but by standing with the parent or parents (because too often the mother stands alone in these situations).

 

Advertisements

Tiptoeing towards understanding – Bishop co-hosts meeting between Church and LGBT community

Almost one year ago, an ecumenical prayer service in a Catholic cathedral to open a gay pride festival, and including a blessing by the bishop, was a bridge too far. This year, more exactly last night, the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch co-hosted the first of three dialogue meetings about faith and sexual diversity. Participating in the private meeting, characterised by an atmosphere of “security, openness and honesty”, were Bishop Gerard de Korte, cathedral administrator Fr. Geertjan van Rossem as well as representatives from the churches in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and from the political world.

Dialoogbijeenkomst rond geloof en seksuele diversiteit

The meeting was promised by the bishop as he announced last year’s plan to host the ecumenical prayer service on Pink Saturday at the cathedral of St. John. Those plans were later cancelled after significant protests, and the service was relocated to the Protestant Grote Kerk. Fr. Van Rossem did participate in it, but Bishop de Korte did not.

The focus of the meeting was to foster understanding. The participants spoke in groups of ten, and the bishops joined several of these groups. “What struck me in the conversations was the willingness to really listen respectfully to each other’s experiences. The participants were courteous, did not look for discussion, but spoke about what they had experienced themselves.”

Mr. Ivo van Harmelen, former Pink Saturday program manager and co-organiser of the dialogue meeting, said: “From the conversation the wish to remain in contact manifested itself especially. First show love, begin a dialogue and try to find each other in that way.” As such, the meeting had no ideological character. It was intended to listen, to create some form of connection and understanding, which can be the basis for further developments.

The interests of Christians and people who identify themselves in sexually different ways are often strained and usually diametrically opposed. The contacts between, if any, are often hostile and judgmental. But both also want to convince the other of their beliefs. Fighting and condemnation will not do that. If there is any hope of dialogue and understanding, there must be a foundation first. These meetings are an attempt to achieve that.

Two more meetings are planned for tonight and tomorrow evening, between faithful, pastors and representatives of various sexual diversity communities.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

End of an era, as the Great One goes

bischof-em-karl-kardinal-lehmannAlthough not unexpected following the prayer request for his health, issued last week by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, the death of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, early yesterday morning, is a sad conclusion to a long lifetime of service to the Church, one that coincided with and shaped the past decades of her life and development.

Cardinal Lehmann had been bedridden since suffering a stroke last September, weeks after consecrating his successor, the aforementioned Bishop Kohlgraf. After serving for 33 years at the helm of the Diocese of Mainz, it seems sad that his well-earned retirement was so short.

The life of Karl, der Grosse

Karl Lehmann was born in 1936 in Sigmaringen, the son of a teacher and his wife. After his school years, which partially overlapped with the Second World War, he went to study philosophy and theology in Freiburg and Rome. In 1963 he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome by Cardinal Julius Döpfner, then the archbishop of München und Freising. In the 1960s, Karl Lehmann earned two doctorates in philosophy and theology, but his most noteworthy work in that time was as assistant of Fr. Karl Rahner at the the universities of Munich and Münster, and also as the Second Vatican Council. At the age of 32, in 1968, he was appointed as professor in Mainz and three years later also in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Karl Lehmann became bishop of Mainz in 1983, vice-president of the German Bishops’ Conference in 1985 and president of the same body in 1987. He was re-elected as such three times and stepped down, for health reasons, in 2008. In 2011, he was named a cardinal with the title church of San Leone I. Cardinal Lehmann participated in the conclaves that elected Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. He submitted his resignation as bishop of Mainz to Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, but this was only accepted upon his 80th birthday by Pope Francis.

He held numerous other positions as a priest and bishop of Mainz as well. A short list:

  • 1969-1983: Member of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK)
  • 1971-1975: Member of the General Synod of German Dioceses
  • 1974-1984: Member of the International Theological Commission in Rome
  • 1986-1998: Member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • 1993-2001: First vice-president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE)
  • 1997-2011: Member of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See
  • 1998-2012: Member of the Congregation for Bishops
  • 2002-2011: Member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • 2008-2011: Member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications
  • 2008-2014: Member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches

In his lifetime, Cardinal Lehmann received eight honourary doctorates, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the honourary citizenship of the city of Mainz.

Over the course of yesterday the tributes to the late cardinal poured in, from bishops, priests, prelates of other churches, lay faithful and politicians alike. Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, who broke the news on social media, remembered Cardinal Lehmann as “a great personality, a great loveable human being.” Later on the day, after the Vespers of the dead had been prayed at Mainz cathedral, he commented: “I am grateful for the many meetings and conversations, his warmth and affection. He gave me a lot of courage for a difficult task.”

On Monday, Pope Francis sent a telegram to Bishop Kohlgraf:

“What sadness I received the news of the passing of Cardinal Karl Lehmann. I assure you and all the faithful of the Diocese of Mainz of my deepest sympathies and my prayer fort he deceased, whom God the Lord called to Him after serious illness and suffering. In his many years of work as theologian and bishop, as well as president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Lehmann has helped shape the life of Church and society. It was always his concern to be open to the questions and challenges of the time and to give answers and direction based on the message of Christ, to accompany people on their way, and to find unity across the boundaries of confessions, convictions and countries. May Jesus, the Good Shepherd, grant His faithful servant the completeness and fullness of life in His heavenly Kingdom. A gladly grant you and all who mourn Cardinal Lehmann, and remember him in prayer, the apostolic blessing.”

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, currently president of the German Bishops’ Conference, characterised Cardinal Lehmann as a “great theologian, bishop and friend of humanity.” He added, “The Church in Germany bows its head to a personality who has significantly shaped the Catholic Church worldwide.’ Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin shared Cardinal Marx’s comments: “I bow my head to a great bishop and theologian, who has always been an example to me.”

The passing of Cardinal Lehmann is something of an end to an era, as Bishop Felix Genn of Münster also acknowledges. “After the death of Joachim Cardinal Meisner last year, the death of Karl Cardinal Lehmann equally marks the end of an ecclesiastical era, which he significantly helped to shape.” Considering the cardinal’s personal history, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck saw him as “a walking and commenting lexicon of [the Second Vatican] Council.”

Cardinal Lehmann is also seen as a major player in ecumenism. Limburg’s Bishop Georg Bätzing said: “With him the Catholic Church in Germany loses a great bridge builder. The bridges that he has established are solid and can be strengthened further. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the chairman of the Evanglical Church in Germany, shares these thoughts, saying, “In the past decades he was a very important partner for the evangelical church and co-advocate for ecumenical cooperation.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel also reacted to the death of Cardinal Lehmann, saying, “I am greatly saddened by the death of Karl Cardinal Lehmann. Today, I think with gratitude of our good conversations and meetings over the course of many years. He has inspired me with his intellectual and theological strength and always also remained a person full of eartly vitality”. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier characterised the cardinals as “a man of clear words who, despite his thoughtfulness and conciliation, did not shy way from political controversy.” It was clear to people who met him, the president added, that the cardinal did not only rely on his own strength, but also on the grace of God.

Another important thread in Cardinal Lehmann’s life was Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, lauds the cardinal as a “true friend of Europe”. He showed us the way as a moral compass and reminded us of the values that make Europe special.”

The many faithful who visited Mainz cathedral to share their condolences unanimously remember “our Karl”, as he was affectinately known in his diocese, as “sympathetic”, “human, open […] and with his humour”, “a fine Christian”, “a man who acted what he preached”.

Cardinal Lehmann will be buried on Wednesday 21 March. The spiritual testament he has left behind will be read out on that day, Bishop Kohlgraf said yesterday.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Mainz

 

Luxembourg archbishop succeeds Cardinal Marx at the helm of COMECE

The COMECE, short-hand for the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, has elected their successor to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who presided over the 29-member organisation, which “monitors the political process of the European Union in all areas of interest to the Church”, since 2012.

The seventh president since COMECE’s establishment in 1980 is Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Jesuit archbishop of Luxembourg. Archbishop Hollerich’s mandate runs from 2018 to 2023. He has represented the Luxembourg Church in COMECE since 2011. His view on the role of COMECE in Europe is summarised in a statement he made during last month’s high-level meeting with the European Commission:  “Christians are not an interest group speaking in favor of religions, but European citizens committed to the construction of Europe, our common house”.

-hollerich1

^New COMECE preisdent Archbishop Hollerich with outgoing president, Cardinal Marx, in the background.

Together with the election of a new president, the rest of the highest leadership of COMECE was also renewed. Four new vice-presidents, one less than in the previous iteration, were elected: Bishop Noël Treanor (Down and Connor, Northern Ireland), Bishop Mariano Crociata (Latina-Terracina-Sezze-Priverno, Italy), Bishop Jan Vokál (Hradec Králové, Czech Republic) and Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen, Germany). -imageThe Dutch delegate to COMECE, Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom (at right), auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, was elected as president of the Commission on Legal Affairs. The new presidium was officialy launched at the Mass for Europe, celebrated in Brussels’ church of Notre Dame du Sablon.

Cardinal Marx hereby loses one of his multitude of offices. He still remains archbishop of München und Freising, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, member of the C9 group that assists Pope Francis in reforming the Curia, and the coordinator of the Council for the Economy, a part of the Curia in Rome.

COMECE strives to maintain close contacts with the institutions of the European Union, to monitor the political processes and developments and to communicate and inform both Church and politicians about their concerns and views, with a firm basis in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Photo credit: COMECE

The question of a decoration – pro-abortion politician inducted in the Order of St. Gregory

31763202376_be0cc71348_zLilianne Ploumen, member of the Dutch parliament and formerly Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, recently showed off a papal decoration she received, the insignia of commander in the order of St. Gregory the Great. This decoration is one of five papal orders of knighthood and is granted in recognition of “personal service to the Holy See and to the Roman Catholic Church, through [the recipient’s] unusual labors, their support of the Holy See, and their excellent examples set forth in their communities and their countries.”

This recognition is problematic in more than one way: Ms. Ploumen has been a staunch advocate of abortion, setting up the She Decides campaign to raise money after American President Trump discontinued the use of taxpayer’s money to finance abortions abroad. In 2010, she also urged people to disrupt Mass at St. John’s cathedral in Den Bosch, after an openly homosexual man was denied Communion. Ms. Ploumen’s public persona, at least, is one decidedly at odds with Catholic teaching and even openly hostile against parts of it.

It is hard to see exactly why she received this recognition, given in the name of the Holy Father, who, it must be said, is rather emphatically opposed to what Ms. Ploumen supports. However, there is a chance that the recognition was given for what she does in private life, in her parish or other organisation. In the past she also headed Catholic relief organisation Cordaid, which could possibly also play a part in this.

GregoriusordenIncreasing the surprise, even indignation, about this is the fact that neither the bishops’ conference nor the nuncio are aware of this decoration having been awarded. Normally, nominations are relayed to Rome via the bishops and apostolic nuncio, the the representative of the Holy See in a country.

Assuming that this is not a bit of fake news – and I see no reason to believe it is – there are two conclusions to draw from this: someone either seriously messed up, thus (un)wittingly making a mockery of the Catholic teachings about abortion (and also the Pope’s vocal opposition to it); or the entire process of awarding decorations is not to be taken too seriously. It is safe to assume that Pope Francis was not personally informed about the decorating, but someone in his staff was. What value do decorations have if they are automatically rubber-stamped, as could have conceivable happened here?

Whatever the case may, as the situation stands now many Catholics feel offended by the fact that a known supporter of abortion, and a person who has called for the disruption of the celebration of Mass to make a political point, has received this high papal decoration.

EDIT 1: The Archdiocese of Utrecht today issued an official reaction to this affair, which I share here:

“In response to many questions from both The Netherlands and abroad, Cardinal Eijk says that he was not involved in the application for the title Commander in the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, which former minister L. Ploumen received last year. Cardinal Eijk was also unaware of the fact that this papal award was requested for her.”

EDIT 2: In a commentary for Nederlands Dagblad, Vatican watcher Hendro Munsterman offers a possible explanation for Ploumen being awarded the title of commander in the Order of St. Gregory. In 2017, he explains, Ms. Ploumen was part of the delegation accompanying King Willem Alexander on the first official state visit of a Dutch head of state to the Holy See. On such occasions it is customary for visitors and hosts to exchange decorations, and ten members of the Dutch delegation received such from the Vatican, among them then-Minister Ploumen. However, many people will obviously be unaware of such diplomatic niceties, and Munsterman is right when he says that Ploumen should have prevented the journalist interviewing her from turning a simple matter of protocol into a statement. To Catholic Herald, Ms Ploumen said that she also assumed that she received the decoration for being a part of the Dutch delegation.

EDIT 3: Late last night, the Vatican released an official comment, stating:

“The honor of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great received by Mrs. Lilianne Ploumen, former Minister of Development, in June 2017 during the visit of the Dutch Royals to the Holy Father, responds to the diplomatic practice of the exchange of honors between delegations on the occasion of official visits by Heads of State or Government in the Vatican.

Therefore, it is not in the slightest a placet [an expression of assent] to the politics in favor of abortion and of birth control that Mrs Ploumen promotes.”

This should put to rest this current affair, although it leaves questions open about the wisdom of issuing automatic decorations to politicians and diplomats with no regard of their standpoints and actions.

Photo credit: [1] Lex Draijer

The state of the world at Christmas, according to Bishop Punt

In his regular ‘Word from the Bishop’ column, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam this time looks ahead to Christmas, and particularly the state of our world today. Are political grandstanding and military threats really an answer, he asks. While we live in a broken world, power is needed to keep opposing powers in check, but real change starts in the hearts of people, he argues.

20160110_punt_70“We are celebrating Christmas in a tense time. The Middle East is on fire. North Korea and American are threatening “fire and fury” upon each other. Almost all countries are rearming themselves. Each one, in their own opinion, to defend themselves against the others. That is how the First World War started. How do we break this spiral of fear, hate and violence?

The world leaders are betting on diplomacy, shows of force and alliances. Understandable. At the same time, everyone knows that that is not the ultimate solution. What we need is a New World Order, many politicians therefore claim. Especially a world government with complete power and authority to control international conflicts. What they forget is that leaders are also always people with exactly the same weaknesses. They, too, easily fall into self-interest, greed and lust for power. We see it everywhere around us. We have already seen in extreme way, in Hitler, Stalin and Mao, what the concentration of power leads to. On a worldwide level the consequences will be unimaginable.

Great thinkers from the past have long foreseen this and warned against it. Think of Dostoyevsky or George Orwell, or of Aldous Huyxley with his famous novel Brave New World (1932). Or also of Robert Benson, an English priest from the 1900s, with his novel Lord of the World (1907). Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have referred to it as a warning to us. Visionary, Benson describes a secularised world in which mankind, plagued by fear and chaos, calls for a strong leader. Then, an all-powerful dictator rises, a sort of Antichrist. He does indeed bring order with power and control, but ultimately robs mankind of all its dignity and freedom. A new world order is not the answer to chaos and war, but sooner or later a highway to the most complete dictatorship of all time. As long as we live in this broken world, powers must always be confronted by other powers.

But how should things be? I have said it before: the world will only change when man changes. Diplomacy, alliances and sometimes military interventions are necessary, but can only combat the symptoms of a wounded world and an inwardly wounded mankind, but it is not the cure. That should take place in the heart of man. And the Good News of Christmas is that this is possible. Man has a conscience and is able to change. He can became great and holy, a force for good for all mankind. Great and small people defeating evil, first in their own hearts, and then changing their surroundings and the world. Our time needs such people, not least in politics. Nothing in man’s being or in his history should be an obstacle to that, the Lord promises.

You will probably the beautiful song Amazing Grace. What you may not know is that it was written by the captain of a slave ship in the eighteenth century, John Newton. In a storm he was touched by the light of God, and saw the great evil of his life. He had the courage to confront it and ask for forgiveness. One moment of grace completely changed him. He began to strive for the abolishment of slavery, and later became a gifted preacher who drew full churches in England. Only the change of heart can offer the solution. The entire Bible is an encouragement to open yourself up to the touch of God’s Spirit.

But Scripture also teaches us that that touch is never open-ended and always presents us with a choice. When the Spirit comes in force, as it did for John Newton, his mild Light will let you feel the love of God, but also show you the dark places of your heart and your hidden sins. Not to discourage you, but to give you the chance to change what is not right, and to receive forgiveness. That is why Christ has come, Scripture tell us, to save us through the forgiveness of our sins. We can leave behind everything that we regret and confess honestly. When you believe in this Child, love incarnate, and bring everything that weighs you down and holds you back to Him, He will carry it with and for you, and give you strength to be a force for good for the world around you. And after this life He will receive you in His eternal Kingdom. Some will receive this gift of redemption in gratitude, like the shepherds and the magi, and kneel down to worship the Child. Others will be too prideful for that, like Herod, and hold on to their power, greed and lust, persecute the Child and banish God from their lives.

Christmas is the feast of the Light. The Light of God’s Love and truth that enlightens the hearts of people, and through them the world. May this Light be ours in these days. In that sense I wish you all a Blessed Christmas.”

 

A cordial first – Dutch king and queen on state visit to the Holy See

While previous visits of Dutch royals to the Pope (and, once, vice versa) were usually perfectly cordial, yesterday saw the first official state visit of the King and Queen to the Pope. Perhaps the time of Dutch political unease with full-blooded Catholicism is now finally completely behind us.

19388379_1567303419961252_5208717965966549068_o

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima spoke with Pope Francis for 35 minutes about, according to the Holy See press release,  “certain issues of shared interest, such as the protection of the environment and the fight against poverty, as well as […] the specific contribution of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in these fields.” Migration, peace and security were also discussed. The Holy Father also enquered after the couple’s three daughters. As a family, they had already visited him in April of last year.

Another topic, which may have been discussed in the subsequent meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was the ongoing kidnapping of Dutch television presenter Derk Bolt and his driver in Colombia. Foreign Secretary Bert Koenders, who also takes part in the state visit to Italy and the Holy See, has been in constant communication with his staff in The Hague and the Colombian government, and the local Catholic Church has also been involved in negotiations to free the two men from rebel movement ELN. Bolt was working to find the biological parents of a woman who was adopted by a Dutch couple, and was kidnapped earlier this week near the border with Venezuela.*

Back in Rome, meanwhile, the meeting between the Pope and the royal couple was noted for its cordiality. Like Pope Francis, Queen Máxima hails from Argentina and thus the three conversed in Spanish. It was noted how the conversation continued for a few more minutes at the doors of the audience chamber, after the official conclusion of the meeting. Pope Francis gifted the king and queen with a medal depicting Saint Martin of Tours and copies of Laudato si’, Evangelii gaudium and Amoris laetitia, and his 2017 Message for the World Day of Peace, while he received white and yellow tulips for the Vatican gardens.

Before their private audience with the Pope, the king and queen visited the Church of the Frisians near St. Peter’s Square. There, they were received by Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, rector of the Dutch national church in Rome.

Concluding the one-day state visit, the king and queen received a commander’s baton which is claimed to have belonged to William of Orange. Won by the Spanish in the Battle of Mookerheide in 1574, it now belongs to a Jesuit monastery in Spain. It is now on loan to the National Military Museum, where it will be displayed next year. Jesuit Superiro General, Fr. Arturo Sosa officially handed the baton to King Willem-Alexander in the Apostolic Library.

download (1)

Photo credit: ANP

  • Mr. Bolt and his driver were released on Friday the 23rd of June.