European bishops reflect on the United States

Two European bishops have spent their summer holidays visiting the United States, and both have shared some of their thoughts and experiences on social media. And both have perhaps unavoidably, noticed the differences between their countries and the behemoth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Mgr. dr. G.J.N. de KorteBishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch travelled New England, including New York and Washington DC, with his sister, and wrote an article for Nederlands Dagblad. Noting the immense economic, military and cultural influence of the United States on the rest of the world, as well as the kind and informal attitude of its inhabitants, Bishop de Korte devotes most of his article to the political stalemate of two parties, virtually equal in size, who are increasingly unwilling to cooperate, and the media’s eagerness to contribute to this increasing polarisation, which the bishops calls “extreme”.

A similar gap exists in society, the bishop writes. Whereas most European countries have established extensive social welfare systems to help those people who can’t make ends meet, in the United States this falls mostly to private organisations and citizens, including the churches. While this expression of Christianity is far more developed than it is in Europe, it is no structural solution to solve the injustices underlying the enormous differences between rich and poor.

Bishop de Korte concludes his article with the hope that the churches can build bridges and add unity and nuance to the political and social debates. “What American society needs now are reasonable and moderate leaders in church and society”.

Another European prelate visiting the United States is the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. He shared his experiences via his Twitter account, in both German and English. Sharing encounters with religious communites (the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Sisters of Life and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal), parish  visits and meetings with brother bishops Cardinal Dolan of New York, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Wilton of Washington, as well as a harbour tour in Boston and visits to the 9/11 monument in New York and the White House, and a hamburger meal with Catholic youth in Washington, Cardinal Woelki’s account is mostly positive and hopeful. About his meeting with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, he writes:

“So many Catholic changes in America: the Franciscans of the Renewal care for the homeless in the Bronx and live from what is given to them. Their communties are small, but growing! I wonder what we can learn from them.”

And there was time to throw some hoops…

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Looking in from the outside, it is often easy to find fault with a person or, in this case, a country. And while it is clear there are problems and worrisome developments under the current American presidency, the positive things should not be forgotten. While we may be conviced that America can learn from Europe, the reverse is also true.

The Catholic involvement in American society is both inspired and down-to-earth. I see this also in those American priests and bishops I follow on social media; to be effective and make an impact in society, however great or small, it is necessary to get dirty hands, to be involved in a way that people can relate to. Sadly, this is something I don’t see often enough in the Netherlands (although it does happen). Sure, a priest and bishop has important duties and is a rolemodel and example. But he is also a person and must relate to other people. Share those personal passions and interests, show that you’re into sports, movies, music, cooking, gardening, whatever, joke around a bit… Be a man of God among men (and women). A cardinal playing basketball (or wondering why there is no thirteenth floor in his hotel, as Cardinal Woelki also did, leading to the question why faith evaporates while superstition persist): I’m all for it.

Photo credit: [1] RKKerk.nl, [2]  Cardinal Woelki’s social media team on Twitter.

Popes opposed? Some thoughts about the negative reactions to Benedict XVI’s essay

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay on what he perceives to be the causes for the sexual abuse crisis in the Church (and beyond) is causing much discussion on social media, which can be divided in two debates: the first on the content, and the second on the author.

I want to share some thoughts on that second debate. There are those who believe that a pope emeritus should never be heard from. And should he be heard from, that means he is undermining the policies and pastoral activity of the current pope. That is an untenable position in the case of Benedict XVI’s essay, as he is not proposing any policies or criticising anything that Pope Francis has said or done. Benedict writes that he informed both Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin about the essay before publishing it in a minor periodical for Bavarian clergy. All involved, however, must have known that the essay, coming from the retired pope, would not remained limited to the audience of that publication for long. It is a safe assumption, therefore, that both the pope emeritus and the current pope are at peace with the essay being read across the world.

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To claim that this text is an attack or criticism on Pope Francis is symptomatic of the politicising happening in the Catholic Church. Everything, it seems, has to be seen as either right- or left-wing, with the pope emeritus being taken as a spokesman for the right and Pope Francis as one for the left, This is not only a simplification, but also seriously harmful. If we take successive popes as being automatically contrary to each other, the conclaves and the papacies of each vicar of Christ become nothing but political spectacles. The papacy has its political elements, sure, but it is in the first place a pastoral ministry, if at a global scale. And that ministry has its continuity, although the person exercising it periodically changes. What Pope Benedict XVI said and did is not by definition contrary to what Pope Francis says or does, even if both men, having different personalities, focus on different elements and express themselves differently. The continuity remains, and that is why it is also entirely irresponsible to see what one pope says and does in isolation from what his predecessors did and said (and from the deposit of the faith in which they stand and act). If that happens, you get radically different (mis)interpretations, the likes of which we have seen on an increasing scale in recent years.

The knee-jerk reactions I see in the wake of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay reveal that there is a strong tendency among many to place him in automatic opposition to Pope Francis, and whatever they see the latter standing for. This is not only unjust, but also dishonest.

Photo credit: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

Laudato si’ up north – bishop calls for end to gas extraction

The goals expressed by Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato si’ are inspiring the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden to support an open letter to the Dutch government to stop the extraction of gas around the northern Dutch coast and islands. That coast and most of the islands fall under the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Other supporters of the letter include companies, social organisations, local government and the governments of the provinces of Groningen, Drenthe and Fryslân.

bisschop-ron-van-den-hout_F8A9148-479x600Bishop Ron van den Hout:

“Climate change, the emission of fossil fuels and the exhaustion of the earth reveal the limits of what the planet can handle. We are responsible for the effects on our way of life and economical choices. That is also true for the Wadden Sea and the northern Dutch coastline.”

In the province of Groningen the consequences of gas extraction on land have become painfully clear in recent years, with earthquakes damaging houses and infrastructures. Bishop van den Hout:

“The north has  a lot of experience with gas extraction and its harmful consequences for people and their joy of living. In northern Groningen those problems are still a long way from being resolved. The north deserves serious care and attention from national politics.”

The Wadden Sea and the islands therein are a World Heritage Site, a Biosphere Reserve and, in the Netherlands, a natural monument. It is an important feeding ground for migrating birds and houses significant populations of seals, fish and shellfish. There are major gas deposits underneath it, as well as under the adjacent land areas, which are in part extracted and supported to a major extent the Dutch growth in welfare in the 20th century. In recent decades the emphasis has shifted to conservation and alternative sources of energy, with wind energy being the chief example.

Like Pope Francis, Bishop van den Hout emphases that, “Ecological and economical questions must be seen, more than ever, in relation to human behaviour and our unlimited desire for wealth.”

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Caught between two fires – The trials of Cardinal Marx

marx-XHe is probably the most powerful and most criticised European cardinal at the moment. As president of the German Bishops’ Conference, member of the Council of Cardinals assisting Pope Francis in his reforms of the Curia, head of one of the largest archdioceses in Europe, and former vice-president and president of COMECE (the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community), 65-year-old Cardinal Reinhard Marx is no stranger to media attention, headlines and the accompanying support and criticism that comes with it.

He is also, like all public figures, the target of plenty of calls for action, suggestions of which direction he should take the Church (or his part of it) in by leading by example and changing what he can (even if that power is sometimes exaggerated by those who address him). At this moment, the cardinal’s theoretical desk is occupied by two such calls: one, an appeal from eight theologians urging him to make all those old liberal chestnuts a reality: abolish mandatory celibacy, allowing women to become priests, a change in how the Church relates to homosexuality and a limit to her power. Another appeal, issued several weeks ago, comes from a group of priests from the Archdiocese of Paderborn (where Cardinal Marx was an auxiliary bishop from 1996 to 2001) takes a completely different direction: it, rather harshly, calls for the cardinal to return to the faith of the Catholic Church and the sacraments, which, they claim, he has been abusing for his own personal and political neo-Marxist ends.

So, if the theologians and the Paderborn priests are to be understood, here we have a cardinal who is a neo-Marxist using the sacraments and the faith as social and political tools, and at the same time upholding the traditions and teachings of that same Church… I guess he can’t win, really. Of course, it is somewhat misleading to equate these appeals too much. The first is a consequence of the abuse crisis in which the Church in Germany is equally embroiled, and which it is currently addressing, following a report detailing what took place in the past decades. The second was triggered by Cardinal Marx’s social activity, which is inspired by his faith and duties in the Catholic Church, and which have led to him being considered a leftist, even Marxist, activist too much influenced by the spirit of the times. That said, this accusation comes from people who, too often, automatically mistrust that spirit.

Like Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx seems more concerned with the practicalities of daily life and how the Church should respond and act in the situation of tragedy and triumph of everyday life. The teachings of the Church, her sacraments, her doctrine, seem to disappear from the spotlight sometimes, but it would be an untruth to claim they are therefore absent.

Newspaper dubia? Proper papal interview raises questions

exclusive-stop-exploiting-africa-share-resources-pope-tells-europe-2018-6Pope Francis has again given an interview on the current affairs in his pontificate. It is good to see he chose a proper journalist this time: Reuters’ Philip Pullella. The interview is available here, and will be added to over the course of today, as the final line says. The Holy Father covers various issues, the most noteworthy of which is his support for the American bishops’ condemnation of the zero-tolerance policies of the Trump administration towards immigrants. The pope also discusses Vatican relations with China, the abuse crisis in Chile, the curia reforms and speculations about a possible early retirement (“Right now, I am not even thinking about it”, he said).

Among the topics addressed is the criticism against him from within the Church. The pope make a rather puzzling comment about the questions from Cardinal Burke and Brandmüller, together with the late Cardinals Caffarra and Meisner, the so-called dubia, which they formulated in 2016. Pope Francis claims he learned about these from the newspaper and calls it “a way of doing things that is, let’s say, not ecclesial”. These comments do not agree with what the four cardinals said and did.

The letter detailing the dubia is dated to 19 September 2016, and it wasn’t made public until November of that year. The publication was made because of a lack of an official response to what was initially a private correspondence, as dubia are supposed to be. This means that Pope Francis should have learned about them from that letter, and not from some newspaper. It is hard to figure out what this means. Maybe someone in the Vatican’s higher circles prevented the pope from seeing the dubia? Perhaps Pope Francis honestly failed to recall the exact details (something which is perhaps understandable considering the fact that he undoubtedly does learn much of the criticism against him from the newspaper)?

Agree or disagree with Cardinal Raymond Burke, one thing is certain: he is a by-the-book prelate with a profound knowledge of the rules and regulations regarding the dubia. And so are or were the other three cardinals involved. There is no conceivable way that they did things differently from what they claim.

UPDATE 22-6:

The two surviving dubia cardinals have also spoken up about the apparent papal slip-up over the past two days. Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, asked about the issue by OnePeterFive, commented: “The Dubia were first published after – I think it was two months – after the Pope  did not even confirm their reception. It is very clear that we wrote directly to the Pope and at the same time to the Congregation for the Faith. What should be left that is unclear here?”

Cardinal Raymond Burke offers some more details about how the cardinals went about presenting their dubia to the Pope: “The late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra personally delivered the letter containing the dubia to the Papal Residence, and at the same time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on September 19, 2016,” and “During the entire time since the presentation of the dubia, there has never been a question about the fact that they were presented to the Holy Father, according to the practice of the Church and with full respect for his office.”

Cardinal Burke, however, also allows for the pope having misunderstood the question. This is confirmed by Edward Pentin here, and adds that Philip Pullella informed the National Catholic Register that while Pope Francis was indeed responding to a question about the dubia, and not some other initiative, more details from the interview will be published soon.

Photo credit: Thomson Reuters

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).

 

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