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.

20161119T1450-1109-CNS-POPE-CONSISTORY-CARDINALS (1000x667)

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

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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.”

Source

 

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

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