Disgraced second Bishop of Trondheim passes away

georg müllerAlmost a week ago, on Sunday 25 October, the second bishop of the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim, in Norway, passed away. Bishop Georg Müller was 64 and retired since 2009. He had lived in the community of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, also known as the Picpus Fathers, in Münster since 2012. He had entered that order in 1971 and was ordained for it in 1978, while studying at their college in Simpelveld, the Netherlands.

It was his own choice to serve the Church in Norway, where he arrived following the completion of his studies at the University of Münster in 1981. He was given immediate responsibility in 1983, when Bishop Gerhard Schwenzer was transferred to Oslo but stayed on as Apostolic Administrator of Trondheim until 1988. Fr. Muller became vicar general in 1984, cathedral administrator in 1986 and in 1988 he took over as Apostolic Administrator. In 1989 he was the host of Pope Saint John Paul II as the pontiff visited the Nordic countries. It took until 1997 for Msgr. Müller to be appointed as Bishop of Trondheim, an office he held until his retirement in 2009. Like most other Nordic dioceses, Trondheim experienced a period of growth at that time, mainly because of immigration, a trend that still continues. In his time as ordinary, Bishop Müller invited a number of religious orders to come to his prelature: Birgittine sisters in Trondheim, Cistercian sisters in Tautra, Missionary Servants of the Holy Trinity, a Filipine community, in Molde, and Cistercians monks from France in Munkeby.

Bishop Müller retired for unspecified reasons in 2009. A year later it became clear that he had resigned because of accusations of sexual abuse of a minor, about which Bishop Müller admitted his guilt when confronted about the matter by Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm. The victim, at the time of the bishop’s retirement a man in his 30s, received the compensation he wished from the Church, and Bishop Müller was removed from all official duties in the Church. Prosecution in a court of law was not possible because of the statute of limitations on the crime. The year-long silence after Bishop Müller’s retirement was per the wish of the victim.

Bishop Müller underwent  therapy in Germany, and subsequently lived in his order’s general government in Rome. He moved to Münster in 2012. He suffered from unspecified health issues until his death.

Bishop Müller led the Church in Norway in the place where it once begun. It was once the Archdiocese of Nidaros, before the Reformation struck and the Church in Norway did not return in the public eye until 1843 and the once great archdiocese was resurrected as the mission “sui juris” of Central Norway. Only shortly before Father Müller’s arrival in the country, in 1979, did Central Norway become the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim. Bishop Müller is, for now at least, the last bishop of Trondheim. Upon his retirement in 2009, the bishop of Oslo, Msgr. Bernt Eidsvig, became Apostolic Administrator, and remains so until this day.

The funeral Mass for Bishop Müller will be offered on 4 November at the parish church in Werne, south of Münster, where he will also be buried. Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen will be the celebrant.

The tension between doctrine and reality – Cardinal Marx’s intervention

Earlier today we had a short Synod intervention from Cardinal Danneels, and now one of the longest, from Cardinal Reinhard Marx. It’s also one of the most fearless, as the German cardinal talks about some of the topics that he has been criticised heavily for: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and graduality.

Like the intervention of Bishop Bode, Cardinal Marx’s text is based heavily on the life experiences of the faithful concerned. And while it is essential for the Church to meet people where they are, I do miss the essential aspect of our faith: that is a revelation faith. Its foundation is objective truth, and while the way we relate to that truth, communicate it and help people achieve it (acknowledged by Cardinal Marx as he discusses our call to holiness) can and should vary according to circumstances, that truth does and can not. In the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried faithful (a circumstance consequently referred to in this intervention as only possible when we are talking about civil divorce and marriage) this is something that we must keep in mind. It defines what we can do pastorally.

Anyway, the intervention. The original German text is here.

marxFifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council once again made the Gospel a source of inspiration for the life of individuals and society. The same is true for the “Gospel of the family” (Pope Francis). In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (GS) it developed a doctrine of marriage which was further developed by the Popes after the Council. Even when the Council did not the answer all the questions which concern us now, it did lay a theological foundation which helps us to answer our current questions.

The Council understands marriage as an “intimate partnership of married life and love” (GS, 48) and develops the doctrine of marriage in the context of a theology of love. The love between man and woman “is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage”. This love “pervades the whole of their lives: indeed by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater” (GS, 49). The Council emphasises that this love between man and woman requires the institutional and legal framework of marriage, to develop and keep it permanently in good and bad days. Not in the last place does the institution of marriage serve the wellbeing of children (cf. GS, 50).

With the help of this theology of love and also the theology of the covenant, which can only be insufficiently outlined here, the Council succeeded in making the sacramentality of marriage understandable again. Marital love becomes an image of the love of Christ for His Church and the place where the love of Christ becomes tangible. In order to also express this connection between the divine and the human verbally, the Council speaks of the covenant of marriage. Finally, the indissoluble fidelity is an efficacious sign of Christ’s love in this world.

In the end, the Council sees human sexuality as an expression of love and suggests a new direction in sexual ethics. “This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will” (GS, 49). To this richness belong without doubt also, but not only, the conception and education of children. For the Council fathers expressly emphasise that marriage without children also “persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility”(GS, 50).

It is this Synod of Bishops’ task to deepen and develop this theology of respectively love and the covenant, which the Council has established in basic features, but which is not yet completely reflected in canon law, with an eye on the current challenges in the pastoral care regarding marriage and family. I would like to focus on two challenges: marriage preparation and guidance, and the question of reasonably dealing with those faithful whose marriage has failed and those – not a few – who have divorced and are civilly remarried.

It is no coincidence that the Council speaks of growing in love. That is true for living together in marriage; but it is equally so for the time of preparation for marriage. Pastoral care should be developed which shows clearer than before the travelling aspect of being Christian, also in relation to marriage and family. We are all called to holiness (cf. Lumen gentium, 39), but the road towards holiness only ends on the Last Day, when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. This path is not always straight and does not always lead directly to the intended goal. In other words: the path of life of the spouses has times of intense feelings and times of disappointment, of successful joint projects and failed plans, times of closeness and times of alienation. Often the difficulties and crises, when they are overcome together, are the ones that strengthen and consolidate the marriage bond. The Church’s marriage preparation and guidance can not be determined by moralistic perfectionism. It should not be a program of “all or nothing”. What is more important is that we see the various life situations and experiences of people in a differentiated way. We should look less at what has not (yet) been achieved in life, or perhaps what has thoroughly failed, but more at what has already been achieved. People are usually not motivated by the raised finger to go forward on the road to holiness, but by the outstretched hand. We need pastoral care which values the experiences of people in loving relationships and which is able to awaken a spiritual longing. The sacrament of marriage should in the first place be proclaimed as a gift that enriches and strengthens marriage and family life, and less as an ideal that can not be attained by human achievement. As indispensable as lifelong loyalty is for the development of love, so the sacramentality of marriage should not be reduced to its indissolubility. It is a comprehensive relationship which unfolds.

The moment of receiving the sacrament of marriage is indeed the beginning of the way. The sacrament not only happens at the moment of marrying, in which both spouses express their mutual love and loyalty, but unfolds in the road they take together. Giving shape to common life in marriage is the responsibility of the spouses. The Church’s pastoral care can and should support the spouses, but must respect their responsibility. We should give more space to the consciences of the spouses in proclamation and pastoral care. Certainly, it is the Church’s duty to form the consciences of the faithful, but people’s judgement of conscience can not be replaced. That is especially true in situations in which the spouses must make a decision in a conflict of values, such as when the openness to conceiving children and the preservation of marriage and family life are in conflict with each other.

But appreciative and supportive pastoral care can also not prevent all marriages from failing, spouses from ending their covenant of life and love and separating. The new process of establishing the nullity of a marriage can also not cover all cases in the right way. Often the end of a marriage is neither the result of human immaturity, nor of a lack of willingness in marriage. Dealing with faithful whose marriages have failed and who, often enough, entered a new civil marriage after a civil divorce, remains therefore a pressing pastoral problem in many parts of the world. For many faithful – including those whose marriages are intact – it is a matter of credibility of the Church. I know this from many conversations and letters.

Thankfully, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI left it no doubt that civilly divorced and remarried faithful are also part of the Church, and repeatedly invited them to take an active part in the life of the Church. It is therefore our duty to develop welcoming pastoral care for these faithful and involve them ever more in the life of communities. To them the Church has to witness of the love of Christ, which applies in the first place to those who have failed in their intentions and efforts. For “it is not those who are in health that have need of the physician, it is those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). It is the mission of the Church to heal the wounds caused by the failing of a marriage and the separation of spouses, and show them that God is with them, also in these difficult times. Can we really heal without allowing the sacrament of Reconciliation?

With an eye on the civilly divorced and remarried faithful who take an active part in community life, many faithful ask why the Church refuses them, without exception, participation in sacramental Communion. Many in our communities can not understand how one can be in full community with the Church and at the same time excluded from the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The fact that civilly divorced and remarried faithful objectively live in adultery and as such are in contradiction to what is presented emblematically in the Eucharist, the faithfulness of Christ to His Church, is given as reason. But does this answer do justice to the situation of those concerned? And is it sacramental-theologically compelling? Can people who are considered to be in a situation of grave sin truly have the feeling of belonging completely to us?

In the German Bishops’ Conference we have also occupied ourselves intensively over the past years with the theology and pastoral ministry of marriage and family. We took the Holy Father’s assignment seriously, to think about the topic, discuss and deepen it, in the time between the Synods. The German Bishops’ Conference has organised a day of study about this, together with the Bishops’ Conferences of France and Switzerland, in May of 2015, the contributions of which have also been published. In the theological faculties too, the topics were taken up and debated in biblical-theological, exegetical, canonical and pastoral-theological perspectives. Additionally, there were conversations with theologians and publications. We have learned that the theological work about this must continue in the future.

About the topic of civilly divorced and remarried faithful the German bishops have themselves published in June of last year further considerations and question, which I would like to outline briefly.

Someone who, after the failure of a marriage has entered into a new civil marriage, from which often children were born, has a moral responsibility to the new partner and the children which he or she can not denounce without being burdened with new guilt. Even if a renewal of the previous relationship were possible – which it generally isn’t –  the person concerned finds himself in an objective moral dilemma from which there is no clear moral theological way out. The advise to refrain from sexual acts in the new relationship seems unreasonable to many. There is also the question if sexual acts can be judged in isolation from the context of life. Can we assess sexual acts in a second civil marriage as adultery without exception? Independent of an assessment of the particular situation?

In sacramental-theological regard two things should be considered. Can we, in all cases and with a clear conscience, exclude faithful who are civilly divorced and remarried from the sacrament of Reconciliation? Can we refuse them the reconciliation with God and the sacramental experience of the mercy of God even when they sincerely regret their guilt in the failure of marriage? Regarding the question of allowing sacramental Communion, it must be considered that the Eucharist not only makes present the covenant of Christ with His Church, but also always renews it and strengthens the faithful on their way to holiness. The two principles of admission to the Eucharist, namely the testimony of unity of the Church and the participation in the means of grace, can at times be at odds with one another. In the Declaration Unitatis redintegratio (N. 8), the Council says: “Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice”. Beyond ecumenism, this statement is also of fundamental pastoral importance. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium the Holy Father adds, with reference to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness” (N. 47).

Starting from the theological foundations established by the Second Vatican Council we should seriously consider the possibility – based on the individual case and not in a general way – of allowing civilly divorced and remarried faithful to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion, when common life in the canonically valid marriage has definitively failed and this marriage can not be nullified, the commitments of this marriage are settled, there is regret for the guilt of the end of this marital common life and there is the honest will to live the second civil marriage in faith and raise the children in the faith.

Germanicus 2 – the German language group digs into mercy and truth

The language groups have published their second summaries of their discussions about the second part of the Instrumentum laboris. The German group gets decidedly more theological in theirs, as they discuss the false opposition between mercy and truth, grace and justice, graduality, and the practical consequences of understanding sacramental marriage in a historical and biographical way.

In today’s press conference, Cardinal Vincent Nichols recommended the German contribution as the most theologically sound.

This is my translation of the German original that was, once again, composed by Archbishop Heiner Koch:

synod german circle“We have extensively discussed the concepts of mercy and truth, grace and justice, which are constantly treated as being in opposition to one another, and their theological relationships. In God they are certainly not in opposition: as God is love, justice and mercy come together in Him. The mercy of God is the fundamental truth of revelation, which is not opposed to other truths of revelation. It rather reveals to us the deepest reason, as it tells us why God empties Himself in His Son and why Jesus Christ remains present in His Church through His word and His sacraments. The mercy of God reveals to us in this way the reason and the entire purpose of the work of salvation. The justice of God is His mercy, with which He justifies us.

We have also discussed what the consequences of this are for our accompaniment of married couples and families. It excludes a one-sided deductive hermeneutic which subsumes concrete situations under a general principle. For Thomas Aquinas as well as the Council of Trent, the implimentation of basic principles of prudence and wisdom to the particular and often complicated situations, is pending. This is not about exceptions to which the word of God does not apply, but about the question of a fair and reasonable application of the words of Jesus – such as the words about ithe indissolubility of marriage – in prudence and wisdom. Thomas Aquinas explained the necessity of a concrete application, for example when he says, “To prudence belongs not only the consideration of reason, but also the application to action, which is the goal of practical reason (STh II-II-47, 3: “ad prudentiam pertinet non solum consideratio rationis, sed etiam applicatio ad opus, quae est finis practicae rationis“).

Another aspect of our discussion was in the first place the gradual introduction of people to the sacrament of marriage, beginning with non-binding relationships, via couples cohabitating or only civilly married couples to valid and sacramental marriage, as frequently mentioned in Chapter 3 of the second part, Accompanying these people pastorally in the various steps is a great pastoral task, but also a joy.

It also became clear to us that we are too static and not biographical-historical in many debates and observations. The Church’s  doctrine of marriage was developed and deepened in history. First it was about the humanisation of marriage, which condensed into the conviction of monogamy. In light of the Christian faith the personal dignity of the spouses was recognised more deeply and the divine likeness was perceived more deeply in the relationship of husband and wife. In a further step the ecclesiality of marriage was deepened and it was understood as a house church. Subsequently, the Church became more aware of the sacramentality of marriage. This historical path of deeper understanding is today also visible in the biography of many people. They are first touched by the human dimension of marriage, in the environment of the Church they become convinced of the Christian view on marriage and from there they find their way to the celebration of sacramental marriage. As the historical development of the Church’s teaching has taken time, so her pastoral care must also accord the people on their path to sacramental marriage a time of maturing and not act according to the principle of “all or nothing”. Here the thought of  a “growth process” (Familiaris Consortio, 9) can be developed further, as John Paul II already established in Familiaris Consortio: “The Church’s pastoral concern will not be limited only to the Christian families closest at hand; it will extend its horizons in harmony with the Heart of Christ, and will show itself to be even more lively for families in general and for those families in particular which are in difficult or irregular situations” (FC 65). Here the Church inevitably stands in the conflict between a necessary clarity in teaching about marriage and family on the one hand, and the specific pastoral task to accompany and convince those people whose lives only comform in part with the principles of the Church on the other. It is important to take steps with them on the road to the fullness of life in marriage and family, as the Gospel of the family promises.

Personally oriented pastoral care, which equally includes the normativity of doctrine and the personality of the person, keeps his ability to be conscientious in mind and strengthens his responsibility, is necessary in this regard. “For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

We ask to consider to more aspects for the final text:

Every impression should be avoided that Scripture is used only as a source of quotations for dogmatic, legal or ethical convictions. The law of the New Covenant is the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, N. 1965-1966). The written word must be integrated into the living Word that resides in the hearts of people through the Holy Spirit. This gives Scripture a broad spiritual power.

Lastly, we have struggled with the concept of natural marriage. In the history of mankind natural marriage is always shaped culturally. The concept of natural marriage can imply that there is a natural way of living of people without a cultural imprint. We therefore pro[pose to formulate: “Marriage justified in Creation”.”

Don Danneels? The power struggles of the Belgian cardinal

danneelsIn an extensive biography (cover pictured), published earlier this week, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and personal choice of Pope Francis to attend the Synod of Bishops assembly in two weeks time, speaks frankly about his membership of a group of cardinals and bishops, which he likenes to a maffia. This group, named Sankt Gallen for the Swiss town where they would meet, became active in 1990s and included among its members the late Cardinals Carlo Martini and Basil Hume, Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann, as well as Bishop Ad van Luyn, bishop emeritus of Rotterdam.

It should be noted that I have not been able to read the biography myself yet, so I draw my conclusion from those snippets I have read and from what others have written.

The group, which Cardinal Danneels called a maffia in an interview, had the aim of radically modernising the Church following the papacy of St. John Paul II. Members could speak freely and no records were kept, as the cardinal admitted once the group’s existence was revealed in research related to the writing of the biography.

Unhappy with the course of the Church under Saint John Paul II (who appointed Cardinal Danneels as archbishop in 1979 and cardinal in 1983), the group tried to influence the conclave of 2005, and Cardinal Danneels freely admits to have been disillusioned when the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Apparently they had a Pope in mind in the mold of Pope Francis, and his 2013 election was met with satisfaction.

It is one thing to discuss the future and express hopes and wishes, it is quite another to form a sort of shadow cabinet in blatant opposition to the Pope and expressing disappointment when the wrong pontiff is chosen. Cardinal Danneels does not seem to see it as problematic that he so callously disregards one Pope and creates an artificial opposition between him and his successor.

As Catholics we believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit when a new Pope is chosen. We believe that his work is for the good of the work, even when we may sometimes disagree with the way he works or what he focusses on. There is a certain element of loyalty involved, especially on the parts of cardinals and bishops, who have been created and appointed to assist the Pope in the affairs of the world Church. Loyal disagreement, which may be expressed personally to the Pope or even publically when well-founded and expressed with aforementioned loyalty and faith in the Spirit is certainly possible. It may even be good sometimes.

But this is not what the Sankt Gallen group did. Secret meetings, no records, a maffia… This does not give an impression of loyalty, but of an attempt to influence things in secret, behind the scenes. And while the group is evidently happy with Pope Francis, he may turn out to be their greatest enemy. From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has wanted to end the backroom politics and hunger for personal gain in the Curia and has been very clear about what a bishop should be: concerned not with power, but with the sheep.

Personally, I do not like pidgeonholing people (Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has a good article in the Catholic Herald on that same topic, by the way), and I don’t believe for one second that Cardinal Danneels is or has been all bad, as some would have us believe. But that does not take away the fact that he has gone beyond his authority and the conduct expected of cardinals and bishops.

A small treasure among palaces – A visit to Copenhagen’s Cathedral of St. Ansgar

For the past two weeks, my fiancée and I have been vacationing in Sweden and Denmark, and on Sunday the 19th we attended Mass at Copenhagen’s cathedral of St. Ansgar. Bishop Czeslaw Kozon offered the Mass, and proved to be a kind and gracious host at the charity lunch in the cathedral garden after Mass. He asked us not only about our holiday and daily life, but, when I told him I try and sometimes blog about Church affairs in the Netherlands and sometimes also Scandinavia, also about recent developments in the Church here: parish mergers, Church closings and what that meant for faithful and priests alike. A validation of sorts that there is definitely interest in the Dutch Catholic Church from abroad.

Of course, we also took in the cathedral church itself, of which I share a number of photos below. St. Ansgar’s cathedral is a small church as cathedral go, and shares the Bredgade street with the Orthodox Church of St. Aleksandr Nevskij and the impressively domed Frederiks Kirke, also known as the Marble Church. Acorss from the latter lies Amalienborg castle, the residence of Queen Margrethe II.

St. Ansgar’s is the cathedral of the Diocese of Copenhagen, which covers the entire country of Denmark, as well as the Faroe Islands and Greenland. The cathedral was consecrated in 1842, and was put on the same footing as a cathedral in 1942. In 1953, upon the establishment of the diocese, St. Ansgar’s really became a cathedral.

The cathedral has enjoyed one papal visit, in 1989, when Pope St. John Paul II toured the Nordic countries.

st. ansgar's

A view towards the sanctuary gives an overview of the cathedral. Apparently there had recently been a wedding, judging from the roses decorating the pews. The pews are the originals installed in the 19th century and some still bear the coat of arms of the Habsburgs, as the church was under the protection of the Austrian legate in Copenhagen.

st. ansgar's

A closer look at the sanctuary, with the cathedra at the centre. This was a change made by Bishop Kozon, whose coat of arms can be seen above the chair.

st. ansgar's

The dome over the sanctuary is decorated first with images of the Blessed Virgin and various saints of import for Denmark and northern Europe as a whole. Above them are Jesus Christ with the Apostles, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and at the top is God the Father.

st. ansgar's

The windows are all decorated with one saints each. These were installed on the initiative of Bishop Johannes von Euch between 1885 and 1894, replacing the original clear panes.

st. ansgar's

The organ in the choir loft, installed here in 1995.

st. ansgar's

In the right aisle, adjacent to the sanctuary, stands the baptismal font with a quote from Mark 16:16: “Salvus erit, He is saved”, in front of a painting of Saint Ansgar, who shared the Gospel in modern northern Germany, Denmark and Sweden, eventually becoming archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen.

st. ansgar's

To the left of the sanctuary, an image of the Blessed Virgin with the Child Jesus, a gift from Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I, and plenty of burning candles in front of it.

st. ansgar's

An overview of the entire front of the cathedral.

st. ansgar's

One last glimpse.

st. ansgar's

In the church garden there was a charity lunch, with the proceeds going to the local Caritas. We enjoyed strawberry tarts, juice and wine, as well as the blooming garden and the conversation with some of the faithful and Bishop Kozon.

st. ansgar's

Cardinal Antonelli gets it

antonelliTO2_webIn the most recent book by a cardinal on that most visible question of the Synod – Should divorced and remarried faithful be able to receive the Eucharist? – Cardinal Ennio Antonelli points out ho we – fathful and bishops – should approach the Synod. Not by wishing to change doctrine, but to find the most effective and suitable forms of pastoral care. EWTN has a story.

What struck me immediately is the quote from Saint John Paul II: “[Pastors] must not to lower the mountain, but instead help believers to climb it by leading the way”.

“For their part”, Cardinal Antonelli adds, “the faithful should not stop trying to reach the summit; they must sincerely seek both what is good and the will of God. Only with this fundamental attitude is it possible to develop a positive path of conversion and growth, even though individual steps may be short and sometimes even deviant”.

If we want to follow the Lord, we will unavoidably come across steps we find difficult. The answer then is not to ask the Lord to change the way He takes, but to look for His help in overcoming the difficulties, and bishops and priests are the shepherds to help us find His helping hand.

And that, I believe, is what the Synod should be about: not about finding other ways than that of Christ, but about how the Church can best help the faithful follow Him, even – especially – when it is hard.

Cardinal Antonelli was Archbishop of Firenze from 2001 to 2008 and President of the Pontifical Council for the Family from 2008 to 2012. He was created a cardinal by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2003.

Paul and Francis – a selective reading of two Popes

Paul-VIIn this month’s edition of our diocesan magazine I came across an odd statement: Pope Francis has freed the Church from the strict doctrines regarding human sexuality and procreation as laid down by Pope Paul VI (pictured) in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The same Pope Francis who has beatified Paul VI and repeatedly called him a courageous prophet, exactly for Humanae Vitae

Where do these claims come from? It isn’t the first time I’ve come across similar statements. Pope Francis is undoubtedly a people’s person, even more so than Saint John Paul II was, I suspect. But Pope Francis is also Catholic, and is unafraid of underlining even the unpopular teachings: he is staunchly opposed to abortion and euthanasia, continuously speaks of the dangers of sin and the devil, and, like I said above, is fully in line with the teachings of Blessed Pope Paul VI.

It is risky business to isolate Popes from one another. Humanae Vitae does not show us the full person of Paul VI, and today’s General Audiences don’t tell us everything about Francis. Both those parts of their teaching and person are important, but if we do not look any further, we run the risk of making such faulty and misleading statements as the one that opened this blog post.

In the case of Pope Francis, let his open personality be an invitiation to find out more about him and thus about the faith. His appreciation for Paul VI should likewise be reason to read Humanae Vitae anew. The papacy is no popularity contest, and nor does it revolve around superficial niceties. It is a teaching office, and sometimes that teaching reaches across the years, decades and centuries. And sometimes it is expanded or we look at it from a new perspective. In the case of Paul VI and Humanae Vitae, it is more than policy, more than old-fashioned opinions that need correcting. On the contrary, as Pope Francis has said, it is prophetic.