Who’s going to the Synod – a look at the list

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422The Holy See today released the full list of participants of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, to take place from 6 to 27 October in Rome. The assembly, which has been the subject of much discussion, hopes and fears over the past months, will discuss the problems faced by the Church in the Amazon region and try to find specific solutions with an eye on both the availability of the sacraments to the faithful there and the threats faced by people and environment in that area. Solutions which the synod assembly may arrive at could, some fear, then be applied globally. The topic of mandatory celibacy for priests has received special attention, as more than a few have suggested that the Synod could allow married men to be ordained to the priesthood so as to relieve that shortage of priests in the Amazon region. The theological and ecclesiastical repercussions, some fear, could have global consequences.

Apart from the usual suspects, such as the heads of the dicasteries of the curia and religious elected by the Union of Superior Generals, the majority of participants are bishops and priests from the Amazon region. Countries represented are Guyana*, Suriname*, French Guiana*, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

As ever, there will also be a number of ‘fraternal delegates’ representing other Christian church communities. In this case, the Presbyterian, Evangelical, Anglican and Lutheran churches and the Assembly of God. Other special invitations were issued to a number of lay experts including former secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.

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Pope Francis has also selected a number of personal appointments. These include a number of cardinals who have long been considered his closest collaborators, such as Cardinals Maradiaga, Gracias and Marx.  He has also added three prelates who will be made cardinals on October 4th, just days before the assembly opens: Archbishops Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa and Hollerich of Luxembourg (at left), and Fr. Czerny of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, who also serves as one of the two special secretaries of the Synod assembly.

Bishop-Cheonnie-1-300x225Also of note is the role of Bishop Karel Choennie of Paramaribo (at right). As his diocese, which covers all of Suriname, is included in the pan-Amazon region, he is an automatic participant, but he has also served on the Presynodal Council, which was tasked with the preparations for the upcoming assembly. Another member of this body is Bishop Erwin Kräutler, the Austrian-born bishop-prelate emeritus of Xingu in Brazil. The 80-year-old prelate presents himself as a close confidant of Pope Francis, but he also supports a number of problematic changes to Catholic teaching and practice.

Lastly, while the list of participants makes clear that this special assembly is very much localised – devoted to a specific area, led by people from that area – there are some connections to the wider world. In the first place to Rome of course, with the curia involved as they are in every Synod assembly. Other continents are also represented however. Among the pontifical appointments, Europe stands out, mostly because of the presence of Italian prelates. And these are not only members of the curia, but also ordinaries of Italian dioceses. Among the special invitees, Germany is also quite present. While only Cardinal Marx was invited by the pope, the heads of Adveniat (the German Church’s aid organisation for the Church in Latin America) and Misereor (the German bishops’ development organisation) will also participate. Asia is rather absent, but Africa is not. The presence of two participants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as, from Oceania, Cardinal Ribat from Papua New Guinea, makes sense, as these countries both include large stretches of pristine rain forest and a significant number of Catholic faithful who can not always be reached easily. The same problems are also faced in the Amazon. North America, then, is represented by a Canadian and four Americans, including Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, a like mind to Pope Francis.

* As the bishops of these countries are members of the bishops’ conference of the Antilles, the president of that body, Bishop Gabriel Malzaire of Roseau, Dominica, also participates.

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A priest breaks his vows – my thoughts about the case of Pierre Valkering

I didn’t want to devote many words to this, as I thought that, sordid as the affair is, it is not a reflection of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, nor does the priest responsible deserve his story to overshadow other, more positive news. But as it has now broken internationally (in English at Crux, and in German at Katholisch.de), I think I can at least share my thoughts. I published those thoughts in Dutch on Tuesday, and, as said, I wanted to leave it at that. But perhaps it is good to also share them in English.

First, the context:

pierre-valkeringOn 1 April, Father Pierre Valkering celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. After the festive Mass he presented his autobiography, which he had been working on in secret over the past couple of years. In it, he describes not only his homosexuality, but also his addiction to pornography (going so far as to say that something of the Gospel may be found in pornography) and his past visits to dark rooms and other homosexual meeting areas. These revelations came as a shocking surprise to the diocese. In the past, Bishop Jos Punt had spoken at several occasions with Fr. Valkering about his celibacy, receiving the assurance that the latter was dealing with it “responsibly”. That was obviously a lie.

As a response, the bishop requested that Fr. Valkering cease his priestly duties for the time being and enter into a period of reflection. In a statement issued on 2 April, the diocese states:

“Father could also have chosen to discuss his struggle with his sexuality and celibacy openly and honestly with his bishop. That honesty would certainly not have been punished. On the contrary, together with Fr. Valkering ways could have been found to reflect upon it and receive help. That has in the past also been done for several other priests.

But Fr. Valkering has chosen for a sudden and public act, in which the bishop has not been known in any way. He has also not given any indication about whether he is willing or able to maintain his celibacy in the future.”

Below follows the opinion piece I shared in Dutch via Twitter and Facebook.

The piece below is not a discussion about the doctrine of the Church, homosexuality, sexual abuse in the Church or the mandatory celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church. This is my response to articles about the Amtserdam priest Fr. Pierre Valkering who was placed on leave by Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam following the publication of his autobiography. In that autobiography Valkering describes his homosexuality, his ignoring his oath to remain celibate by actively having sexual contacts and his appreciation for pornography. Separate from a discussion about these topics, the indignation about such behaviour by a Catholic priest is justified. Had Valkering written about heterosexual contacts, that indignation and the consequences for him would have been no different.

At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. A sensible conclusion to draw when someone publishes a book by his hand on that date, in which he prides himself in his sexual excesses, appreciation for pornography and regular visits to dark rooms and other gay meeting places. And this person is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. No priest, who should have a more than superficial knowledge of what the Church teaches about sexuality and priesthood, would say something like that in all seriousness, right? It would have been a fine April’s Fools joke.

But nothing of the sort. Father Pierre Valkering apparently does not value the oaths he made at his ordination. Celibacy for priests is not a new thing. It existed long before there was a Pierre Valkering. But this priest seemingly considered it possible that an active sexual life was compatible with the priesthood, and thought he should speak about it proudly as well.

Valkering indicates that he has long struggled with his homosexuality and that his priesthood was essentialy a form of fleeing. That is something that must be taken seriously. That struggle and flight should have been prevented, and Valkering should have received the help he needed. His surroundings, including the Church, have failed him in that respect. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the period of reflection imposed upon him by Bishop Punt, can help him, and that he will not have to go through it alone.

I obviously do not know the exact cirucmstances which led Valkering to a crooked combination of priesthood and a seriously harmful form of sexuality. Bishop Punt probably also does not know, even though there have been meetings between priest and bishop in the past regarding previous publications and statements and the priest’s view on celibacy and his experience of it (he handled it responsibly, according the the diocese’s statment, but that apparently has a different meaning for Valkering than it did for the bishop). But with the bishop’s responsibility for assuring the correct communicatuon of the faith and the doctrine of the Church by his priests, Msgr. Punt could do little else than asking Fr. Valkering to lay down his duties, at least for now, and reflect on his actions.

The bishop shares the responsibility mentioned above with his priests. From his ordination and mission a priest has the duty of communicating the faith, by celebrating and teaching it, but also by being an example. The sexual excesses of Pierre Valkering, and the way in which he made them public, are an example which is contrary to the faith in all respects: he not only repeatedly broke his oath, but he also ignores his priestly mission and so leads others away from the faith. The way in which he thinks to express his sexuality are at odds with a healthy sexuality as the Church understands it. This is something one can disagree with, obviously. Discussion is always possible, but Valkering did not choose that option. Instead, he chooses a prideful form of deceit. He is a Catholic priest, but does not feel bound to the tasks and responsibilities of a priest. Instead of living for God, he chooses living for himself. He choose to lie to his bishop, to all the faithful for whom he was responsible as parish priest, and ultimately also to God.

With his autbiography, Valkering inflicts damage to the Church, to the people around him, and most of all to himself. Let us hope and pray that he may learn to see that and is offered and can accept the help he needs. The damage done in the past can’t be taken away, but perhaps its impact can be softened.”

German bishops speak out in favour of celibacy

Despite assurances to the contrary, the German episcopate as a body continues to be seen by many as plotting a course independent of Rome when it comes to questions about the sacraments, the priesthood and synodality. That said, several bishops have recently spoken out in defence of one topic which, certain circles claim, should be abolished if the Church is to change for the better: mandatory celibacy for priests.

HOP_9503.jpg_1287107163The main contribution, certainly in word count, comes from Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary bishop of Cologne, who wrote an article about the topic for the Tagespost (subsequently also published on Domradio), with a focus on the issue in the context of the abuse crisis. Identifying the call to abolish celibacy as conservative because it is, by now, a somewhat old-fashioned position, the bishop asks, “Why is my celibate way of life always criticised so strongly by people who don’t have to live it at all? Didnt I make that choice, not you?” He adds that no one forced him to choose to live celibate. Bishop Schwaderlapp explains the value of celibacy for a priest:

“It is not just a fitting oneself into the order of the Church. Celibacy is not limited to a – sometimes painful – denunciation of an exclusive two-way relationship of one’s own in order to have time and space for the many. And as such it is more than “just” the adoption of Jesus’ lifestyle – it is after all Him whom the priest is to make tangible in his life. Celibacy means a self-giving to Christ. with body and soul. And with and through Christ it means a self-giving to the people. It is about making the open heart of Jesus tangible through the celibate way of living. Being a priest is a matter of the heart, otherwise it becomes a caricature.”

The bishop likens this act of self-giving, which includes the priest sexuality, to what a husband and wife do in marriage. Rather than giving themselves to each other, with body, soul and sexuality, a priest gives himself to God.

Not blind to the challenges facing the Church and society, Bishop Schwarderlapp nonetheless concludes that allowing priests to marry is not an answer.

“This charism makes the purpose and mission of the priest “physical”: to make Jesus Christ visible, audible and tangible in this world. Incidentally, celibacy is always outdated because it refers, across time, to the one who was, who is and who will come. It is fatal if this charism is put up for discussion, and when we bishops take part in it. There are no new factual arguments against celibacy. [Abolition]  would not serve as a remedy to abuse, nor as an impetus to the – much needed – inner renewal of the Church. There has never been renewal by less, but always only through more devotion.”

helmut_dieser_40840234Bishop Helmut Dieser of Aachen expresses himself in similar words. He too emphasises that celibacy is not something negative, nor something that is forced upon a priest. It is, he states, “a Biblical way of life in imitation of Jesus, a charism”. However, he also says, should a situation exist when there are no men choosing celibacy, the Church should keep “suitable married men” in mind. This openness to the practical situation, which at this time does not exist in Germany, is echoed by Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. His position in an interview, which he shared on his website, caused some confusion as it appeared as if he was in favour of loosening the celibacy rules. “I am not, even when I consider it possible,” he tersely explains. Bishop Oster also explains that there is room to discuss the question of celibacy: “The question is not dogmatic. Unlike with sexual morality there is more leeway, and the pope has already encouraged the search for new ways in this regard.”

About celibacy itself, the bishop says:

oster1130“Celibacy is the way of life of Jesus and as such a great spiritual treasure, which is worth fighting for. But I do not rule out the possibility (of a loosening of the celibacy rules). When the majority of priests say that it is no longer possible to live celibately in this time and society, then it becomes difficult. On the other hand I do not want the priest who is already struggling with his way of life, but who has made an oath, now reading, “the bishop also says that it is difficult, so I’ll also give it up.” I do not want to demotivate, I want to say: the struggle is worth it.”

The new bishop of Fulda, Michael Gerber, who will be installed today, has also said that he is opposed to abolishing mandatory celibacy, and prefers to focus instead of assuring that priests remain part of a ‘network’, thus preventing any of them from falling prey to loneliness.

Other bishops, such as Peter Kolhgraf of Mainz and Georg Bätzing of Limburg, have expressed their support for voluntary celibacy, showing that, if anything, the German episcopate is no monolith.

Photo credits: [1] Erzbistum Köln, [2] Elisabeth Schomaker/KNA, [3] Bischöfliche Pressestelle Passau

Attack in Utrecht: reactions from the archdiocese

A terrorist attack or an honour killing, whatever motivated the shooter, three people were killed and five injured while riding a tram in the city of Utrecht this morning. The shooter was arrested in the evening after the city had been on lockdown for the better part of the day.

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In a first reaction, the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk, said:

“Today’s shock is great. The perpetrator’s motives remain unclear for now, but it is clear that the impact on the city and the Netherlands is great. We greatly sympathise with the victims and their family, and also with the witnesses of this horrific incident. I ask your prayer for the deceased and those they leave behind, and for the injured we mourn today, for a quick and full recovery.”

From Germany, Domradio reached out to Father Anton Ten Klooster, priest of Utrecht who teaches at a university in the city. He was forced to spend his day at the university as the police had asked everyone to remain indoors while the shooter remained at large,  and describes his first thoughts upon hearing the news:

“As a priest I think in the first about the people and their fear. But I also think about what it means for society. These are, after all, tense times. There has been the terrible terorrist attack in New Zealand. And now this. What does that mean for us priests? How can we really try to accompany people and also respond in the right way? These are the first thoughts, but one can’t really do anything immediately.”

Anoher priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, Father Roderick Vonhögen, shares his thoughts upon hearing the news in the vlog below (starting at 2:09):

Photo credit: ANP

The synodal path – German bishops to put global truth to popular vote?

dbk logoIn their spring assembly, which this year took place in the Emsland town of Lingen, in the Diocese of Osnabrück, the German bishops discussed, among other things, several hot topics. First and foremost the abuse crisis, of course, on which they heard from various experts and were told that the Church is losing (or even already has lost) all her credibility as a result of the sexual abuse committed by clergy and the subsequent coverup by bishops and superiors.

In order to perhaps recover some of the credibility, and find a permanent solution to the scourge of abuse, which the bishops see as an expression of abuse of power, they opt to go the synodal path. The buzzword which has been the go-to solution for a lot of things in recent years is perhaps hard to define, but if anything, it amounts to less power for bishops and more listening and taking advise from lay faithful and experts outside the Church. There is of course a risk that any expression of episcopal authority comes to be seen as undesirable, thus pretty much negating the power and fucntion of bishops, but this is another story.

marx-XIn the post-meeting press conference (text here), Cardinal Reihard Marx (at right) discusses this synodal path and explains that the bishops have decided to employ it also on the topics of power abuse, priestly celibacy and the Church’s sexual morality. Does this mean, as some have commented, that the German bishops will put these topics to a popular vote? For the first, the abuse of power by clergy, this may be a good path, but I have my doubts if a singular bishops’ conference can and should take the teachings of the Church, which is not limited to Germany, and single-handedly change them if the people demand it.

Below is my translation of the relevant passage from the press conference:

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“The Church needs a synodal development. Pope Francis encourages us to do so. And we do not begin from zero. The Würzburg Synod (1972-1975)  and also the processes of recent years have prepared the ground, also for the many challenges of today. We have decided in unison to go a synodal path as Church in Germany, which enables a structural debate and takes place in a scheduled timeframe, and in fact together with the Central Committee of German Catholics. We will create formats for open debate and committ ourselves to processes which allow for a responsible participation of women and men from our dioceses. We want to be a listening Church. We need the advise from people outside the Church.

I will therefore list three points which played a part in the study day and upon which we will focus:

  • We are aware of the cases of clerical abuse of power. It is a betrayal of the trust of people seeking for support and religious orientation. What has to be done to achieve the required development of power and create a fairer and legally binding order, will become clear on the synodal path. The development of administrative tribunals is a part of this.
  • We are aware that the way of life of bishops and priests requires change to show the inner freedom of of the faith and the orientation on the example of Jesus Christ. We consider celibacy to be an expression of religious unity with God. We wish to work out the extent to which it should be a part of the witness of priests in our Church.
  • The Church’s sexual morality has not yet accepted several findings from theology and humanities. The personal meaning of sexuality has not been given sufficient attention. The result: the proclamation of morality offers no direction to the majority of the baptised. We see how often we are unable to respond to questions about modern sexual behaviour.”

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The bishops plan to have a plan for this synodal path ready by September, when it will be discussed in a meeting of bishops, members of the Central Committee of German Catholics and others.

In the mean time, I wonder if this is not taking the same course as the Communion for remarried Catholics debate? That was also taken to Rome by some bishops who understood that a single group of bishops can not pretend to speak for the entire world Church. The question of priestly celibacy and sexual morality can certainly be discussed, even by a single bishops’ conference, but they can not take unilateral action contrary to what the Church as a whole teaches. These changes, if they must be made, must be made at the top.

I am leaving the bishops’ first point, about combating abuse of power, out of this, as that is something they can act on by themselves.

The fate of McCarrick – a new impulse in the fight against abuse?

“On 11 January 2019, the Congresso of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the conclusion of a penal process, issued a decree finding Theodore Edgar McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., guilty of the following delicts while a cleric: solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power. The Congresso imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state. On 13 February 2019, the Ordinary Session (Feria IV) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith considered the recourse he presented against this decision. Having examined the arguments in the recourse, the Ordinary Session confirmed the decree of the Congresso. This decision was notified to Theodore McCarrick on 15 February 2019. The Holy Father has recognized the definitive nature of this decision made in accord with law, rendering it a res iudicata (i.e., admitting of no further recourse).”

_CNS-NY-TIMES-MCCARRICK-SEMINARIANS.jpgA fairly brief note, the first from the Holy See press office today, but one with serious ramifications. The Church’s progress in the fight against sexual abuse, especially in the last few weeks leading up to the bishops’ meeting about that topic in Rome, has been heavily criticised. While progress definitely exists, many say it’s not going fast  enough or isn’t being done thoroughly enough, and that past mistakes and ill judgements continue being made today. This decision from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, should serve as a reminder and an impulse that no abuser can hide behind the comforts of his or her office.

Mr. McCarrick has been what is usually called ‘laicised’, which is not really the right term, as many have pointed out that it seems to mean that being a lay person is somehow a step below being a cleric. As the above publication states, McCarrick has been ‘dismissed from the clerical state’. He remains a priest, as all sacraments are eternal and cannot be revoked, but he no longer has any rights or duties associated with that state. He can not present himself as a priest or bishop, which includes dressing like one, can’t celebrate any sacraments (apart from Baptism, which anyone can confer in an emergency) and can exercise no rights regarding support from any parish, diocese or religious movement, beyond those extended to any random passer-by.

The statement also indicates exactly what McCarrick has been found guilty of: solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, ie. improper advances or conduct during a person’s confession; sins against the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery”, which relates to proper sexuality regarding one’s own body and the relationships with others; all this made worse by the power McCarrick held as priest, bishop, archbishop and cardinal. In the vast majority of cases, situations of sexual abuse are in the basis abuses of power.

For decades, McCarrick was one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church in the United States and, once he had been made a cardinal 2001, in the world church. This long protected him from accusations and investigations. Now that a verdict has been reached after a due process, the question remains: who knew about the misdeeds of McCarrick, and who kept quiet when he should have spoken up? The list of those rumoured to have known at least something includes some high-level names, including that of McCarrick’s successor in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl, and that of the new Chamberlain of the Church, Cardinal Farrell…

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.