Bishop de Korte’s election advice – the problems of voting Catholic in the Netherlands

While bishops usually tend to avoid giving voting advice, at least when it comes to specific parties, Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch recently did do so on a personal title. In an interview with Katholiek Nieuwsblad he said,

bisschop-de-korte“As bishops we realise that you can’t say that, if you are Catholic, there is a single party to vote for. From a Catholic perspective, something can be said in favour of all parties.”

But the bishop makes one exception to this rule. Geert Wilders’ PVV, which has ideas which are “contrary to the Catholic idea about a just society. They way that they pit populations against one another, abandon the freedom the religion, attack the rule of law – “fake parliament”, “fake judges”… These are things that should make us very reserved.”

The PVV continues to score in the opinion polls, also among Catholics, and Bishop de Korte’s remarks have had their share of criticism. But while the bishop’s comments focussed on the positives to be found in irtually all parties, the criticism focussed on those elements in party’s programs which are incompatible with Catholic teaching. How, critics asked, could any Catholic in good conscience vote for a party which promotes anti-life measures such as abortion and euthanasia? As I mentioned in my recent article for The Catholic Herald, only two parties, both Christian, are pro-life: the Christian Union and the SGP, although it must be added that the PVV is at least hesitant about further liberalisation on these topics.

This is a valid criticism, and a Catholic vote must take the position of parties on these (and other) topics seriously. But Bishop de Korte is not saying that all positions of all parties, except those of the PVV, should be supported by Catholics. On the contrary, he merely acknowledges that all parties promote positive aspects which a Catholic can get behind, while, although he does not say so explicitly, they may also support things a Catholic should oppose. There is no clear black or white when it comes to casting a Catholic vote in these elections.

pvv-logo-560x190Why single out the PVV, then? Are their positions more abhorent than those of other parties? The tone of their way of doing politics is certainly not one we should promote, and their singling out of parts of the population and disrespect for the rule of law when it does not agree with their positions are indeed problematic. For Bishop de Korte these seem to be decisive factors. For others, like myself, the respect for life (both born and unborn) may be equally decisive, and in that context the left-wing parties such as GroenLinks and SP are just as undeserving of my vote. Singling out the PVV is too simplistic: no party is perfect, and when you say that  “something can be said in favour of all parties,” an honest reading wil also show that that includes the PVV.

Bishop de Korte gave a personal opinion, the reasoning of which I do not fully agree with, although I share his decision not to vote for the PVV. But that is my opinion. Others may reach another conclusion in good conscience, based on the priorities they focus on. As long as it impossible to cast a vote which is in full agreement with Catholic teaching, this is the situation we are stuck with.

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An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.

Hot topic – Archbishop Koch’s intervention

It seems that the German Synod fathers also do not feel obliged to keep their interventions at the Synod a secret. Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin spoke about a selection of points from the Instrumentum laboris, including the topic that has many extremely worried: divorce, a second marriage and Communion.

That aside, and I do see some problems with the archbishop’s presentation on that topic, he also discusses the reality of Catholic marriage, or the lack thereof, in heavily secularised urban settings, thje powerful witness of a Christian marriage, the need for a positive language and closes with a pro-life message.

The original text can be found here, and my translation follows:
Dr. Heiner Koch, Erzbischof von BerlinConcerning Point 28 of the Instrumentum laboris:

1. Until recently I was the bishop of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen and now I come to the Synod as archbishop of Berlin. In eastern Germany more than 80 per cent of the people are not baptised and have often not had any contact with the Christian faith and the Church for many generations. We Catholics are sometimes no more than 3 or 4 percent of the population. But in the cities, for example in Dresden and Leipzig, we are a young Church: the majority of Catholics is between 20 and 30 years of age. That is the age at which young people marry and start a family. Many of them, however, do not want to get married and live together unmarried. For many, that has nothing to do with a lack of commitment or a failing morality. The institution and the tradition of marriage is not considered to be of vital importance.

Concerning Point 35 of the Instrumentum laboris:

2. But when two young people marry before the Church – often one of the couples belongs to another faith or confession, and not seldomly he or she is not baptised – then this is in our society a profound and often thought-provoking witness of faith: “Why do they marry before the Church? Wat does that mean?” unbaptised friends wonder when they experience such a  Church wedding. The wedding leads them to the question of God and the faith. I am grateful to the witness of young people who are preparing for marriage. Forty percent of the marriages of Catholics in my archdiocese are marriages in which one of the partners belongs to another confession. Such marriages are ecumanically speaking a special challenge and opportunity. These families expect from us an encouraging word. In section 28 of the Instrumentum laboris they are taken into account much too weakly.

It is so important that the Holy Father, with us, sends out from this Synod the Gospel of the mystery of marriage, with a new hermeneutic, in a new language, a language of fullness, of blessing, of the richness of life, provocative and inviting for the people. What grace is offered to the people, what participation in God’s order of creation and salvation, what depths of mutual love between God and people: Marriage is for us about a life in fullness and in the love of God, even in our brokenness. This must be our message in Church and society. The Synod can not give the impression that we mainly fought over divorce and conditions for admittance to the sacraments.

However, deeply faithful young Christians also ask me, in light of experiences in their families and circles of friends, the question: “But when we divorce and later enter into a new marriage, why are we then barred from the table of the Lord? Does God refuse the people who have gone through a divorce?” I then try to explain why divorced and remarried people can not receive Communion, but the arguments of these theological statements do not silence the questions in the hearts of people: Is there no place at the Lord’s table for people who experienced  and suffered an irreversible break in their lives? How perfect and holy must one be to be allowed to the supper of the Lord? It becomes clear to me every time that the question of allowing divorced and remarried people to the Eucharist is not in the first place a question about the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage. Many people question the Church and her mercy in this regard. More than a few people concerned leave the Church with their children on the basis of what they see as rejection. Ultimately and most profoundly it is much more about the Christian faith and God and His mercy. For many, the question of admittance to the Eucharist makes them doubt God.

Concerning Point 29 of the Instrumentum laboris:

3. In Berlin alone there are more than 100,000 single parents with all their challenges and stress in their personal lives, raising their children and their work. In all that we think about: They too are families.

Concerning Points 24 to 27 of the Instrumentum laboris:

4. Families with many children, who are a blessing for us, deserve special care. In Germany their number has dropped more drastically than in other parts of the world; a true reason for our demographic concerns. Their financial security, insufficient recognition of the pedagogical benefit of the parents in our society and the difficulty of later reintegration into the work force represent great scandals. To them in particular we should  express a word of recognition and our esteem.

Concerning Point 29 of the Instrumentum laboris:

5. For one third of the Catholics in the city of Berlin, German is not their mother tongue. Berlin is home to many immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. From the first day of my service in this city I have also witnessed the drama of refugee families, separated by violence or fled together, but now far from home. We can not leave these families alone, not even at this Synod. The Holy Family fled and only had a manger for their child, but this refugee family became a blessing for us all. Does God perhaps today also want the refugee families in particular to be a blessing for us? At this Synod we must also speak about these families and we must speak about ourselves as the new family of Jesus, the family of His Church, which does not erect any walls or barbed wire.The refugee families are part of us and we of them. We are a blessing for each other.

Concerning Points 17 and 20 of the Instrumentum laboris:

6. We should be grateful to the married couples who have faithfully lived and sometimes also persevered in the life of their families in good and bad times, for their witness of faith made with their marriage, and also express this as a Synod. Family is more than young parents with their young children. Perhaps family life becomes hardest in old age and death, about which ever more pressing questions are being asked in our society. The current discussion in Europe about so-called assisted dying is even more dramatic as many elderly people find no home in their families and no place for them in their small houses and in the face of many occupational stresses. Aging, being ill and dying are topics of the family, about which we can not remain silent in this Synod, when we talk about the beauty of the family. Protecting unborn life from conception and protecting life during and at the end of life belong inseparably together.

Rome, 5 October 2015

Heiner Koch
Archbishop of Berlin

“Praised be” – Encyclical day is here

LaudatoSi-255x397So today is the big day. I’ve not seen such excitement for the launch of an encyclical, but, then again, I’ve only been around as a Catholic for four of them. But this time around, everyone has an opinion, in part because they’ve seen the leaked early draft of Laudato Si’*, but mostly because the encyclical’s topic is such a heavily politicised one. Especially on the American side of the Atlantic, I notice that the question of the environment, and especially global warming, is seen as inherently connected and opposed to questions of population control and, more often than not, economic concerns. The issue of the scientific validity of what Pope Francis is a distant third element of the opposition.

Are these concerns warranted? Will Laudato Si’ suddenly advocate population control to protect the environment? That would be highly unlikely, considering that Pope Francis has time and again spoken against such things as abortion, euthanasia and curtailing the rights of people, which would all be means to the end of population control. Will Pope Francis speak against economic concerns as the driving force in our lives and actions? That seems almost certain, at least if these concerns plunge others in poverty and destroy their environment. Pope Francis’ chief concerns do not lie with western multinationals or millionaires, but with the poor and marginalised of the world. He is all for the common good, but not at the expense of others, or of the environment in which we all live. And that is also the Catholic attitude,and not without reason has Pope Francis said that Laudato Si’ will lie fully within the whole of Catholic social teaching.

In the end, it all boils down to the Creation stories of Genesis, in which we learn that man’s place in Creation is that of a steward. Yes, he can make use of what the world offers, but also has a duty to maintain it and not exploit or destroy it. Man is a part of Creation. He is not separate. If we destroy or exploit the world around us, we ultimately destroy ourselves. God has given us a world to live in and care for.

Are the concerns we hear against a major focus on the environment without any basis then? Not if our environmental concerns overshadow the care we must have for the people in our society and in other societies across the world. We must balance these concerns.

In the end, Laudato Si’ will be a document that needs to be read positively. It wants to invite us to act towards the betterment of ourselves and all of creation,not force us to stop and change what is good about our use of the environment.

*As an aside, this encyclical will be the first one since 1937 not to have an official Latin title. Encyclicals are titled after their opening words,which in this case happen to come from Saint Francis’ Caticle of the Sun,which was written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian. In 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge in German, as it was directed against the Nazi dictatorship in Germany.

“A defeat for humanity”? The wisdom of the cardinal’s words

parolinCardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has commented on the Irish referendum which resulted in a major vote in favour of same-sex marriage, and called it a “defeat for humanity”. Was that the wise thing to say?

The Irish vote was certainly a defeat for the Christian argument, if such simplistic wording can be properly used in this context. Seen from the Catholic position, the very nature of marriage is being redefined, changing its essential role in building healthy societies. It is being downgraded to a mere legal acknowledgement that two people love each other and want to be together, with no eye for their duties towards society and future generations (duties that are also increasingly being forgotten in marriages in general, it must be said). The complementarity of man and woman, which finds its ultimate expression in marriage, is deemed unimportant enough to deny it its defining place within the concept of marriage. In essence, it is being said that marriage need not have all the defining characteristics in order to be marriage.

As hinted above, same-sex marriages can have worthy elements that we also find in true marriage, such as love and responsibility, but it lacks other elements: the openness to new life as a product of the (physical and emotional) love of the spouses, and the ability for full complementary love which flows forth from their identities as man and woman (more than just a physical characteristic).

Many critics will say that many heterosexual marriages are equally closed to life and fullfilment, and they are right. Married partners have an obligation to love and take care of each other and raise their children in that same love and care, and when they refuse that, for whatever reason, marriage becomes a mockery of itself, denied to be what it is called to be.

The wisdom of the phrase “a defeat for humanity” can be debated. I am not too keen on getting overly dramatic about every setback, but as humanity consists of men and women who are called to find fullfillment in each other and so contribute to humanity as a whole (marriage, after all, is not only for the spouses), I can understand the sentiment expressed by the cardinal.

Is it wise, then, to use these words in the public debate? I don’t think so. While Cardinal Parolin can’t be faulted for being clear, his words are so easily distorted, misunderstood, taken out of context and presented as nothing but a blunt attack. Cardinal Parolin is right in disagreeing with the vote, but I have already seen his words being used to contrast the cardinal with Pope Francis, who has also been quoted and understood out of context on this subject more than once. The cardinal also stated that the result of the referendum must be an invitation for the Church to do more in the field of evangelisation, and that is certainly necessary. In order for the Church to be understood, she must make herself understood. Headlines have their use, but not when they don’t invite to further reading. Any discussion about marriage must either presume knowledge about Catholic doctrine, or explain it.

In this debate, I think that one element is being forgotten: holding on to the traditional definition of marriage is not in any way an invitation to discriminate. When it comes to equal rights in work, income, finances, housing and other opporunities, sexual orientation can be no reason to deny people anything. Even when two people of the same sex decide to share their lives, we should support their equality. We may not agree with it, but it’s  really not our place to refuse basic social rights and opportunities. But society as a whole, as well as children, also have their rights and opportunties. Marriage, however, is more than rights and opportunities. It is the God-given way in which men and women find each other and themselves and in which children receive the home and basis they need to be raised in.

In the end, any debate on topics like this must be based on reason, as it has strong emotional connotations for many. We must acknowledge and understand the emotion, but also know that emotion alone won’t lead to an understanding, a solution or willingness to learn and grow.

With apology, Pope Francis emphasises the dignity of human life

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children. The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children…”

Pope Francis, 11 April 2014

Words that are more than just an apology, but an example to so many institutions, agencies and government the world over, where child abuse still occurs and in shockingly large numbers, but where perpetrators generally get away with it…

pope francis children

Compared with another passage the Pope spoke today, in a meeting with italy’s Pro-Life Movement, we can see that the above apology, and the efforts of the Holy See and the Church to combat sexual abuse of minors, is a logical consequence of what the Church teaches about the dignity of all human life.

“The strongest opposition to any direct attack on life must therefore be reiterated, especially on innocent and defenseless life, and the unborn child in the womb is the most concrete example of innocence. Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: From the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” (Gaudium et Spes, 51)

“Find your treasure” – a transcript of the interview

“It was sharp…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…white balance was right…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…and we visited the Pope.”
“We pressed the button.”
“We had more time than we thought.”
“45 minutes. We could ask everything we wanted, all the questions.”
“Yes. And he said to us…”
“Find your treasure, he said, find your treasure.”
Tesoro, find your treasure.”
“Tight.”
“Yes. That’s a clear mission, isn’t it?”
“Oh man, mission. We visited the Pope.”

The reaction of the two young cameramen as they had just returned from the interview with Pope Francis is an example of their enthusiasm and the unprecedented feat that they and the three other interviewers managed to perform. Broadcast on Belgian television yesterday evening, below follows the transcript and translation of the interview as shown. The full report is well worth a look, even if it is in Dutch, with the questions asked in English and the Pope responding in Italian.

“Thanks for accepting our request. But why did you accept it?”

“When I sense that a young man or woman has a certain restlessness, I think it is my duty to serve that young person. To do some service to that restlessness. That restlessness is like a seed that grows and in due time bears fruit. At this time I feel that I can do you a valuable service by listening to your restlessness.”

“Er… I have the second question..”

“Ah, you.” (laughter)

“Everyone in this word is trying to be happy, but we were wondering: are you happy, and why?”

“Absolutely. (smiles) I am most certainly happy. I have a certain inner quietness, a great peace, a great happiness. That also comes with age. Of course, problems appear in everyone’s  path, but my happiness does not disappear because of those problems.”

“In many ways you show us great love to poor and to wounded people. Why is this so important for you?”

“Yes… Because (Pope Francis accidentally slips into English here, before continuing in Italian…), because that is the heart of the Gospel. I believe. I believe in God, in Jesus and the Gospel. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. I heard that someone, two months ago, said, because of my focus on the poor, that this Pope is a communist. But that’s wrong. It is a commandment from the Gospel, not from communism. The Gospel is about poverty outside of ideology. That is why I think the poor are at the heart of the Gospel. It’s what it says.”

“I don’t believe in God, but your acts and ideas inspire me. So, do you maybe have a message for all, for us, for the young Christians, to people who don’t believe, or have another belief, or believe in a different way?”

“I think that you have to find authenticity in your way of speaking. I… My authenticity is that I speak as an equal. We are all brothers, believers or not, of one faith or another, Jews or Muslims, we are all equal. Man is the centre. […] In this moment in history, man is pushed out of the centre. He has been pushed to the periphery. In the centre, money and power rule, at least in this moment. In a world in which money and power are first and foremost important… young people have been chased out. Young people no longer want children. Families are becoming smaller, families don’t want children. The elderly are pushed aside. Many elderly die because of a sort of hidden euthanasia, because no one cares for them and they die.  And now the young are chased out. For example, in Italy, youth unemployment of people under the age of 25 is at almost 50%. We are part of a culture of disposability. If it contributes nothing to globalisation, it is thrown away. The elderly, children, young people. During my years of service, now as Pope and before that in Buenos Aires, I spoke with many young politicians. That pleased me, because regardless of their political preferences, they spoke a new language, introduced a new music. A new music, a new style of doing politics. That gives me hope.”

“When I read the newspaper, or I look around, I sometimes doubt if the human race is capable of taking care of this world and of the human race itself. Do your recognise this doubt?”

“I ask myself two questions about that. Where is God? And where is man? And I also ask myself now: where are you, 21st century man? A question of… And it also reminds me of that other question: God, where are you? When man finds himself, he seeks God. Perhaps he won’t find God, but he sets out on a path of honesty, seeking out truth, a path of goodness and beauty. It is a long road. Some people don’t  find Him during their life. They don’t find Him consciously, but they are so real, so honest about themselves, so good and such lovers of beauty, that in the end they have a very mature and competent personality and meet God in all His grace.”

“We are all humans, and we make mistakes. What did your mistakes teach you?”

“I have made mistakes (laughs), and I still make them. They say man is the only animal that falls in the same well twice. In my life I have learned, and I still do, that mistakes are the best teachers. They teach you a lot. I don’t dare to say that I always learnt my lesson. Sometimes I didn’t, because I am very stubborn (laughs). That’s hard to change. But I learned from many mistakes and that has been good.

“Does he have a concrete example about himself, that he made a mistake himself?”

“No problem, I will say it. I wrote it in a book, so it is public knowledge. For example, I became a superior when I was very young. I made many mistakes against authoritarianism. I was too authoritarian. I was 36 years old. I learned then that you have to enter into dialogue and have to listen to what others think. That did not mean I had changed for good. The road is long. I learned much from my authoritarian behaviour when I was that young. That is how I slowly learned to make fewer mistakes. But I still make them. (laughs)

“I do have my fears. What makes you afraid?”

“Myself. (laughs) Fears? In the Gospel Jesus continuously repeats: Be not afraid, be not afraid. Why does He repeat that so often? Because He knows that fear is “normal”. We are afraid of life, of challenges. We also know fears before God. Everyone is afraid. Everyone. So you don’t have to worry. You should ask yourself why you are afraid, before God, before yourself. You should learn to delineate your fear, because there is good and bad fear. Good fear is like prudence, a careful attitude. Bad fear is fear that limits you. It makes you small. It paralyses you, prevents you from doing things. You must lose that fear.

“Last question. The terrible last question”. (laughs)

“Do you have a question for us?”

“My question is certainly not original. It comes from the Gospel. But after hearing all your questions, I think this is the right question at this time.

Where is your treasure? Where does your heart rest? In what treasure does your heart rest? Because that treasure will define your life. The heart is linked to that treasure, which we all possess. Power, money, pride… so many things. Or… goodness, beauty, the will to do good. It can be so many things. Where is your treasure? That is my question. But you must answer it for yourselves, alone. At home.

Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you very much. Please pray for me.”

This transcription and translation was based on the questions asked in English and the subtitled responses by the Pope. His answers as given above are therefore translations of translations, with the latter being edited translations to fit a television screen (the art of subtitling comes with a number of demands which are alien to translating for websites). I am fully aware that this is not ideal, but it is what it is.

verse visThe photo that Pope Francis is seen signing at the end of the video, as featured on the Verse Vis Facebook page.