Hidden dangers – Bishops of Belgium on decriminalising abortion

logo bc_0As Belgian politics are once more on the verge of discussing the topic of abortion and whether or not it should be decriminalised, the bishops of Belgium warn against the risks of doing so. Their concerns are not unrealistic, as recent developments in other countries have shown. The slippery slope of further liberalisation, actively sought out or not, is real, When abortion comes to be seen as a right, the room to disagree, to conscientiously object, starts to disappear. The bishops write that there are only ever losers in these cases, especially when abortion is considered as a normal procedure.

“In our country, abortion has been legalised under certain circumstances for quite some time now. Several proposal have now been presented to the Belgian parliament to completely depenalise abortion. Current practice will perhaps not change much because of it, but it is nonetheless a serious decision with a strong symbolic meaning. The opinions on the termination of pregnancy will fundamentally change. And the consequences are significant. Hence, we ask ourselves questions. These are questions which transcend ideological boundaries.

In a democracy the criminal code guarantees the protection of human dignity and the physical integrity of every person. Can this protection be disregarded when it is about human life developing before birth? The life that many people desire, which many protect and fight for, for which medicine makes the greatest progress, that precious life. Why should that life in its earliest beginnings not be protected as if it isn’t life yet?

Abortion will never become commonplace. Not even when it is removed from the criminal code. It will never become a normal ‘operation’. It will never happen gladly. There are only ever losers. Certainly, circumstances can make people desperate and hopeless. Exactly then man is so distraught en lonely. If the law would then only suggest that it is a normal operation, no justice is done to what those involved experience and go through. Why then look for advice or assistance? The requests themselves run the risk of not being taken seriously from the start. It will only increase the desperation and loneliness.

That is the danger we wish to point out: when abortion is removed from the criminal code, there is the risk that it becomes a normal medical intervention like any other. It is no longer an infraction in those cases provided for by the law. It becomes a right. Those questioning it or refusing abortion, will then have to justify themselves. And that is true for both the doctor and the woman involved. Even when the clause of freedom of conscience is maintained, it will be able to be invoked increasingly less. A medical intervention requires a medical decision, after all, and not so much a decision of conscience.

Our society increasingly struggles with everything that blocks our plans, with everything that disrupts our way of life. That goes for people who are old or sick, for people with physical disabilities, for the poor, strangers or refugees coming to us. It is also true for unborn life. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says that this is all connected: “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n. 120).”

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel and the bishops of Belgium

By acknowledging that abortion is never considered gladly, never becomes normal, and that those seeking it out are often desperate, seeing no other option, the bishops show the way in how to deal with such situations. Not by presenting abortion as just another medical operation, but by acknowledging the pain and loneliness felt by the people involved, and by finding new ways of alleviating that. Not by killing an innocent person, but by standing with the parent or parents (because too often the mother stands alone in these situations).

 

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Seventeen years in the see of Boniface – Heinz-Josef Algermissen retires

It couldn’t have come on a more fitting day for the Diocese of Fulda. On 5 June they celebrated the feast day of their patron St. Boniface, which was celebrated over the weekend with the annual Bonifatius Fest which drew some 8,000 visitors, among them the bishop of that other diocese closely linked to St Boniface: Msgr. Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

Algermissen2On the same 5th of June it was announced this had been the last such day presided over by Bishop Heinz Joshistef Algermissen. That was not unexpected, as the bishop reached the age of 75 in February, and there was no reason to assume that his retirement would not be accepted within the following months. Bishop Algermissen led the Diocese of Fulda since 2001. Before that he served as an auxiliary bishop of Paderborn for five years.

The Diocese of Fulda, which traces its origins to the establishment of a monastery by the aforementioned St. Boniface in 744. In 751 the monastery became an abacy nullius under the direct responsibility of the Holy See, making the abbots independent from the local bishops. The prosperity of the abbacy grew, in 1220 it became an abbey-principality, and in 1752 it became a diocese in its own right, taking the name of Fulda. Over the subsequent centuries its borders were changed repeatedly, gaining territory in 1821 and 1929, and losing it in 1930 and 1973. The last change was a reflection of Cold War reality: parts of Fulda had been under Communist rule since the end of World War II, and in 1973 those parts, as well as parts of the Diocese of Würzburg, became a separate apostolic administration: Erfurt-Meiningen. In 1994 this became the Diocese of Erfurt.

Karte_Bistum_FuldaToday, the Diocese of Fulda covers the northerns and eastern parts of the Land of Hesse, a small part of Thuringia and and exclave in Bavaria. Within its 10,318 square kilometres live some 400,000 Catholics a little of 20% of the entire population. It remains a pilgrimage site because of St. Boniface’s wish to be buried there, instead of in Mainz or Utrecht. He had been killed in the Frisian swamps near what is now Dokkum in the Netherlands (hence the connection to the the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, hinted at above). With the acceptance of the retirement of Bishop Algermissen, and until the catedral chapter has chosen a diocesan administrator, Bishop Karlheinz Diez leads the diocese. He is Fulda’s sole auxiliary, making him the automatic choice for the role.

During his years in office, Bishop Algermissen had a clear eye on the future, creating 43 parish communities in ten deaneries by 2006, and in 2017 he created the strategy for the next decades until 2030. “When many today see an ever denser curtain blocking heaven from view and when the emancipation from God becomes a program, we are urgently called to establish a countermovement,” the bishop declared.

Commenting in Bishop Algermissen’s retirement, Cardinal Reinhard Marx expressed his gratitude for his service and hospitality (the German bishops meet in Fulda for their autumn plenary meetings), but also referred to his pro-life stance: “Regarding your work, I emphasise the special attention to unborn and dying life: protecting life from beginning to end has, also in public debates, always been a heartfelt concern for you.”

Bishop Algermissen was  a member of the Liturgy Commission and the Ecumenism Commission in the German Bishops’ Conference. He was vice-president of the latter commission.

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At last weekend’s Bonifatiusfest, a toast from Groningen-Leeuwarden canon Fr. Paul Verheijen to Bishop Algermissen (Credit: R. Leupolt)

The election of the new bishop follows the usual rules laid down in the Concordat between Prussia and the Holy See of 1929: the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, requests suggestions for the new bishop from the dioceses covering the former territory of Prussia and sends these to the pope. The pope, or rather the Congregation for Bishops, and following the collection of further information on the candidates by the nuncio, selects his three favoured candidates, and this list is then sent to the cathedral chapter, who elect their new bishop from that list. After approval from the governments of, in this case, Hesse and Thuringia, the cathedral chapter sends the name of the elected to the pope, who then appoints him. Following the publication of the name of the new bishop, a date for consecration (if the new appointee is not a bishop yet) and installation. The consecration of the new bishop falls to the metropolitan of the Church province of which Fulda is a part: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn. Before this, however, the new bishop makes an oath of loyalty to the German state and the Länder of Hesse and Thuringia.

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^On the day that Bishop Algermissen retired, the newly-appointed bishop of Würzburg, Msgr. Franz Jung, made his oath of loyalty to the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder. Bishop-elect Jung will be consecrated and installed on 10 June. (Credit: Markus Hauck (POW))

Against Limburg bishop, Catholic conservatives aim, shoot and completely miss the mark

csm_Portrait-Bischof-Baetzing-im-Bischofsgarten_int_20f2d8ef34Flyers, an online petition, a banner in front of his residence, security measures at Mass… What has Bishop Georg Bätzing done to warrant such an outpouring of protest? Well, according to reports by Katholisch.de he has done nothing more than correct a mistake made by a local parish community.

In November, the community of Hochtaunus in the Diocese of Limburg  was revealed to feature a PDF-file of contact addresses for ‘people in need’ on their website. Among these was a Lutheran charity which assists people in the first bureaucratic steps towards procuring an abortion.

Following this revelation, the diocese had the address removed immediately from the list, as abortion is, of course, completely incompatible with the Catholic faith. Nonetheless, Bishop Bätzing is now being accused of directly promoting the murder of children in the womb. Diocesan spokesman Stephan Schnelle rightly condemns this accusation as “nonsense” and “perfidious”. The diocese is now taking legal action against web portal Katholische.info, which has set up the online petition against the bishop* and continues making the accusations against him, as well as to others who can be held accountable for the aforementioned protests (it is, for example, as yet unclear who actually erected the banner in front of Msgr. Bätzing’s home).

Obviously, katholisches.info was right in pointing out that the charity on the Hochtaunus list provided services which are incompatible with Catholic teachings regarding the dignity of life. While one can wonder how it ever ended up on that list, the diocese acted appropriately in removing it immediately. Asked for a comment, spokesman Schnelle stated back in November, “The protection of life is of the highest priority for the bishop and the diocese”.

The actions against Bishop Bätzing and the Diocese of Limburg are grossly disproportionate. In fact, it does more harm than good to the goal of defending human life, not just to the persons undertaking these actions, but to all who think that killing unborn children is no solution to anything.

*The petition calls for legal action against bishop and diocese. According to German law, the dissemination of advertisements for abortions “for financial benefit or in a grossly offensive manner” is punishable with imprisonment for up to two years or a fine.

New cardinal appointments reveal papal focus

Yesterday, some of the new cardinals created by Pope Francis in his latest two consistories (November 2016 and June 2017) were given their duties in the Roman curia. More than simply an honorary title (although it sometimes is just that), a cardinal is expected to sit on various councils and congregations and so assist the Pope in running the affairs of the world Church. They are expected to be in Rome regularly to facilitate this, which, I imagine, does little to make life easier for some. Cardinal Mario Zenari, for example, serves in daily life as the Apostolic Nuncio to war-torn Syria. He has now been assigned to serve as a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches as well.

763Among the cardinals in question are Jozef Cardinal De Kesel (at left), archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, and Anders Cardinal Arborelius, bishop of Stockholm. They have been appointed as members of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, respectively.

The appointments of both cardinals are logical ones. Cardinal De Kesel has spoken out on numerous occasions on the role of the laity in the Church, and the dignity of human life. His appointment will undoubtedly herald his continued role in the debate about these topics, not least in the context of the Amoris laetitia its interpretation. Cardinal Arborelius has long since been involved with ecumenism, which is unavoidable in a country like Sweden. The Catholic Church is small but growing and has to relate to the secular society of the country and its Lutheran background.

The dicastery to gain the largest number of new members is the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. With five members (Cardinals Patrick D’Rozario (Dhaka, Bangeldesh), Maurice Piat (Port-Louis, Mauritius), John Ribat (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea), Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun (Vientiane, Laos) and Gregorio Rosa Chávez (auxiliary of San Salvador, El Salvador), all from Pope Francis’ favoured ‘peripheries’, it perhaps shows the importance he attaches to the dicastery which he established at the start of this year.

Photo credit: Reuters

 

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.

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