Lies and a hint of colonialism at the Synod – Terzake follows the Belgian bishops

Yesterday I was asked about a television report made by Belgian television program Terzake, in which they followed the Belgian bishops Luc Van Looy and Johan Bonny at the Synod of Bishops. The full video, which is in Dutch, can be viewed here.

While most of the program reveals nothing we did not already know, with comments about the process needing to go forward and there not being any winners or losers at a Synod, there are a few problematic moments in it. First there is the small talk between Fr. Dirk Smet, rector of the Belgian College, and Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, where the latter asks about Fr. Smet’s microphone and if he is recording the conversation. Fr. Smet blatantly lies that he is not. While that is nothing more than rather deceitful, other statements in the program are more than that.

Being asked if the expectations of the Synod are too high, editor Emmanuel Van Lierde of weekly Tertio answers that it is difficult for the Pope to enforce anything, “as there is that conservative group, [including] Cardinal Gerhard Müller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who before the Synod already threatened with a possible rupture in the Church…” That is a blatant untruth, and frames Cardinal Müller for something he has never said. The cardinal has warned that changing Church doctrine could lead to a schism, but that is not the same as him threatening that he would be breaking away from the Church if the Pope proceeded to quickly or forcefully. Cardinal Müller, or any of the more conservative Synod fathers for that matter, is not a schismatic.

bonnyLater on in the report, Bishop Bonny comments on his being a part of the French language group led by Cardinal Sarah, saying that the presence of many conservative African Synod fathers is something of a hindrance to him. “They always speak from the African standpoint about what we are experiencing here [in western Europe]”. Homosexuality, he explained, was for example not a topic that could be discussed.This brings to mind the comments of Cardinal Kasper last year, when he said that the Africans should not try and dictate what we in the west should do. It’s a rather colonial mindset, to want to listen only to what African Synod fathers are saying when it suits our western mindset. It can hardly be called synodality. Maybe Bishop Bonny could have been a bit more open and do what he expect others to do when he presents his thoughts: listen, think and not immediately assume that others are wrong and he is right.

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Now official: San Salvator no longer Catholic

A full church during the last liberal service at San Salvator

It is exceedingly rare that a community of faithful breaks away from the Catholic Church, certainly when compared to the Protestant churches. But yesterday morning it happened. The parish council, fired earlier last week, of the San Salvator parish in Den Bosch, took many faithful with them in their misguided break away from the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch. They will be continuing their services in a community centre around the corner from the church which they had used for the past years.

It is now up to Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, who has been appointed as temporary parish priest, to install a new parish council and return the sacraments and the faith of the world Church back to the people of the surrounding neighbourhoods. Stating that the faithful have every right to defect, he says: “This no longer fits under the banner of the Roman Catholic Church, but apart from that I wish them all the best.”

Considering the stubborn attitude of the San Salvator council in discussions with the diocese, and their hostile attitude to Church teachings personified, for them, in Bishop Mutsaerts, this was something of an inevitable consequence. But it is a great loss. For the people of the parish, who are deprived from the sacraments and the salvation Christ offers through them, and also from the communion with the rest of the diocese. In essence they have become a lone island whose actions are dictated by hollow feelings and empty words.

Photo credit: Omroep Brabant

A challenging and difficult theologian

On the last day of 2009, theologian Edward Schillebeeckx was buried in Nijmegen. The funeral of the controversial Dominican was attended by a fair number of fewllo theologians and representatives of the Church. This despite the often difficult relations between Schillebeeckx and the authorities. On behalf of the Dutch bishops, Msgr. Gerard de Korte attended the funeral, and he writes about it in his column at rkk.nl.

On the death of Father Schillebeeckx
Just before Christmas the Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx died at a very high age. On new Year’s Eve he was buried in Nijmegen. I, representing the Dutch bishops, also gave my last regards to this influential theologian. Memorial articles appeared in the media, very soon after his death. As during his life he remains a controversial theologian after his death.

Discussed
An orthodox protestant theologian called him a ‘liberal whistle-blower’. Conservative Catholic websites speak of an ‘heretic’. Through their chairman, Bishop van Luyn, the Dutch bishops utter careful words. They recall with appreciation the major role of Father Schillebeeckx during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He remained, in the words of Bishop van Luyn, an influential theologian in the years following, both within the Netherlands and without.

Difficult theologian
I would call Schillebeeckx a challenging and especially difficult theologian. In the first place difficult to read. Incorrect interpretations were easily made, not just because of the erudition of the books but sometimes also because of the long and convoluted sentences. Schillebeeckx also became increasingly difficult for Church authorities, in Rome and in the Netherlands. Looking back I can only consider it tragic that bishops and theologians of Father Schillebeeckx’ stature ended up fruitlessly opposite one another.

The early Schillebeeckx
As far as I can recall, Christ, the sacrament of the encounter with God was the first of Schillebeeckx’ works that I read. It is a work by the early Schillebeeckx from the 1950s. I read it as a history student and was gripped by its piety. The relational approach struck me. Our faith is ultimately about the personal relation of God who came to us in Christ. Schillebeeckx calls Christ the primordial sacrament. The encounter with God is deeply connected with our encounter with Christ, prime access to the Father. In the Church, and especially in the sacraments of the Church, Christ approaches us visibly and tangibly.

Critical about tradition
After my graduation as a historian I became a seminarian and read, among others, his famed book Jesus: an experiment in Christology. Schillebeeckx had become a systematic theologian who wanted to do justice to the results of the study of the Bible. In his own words, he wanted to be an orthodox theologian who was critical about tradition. He emphasised the importance of hermeneutics. A repetition without context of the dogmatic formulae of the past is not fruitful for a living faith. A good explanation and presentation are exceedingly important. What did the early Church say about the mystery of God and the person of Jesus Christ? How can the old faith be put in such words that it is relevant for modern Christians? In this light theology had a deeply pastoral motive for Schillebeeckx: how can I help modern people to achieve the faith in Jesus that the Church wants to express in her christological dogma?

The later Schillebeeckx
In Schillebeeckx later works current events became important, next to tradition. He said God’s salvation far beyond the boundaries of the Church. People are the words with which God write His story. This support of the broad working of God’s Spirit leads to both agreement and questions. Is God’s unique salvation through Jesus Christ still done enough justice?

Discussion about holy orders
Recently there has been some tension between the bishops and the Dutch Dominicans about a brochure about holy orders. Especially the notion that a local community could let someone who was not a priest celebrate the Eucharist was a bridge too far for the bishops. The word schismatic was unavoidable in this context. One could wonder in how far Father Schillebeeckx, with his critical publications about holy orders, stimulated this vision.

Critical evaluation
In his response, Bishop van Luyn, as chair of the bishops’ conference, rightly says that Professor Schillebeeckx’ new way of practicing theology led to discussion. Future research will have to clarify the definitive role of Father Schillebeeckx. Personally, I see important questions for a theological evaluation. Does his later theology do enough justice to early Christian declarations about the triune God and Jesus Christ? And the many questions that his theology of holy orders has caused remains interesting.

At the grave
Standing at Father Schillebeeckx’ grave, however, I did not bid farewell to a difficult theologian but first of all a brother in Christ. Theological concepts and disagreements are exceedingly relative. I had to think about an experience that Saint Thomas Aquinas related. After an intense experience of the Eucharist the great medieval theologian is said to have called his imposing work nothing more than straw. All our knowing is temporal. On the other side of death we will fully know as we are known now. Edward Schillebeeckx need no longer look into a mirror darkly, but can now see face to face (1 Cor. 13,12). He died with great faith. On the day of his death he felt that God was calling him. Some hours before his passing he said, “I see a door, half open, and much light”.
His death announcement mentions a looking forward to the encounter with God as the Living and the Merciful of all people. We prayed that Father Schillebeeckx is secure with God, who came so very close to us in Christ. May he rest in peace.

Msgr. Dr. G.J.N. De Korte