When money and faith clash – Archbishop Gänswein on “disproportionate measures”

Strong words from Archbishop Georg Gänswein about the notorious German Church tax, the Kirchensteuer, in a recent interview. More specifically, the Prefect of the Papal Household criticises the measures taken against people who refuse to pay the tax: excommunication.

The Kirchensteuer is a state tax for the benefit of faith communities (not just the Catholic Church). When a citizen is officially registered as a member of a church of faith community, he is obliged to pay this tax. The only way to avoid paying this tax is to stop being a member of a church or faith community. Archbishop Gänswein explains the Catholic Church’s response to this:

gänswein“How does the Catholic Church in Germany respond to someone leaving the Church? With an automatic exclusion from the Church community, in other words: excommunication. This is excessive and incomprehensible. One can question dogmas, that hurts no one, no one is kicked out. Is not paying the Church tax then a greater misdemeanor against the faith than violations of the truths of faith? The impression created is this: it’s  not so tragic when the faith is at stake, but as soon as money is involved, the game is over. The sharp sword of excommunication when leaving the Church is disproportionate and in need of correction.”

This, and the entire fact of the Catholic Church making use of the Kirchensteuer, does more bad than good, in my opinion. Not only does it create the impression that money is more important than the individual and the various reasons that people may have to not want to pay the Church tax, it also ensnares the Church in the fiscal policies of the state, curtailing its freedom to perform her mission. Of course, money is a necessity, even for the Church, but it should never be a goal in itself. And this whole business of  excommunicating people with a simple stroke of a pen gives the impression of the latter.

Archbishop Gänswein continues:

“When the goods ultimately oppose the good – the faith – there remains only one option: one must free oneself of it. Full coffers and empty churches, this is a terrible gap, that can no longer continue going well. When the cash registers ring and the pews grow ever more empty, there will some day be an implosion. An empty church can not be taken seriously. Who is served when a diocese is extremely rich, but the faith has gradually seeped away? Are we so secularised that the faith barely plays a part anymore, or is even considered to be ballast? Ballast is cast off when it is no longer needed. Are we no longer in a position to proclaim the faith in such a way that people see that it is something great, something beautiful, which enriches and deepens life?”

These comments probably continue to make him unpopular among his brother bishops in Germany, but Archbishop Gänswein is unfazed. When asked about the probability of him being appointed to a diocese in Germany, he is clear that that is not going to happen, since no cathedral chapter is likely to choose him.

“It is indeed true: I have made no secret of my convictions. I have somehow been  branded in public as a rightwinger or a hardliner, without there being concrete examples for that. If the reason is that I do not speak in a roundabout way, but with clarity, than I have to say: Yes, that’s right. That is what I stand for. Now and also in the future.”

Nor does he have a desire to return home to be ordinary of a diocese. He is content with his duties at the side of Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

No context – Bishop Mutsaerts and Michael Voris

For the second time, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts made an appearance on Michael Voris’ Churchmilitant.tv, causing some concerns about the bluntness of his statements. While I don’t think that the statements are wholly incorrect or ill-advised, I do have my concerns.

Bishop Mutsaerts appears in the video below at the 9:58 mark.

My concerns are twofold, and they are related to context. Michael Voris has a very clear goal with this video: he wants to explain why he makes his show The Vortex the way he does, and he uses the bishop’s words as proof that it is needed. What we don’t get to see, however, is the context of these words, the conversation they were a part of.

Michael Voris spoke with Bishop Mutsaerts during an earlier visit to the Netherlands in May of this year. I wrote about it the time. I assume the footage we see in yesterday’s video was recorded then.

Bishop Mutsaerts’ words are only a short blurb, clearly a part of a larger conversation. We don’t know the context of that conversation, which could account for the apparent bluntness of the bishop’s words. That is one concern.

Secondly, it is is clear that English is not the bishop’s first language. While he takes care not to speak too fast, trying to find the right words for what he wants to express, this can still very easily open the door for misconceptions and using the wrong words for what he wants to say. Unfamiliarity with a language often leads to using the easiest and most general words available to the speaker. This too could be taking place in the blurb.

I fear that the impression I get is that Voris uses Bishop Mutsaerts’ words for his own goal, removing the context of the conversation as it took place at the time. And that can lead to confusion, not least among Catholics in the Netherlands, whose eyes are on the bishops during this week’s ad limina anyway.

And that leads to yet another concern, which has nothing to do with Michael Voris or any bishop directly. All eyes in secular and Catholic media, and among many faithful, are on the bishops, and rightly so, but anything that is not  positive sign or statement is too often disregarded as unwarranted negativity and the incorrect attitude to things. Yesterday, the bishops were visibly very happy about their audience with Pope Francis, and that is great to see, and an encouragement. But that joy does not in any way invalidate any concerns and serious words or opinions that anyone may have. We can’t limit our ideas and opinions of the ad limina to mere feelings of optimism or pessimism, joy or annoyance.

Does the video above help or should we have our questions about its usefulness? In the end, it is too short to have much use beyond what Michael Voris has for it: a validation for his Internet activities. Support those as you may, or not (and I have some concerns about Voris’ approach), I don’t think Bishop Mutsaerts’ comments are much to get excited about. Yes, there are significant tensions between faith and society, Church and state, and it is disconcerting to look back and see how the ideas from the 1960s have taken society hostage, but is that something that we don’t know? I guess, for those who don’t, it could be useful as an eye opener. But beyond that… there’s little more to say about it.

Far more important is what we do with those facts, so let’s focus on that question as the ad limina continues.

The General Report for the Ad Limina – the first part

Logo BisschoppenconferentieToday the Dutch Bishops’ Conference published the general report on the Catholic Church in the Netherlands that will be presented to Pope Francis during the ad limina visit that will take place from 2 to 7 December. This report comes accompanied by reports on every diocese, which the individual ordinaries will present. Those reports remain confidential, but the general report is public. In due time, I will be posting the entire report in English. For now, however,  a look at the first part, which aims to give an overview of the state of the Church in the Netherlands, and some of the ongoing developments that dictate current policy and trends.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands

The time that the Roman Catholic Church was a great people’s church. lies some decades behind us. We are developing into a church of choice with, especially in the southern dioceses, elements of cultural Catholicism. Before us lies a future in which people who want to be Roman Catholic do so expressly out of a conscious choice. We are investing in the new evangelisation, deepening of the faith and of the personal relationship with Christ. In recent years we anchored ourselves clearly on the basics of our Catholic identity. The richness of the Roman Catholic Church, with her sacraments, social teaching, liturgy, documents and the diversity of offices and ministry has been painted and communicated more clearly and we will continue to work on that.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands exists in a situation of decline, which has begun long ago. In 25 years the number of members dropped by 1 million to 4,044,000 Catholics. At this moment, 24.1 % of the total population is Roman Catholic, and that makes her the largest group of faithful in the Netherlands.

By merging parishes and stimulating cooperation between parishes and parish groups, we want to assure that the local parish remains or becomes a thriving and attractive faith community. From these larger parishes or parish groups missionary initiatives are undertaken, searching for new possibilities to familiarise people with Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands performs her mission in a strongly secularised society. In it she does not want to retreat as on an island, but remain in dialogue with government, society, other Christians and followers of other religions and philosophies.

1. Developments

  • The reorganisation of the Bishops’ Conference support structure was completed this year.  On the diocesan level there were reorganisations of the diocesan curia and a restructuring of ecclesiastical life. Ambitions, priorities and organisations must be adjusted to a decrease of available personal and financial means, the size of the faith community and the way in which one participates in the community. It makes the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands a “Church in conversion”.
  • knox_bible_openedThe bishops and their coworkers make parishes aware of their missionary duty and the importance of decent catechesis in the parishes, which makes, attuned to the various stages of life, people familiar with Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the Church. In the past fifty years there has not been enough attention for systematic education in the faith in accordance with the teaching of the Church. A multi-year religious education program for children, youth and young adults, developed by employees of the Diocese of Roermond, is also promoted in other dioceses. Much is being done for a good formation of the countless volunteers who take care of catechesis in the parishes. On multiple sides means of assistance are being developed, such as pastoral care with an emphasis on presence in the concrete lives of people, the use of new media, the Alpha Course and initiatives of new movements.
  • Within the context of the mergers of parishes, parochial caritas foundations are also being merged, creating larger and stronger caritas foundation able to create a diaconal face for the larger parishes. A missionary Church must also give clear witness of the Gospel in the diaconal works of love.
  • Mergers of parishes and decline – with the unavoidable consequence of closing church buildings – create unrest and pain in many places.
  • wydPolicy and the joining of forces regarding the pastoral care of young people have led to a successful Dutch participation in the World Youth Days in Cologne in 2005 (3,500 participants), Sydney in 2008 (700 participants), Madrid in 2011 (1,250 participants) and Rio de Janeiro in 2013 (300 participants). The World Youth Days in Rio de Janeiro drew fewer participants because of the distance and the high costs related to the journey. Additionally, the previous World Youth Days (Madrid) took place only two years earlier, which made the time to save money shorter. The annual Catholic Youth Day draws every years some 1,500 young people from all over the Netherlands. The World Youth Days especially deepened the Catholic faith of many participants, as well as the formation of their personal prayer life and active participation in Church life. There is special attention for the follow up of the World Youth Days through youth activities in the dioceses and on a national level. The dioceses also develop their own programs for youth activities.
  • The Passion is the name of a musical event organised by Roman Catholics and Protestants, in which the story of the passion of Christ and the Gospel of Easter take centre stage, and which since 2011 has taken place annually on Maundy Thursday, every time in a different location. It is broadcast live on television. Famous artists portray the roles of Christ and others who appear in the passion and the Easter Gospel. The event is a missionary chance to present the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ in a modern way to a large audience. In 2011 the event drew almost 1 million viewer. In 2012 there 1.7 million. In 2013 no less than 2.3 million viewers tuned in to The Passion.
  • There are some fifty Catholic immigrant communities and some thirty immigrant parishes (of which a few are Catholic parishes of the Eastern rite) These immigrant Catholic faith communities are often very vital and introduce experiences and expression of the Catholic faith from their country or culture of origin. In that way they contribute to a new momentum in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands.
  • In words and action the bishops follow a clear policy regarding the ecclesiastical, liturgical and sacramental life concerning the position and duty of priests and deacons, as well as pastoral workers and other lay ministers.
  • RKK_logo_paars_magentaThe social relevance of the Church plays a role in her relation to the government, the society, the other churches and church communities, as well as to other religions and philosophies. An important tool is the allocated broadcast time for the Roman Catholic Church (RKK), which the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Katholieke Radio Omroep (KRO) fill in cooperation. National government carries the costs for the RKK. This time offers special opportunities to reach Catholics and non-Catholics. But the government has decided to stop financing the RKK and withdraw the licenses of all religious broadcasters, so also including the RKK, in 2016. That is why it is important that the KRO continues expressing her Catholic identity in her own broadcast time. In cooperation with the bishops, the KRO will take over the broadcast of the Sunday Eucharist and a few programmes of the RKK. In addition, the bishops are investigating if there are more affordable means to broadcast programmes with a Roman Catholic identity, for example via Internet television and radio.
  • Whereas the principle of the separation of Church and state originally guaranteed the prevention of state interference with Church affairs, this separation is now used by some to urge for a religious neutralisation of the public domain. This helps in the privatisation of religion and faith. The bishops are in favour of Church and state being clearly separate from one another, both administratively and organisationally. This does not, however, mean a separation between faith and conviction on the hand, and politics on the other. The Roman Catholic faith implies a clear and develop social doctrine, a rich source of inspiration for civilians and politics. The opinions of secular groups in society are, like religious opinions, not neutral.

This part of the report is fairly factual, although it does give an idea of where the priorities of the bishops lie. It is fairly policy-driven and therefore automatically rather far removed from the daily experience of faithful and their pastoral needs and wishes. That is an ongoing issue in the Church in the Netherlands: it is still difficult to make the step from policy to practice, from the discussions and plans of the bishops to the daily affairs and experiences of people. That is a gap that needs to be closed from both sides.

The bishops will have arrived in Rome by 1 December, when they will offer a Mass at the Church of the Frisians, with Cardinal Eijk as the main celebrant. This Mass will be broadcast live on television.

Alternative history – a look at the Concordat of 1827, or what could have been

A bit of alternate history, or a look at how things could have been if history hadn’t gotten in the way…

A Church province of Mechelen covering what is now Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The Archbishop of Mechelen would have truly been Primate of the Netherlands: his archdiocese would have covered the provinces of Brabant (or modern Flemish and Walloon Brabant) and Antwerp. It would have had seven suffragan dioceses, some of which are similar to the ones we know today, while others would have been radically different in composition:

  • Amsterdam: the provinces of Holland (modern North and South Holland), Utrecht, Overijssel, Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe
  • Bois le Duc: the provinces of North Brabant, Gelderland and Zeeland
  • Bruges: the province of West Flanders
  • Ghent: the province of East Flanders
  • Liège: the provinces of Liège and Limburg (modern Belgian and Dutch Limburg)
  • Namur: the provinces of Namur and Luxembourg (the modern Belgian province and the sovereign Grand Duchy)
  • Tournai: the province of Hainault

1815-VerenigdKoninkrijkNederlanden_svg

Map of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as it existed from 1815 to 1830. Subdivisions depicted are provinces, not dioceses.

The bishops of all these dioceses would be appointed with royal consent and would swear and oath to the king upon their installation. Bishops and clergy would receive an income from the state.

All this could have been reality, had the Concordat between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Holy See of 1827 become reality. The Belgian revolution and subsequent independence prevented this of course, and while the Belgian dioceses continued to exist and develop according to the descriptions in the Concordat, the Dutch dioceses would never become reality. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1853 when a whole different set of dioceses were created.

In that plan, which did become reality, the massive Diocese of Amsterdam (at 18,521 square kilometers taking up about one third of the total territory of the kingdom) had no place. In fact, no cathedral would ever be built in the Dutch capital, which instead became a part of the new Diocese of Haarlem. I described the recent Catholic history of Amsterdam in an earlier blog post.

Pope_Leo_XIIThe failed Concordat of 1827, which was signed by Pope Leo XII (and not Leo XIII, as I mistakenly wrote earlier) (pictured) and King William I, sheds an interesting light on what could have been. Whereas the Church in what is now Belgium and Luxembourg was predominant in society and had dioceses which had already been established (with the exception of Bruges, which would be split off from Ghent in 1832, and Luxembourg, separated from Namur in 1840), the northern Catholics lived in mission territory (the Mission “sui iuris” of Batavia) and in four apostolic vicariates (‘s Hertogenbosch, Breda, Grave-Nijmegen and Ravenstein-Megen), three of which were less than thirty years old. Since the Reformation there had been no hierarchy to speak off in the modern Netherlands. The (often Italian) superiors of Batavia frequently didn’t even live in the territory they had pastoral responsibility, choosing Brussels or Cologne instead. The Concordat was, then, something of a diplomatic victory, especially since royalty and government were far from tolerant of the Catholic Church. Hence the oath to the king and the state control over clergy income. In fact, the creation of a mere two dioceses in areas where there were none yet (Bois le Duc and Amsterdam) would have helped as well: it meant there were only two extra bishops to contend with: in the southern part of the kingdom, there already were dioceses with bishops, so little would change there. The Concordat would simply solidify the relation between Church and state there.

If the Concordat had become reality, how would the map of the Dutch Church province look today? Assuming that Belgium would have become independent at one point or another, the province of Mechelen would be spread over two or even three countries (Luxembourg continued to exist in a personal union with the Netherlands through the same head of state, but since the Grand Duchy could not have a female head of state, the two nations would go their separate ways as soon as the first Queen inherited the Dutch throne). The Diocese of Liège as proposed in the Concordat could have gone both ways: split between Belgium and the Netherlands or wholly Belgian. The proposed Diocese of Bois le Duc would have been rather unmanageable, combining strong Catholic and Protestant parts of the country into one. The province of Gelderland would one day be split off, but to do what? Become an apostolic vicariate in its own right? Be merged with Amsterdam? The proposed Diocese of Amsterdam was also hard to control, split as it would be by the Zuiderzee: the part formed by Holland and Utrecht would be physically separated from the rest in the northern part of the kingdom. Perhaps the latter part would form a new diocese with Gelderland, with its cathedral in… Zwolle? Groningen? Deventer? Arnhem? Who’s to say? And what of Utrecht? That oldest of all sees in the northern Netherlands, once established by Saint Boniface as his base of operations from which to convert the Frisians. Now just a part of a new Diocese of Amsterdam… The Concordat of 1827 may have appeased the state for a while, but for the Church it would have been quite unmanageable and unrealistic.

Bisdommen

The present layout of dioceses in the Netherlands

Perhaps it is a blessing that it never became reality. Today there are voices that there are too many dioceses in the Netherlands, but for the major part of their history, they have worked well enough. A Church province limited to a single country, with its own metropolitan see in the oldest Christian centre of the nation.

Kirchensteuer – sacrament for sale?

Much has already been written about the news from Germany – that people who don’t pay their Church taxes will not be able to receive the sacraments – and by people who are more knowledgeable than I am in these matters. So this will not be a blog post in which I share my opinion, but more of a road sign towards some interesting blog posts by others.

First, there is the blog by my friend Inge, who asks: “Do German bishops deny sacraments to those who don’t pay Church tax?“. She explains that the Kirchensteuer is a federal income tax, established and collected by the state, not the Church.

Father John Boyle also wonders what the German bishops can do, and delves into Canon Law to try and find an answer. Jimmy Akin then does something similar.

The Kirchensteuer is a relic from times past, but nonetheless law in Germany. The highest court of appeal has reinforced this by stating that the only way to avoid paying the tax is to officially leave the faith you belong to. And that has ramifications for our profession of faith, as Mr. Akin points out.

If we want to function in society, we need money. That is true for you and me, and also for the Church. In Germany, the Church receives disposable income via the Kirchensteuer. Should this be abolished, and much may be said for that, new sources of income need to be found. Voluntary and regular donations from the faithful is an option, but what we see in the Netherlands, for example, is that many don’t contribute financially, either because they’re unable or unwilling. A scaling down of the institutional Church and her activities, on the national, diocesan and parish level, is a consequence of that, and we see that happening as well.

And I haven’t touched upon the separation between Church and state, treasured by so many…

Religious titles for a new president

Most readers, even those who, like me, don’t follow politics too closely, will have noticed that there is a new president in France. François Hollande, who indeed has Dutch forebears, does not only win the highest political office in the country, but also a whole raft of religious titles and privileges, as the Belgian Church news website Kerknet reports, taking information from French newspaper ‘La Croix’. France is often said to be the ‘eldest daughter of the Church’ and that has consequences, although mostly ceremonial, even for an agnostic president.

The most important title, which the president inherits from the French monarchs, is that of honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. King Louis XI first received this title in 1482, and it was reinstated when King Henry IV renounced Protestantism and donated the Benedictine monastery of Clairac (and all its income) to the basilica in 1064. Since 1957, the title is given automatically to all French heads of state. President Hollande can also use the title of proto-dean of the cathedral of Embrun and of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Cléry near Orléans, and that of honorary dean of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in Savoie. He is also automatically honorary dean of Saint-Hilaire in Poitiers, Saint-Julien in Mans, Saint-Martin in Tours, Saint-Maurice d’Angers, Saint-Jean in Lyon, Saint-Étienne in Cahors and Saint-Germain des Prés in Paris.

Politically, the French president is head of state of Andorra, a position he shares with the bishop of the Spanish Diocese of Urgell, Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicília.

Lastly, the president of France can give the red cardinal’s hat to the Papal Nuncio in Paris, if the latter is created a cardinal. That happened, for example, in 1953 with Cardinal Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) and in 1959 with Cardinal Paolo Marella (later the archpriest of St. Peter’s and vice-dean of the College of Cardinals). That won’t be happening anymore, though, since new cardinals generally receive their hat from the pope directly. But, in theory, it is still an option.

It just goes to show that the separation of church and state isn’t always simple.

Photo credit: Jean-Marc Ayrault/Wikipedia/Flickr

The added value of bishops resigning

In the final weeks of last year, at least two prominent Dutch politicians – Deputy Prime Minister Maxime Verhagen (a Catholic, pictured)  and SGP party leader Kees van der Staaij (Reformed Protestant) – have suggested that it would be a good thing if one or more Dutch bishops would resign in the wake of the Deetman report. While both men received a certain amount of criticism for a perceived breach of the separation of Church and state, I think it’s more interesting to take these sentiments seriously. Not to say that I agree with them (I don’t), but they are interesting to look into.

We’ve seen it happen in Ireland, where several bishops resigned following conclusions about their conduct in handling abuse cases under their jurisdiction. These things are not unprecedented, but neither are they without context and reason. Although, as the Dutch bishops have confirmed, a bishop inherits a certain responsibility from his predecessor because of the fact that he is a bishop, they, like everyone else, can not be held responsible for the actions of another man. If one bishop mishandled specific cases of abuse, another bishop can’t be legally blamed for it, although he has a moral responsibility as shepherd and prelate of the Church.

A hypothetical resignation of any Dutch bishop, to atone for actions that were or were not taken under another man’s watch, would be meaningless, in my opinion. Other acts of atonement for the Church as a whole, or the diocese of which a bishop is the shepherd, can be far more effective and meaningful.

Simply looking at the numbers, it is unlikely (though of course not impossible) that any of the sitting bishops in the Netherlands will be found guilty of gross misconduct. The vast majority of them were not bishops when the peak of the abuse cases occurred. This is something that the media often seems to forget, that the bishops of the 1960s and 70s are not the same men as today.

A far more important consideration in this matter is that a bishop can be far more effective in working towards a solution if he stays in office. And here we must consider what a bishop is. Unlike what many want us to believe, he is not the CEO of a major company. A CEO may, sometimes even should, resign if stocks fall, production drops and profit plummets. A bishop is a father for the faithful in his diocese. And, to borrow a simile from somewhere else, who has heard of a father severing all contact with his family when some disaster happens? Exactly then it is a father’s duty to stay with his family, protect them, and help them in dealing with whatever horror has afflicted them (and him as well, of course). That is also what Bishop Gerard de Korte said in an interview on 17 December:

“I don’t think the victims are waiting for the resignation of a bishop, but rather that the current bishops act in such a way that they will be helped. What matters now is that we try to stand by the victims and act adequately.”

If a bishop were to resign, we should have a good answer to the question “why?” And then we must ask what good this resignation will bring. In the meantime, we must ask, inspire and pray for our bishops to do what is right, as fathers of the local church.

Photo credit: ANP