A pleasant meeting, criticism allowed – Scandinavian bishops on Ad Limina

The bishops of Scandinavia are wrapping up their ad limina visit to Rome these days. Tomorrow will be the last of their six-day program, which included an audience with Pope Francis on Thursday. It is the first time the entire conference met with Pope Francis to discuss the state of affairs in their countries.

The Nordic Bishops’ Conference is made up of the bishops of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, and has six members: Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen, Bishop Anders Cardinal Arborelius of Stockholm, Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo and Trondheim, Bishop Berislav Grgic of Troms∅, Bishop David Tencer of Reykjavik and Bishop Teemu Sippo of Helsinki. This ad limina is the first time that they have a cardinal among them: Stockholm’s Cardinal Arborelius, and one of the daily Masses celebrated by the bishops took place in the cardinal’s title church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. In an interview with Domradio, Cardinal Arborelius commented:

“One could say that that is my home in Rome. As cardinal one is connected in a special way to Rome, to Peter, the Holy See. And that is why every cardinal has the privilege of a church of his own in Rome. I feel somehow at home here, which is a strange but beautiful experience.

[…]

[In this church] they really try and bring the social teachings of the Church to life. People in need are helped here, and that is a prophetic message for the entire Church. We should be concerned more about those in need.”

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The bishops visited most of the dicasteries of the curia, starting with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (pictured above). Prefect Cardinal Robert Sarah encouraged them to use the liturgy as an instrument of evangelisation and to promote its appreciation. Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary, lauded the high standards of the translations of the liturgical texts into the various Scandinavian languages.

On Thursday the bishops met with Pope Francis for ninety minutes in an informal setting. Joining them was Bishop Peter Bürcher, emeritus bishop of Reykjavik. Cardinal Arborelius:

“[Pope Francis] was very personable and said, “You may speak very openly with me and even be critical. It is allowed to criticise the pope here, but not beyond the walls of this room. But he said so in jest. It was a very open and also pleasant conversation.”

Some of the topics discussed were the question of youth and how they may be integrated in the life of the Church, with an eye on the upcoming Synod of Bishops assembly on youth and vocation; but also the situation of migrants, which is especially noteworthy for the Church in Scandinavia, as she grows there thanks to immigrants. Pope Francis also asked about the celebration of the sacraments, vocations, ecumenism and the life of priests in Scandinavia. The bishops and the pope also looked back on the papal visit to Lund, which, the bishops said, left a great impression, among both Catholics and Lutherans.

Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen, and also president of the bishops’ conference, summarised a part of the audience with the pope in this video from Vatican News:

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^On the first day of their ad limina visit, the Nordic bishops celebrated Mass above the tomb of St. Peter, underneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

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Luxembourg archbishop succeeds Cardinal Marx at the helm of COMECE

The COMECE, short-hand for the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, has elected their successor to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who presided over the 29-member organisation, which “monitors the political process of the European Union in all areas of interest to the Church”, since 2012.

The seventh president since COMECE’s establishment in 1980 is Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Jesuit archbishop of Luxembourg. Archbishop Hollerich’s mandate runs from 2018 to 2023. He has represented the Luxembourg Church in COMECE since 2011. His view on the role of COMECE in Europe is summarised in a statement he made during last month’s high-level meeting with the European Commission:  “Christians are not an interest group speaking in favor of religions, but European citizens committed to the construction of Europe, our common house”.

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^New COMECE preisdent Archbishop Hollerich with outgoing president, Cardinal Marx, in the background.

Together with the election of a new president, the rest of the highest leadership of COMECE was also renewed. Four new vice-presidents, one less than in the previous iteration, were elected: Bishop Noël Treanor (Down and Connor, Northern Ireland), Bishop Mariano Crociata (Latina-Terracina-Sezze-Priverno, Italy), Bishop Jan Vokál (Hradec Králové, Czech Republic) and Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen, Germany). -imageThe Dutch delegate to COMECE, Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom (at right), auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, was elected as president of the Commission on Legal Affairs. The new presidium was officialy launched at the Mass for Europe, celebrated in Brussels’ church of Notre Dame du Sablon.

Cardinal Marx hereby loses one of his multitude of offices. He still remains archbishop of München und Freising, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, member of the C9 group that assists Pope Francis in reforming the Curia, and the coordinator of the Council for the Economy, a part of the Curia in Rome.

COMECE strives to maintain close contacts with the institutions of the European Union, to monitor the political processes and developments and to communicate and inform both Church and politicians about their concerns and views, with a firm basis in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Photo credit: COMECE

A Belgian encyclical – updating Populorum Progressio

In March of 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI published his fifth encyclical, “on the development of peoples”. Populorum Progressio discussed the development of man, and especially the problems that were present then and still are today: social inequality, poverty, hunger, disease, people seeking a better life elsewhere. It is also discussed progress, freedom and solidarity. The encyclical coincided with the establishment of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which has now merged into the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

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^Bishops Jean-Pierre Delville (left) and Luc Van Looy (far right) present Populorum Communio.

The bishops of Belgium released a pastoral letter to update the encyclical today. They have dubbed their text Populorum Communio. According to Bishop Luc Van Looy, the bishops have wanted to explore the social dimension of mercy. The Holy Year of Mercy, then, is a major inspiration for the document, which also served as the bishops’ letter for Lent, since “Lent liberates from what is superfluous, makes us man among men.”

As the document is rather lengthy, I present my translation of the official summary below.

“On 26 March (Easter) 1967, Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Populorum progressio (on the development of peoples) to the world. He broadened the Church’s social teaching by calling for economic development and social justice for all peoples. The document led to a worldwide solidarity movement in the Church, which was prepared by Paul VI on 6 January of that same year 1967 by the establisment of the Commission of Justice and Peace. In our country, Broederlijk Delen (solidarity campaign for Third World countries during Lent) and Welzijnszorg (an Advent campaign against lack of opportunities in the fourth world in our own country) had been active since the early 1960s, and these seamlessly joined this movement.

With the Holy Year of Mercy, which closed in November of last year, Pope Francis provided a key to live the Christian faith in a renewed and creative way. Just before the start of Lent (Ash Wednesday 1 March), it is the basis to think more deeply about the social impact of mercy.

As we know, the challenges are not negligible. There is an increasing lack of opportunities and social injustice, the question of migrants and refugees, pollution and the threat to the ecological balance … All this does not only require the development of the peoples, but also unity between the peoples to work together for the future of the planet. And mercy is key to achieve this unity. “It is important to have aheart for those in misery”, Pope Francis says. “It is a new sensitivity which allows itself to be challenged by the other and leads to a new attitude.”

John’s story of Jesus healing a blind man (9:1-41) is the guideline of the pastoral letter. The story of healing is a call to keep believing that mercy can drive back exclusion and that a unity which itself is merciful can develop in society. “Like the healing of the body results in the healing of the soul, we dare to hope that the promotion of development results in a spiritual discovery and gives new meaning to the mission of mercy,” the bishops write.

The pastoral letter addresses four great challenges for modern society, which cause both progress and exlcusion: technology and science, economy, politics and ethics. What is the role of Christians and what is their influence on the world’s development? The social teachings of the Church and the notion of mercy as developed by Pope Francis offer inspiration for possible answers.

  1. In his encyclical Populorum progressio, Paul VI makes clear that social justice also includes the economic development of underdeveloped countries and that development is not limited to merely economic growth, but must be directed towards the development of every man and the entire person. Pope Francis adds that social justice requires the social integration of the poor to be able to hear their voice.
  2. The means for achieving social justice, Populorum progressio teaches, is solidarity. Pope Francis emphasises that solidarity demands the creation of a new mentality which thinks in terms of community, of the priority of the life of all to the appriation of goods by a minority. Or, “solidarity must be lived as a decision to return to the poor what is theirs”.
  3. Regarding politics which today lead to war and violence among peoples and societies, the establishment of unity between peoples make a world peace possible if it is inspired by mercy. Everyone deserves confirmation and respect, especially those who are habitually excluded.
  4. True solidarity with the poorest in the world means that we question our way of life and choose a sustainable economy which takes the capacity of the world into account. “We must believe in the power which can realise change when go forward with many,” the bishops write. This faith in the power of “transition” is the area of common ethics, which includes our entire planet and transcends the exclusion of the weak. The “dynamics of transition” addresses everyone, no matter how weak, and urges the politically responsible to form one front to save the planet. In this way we will achieve a dimension of unity between peoples at the service of the entire earth.

The bishops conclude their letter with a word of thanks to all who are already working for the integration of the poor in society andpol who are at the service of reconciliation in the world. At the start of the Lent they invite all people of good will to create the link between stimulating changes and true conversion, through prayer, fasting and sharing. They remind that Fasting is liberating, as it liberates from all that is superfluous. Fasting is becoming more human, more solidary, more concerned with our earth. It is living according to the ethics of simplicity which create space to live well.

And the letter concludes as follows: “We invite you as Christians, in spite of the injustice and violence affecting our world, to continue working for a more just and sustainable world without inequalities, and this together with all men and women working for the same.””

Photo credit: Kerknet on Facebook

 

God is inexhaustible love – Bishop de Korte’s letter for the Holy Year of Mercy

Perhaps in lieu of (or, as it may turn out, in addition to) his customary letter for Advent, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter about the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy to the faithful of his diocese. In it, he writes about the importance of mercy as it is a fundamental element of the identity of God. He identifies two kinds of mercy – moral and social, and further divides the latter in three constituent elements or expressions: in our own lives, in the Church and in society. He concludes his letter by underlining the message of Pope Francis, as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’: that, by living mercy in these three contexts, we should work with others to build a society of mercy.

Read my translation below:

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“Brothers and sisters,

On 8 December, a Marian feast and also the date of the end of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, the Year of Mercy will begin in our Church. It is an invitation to look critically at how our parishes function, but also at our own existence. How merciful and mild do we treat one another? Do we mostly see what’s alien and strange in the other and do we mindlessly ignore the good? Do I give someone who has done wrong a new chance? Am I really willing to help when someone is in need?

Shortly after his election as bishop of Rome, Pope Francis gave an interview that was published in a number of magazines of the Jesuit Order. The Pope called himself a sinner called by the Lord. He referred to a painting by Caravaggio, depicting the calling of Matthew. Apparently our Pope recognises himself strongly in Matthew. As a tax collector, a despised collaborator of the Roman occupiers, he is invited to experience forgiveness and a new start. Christ meets him with merciful love and calls him to follow Him. Pope Francis lives from this some merciful love of Christ.

Office holders in the Church are especially invited to take a look in the mirror. Pope Francis recently quoted from an address by Church father Ambrose: “Where there is mercy, there is Christ; where there is rigidity, there are only officials”. This is an incisive word which everyone with a pastoral assignment in our faith community must consider seriously. In this context I would like to refer to the book Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomas Halik. A great number of people, within and without our Church, are like Zacchaeus in the tree from the Gospel. They are curious but also like to keep a distance. To get in touch with them requires pastoral prudence and mildness on the part of our officials.

In this letter I would like to zoom in on the word mercy, which for many of our contemporaries is probably somewhat old-fashioned and outdated. What is mercy actually? Maybe the Latin word for mercy, misericordia, can help us. A person with misericordia has a heart (‘cor‘)  for people in distress (‘miseri‘):  sinner, the poor, the grieving, the sink and lonely people. The Hebrew word for mercy is not so much concerned with the heart, but with the intestines. A person with mercy is touched to the depths of his belly by the needs of the other.

God is a merciful God

In Holy Scripture we often hear about the mercy of God. Even until today the Exodus, the departure from slavery in Egypt and the arrival in the promised land, is for the Jewish people a central topic of faith.

God has seen the misery of His people in Egypt and had compassion with His people (Exodus 3). Elsewhere in the book of Exodus we read, “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy” (cf. Exodus 34,6). For Israel the Lord is supportive mercy, making life possible.

The history of ancient Israel is a history of loyalty and infidelity. The decline of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century and of Judah and Jerusalem in the 6th century BC has been interpreted by the Jewish people as punishment for sins. The people as bride have been unfaithful to the divine bridegroom. But punishment is never God’s final word. The prophet Hosea writes that God does not come in anger (cf. Hosea 11). In God, mercy is victorious over His justice[*]. Ultimately there is forgiveness and a merciful approach.

In the letter in which he announces the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis calls Christ the face of God’s mercy (‘misericordiae vultus‘). In Him God’s great love for man (‘humanitas dei‘) (Titus 3:4) has become visible. The great Protestant theologian Oepke Noordmans published a beautiful collection in 1946, with the title “Sinner and beggar”. In it, Noordmans touches upon the two most important dimensions of God’s mercy. Not only moral mercy but also social mercy. In Christ, God is full of merciful love for both sinners and beggars.

Moral and social mercy

God’s moral mercy is depicted most impressively, as far as I can see, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. A son demands his inheritance from his father, who yet lives, and wastes the money on all sorts of things that God has forbidden, In the end he literally ends up among the pigs. To Jewish ears this is even more dramatic than to us, since in Judaism pigs are, after all, unclean animals. In this situation, there occurs a reversal. The son memorises a confession of guilt and returns to his father. In the parable we read that the father is already looking for his son and, even before the confession has been spoken, he embraces him. Here we find what Saint Paul calls the justification of the Godless man. God is as “foolish” as the father in the parable. It is the foolishness of merciful love. God is inexhaustible love and gives his son a new chance, even when he has turned away from Him (cf. Luke 5:11 etc).

Social mercy is depicted sublimely in the parable on the Good Samaritan. A man is attacked by robbers and lies on the side of the road, half dead. Several people from the temple pass by, but they do not help. Then a stranger passes, a Samaritan who many Jews look upon with a certain amount of negative feelings. But this distrusted person acts. He becomes a neighbour to the person lying on the side of the road. He treats his wounds and lets him recover in an inn, on his costs. The Church fathers, theologians from the early Church, have seen Christ himself in the person of the Samaritan. He comes with His merciful love to everyone lying at the side of the road of life. Christ has gone the way  of mercy until the end. He lives for His Father and His neighbour until the cross. In this way, Christ shows that He has a heart for people in misery: the poor, sinners, people dedicated to death (cf. Luke 10:25 etc).

Is God merciful to all?

We are all temporary people. None of us here on earth has eternal life. Sooner or later death will come and take life away. In that context we could wonder what we can hope for. Are we like rockets burning up in space or can we look forward to returning home? Over the course of Church history this has been discussed both carefully and generously. Not the most insignificant theologians, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, were in the more careful camp, with the Scripture passage in mind which says that “many are called, but few are chosen”. There was also another sound in the early Church. The theologian Origen was so filled with God’s love that he could not imagine that anyone could be lost. The Church, however, based on the witness of Scripture, has denied this vision. There are too many passages in Holy Scripture which leave open the possibility of being definitively lost.

In our time, however, our Church is generally  optimistic regarding salvation. God’s  desire to save does not exclude, but include human freedom. God’s hand is and remains extended to all. Only God knows who takes this hand. Not without reason do we pray, in one of our Eucharistic prayer, for those “whose faith only You have known.” God’s mercy maintains its primacy. Christ has, after all, died for all men. God is loyal and the cross and resurrection of Christ can be a source of hope for us all. In other words: God takes our responsibility seriously, but I hope that He takes His love even more seriously.

Culture of mercy

God’s mercy requires a human answer, a culture of mercy. Here we can discern at least three dimensions: personal, ecclesiastical and social. In our personal life we are called to love God and our neighbour. But we know that cracks continue to develop in relationships. People insult and hurt each other. The Gospel then calls us to forgiveness.  Scripture even suggests we should postpone our worship when there are fractures in how we relate to our fellows (cf. Matthew 5:24).  Forgiveness can always be unilateral. But both parties involved in a conflict are necessary for reconciliation. Christ does not only ask us for merciful love for our loved ones, but also for our enemies. We realise that this can only be realised in the power of God’s  Spirit, and even then often by trial and error.

Merciful faith community

In one of our prefaces the Church is called the mirror of God’s kindness. In our time we notice a crisis in the Church. Many contemporaries have become individualists because of higher education and prosperity. This individualism also has an effect in the attitude towards the Church. Many people do believe, but in an individualistic way and think they do not need the faith community. Added to that is the fact that the Church suffers from a negative image. More thana  few see the Church as institute that restricts freedom. Many think that the Church demands much and allows nothing.

As people of the Church we should not immediately get defensive. Criticism on our faith community invites us to critical reflection of ourselves. Do we really live the truth in love? Do we really care for and serve each other? A Christian community will not restrict people but promote their development into free children of God (cf. Romans 8:21).

We can see the Eucharist as the ultimate sacrament of God’s merciful love. Time and again the outpouring love of Christ is actualised and made present in the Eucharist. About Communion, Pope Francis has said words which are cause to think. According to him, Communion is not a reward for the a holy life, but a medicine to heal wounded people. The mercy of the Church also becomes visible in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, or confession. For many reasons this sacrament has almost been forgotten in our country. At the same time I hear that in some parishes especially young people are rediscovering this sacrament. I hope that the Year of Mercy can make a contribution to a further rediscovery of the sacrament of God’s  merciful love for people who fail.

Ecclesiastical mercy is of course also visible in all form of charity. Everywhere where Christians visit sick and prisoners, help people who are hungry or thirsty, cloth the naked or take in strangers, the ‘works of mercy’ become visible (cf. Matthew 25:31 etc).

Merciful society

After the Second World War Catholics took part in the rebuilding of a solid welfare state. After the crisis years of the 1930s and the horrors of the war, there was a broad desire among our people for the realisation of a security of existence. Catholic social thought, with the core notions of human dignity, solidarity, public good and subsidiarity, has inspired many in our Church to get to work enthusiastically. After all, although the Church is not of the world, it is for the world.

But in our days there is much talk of converting the welfare state into a participation state. Of course it is important that people are stimulated optimally to contribute to the building of society. But at the same time government should maintain special attention for the needs of the margins of society. Not without reason does Christian social thought call government a “shield for the weak”.

In June Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si’. Here, the Pope ask attention for our earth as our common home. Catholics are asked to cooperate with other Christians, people of other faiths and all “people of good will”. The Pope urges us to join our religious and ethical forces to realise a more just and sustainable world. With a reference to St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun our Pope pleads for a new ecological spirituality in which our connection with the Creator not only leads to a mild and merciful relation with our fellow men, but also with other creatures.

In closing

We all live from the inexhaustible merciful love of our God, as has become visible in Jesus Christ. Let us in our turn, in the power of God’s Spirit, give form to this love in our relationships with each other, in our faith communities and in our society. In this way we can make an important contribution to the building of a “culture of mercy”.

Groningen, 22 November 2015
Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte
Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden”

*As an aside, not to distract from the overall message of the bishop’s letter: I am sorry to see this line here in such a way, as if there is a conflict between mercy and justice, in which one should be victorious over the other. Mercy without justice is no mercy at all, as it is deceitful. How can be kind and merciful to others if we keep the truth from them? The truth and its consequences must be acknowledged and accepted in mercy, so that we can help others living in that truth, even if they sometimes fail (as we eventually all do).

“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.

Learning how to bishop – Bishop Oster in Rome

Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau shares the photo below on his Facebook page. Germany’s youngest ordinary met Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Archbishop Georg Gänswein over lunch yesterday and brings back the retired pontiff’s heartfelt greetings and promises of prayer to Passau, the diocese in which Benedict was born in 1927.
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Bishop Oster is in Rome as part of the annual “training course” for new bishops who were appointed in the past year. With him from Germany are Archbishop Stephan Burger and Bishop Michael Gerber from Freiburg, Bishop Ansgar Puff from Cologne, and Bishop Herwig Gössl from Bamberg (pictured below while attending one of the seminars earlier this week).

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The training week is organised by Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s  Congregation for Bishops, and is attended by some 130 bishops from across the globe. Various cardinals and other Curia members offered seminars on such topics as the Church’s social teaching (Cardinal Turkson), the spirituality of bishops (Cardinal Amato) and the workings of the Synod of Bishops (Cardinal Baldisseri), the reforms of the Curia (Cardinal Ouellet), and finances (Cardinal Pell), but they also heard the sobering stories of bishops from Iraq and Syria. The ten days of the training is, as Bishop Oster says, also a time of reflection, prayer and community and will be closed tomorrow with an audience with Pope Francis.

Bishop Ackermann’s comments and why they are problematic

ackermann_352Bishop Stephan Ackermann, of Trier in Germany, has been making headlines for himself with comments about marriage, homosexuality and contraception which seem to be going against Catholic teaching on these subjects. While his statements are undoubtedly problematic, it is good to explain why. Is it content or, as too often happens, communication which are at the root of the controversy?

Marriage

On marriage, Bishop Ackermann said that considering a second marriage after a divorce to be a lasting mortal sin “is no longer up to date”. In other words, saying that a second marriage is not possible is old-fashioned. The root problem here is that the bishop subjects Catholic teaching to the spirit of the times. Something which may be true at one time, need not be so at another. But the central truths of the faith, and the insolubility of the sacraments is one of these, are eternally true. They are not subject to the opinions and wishes of specific time periods, but rather transcend those. So a valid marriage remains so until the death of one of the two spouses. But validity is the central theme here. If, for one reason or another, it turns out that the marriage was never valid to begin with, there was no marriage. There are several reasons imaginable for a marriage to be invalid, such as one of the spouses being forced into it, for example. There are more. In such a case, where there has never been a marriage, the spouses are free to marry (not again, but for the first time). But in these cases there is also no divorce. Something which never existed can’t be ended. The marriage is simply nullified, declared void, non-existent.

However, when there is a valid marriage, and the two spouses decide to divorce, they are not free to marry again. Marriage is a sacrament, and therefore can’t be returned, just like Baptism or ordination, for example. A divorce may be granted by a court, but for the Church the marriage continues (marriage before the state and the Church are two wholly different things, anyway). Should one of the spouses marry again, they are guilty of adultery: after all, they are still married, but in a relationship with someone else.

Considering the above, Bishop Ackermann’s statement is hard to follow. A marriage after one that has been nullified has never been considered a sin, but in the second scenario, of a valid marriage ending in divorce and followed by a subsequent marriage, it is indeed objectively sinful. This is not subject to opinions. These are the facts we must pastorally work with.

Contraception

About this topic, Bishop Ackermann commented in the distinction between natural and artificial contraception which, he says, is in itself “kind of artificial. I am afraid that no one understands it anymore”. While the bishop is correct in his assessment that few people, especially in the west, understand the difference between natural and artificial means of birth control, he is wrong when claiming that this somehow invalidates them.

Contraception or, more generally, birth control, is directly related to human sexuality. Sexuality is part of human nature and must be understood as such. If we deny part of that sexuality we deny part of our nature. Procreation is an inherent element of sexuality. We must then be open to the gift of children, as it is described in relation to the sacrament of marriage. Artificial birth control denies that openness and so the very nature of sexuality and ourselves.

However, we must also exercise prudence. When children arrive, we have an enormous responsibility for their wellbeing. If, for whatever reason, we can’t take that responsibility on, we must choose not to have children (yet). This has an effect on our sexual life, which also has an important role in strengthening the love between partners. But rather than blocking out one element of our sexuality, the right choice is to keep the whole of sexuality intact – its inherent capacity to both strengthen love and and give life.

The various forms of natural family planning does just that. It respects the sanctity of the human person in the fullness his sexual nature. And while this may be a difficult subject to grasp for many people, that is no reason to disregard it, as Bishop Ackermann seems to suggest. Rather it is challenge to all of us, clergy and lay faithful, to do or utmost to both communicate and understand this well. In the end, it is about understanding our very nature as human beings created by God.

Homosexuality

“The Christian view of man is based on the differences between the sexes, but we can no longer simply say that homosexuality is unnatural.”

A problematic statement on several levels, as it simplifies what the Church teaches about the sexes, and makes an incorrect statement about what is natural and unnatural.

The fact that there are two sexes is not some accident. Man and woman, being different but equal, complement each other. That fact is at the basis of all teachings related to the human person in his social, religious, personal and physical dimensions.

This difference between the sexes is rooted in the creation. There is an order in creation, which we can discern both in the natural law and in the creation accounts we read with faith in the Bible. Some things exist at odds with this order, which is not a value judgement, but a very factual statement. Above I indicated two of the constituent elements of human sexuality: strengthening love and openness to life. Where one of these is missing, sexuality is not ‘complete’, so to speak. That is what we mean when calling something unnatural… but that’s not the correct word. Rather, we speak of “ordered and disordered”. Something adheres to the natural order as created by the Lord, or it does not.

Homosexual actions (as opposed to homosexuality in itself), regardless of our thoughts or opinions of it, misses one of the elements of ordered sexuality: the openness to life. Two persons of the same sex can not conceive a child. That fact means that we can call it disordered.

The above is no excuse to judge the human person, let alone hate or be violent towards him or her. We can, as in all cases, judge or condemn an action, but never a person. This is important to remember, as such claims virtually always enter the debate on homosexuality. I can only assume that that also happened in the thought of Bishop Ackermann. He may have thought that calling something objectively disordered is a judgement on the person, when it definitely is not.

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From the bishop’s quotes, it is hard to maintain that it is solely a communications issue, as if he had meant to say something else than what we read.  Some topics may be hard to communicate or understand, but that has no influence on the truth, of course. And it is this truth which all faithful, but bishops especially, have the duty to safeguard and share.