‘From Conflict to Community’ – Nordic bishops on the eve of Pope Francis’ ecumenical visit

The members of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference – covering the countries of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have written a pastoral letter looking ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Lund and Malmö, as well as the state and future of ecumenical relations with the Lutheran church in their countries. They rightly indicate that the anniversary of the Reformation, which will begin with the events in Lund that the Pope will attend, is no reason to celebrate for Catholics.

My translation of the document, which generally aligns itself closely with ‘From Conflict to Communion’, the 1999 document in which the Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the doctrine of justification. My translation follows:

7904248_orig“In 2017 we mark an event which has had great consequences for the Christian faith, in the first place in Europe. In the year 1517 Martin Luther initiated a process which became known in history as the Reformation and which, especially for our Lutheran fellow Christians represents an important moment in the development of their ecclesiastical tradition and identity. But since the Reformation would have been impossible without the Catholic basis, it is appropriate that we, as Catholic Christians, also think about it. That is already expressed in the document ‘From conflict to communion’, the result of dialogue in the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for the Unity of the Church. This tekst is directed towards a common commemoration, which is based on reflection rather than triumphalism.

Despite all explainable reasons, the Reformation caused a split in Christianity, which remains painful to this day. In the Nordic countries this split meant that the Catholic Church could only start again after many centuries. That is why the 500th anniversary of the event of the Reformation can not be observed as a celebration in the true sense. Rather it should be recalled in contrition. The process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation began many decades ago. But we can not tire of striving for the full unity in Christ.

At the start of the 16th century, the Catholic Church was in need of reform, something that not only Martin Luther, but also others acknowledged and expressed at that time. But instead of dealing with the necessary doctrinal questions, Christians of different confessions have instead done much harm to each other. At the closing of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Francis prayed for “mercy and forgiveness for the unevangelical behaviour of Catholics towards other Christians”. In Sweden several Lutheran ministers have responded to that and also asked us Catholics for forgiveness.

The important questions is now, how we can continue together to come closer together in faith, in hope and in love? We, the Catholic bishops in the north of Europe, want to go on this path of reconciliation with our Lutheran brothers and sisters and do everything to promote unity.

Ecclesia semper reformanda

The Church must always let herself be converted and renewed by Christ. We are indeed a holy people, but a people of sinners on pilgrimage to eternity. Conversion, contrition and maturing in the faith are important stations on this path. Through the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opened herself to many things that are also important to Lutheran Christians, for example the role of Holy Scripture and the meaning of the priesthood of all baptised. Thus, many difference have actually disappeared.

What still divides is, among other things, the sacramentality of the Church, as well as the understanding of the sacrament and the office. As Catholics we believe that the Church is the fundamental sacrament in which the incardinated word becomes present through the sacraments, in order to unite with us in love and transform us in Himself.

At the same time we see that many faithful Lutheran Christians become increasingly open to these aspects. A questions that remains pending and which is painfully felt on both sides is that of the common Eucharist. As much as this desired is justified, the unity of the Lord’s Table must also reflect the full unity in faith.

The Petrine office is also difficult to understand for many Lutheran Christians. But the personality of Pope Francis has made it more understandable. Pope Saint John Paul II already invited all non-Catholic Christians to think about other ways of  exercising the Petrine office (Ut Unum Sint, N.95).

Traditionally, the role of Mary and the saints has also been contentious. But among many non-Catholic Christians the meaning of Mary as the Mother of God and example in faith is being re-acknowledged.

Despite the mutual approach in question of doctrine, greater differences in questions of ethics and morality have recently appeared. But even when these make the dialogue in some respects more difficult, it should not be given up.

Definition of the Christian faith

In all ages Christians have formulated teachings to clearly define doctrine, distinguish them from false ideas or to convey them intelligebly. Often such formulations evolved into bones of contention, which for a long time created great frontlines between Christians. The principles of the reformers were similarly divided for many centuries. It is nevertheless fruitful, also for Catholics, to constructively engage with them.

Sola fide

The faith is undoubtedly necessary for justification. We share the central mysteries of the faith – for example, about the Trinity, about Jesus Christ, about salvation and justification – with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. We rejoice in this unity of faith which is based in baptism and expressed in the joint declaration about justification. That is why it is our mission to be witnesses of these truths of faith in our secular society. In our Nordic countries, where few practice their faith, it is important to proclaim the good news together and with one voice.

Sola Scriptura

Only through Holy Scripture can we receive the full revelation about the salvation which is offered to us in Christ. This revelation in received and shared in the Church. Through the teaching office of the Church this living tradition in Holy Scripture is codified. For us Catholics Church, teaching, tradition and Scripture belong together. In the Church and with the Church, Scripture is opened for us.  In this way the faith becomes ever more alive for us. Recently the number of Lutheran Christians who agree with  us believe that Scripture and the tradition of the Church are closely connected, has been on the rise.

Sola gratia

“Everything is mercy”, the saintly Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux, who can be considered as the Catholic answer to Martin Luther, says. Without God’s mercy we can do nothing good. Without His mercy we can not come to eternal life. Only through God’s mercy can we be justified and holy. Mercy can truly transform us, but we must also respond to this mercy and work alongside it. In the Mother of God, Mary, full of mercy and immaculate, we see how much can God can do in a person.

For many Lutheran Christians it is still difficult to agree with this truth. But we also see that many of them are open to similar questions about growth in prater and in holiness.

Simul iustus et peccator

We are all at the same time justified and sinners. As Catholics we believe that we are really sinners; but through the mercy of God we can receive forgiveness of all guilt in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As baptised Christians we are called to holiness. The Church is a school of holiness. The saints, who we can ask to intercede for us, are shining examples and role models of this holiness. One of these role models is a woman from our countries, Saint Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was recently canonised. She is an incentive to all of us to go the way of holiness more consciously.

We see that many Lutherans are also open to the saints, such as, for example, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our secularised world we need such witnesses of faith. They are living and credible witnesses of our faith.


We know that also in our time many Christians are persecuted for their faith and that there are also many blood witnesses. Martyrdom unites Christians from various churches. We think of all Christians, also in the Middle East, who are persecuted and yet remain true to Christ and His Church. Their example also strengthens us in our faith. Many Christians from these countries have also come to us in the north. it is therefore important that we, all Christians in our countries, maintain, protect and deepen what we share in faith. Then we can also increasingly give and common witness of the risen Lord.

Future perspectives

The joint declaration ‘From conflict to communion’ closes with five ecumenical imperatives, suggested to us Catholics and Lutherans to take further steps on the common way to unity. They are:

  1. Beginning from a perspective of unity and not of division, and promoting what we have in common.
  2. At the same time allowing oneself to be transformed by the witness of the other.
  3. Committing oneself to the search for visible unity.
  4. Rediscovering jointly the power of the Gospel of Christ for our time.
  5. Witness together of the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Also when these five imperatives speak of great and not always simple concerns, their message is clear, but only when we devote outself completely to Christ and together rediscover the power of the Gospel (cf. 4th imperative).

We are happy and thank God that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will be coming to Lund on the occasion of the commemoration of the Reformation, to strengthen us in faith.

We therefore invite all Catholics to accompany the preparations for the papal visit with their prayer and to participate in as great a number as possible in both the ecumenical meeting in Malmö Arena and the Mass in Swedbank Stadion. In that way we will show both the joy, as Catholics, of being with Pope Francis, and also respect for the identity of our Lutheran fellow Christians, grown from the Reformation. Despite the still existing differences we are convinced, confident in the mercy of God, that ways towards common unity can be found.

On the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016

+ Czeslaw Kozon, Bishop of Copenhagen

+ Anders Arborelius OCD, Bishop of Stockholm

+ Bernt Eidsvig Can. Reg, Bishop of Oslo, Administrator of Trondheim

+ David Tencer OFM Cap, Bishop of Reykjavik

+ Teemu Sippo SCJ, Bishop of Helsinki

+ Berislav Grgic, Bishop-Prelate of Tromsø

+ Gerhard Schwenzer SS.CC., Bishop emeritus of Oslo”

csm_vollversammlung_01_37cd1858a6^Bishops Grgic, Sippo, Eidsvig, Kozon, Arborelius and Tencer, with Sr Anna Mirijam Karschner CPS, the general secretary of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference.

Some thoughts about Amoris laetitia, doctrine, mercy and Communion

While it is far from the main point of Amoris laetitia or the Synod of Bishops assemblies that preceeded it, the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion is one that has kept people occupied both during and after the publication of the Post-Synodal Exhortation. That is in part due to the fact that Amoris laetitia does not give a clear answer*, although Pope Francis has indicated that he does not aim to change Church teaching with his text. And current Church teaching is that people whose first married is considered valid and who are in a relation with someone else are objectively adulterous and thus can not receive Holy Communion. Of course, the bare words of the law do not – and can not – take the specific situation of every couple into account, and are therefore necessarily general.

Amoris laetitia instead discusses the pastoral approach to people in such situations, and this is the place where the specifics of an individual relationship, marriage, divorce and second marriage can be discussed and interpreted. That still does not mean that the law can be changed there, but it is the place where understanding can be given, different ways in which a person can be a part of the life of the Church (a major focus of the Exhortation) and also where solutions to normalise their situation (called ‘irregular’ in Church legalese) can be found.

I have seen many comments which interpret the legal considerations as some form of punishment for people failing in marriage. This is of course not so. The law deals with factual situations, not with the reasons for the existence of those facts (although these can be taken into account when a court is asked for an opinion or verdict in a specific case).

In the end, and I have said this before, Jesus Himself gave the perfect summary of how to relate to people who, for whatever reason, failed to live up to the ideal. In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, we read of Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. After an episode in which He confronts the scribes and Pharisees with their own hypocricy, the Lord tells the woman that he will not condemn her (mercy, the pastoral approach), but also that she should not sin from then on (the law). The law is clear, but never asks for the condemnation of people.  Jesus forgives our past mistakes, but also asks us not to make the same mistakes again. And in the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics it is clear that this means that we should not condemn the people concerned, but welcome them into our Church communities. But at the same time it is clear that they can’t continue in their objectively sinful state (just like the woman in the Gospel can’t continue sleeping around with other men). What exactly can and must change in each specific situation is a matter for the pastoral sphere, where the law provides a framework.

And here Pope Francis’ sadness, expressed during Saturday’s flight back from Lesbos, at how too many people only focus on this specific question, becomes understandable. The context of the mistakes made is not inconsequential; their causes lie elsewhere and affect the entire edifice of marriage and family. It is about more than Communion (which no one has a right to, anyway): it is about broken families, divorce, adultery, economic uncertainty, unwillingness or inability to get married, falling birth rates… Yes, access to the sacraments, or lack thereof, is one of the consequences of these crises, but we should not make the mistake of considering it the only one.

Yes, there is a development of doctrine, as many have said. Not of its roots, which lie in the Gospels and the Tradition of the Church, the bedrock on which the faith grows, but in the application, the choices we make which result in the tree of faith bearing much fruit. We need both, roots and fruit.

*And no, that infamous footnote 351 is no clear answer either, as it mentions sacraments, of which there are seven, and not Holy Communion to the exlucion of the other six.

Bishops on Amoris laetitia

While there will be a precious few who have already carefully studied all of Amoris laetitia, the vast majority of us, so soon after its publication, won’t have. But that does not mean that there are no opinions (some ultra-orthodox channels have gone beyond themselves in pointing out how dangerous the Exhortation and Pope Francis are for us poor Catholics… but such irresponsible agenda-driven writing is another story altogether).

The bishops of the world have had a head start in reading the text, albeit a small one, as Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia tweeted this as late as last Wednesday:

I will share some of the thoughts and opinions of local bishops in this post, which may be a guide in looking at the actual text as we read it, taking our time as Pope Francis suggested, for ourselves. Some excerpts from their various commentaries:

dekorte2Bishop Gerard de Korte, bishop-elect of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Apostolic Administrator of Groningen-Leeuwarden: “As far as I can see the Pope tries, in the first place, to be a pastoral teacher. … In Amoris laetitia Francis pleads for an inclusive Church. The Pope does not want to build walls, but bridges. People who have failed in relationships are also a part of the Church and must be able to continue with their lives. Wise pastors can, in the privacy of pastoral encounter, support failing people and help them, so that they can continue with the journey of their lives. It is about continuous dialogue with people who, even when they have fallen short, are and remain God’s creatures.”

5a9cb713fa77e634993fee309c99be46_b9478b025386639ff26f12b5fc4db73dBishop Jan Hendriks, Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam: “The Exhortation has a very strong pastoral spirit. The text breathes understanding and love for all people. Nothing is being rationalised or denied, no new doors are opened that were closed, but throughout the entire document there is a warm, ‘inclusive’ spirit: you belong, even when the situation you are in is not perfect. Besides, we are all people “on our way”. Developing what’s good and involving people where possible is the starting point of the ‘divine pedagogy’ that the document intends to promote. Teaching remains teaching, but what matters here is the approach of people and that is open, warm and pastoral.”

hesseArchbishop Stefan Heße, Archbishop of Hamburg: “The Pope is aware of the realities of life of the people of today. In the past decades this reality has changed more than in the centuries before. On the other hand, Francis makes clear: we do not reject our ideals. But we must consider anew how people can live according to them. We must succeed in building a stable bridge between ideal and reality. The Pope consciously made no new regulations. He rather wants to provide the means to promote the formation of people’s conscience.”

Dr. Heiner Koch, Erzbischof von BerlinArchbishop Heiner Koch, Archbishop of Berlin: “I see this text as a great invitation to the local Churches, to commit ourselves even more to marriage and family, in marriage preparation, the guidance of married couples, but also in the attention to remarried divorcees and single parents. … Pope Francis rejects any “cold bureaurcratic morality” and describes all pastoral care as “merciful love”, which is “ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” (n. 312).

150608kutschkeMsgr. Andreas Kutschke, Diocesan Administrator of Dresden-Meißen: “The text reminds us that the loving God cares for every person and wants him to grow towards Him. That is our good news to the whole of society. The actions of the Church regarding marriage and family must always direct themselves to that. The challenges of the Gospel should not be concealed, but addressed in a timely and comprehensible manner. That is the tone of this multilayered text.”

archbishop ludwig schickArchbishop Ludwig Schick, Archbishop of Bamberg: “The Pope shows himself a realist in Amoris laetitia. He knows that marriage and family need special attention in Church and society today, so that they can really be lasting communities of love. That is why, in addition to the fundamental statements, based on the Bible and the Tradition of the Church, about the beauty, richness, value and necessity of marriage, it is important for the Pope that marriage preparation and the guidance of families gets a closer look. State and society, employers, associations and individuals are encouraged to support marriage and family more and give them the necessary assistance.”

van looyBishop Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent: “Amoris laetitia is in the first place a pastoral and not a doctrinal document. This means that it departs from reality as it exists in all its complexity and diversity. That reality is listened to, and not in the first place condemned. The good that is present must be promoted and given the chance to grow. A pastoral approach means: walking together (synodal) in joy (laetitia), but also in difficult times and crises that people go through in relationships and the raising of children. This must happen with sensitivity, with a lot of respect, tactfully and patiently, in dialogue and without preconceptions. Secondly, this pastoral approach is an inclusive approach. This means that no one is excluded. That is the baseline, if you will, of the entire document, which can be summarised in the key words in the title of the important eighth chapter: Accompanying, discerning and integrating. The Church must do all to let people, in whatever situation they find themselves, be part of the community. That returns like a refrain.”

22a4937a8468aea098eebd462e1106edBishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Bishop of Regensburg: “Amoris laetitia is an attractive and inviting text, a hymn on God-given love. It contains neither generalisations nor blanket solutions. I hope very much that chapters two and three, which recall in a new and fresh way the Biblical and doctrinal basis of conjugal love, will be read and internalised. Of course the Holy Father especially takes those situations into account, in which people are threatening to fail or have failed to achieve the ideal. It is the wish of the Church, the Pope says, “to help each family to discover the best way to overcome any obstacles it encounters” (AL 200).”

foto_1386335339Bishop Frans Wiertz, Bishop of Roermond: “In his text, the Pope wants to emphasise mercy. Although nothing changes in the ideal of marriages and the rules surrounding receiving the sacraments, the Pope invites everyone in the Church to find ways in which no one will have to feel excluded. These words of the Pope are important for many Catholics, as they want to clarify that the ideal of a good life can always only be achieved via a way which knows imperfections in reality. Although no one can afford to accept broken or unwanted situations, at the same no one is excluded or treated second-rate because of the situation in which they find themselves.”

woelki32Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne: “It is above all important for Pope Francis that the Church is close to people, that she avoids every appearance of idealistic exagerration, indifferentiated judgement, loveless condemnation or even exclusion. This attitude of closeness, a “humble realism” and mercy remains in tension with the fact that the Church is always ‘Mater et Magistra’, mother and teacher, which does not witthold the people anything that the Creator has wanted in Creation and taught through Christ.”

Geburtstag_bischof_konrad_zdarsa_2009-11-06Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Bishop of Augsburg: “In the introduction, the Holy Father recommends not to read it hastily. That is why I will not be commenting in haste. Read those sections that are important to you in your situation, relate to them in all peace in your family, consider them also carefully in your parish communities and pastoral councils.”

Just before the announcement, an interview with Archbishop De Kesel

Minutes before today’s announcement and presentation of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Kerknet had the chance to sit down and ask a few questions to Archbishop-elect Jozef De Kesel. The interview about memories of the past and hopes for the future gives some idea of who Msgr. De Kesel is.

In my translation:

aartsbisschop-jozef-de-keselAt your ordination as priest you were surrounded by priests of the family, and especially also your uncle, Leo De Kesel [auxiliary bishop of Ghent from 1960 to 1991, who ordained his nephew]. Was it a matter of course for you to follow in their footsteps?

“The well-known Uncle Fons, a Norbertine from Averbode Abbey, was also there. But no, in 1965 it was already not a matter of course anymore. My vocation comes in part from the family context, but also from my involvement in the Catholic Social Action and in the parish, where a group of us studied the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”

Who were your mentors?

“In that time we read, for example, Romano Guardini. I also followed the movement around Charles de Foucauld. Later, when I studied theology, I read with interest the Jesus book and other literature of Msgr. Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Willem Barnard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a great source of inspiration for me. I mostly discovered him when I was responsible for the Higher Institute of Religion in Ghent. I was so fascinated by Letters and Papers from Prison that I subsequently read all his works.”

What connects these inspirations?

“The theologians teach me that the Christian faith is a great treasure with a rich content and tradition. Bonhoeffer teaches me to understand that this tradition can be experienced in different contexts.

We no longer live in the  homogenous Christian society of the past. But the comfortable situation of that time is not the only context in which to experience your faith.”

As bishop you chose the motto “with you I am a Christian” in 2002. What did you mean by that?

“The first part of the quote by St. Augustine is, “For you I am a bishop”. By choosing only the second part I clearly state that my first calling as a bishop is to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Everything else follows from that. For me it is important to jointly take responsibility. That responsibility binds us as a society. The quote is also a clear choice for collegiality in exercising authority. I am very happy with the three auxiliary bishops that I can count on in the archdiocese.”

What are the great challenges for the Church today?

“The question is not so much how many priests we need and how to organise ourselves. But: what do we have to say to society? Formation and the introduction into the faith are very important for that. It is not a question of having to take an exam in order to be a part of it. There can be many degrees of belonging. But we can assume that there is a certain question or desire when people come to Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. A smaller Church must also be an open Church and relevant for society.”

What sort of Church do you dream of?

“A Church that accepts that she is getting smaller. The Church is in a great process of change and that sometimes hurts. But that does not mean that there is decay. There have been times in which the Church was in decay while triumphing.

I dream of a Church that radiates a conviction, that radiates the person of Jesus Christ. Of an open Church which is not only occupied with religious questions, but also with social problems such as the refugee crisis.

Politics have to be neutral, but society is not. Christians are a part of that and should express themselves.”

You did not take part in the Synod on the family, but will probably get to work with its proposals. What will stay with you from this Synod?

“The Synod may not have brought the concrete results that were hoped for, such as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But it is unbelievable how much it was a sign of a Church that has changed. The mentality is really not the same anymore.

I may be a careful person, but I do not think we should be marking time. Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still  somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with prevailing culture.”

May we assume that you will take up the thread of Cardinal Danneels?

“It is of course not my duty to imitate him, but I have certainly learned much from him. Also from Msgr. Luysterman [Bishop of Ghent from 1991 to 2003], by the way, with whom I have long worked in Ghent.”

Your predecessor liked to court controversy in the media. Pope Francis stands out for his human style. What is the style we may expect from you?

“In the papers I have already been profiled as not mediagenic. We will see. For my part, I will at least approach the media openly and confident.”

Will you be living in Brussels, like Msgr. Léonard, or will you choose the archbishop’s palace in Mechelen?

“Msgr. Léonard will be staying in Brussels for a while, so my first home will be Mechelen. I think it would be interesting to alternate and also have a place in Brussels.”

You like Brussels, don’t you? And Brussels likes you.

“The love is mutual, yes. I am certainly no stranger to the French speaking community in our country.”

The Church in Brussels announced this week that Confirmation and First Communion will now be celebrated at the same time, at the age of ten. A renewal you can agree with?

“I wrote the brochure about the renewal of the sacraments of initiation myself, and I conclude that Brussels interprets my text to the full. I am very happy about that. Brussels immediately shows itself as the laboratory of renewal that I so appreciate about it.”

The five years in Bruges were not easy. How have they changed you as a man or what did you learn from them?

“In Bruges I had final responsibility in an environment I did not know well. As auxiliary bishop I was happy to often discuss things with the archbishop, and now I was more on my own. As archbishop I am very happy to be able to rely on three good auxiliary bishops with whom I will be pleased to discuss matters. Like my time as episcopal vicar in Ghent and as auxiliary bishop in Brussels, I consider the past five years as an important learning experience.”

Further on up the road – the German Synod fathers look back and ahead

They continue to be the subject of much criticism. Some claim their views have been victorious at the Synod, others say they have not. Some say they are manipulating the media, relishing in their rebelliousness… Well, that’s all fine to write lengthy articles, opinion pieces and blogs about, but I continue detesting conspiracy theories, and rather take people at face value and at their word (which does not mean I agree with them on all matters). On that note, here is my translation of the message of the German bishops who participated in the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, at the conclusion of said meeting:

Dt Synodenteilnehmer

^The German participants in the Synod: Aloys and Petra Buch, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Archabbot Jeremias Schröder OSB

“We conclude the Synod of Bishops in Rome with gratitude. For three weeks we have debated and struggled intensively and encouragingly, controversially and honestly with representatives from all over the world, dug into theological questions and addressed the realities of life of the family. Above all, these weeks were a spiritual wealth: in the celebration of the Eucharist, in common prayer and fraternal conversation we have sought ways in which the mission of the family in Church and world can succeed.

At the basis of our deliberations, next to Holy Scripture and Tradition, were the words of the Second Vatican Council: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et spes, 1). In this spirit we grappled theologically and practically with the needs of the family.

The Synod of Bishops took seriously the situation of families as they are: open, honestly, differentiated globally, but similar in many ways. Across all cultural divides, marriage and family are a constant value of human coexistence. We are therefore grateful to Pope Francis that he followed the synodal way on this topic. It began with the worldwide questionnaire of the Vatican and the Synod of last year. The current conclusion is not the end, but a colon. We must continue on this road for and with the family. No other global institution undertakes such a global contemplation with worldwide participation on the topic of the family.

The Synod has shown the great importance that the Church attaches to marriage and family. There was already a great consensus on this question during the deliberations. The Church encourages people to live marriage and family and the make an effort to continue faithfully on this way and endure difficulties. The Synod emphasised that the normal everyday life of the family is a witness. At the same time we are called to find ways to strengthen and accompany the family. This can happen, for example, by advocating in favour of the family in social policies, especially also for large families or single parents, using state legislation to promote the family and recognising its value for society. This must also and especially happen within the Church, for example through the corresponding training of pastoral workers to accompany families, through better marriage preparation and guidance, especially in the first years of marriage, but also through counselling services and facilities.

It became clear during the Synod that Church guidance is required, especially during times of hardship, for example when raising children is difficult, when family members are ill or disabled, requiring much care and attention, when spouses are fighting, when people are separated and remarry. Here it is important to recognise not only what the Church does, but also to say honestly where we have failed as Church: misconceived efforts to uphold Church teachings have repeatedly led to harsh and merciless attitudes, which caused people pain, especially single mothers and children born outside of marriage, people living together before or in place of marriage, people with homosexual orientation and divorced and remarried people. As bishops we ask these people for forgiveness, as we formulated in our working group.

We are grateful that the Synod has expressed  an appreciation for interfaith marriages and underlined the character of the path of life in marriage and family, while a more positive view of the path before marriage was also discussed. On the topic of divorced and remarried people the necessary distinctions of situations were addressed in the text. It was attempted to avoid generalisations. The Synod is clear that every situation in life must be considered individually. In hindsight we would have wished for more courage to deal with the realities more intensively and recognise them as signs of the times in which God wants to tell us something, but we also recognise that we have learned to go along with other cultures and experiences.

The Synod of Bishops advises the Pope. We will accompany the way forward with our prayers. Pope Francis now has the task to use the wealth of results for the Church. The Holy Father can only take decisions for the entire Church, where he always stand for the unity of the Church and the further synodal path, as he said himself in his historic speech last week.

What was considered in the Synod, we will develop and make concrete at home. As Church we accompany and live with the people, the spouses, the families, especially also with the oppressed, with their joys and hopes, sorrows and fears. Questions which occupy us now are these: How do we open, and not close, the way towards Christ? How do we fully integrate people in the Church? How do we become a Church with open doors? And how do we relate to families in the most difficult situations, such as refugee families, to make a life in dignity possible for them, as the Gospel shows? How can we encourage a new spring in the pastoral care of families in general?

The final text of the Synod of Bishops opens perspectives for action and gives impulses for further theological thought. That will also be incorporated in the message of the German bishops about marriage and family, which we are currently working on. What is important is this: the synodal path of the Church continues. Perhaps it has only just begun. The Church stays on the path and with the people, also in the questions of marriage and family. We, as Church in Germany, want to continue on this road with Pope Francis. Encouraged and strengthened we return to our dioceses.”

Photo credit: KNA

The last big step – the German language group’s third commentary

The last big contribution of the German language group, their commentary on the third part of the Instrumentum laboris. There are several interesting elements in it, to begin with the first paragraph in which the Synod fathers strongly criticise the comments of some of their colleagues about what happens in the deliberations. They also criticise a too-strict application of the rules, and especially the language used in doing so.

Despite the expectations of some, the group also comes out strong in defence of the family and magisterial documents sich as Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio.

The most difficult topic is left until last: the question of allowing divorced and civilly remarried faithful access to the sacraments? The German language group seems to be in favour of it, but also emphasises that this is a decision that needs to be made in the internal forum, in conversation between the people concerned and the priest accompanying them, and it involves some tough questions.

The German original is here, and my translation follows:

We have witnessed with great concern and regret the public statements from certain Synod fathers about persons, content and course of the Synod. These contradict the spirit of walking together, the spirit of the Synod and its fundamental rules. The imagery and comparisons used are not simplistic and false, but also hurtful. We firmly distance ourselves from these.

It is a joint desire of the German language group to complement the title of the Relatio finalis, “The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World”, with the subtitle “Considerations and suggestion for the Holy Father, Pope Francis, in order to better express the classification of the text, which is not a decisive document. We recommend for the introduction a mention of the global questionnaire and an expression of gratitude and esteem.

Regarding a clearer emphasis on the family as subject of pastoral care it should be specified that Christian families are call to witness of the Gospel of marriage which has been entrusted to them. The Christian spouses and families are part of a new family of Christ, His Church. In that way the spouses can be a sacrament for the world. The “new family of Jesus Christ”, the Church, should encourage, strengthen and enable  the spouses to be such witnesses. This allows, after all, the Church to always learn from the spouses’ and families’ experiences of life and faith.

Here, a confession was important to us: wrongly understood efforts to uphold the Church’s  teachings time and again led to hard and merciless attitudes, which hurt people, especially single mothers and children born out of wedlock, people living together before or in place of marriage, homosexually oriented people and divorced and remarried people. As bishops of our Church we ask these people for forgiveness.

We have also spoken extensively about the relation between speech, thought and action, especially regarding a humane understanding of human sexuality. A suitable and renewable language is is crucial, in the first place for the introduction of adolescent children and youth to a mature human sexuality. This is in the first place the task of the parent and can not be left to education at school or media and social media alone. Many parents and pastoral workers find it difficult to find an appropriate and at the same respectful language which places biological  sexuality in the overall context of friendship, love, enriching complementarity and the mutual commitment of woman and man.

The working group found it important to emphasise that the Christian conviction in its basis assumes that God has created humanity as man and woman and has blessed them so that they become one flesh and fruitful (cf. Gen. 1:27 onwards; 2:24). In their equal personal dignity, as in their distinctiveness, man and woman are Gods good creation. Although, according to the Christian understanding of the unity of body of soul, biological gender (“sex”) and social-cultural gender roles (“gender”) are analytically different from one another, they can not be fundamentally or arbitrarily separated. All theories that regard human sexes as a subsequent construct and encourage an arbitrary social interchangeability, are te be rejected as ideologies. The unity of body of soul includes that the concrete social self-image and social role of men and women in cultures are different and subject to pronounced change. Therefore, the awareness of the full personal dignity and the public responsibility of women is a positive sign of the times that the Church values and encourages (cf. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 22).

We have spoken about the connection between the sacraments of baptism and marriage and the necessity of faith.

The Catholic confession about marriage is based on the word of the Lord in Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition and is faithfully retained in its substance through the magisterium. Nevertheless, there are tensions between the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical approaches in the theological development, which can lead to difficulties in pastoral practice.

For example, the axiom “every marriage contract between Christian is a sacrament per se” must be reconsidered. In societies that are no longer homogeneous Christian, or countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds, a Christian understanding of marriage can no longer be readily assumed, even among Catholics. A Catholic without faith in God and His revelation in Jesus Christ can not automatically enter into a sacramental marriage without or even against his knowledge or will. He lacks the intention to at least want what the Church understands as marriage. Although the sacraments are not effective through the faith of the recipient, they, but also not without or regardless of him; At the least, the grace remains fruitless, when it is not received freely and willingly with faith determined by love.

The question also arises among our fellow Christians whose religious convictions deny the sacramentality of marriage (with its essential properties), if a sacramental marriage has occurred despite this. This does not mean that the validity of non-Catholic marriages is denied by the Church, or that the the work of God’s  mercy in non-sacramental marriages is questioned. We acknowledged the variety of studies about this question and recommend and deeper study of these questions with the goal of a new magisterial reappraisal and a greater coherence of the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical statements about marriage with pastoral practice.

We have an addition to interfaith marriages: In view of the topic of interfaith marriage the positive aspects and the special vocation of such a marriage must be mentioned in the first place, as the non-Catholic Christians are in no way outside the one Church, but are a part of it through Baptism and a certain, if imperfect, communion (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, 3). Interfaith marriages may also be considered as house churches and have a specific vocation and mission, consisting in the exchange of gifts in the ecumenism of life.

In view of the importance of the family in society and state, the working group underlines as starting point, that marriage and family precede the state. They are basis and “vital cell of society” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 11). There can be no common life without family. The political community is therefore obliged to do everything to enable and permanently promote this “vital cell”. The repeatedly bemoaned “structural disregard” for the family must be overcome. The means for that are in the first place access to housing and work, the facilitation of education and childcare, as well as fairer benefits for families in tax legislation which acknowledges in equitable manner what families give to society. It should ne clear: not the family must be subordinate to economic interests, but vice versa. The family is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, which is an indispensable part of the Church’s proclamation and evangelisation. All Christians are called to be engaged in the field of  the political design of social coexistence and so to help families live better lives and flourish. Additionally, politicians must especially observe the principle of subsidiarity and not restrict the rights of families. Here, the “Charter of the Rights of the Family” must be noted. The Church as a whole must play an active and exemplary part with her engagement in the realm of family education, child care, schools, counseling centers and institutions for family aid.

In view of marriage preparation it was a concern of the working group to point out that a short conversation or a brief introduction do not suffice. Since many couples are unable to build upon an education marked by faith, the introduction of a marriage catechumenate is strongly recommended, taking at least several months, to really come to a mature “yes”, carried by faith, that is aware of the finality of the marriage covenant and trusts in God’s  faithfulness.

The aspect of responsible parenthood was one of the central discussion topics in the working group. According to the order of God’s creation, the marital love of husband and wife and the transmission of human life are ordered towards one another. God has called man and woman to participate in his work of creation and at the same time as interpreters of His love and placed the future of mankind in their hands. Husband and wife should realise this mission of creation in responsible parenthood. Before the face of God, and with consideration of their medical, economic, psychological and social situation, their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of this children, as well as the wellbeing of the greater family and society, they will decide the number and spacing in time of their children (Gaudium et spes, 50). According to the integral personal and human character of conjugal love the right way of family planning is the consensual call of the spouses, the consideration of the rhythm and the respect for the dignity of the partner. In this sense the Encyclical Humanae vitae (10-12) and the Apostolic Letter Familiaris consortio (14, 28-35) should be redeveloped and the willingness to have children be awakened, contrary to a mentality that is often hostile to life and partly to children.

Young spouses should be encouraged time and again to give life to children. This will make the openness to life in family, Church and society grow. The Church, with her numerous facilities for children contribute to a greater childfriendliness for children in society, but also in the Church. Observing responsible parenthood requires the formation of conscience. Conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16). The more spouses set out to listen to God in conscience, and the more they allow themselves to be guided spiritually, the more their decisions will be inwardly free from affective inclinations and the adaptation of their behaviour to society. For the sake of this freedom of conscience the Church strongly rejects forced government measures in favour of contraception, sterilisation or even abortion.

We have also debated extensively about the integration of divorced and civilly remarried people in the Church community.

It is known that there has been strong struggle, in  both sessions of the Synod of Bishops, about the questions of whether and to what extent divorced and remarried, faithful, when they want to take part in the life of the Church, can, under certain circumstances, receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The discussions have shown that there are no simple and general solutions to this question. We bishops have experienced the tensions connected to this question as many of our faithful, their concerns and hopes, warnings and expectations have accompanied us in our deliberations.

The discussions clearly show that some clarification and explanation to further develop the complexity of these questions in the light of the Gospel, the doctrine of the Church and with the gift of discernment. We can freely mention some criteria which may help in our discernment. The first criterium is given by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio 84, when he invites us: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid”. It is therefore the duty of the pastors to travel this path of discernment together with those concerned. It would be helpful to take, in an honest examination of conscience, the step of contemplation and penance together. The divorced and remarried should then ask themselves how they dealt with their children when their marital Union fell into crisis? Where there attempts at reconciliation? What is the situation of the partner left behind? What is the effect of the new relationship on the greater family and the community of faithful? What is the example for the young who are discerning marriage? An honest contemplation can strengthen trust in the mercy of God, which He refuses no one who brings their failures and needs before Him.

Such a path of contemplation and penance can, in the forum internum, with an eye on the objective situation in conversation with the confessor, lead to personal development of conscience and to clarification, to what extent access to the sacrament is possible. Every individual must examine himself according to the word of the Apostle Paul, which applies to all who come to the table of the Lord:  “Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves we would not be condemned” (1 Cor. 11:28-31).

Like those of the first two parts, the modi to the third part of the Instrumentum laboris were worked upon in a good synodal spirit and adopted unanimously.

German bishops stand for frank and faithful words

bischof-oster-passau-124~_v-img__16__9__xl_-d31c35f8186ebeb80b0cd843a7c267a0e0c81647Just to show that not all German bishops  intent on upending all Catholic teaching, as some media would have us believe, here is a translation of a letter sent by five bishops to the bishop of Passau, msgr. Stefan Oster, after the latter criticised the call from the Central Committee of German Catholics (the ZdK) to start blessing same-sex relationships as well as new relationships of divorced Catholics. The ZdK is a lay movement recognised by the Bishops’ Conference to promote the lay apostolate in the Church. Bishop Oster criticised their proposal by pointing out the Biblical basis of marriage and the understanding of Biblical revelation. He also pointed out that the “use” of Pope Francis to support the calls for change has no basis in reality.

“Honourable Lord Bishop Oster, Dear Brother Stefan,

Wethank you for taking position against the proposal presented at the ZdK’s spring assembly, titled “Building bridges between doctrine and life – Family and Church in the modern world”. Weagree woleheartedly with your remarks on the teaching about the Christian view of humanity regarding the importance for man- and womanhood, and especially its importance regarding Christian marriage, based as it is on the teaching of Jesus in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

In German we are living in a strongly secularised society. This situation should not discourage us or make us want to adapt to the opinion of the majority, but it should be seen as an opportunity to rediscover the unique nature of the Christian vocation in today’s world. A frank and faithful proclamation of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel and the development of a relationship with Him as the richness of our lives, as you have undertaken in your repy, are an essential prerequisite.

We are convinced that many faithful are also very grateful for your frank words.

In fraternal solidarity, the bishops of:

Augsburg: Dr. Konrad Zdarsa
Eichstätt: Gregor M. Hanke OSB
Görlitz: Wolfgang Ipolt
Regensburg: Dr. Rudolf Voderholzer
Würzburg: Dr. Friedhelm Hofmann”