“The protection of life to give way to autonomy?” Cardinal Eijk responds to the next slide down the euthanasia slope

It has made headlines abroad as well as in the Netherlands, and it seems that the general response is a negative, amongst people of faith and of no faith alike. I am talking about the proposal presented by members of the cabinet to allow people who feel that their life is complete to be killed. This is a further slide down the slippery slope which began by the liberalisation of euthanasia in the Netherlands, a slope that proponents assured use would never exist. Recently, Cardinal Wim Eijk said in an address to the Canadian bishops that a door once left ajar will always open more. This proposal only proves his assertion.

Yesterday saw the response of the Dutch bishops to the proposal (better late than never, I suppose). once again written by Cardinal Eijk, who is to go-to bishop when it comes to questions of medical ethics. The response was published as an opinion piece in daily newspaper Trouw. Below follows my translation.

Kardinaal%20Eijk%202012%20kapel%20RGB%204%20klein“Last Wednesday the cabinet announced their intention to develop a new law in addition to the existing Euthanasia law to provide for assisted suicide for people who deem their life to be ‘complete’. It concerns situations in which suffering is considered hopeless and unbearable, not because of a medical reason, but because the person concerned no longer considers his life to have meaning after the loss of loved ones, loneliness, decreased mobility or the loss of personal dignity and who therefore have a persistent and active wish to die. The cabinet thinks in this matter mostly about elderly people, without, by the way, indication an age limit.

With this new law the cabinet wants to do justice to the autonomy of people. The duty to protect life is to give way for this autonomy in a number of situations in which life for the people involved no longer has any value. This reasoning, the basis of the new law, is fundamentally wrong.

Man’s autonomy is relative. His autonomy does not include having the disposal over his own life. The human body is not a secondary, but an essential dimension of the human person and shares in his essential dignity, which is never lost, even when the person involved believes that this is the case. Man as a whole, physically and mentally, is created after God’s image and likeness. God and those created in His image are always a goal in themselves and never merely the means to a goal. By ending life to end suffering the body and thus the human person is degraded to a means to remove suffering.

Man having the freedom to end his life, or have it ended, assumes that freedom is a greater value than life. Thatb is also true, but life is a fundamental condition in relation to freedom: without life there is no freedom. Ending human life is also the ending of human freedom.

The new law that the cabinet has in mind will in a certain sense increase the autonomy of people with a death wish, but this is then the external autonomy, which means in relation to factors which limit freedom from the outside (authority figures, laws and social pressure).

But is the same true for inner freedom? Real inner autonomy is the inner strength that enables man to make difficult but ethically correct choices by himself, without it being imposed on him. This is especially true for the choice to continue living. That inner strength is undoubtedly necessary when people physically experience the difficulties and limitations of old age.

Besides, the extension of the external freedom can also be debated. When elderly people have the option to relatively easily stop living and when this would become a trend, it is not unimaginable that they would feel pressured to then make use of the option. When one becomes an ‘expense’ for the health care system, one would almost feel guilty for continuing living regardless.

In short, the duty to protect life should not give way for the respect for autonomy.

+ Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk”

Cardinal Eijk and the Pope – an explanation

In the style of Jimmy Akin’s X points to know and share, here is my attempt at a clear overview of the facts surrounding a possible papal visit to the Netherlands and Cardinal Eijk’s alleged role in preventing it.

What actually happened?

bishops st. peter's  squareThere are actually two moments in time that we could call the starting point of the current rumours and debate. The first is the ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops that took place in the first week of December. The popularity of Pope Francis caused some to seriously consider the possibility of a papal visit to the Netherlands, and among these ‘some’ were bishops. While the possibility was not discussed with the Holy Father during the ad limina, the bishops did promise to discuss it during their plenary meeting in January.

The second moment was earlier this week, when daily newspaper Trouw published an article accusing Cardinal Wim Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and president of the Bishops’ Conference, of having vetoed a papal visit. He was said to have told the other bishops that he and the Pope had decided it was not going to happen. The bishops soon made it be known that this was not exactly what happened. It was in fact the Pope alone who had to inform Cardinal Eijk that he did not see a chance for a visit to the Netherlands in the near future. Visits to other countries and the reform of the Roman Curia were cited as reasons. Cardinal Eijk later informed those who asked that Pope Francis remained as welcome as ever.

Is this all, then?

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkSadly not. While the Trouw article was picked up by news outlets, both local and abroad, the correction from the bishops was not. Many assumed that Cardinal Eijk was the one who blocked the visit, and even among those who were aware of the correction, there were some who assumed this was damage control and that it really wasn’t the Pope who didn’t  want to come, but Cardinal Eijk coming up with reasons not to host him. I have been coming across plenty of ill feelings towards the cardinal, generally all based on the incorrect reporting in Trouw and other media outlets.

Are there any other sources backing up Cardinal Eijk?

There is one important one: Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the press chief of the Vatican. Dutch journalist Andrea Vreede, who lives and works in Rome, today contacted him to ask if a papal visit to the Netherlands was really not an option, and if the Pope had received an invitation which could then have been blocked by Cardinal Eijk. Fr. Lombardi said that Pope Francis had never accepted an invitation to visit the Netherlands and that there was no basis for a one-day visit on the 31st of May. The silence of the other bishops is also an indicator that things happened as is said. In the past some bishops did not hesitate to disagree with Cardinal Eijk.

What’s the deal with the one-day visit?

PuntHere the person of Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam comes in. While there are no official confirmations of this, it is said that he had scheduled a one-day visit of Pope Francis to Amsterdam. Logistics, finances, security, even a script are all said to have been ready. Bishop Punt, together with his auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks, visited the Pope last September. During the ad limina visit, Bishop Punt said that Pope Francis was interested in visiting the Netherlands. It may be assumed that the Holy Father said so during that earlier visit.

Although there are no solid sources for this, some say that Bishop Punt, once returned home, went about planning said one-day visit, which may have included a visit to Amsterdam’s St. Nicholas Basilica, a charity project in the capital and a prayer service in the Amsterdam Arena football stadium.

And 31 May?

On that day the devotees of Our Lady of All Nations, the controversial name of Our Lady as she is said to have appeared in Amsterdam in the middle of the 20th century, are having their annual day of meeting and prayer. Bishop Punt is a known adherent of this devotion, and has approved it in his capacity as ordinary of the diocese. Some now state that Bishop Punt wanted to combine this event, taking place in the aforementioned Basilica of St. Nicholas, with the papal visit and so promote the devotion worldwide. As before, these are assumptions made by some, and there is no proof that this is actually true.

What’s the status now?

There is a clear split between those who have read and accept the official correction of the bishops and therefore hold that Cardinal Eijk acted perfectly reasonable, and those who are prone to some conspiracy theories in this matter, believing that Cardinal Eijk did veto the visit and acted out of spite, fear or simple lust for power. Some add the Our Lady of All Nations story and hold that Bishop Punt was cut off by the cardinal.

And my opinion?

I am quite sure that things are indeed as the bishops say. There may have been some confusion because of Bishop Punt’s enthusiasm for a visit (who knows, he may well have been thinking about and exploring some options) and Cardinal Eijk’s personality (when he has said something it remains said, and when he maintains he has been clear enough he will not be easily convinced of explaining himself further). Cardinal Eijk will not have been telling the Pope to stay away, but he will have been honest about any reservations he may have had (I explored some possible reservations in my previous post on this topic). Bishop Punt may well be disappointed, as he has indicated, but I have not seen any evidence of a falling out between him and the cardinal. The bishop has also not issued a formal invitation, as we have learned via Fr. Lombardi, but he has probably presented some idea for a visit to the rest of the bishops’ conference. Cardinal Eijk may have taken that suggestion with him to Rome and discussed it with Pope Francis. Whatever the facts, it is the Holy Father who ultimately said that there was no time in the foreseeable future. And there is no reason to assume anything else, really.

The cardinal’s “no” to a papal visit

I added the official correction from the bishops’ conference to how Trouw represented the facts below:

eijkAccording to Trouw, preparations for a hypothetical papal visit to the Netherlands was already well-advanced when Cardinal Wim Eijk, as president of the Bishops’ Conference, vetoed the visit, doing so, he explained, after discussing the plans with the Pope on 10 January.

It seems amazing that the preparation was already so well underway: security was planned, money was available and there was even a script for the visit. While the idea was floated by Bishop Jos Punt several months ago, rumours did not become serious until the ad limina visit two months ago, and plans weren’t even officially discussed until the January meeting of the conference. For there to be a script ready this soon seems incredible. The article in Trouw states that Bishop Punt presented a full schedule for a one-day papal visit to Amsterdam during the plenary meeting in autumn. By the looks of it, this seems more like the trademark enthusiasm of Bishop Punt. A papal visit to his diocese would have been unlikely without the involvement of the rest of the conference. It would have been a national event anyway.

francisAs president of the Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Eijk is fully within his right to veto such plans, of course. And while the Trouw article suggests that “inside sources” confimr that no papal visit was discussed during Cardinal Eijk’s meeting with Pope Francis, the bishops’ spokeswoman rightly states that such meetings are confidential: we never get to hear what the Pope discusses with those he meets, especially not when they’re cardinals. Pope and cardinals can decide for themselves what they want to share of their conversation, and Cardinal Eijk has decided to keep it at this.

In general, the sources who say that a visit would have been possible or even desired by the Pope, are unnamed sources in the Vatican. I don’t think there’s much credibility we can attach to those…

Is it a shame that Pope Francis isn’t visiting? Of course. It would have been wonderful. It would also have been expensive, and I can understand that that would have kept the Pope at home, even though the Netherlands is, in some sense, a peripheral area in the Catholic world. And I don’t think that the bishops are ready to manage this… Pope Francis’ visit to the Netherlands, even if it were for just one day, would be making headlines for weeks. Considering the media’s opinion and track record of reporting on Catholic affairs, there would have been an enormous amount of misrepresentation of the Church and the faith, which would have to be corrected by the bishops and the faithful (who need to do this much more often, anyway). In that sense, I am glad that the Pope is not coming over.

And then there is the financial side. The bishops’ conference is cutting costs on all sides, and a papal visit is not going to be financed completely by the Holy See. While housing Pope Francis, with his sober tastes, would not be a problem, using the Amsterdam Arena football stadium for a prayer service, the logistics, the security, and all sorts of additional costs would be irresponsibly high at this moment.

Would the visit attract enough people? I think so. Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1985 was disastrous, but times have changed. The media haven’t turned on Pope Francis yet (which they will when they find out he is not going to change Church teaching on sexuality, marriage, family and such). So in that sense a visit would be desirable now, more so than in the future. But in what sense it would be for the perceived persona of the Pope instead of a pastoral visit to strengthen the faithful can be debated…

Logistics, finances and communication skills would prohibit this visit, in my opinion. While Pope Francis would be enthusiastically received by all layers of society (imagine the circus when politicians all want to be involved…), I fear the effects of the visit would not last very long.

It’s a sad decision, but a good one, I think. Enthusiasm for a visit is simply not enough to make it happen.

EDIT: While my general comments above stand, it seems that the facts of the decision are somewhat different than represented by Trouw. The decision to not have a papal visit was not the cardinal’s, but the Pope’s. Read below my translation of the official statement from the bishops’ conference:

 On 10 January last, Cardinal Eijk met with Pope Francis in a private audience. The newspaper Trouw today misrepresents what both discussed during the meeting. Trouw states that the Pope and Cardinal Eijk decided jointly that a visit to the Netherlands would not take place. Cardinal Eijk is said to have also stated that in the plenary meeting of the Bishops’ Conference. That is completely besides the truth.

During the ad limina visit Cardinal Eijk replied to reporters’ questions that Pope Francis is welcome in the Netherlands. On 10 January he probed Pope Francis about the possibility of a papal visit to our country. The Pope himself indicated that he did not see a chance to do so in the foreseeable future. He is already planning to visit the Holy Land and several other countries. There is therefore no opportunity to visit the Netherlands soon.

Added to that are the Pope’s plans to reorganise the Roman Curia. As is known he has established a commission of eight cardinals from all continents who regularly meet in Rome to advise him in that matter. In the coming years this reorganisation will require much time and attention from the Pope. Therefore he has little opportunity to conduct travels abroad.

Trouw claims that the spokesperson of the Bishops’ Conference has said that Cardinal Eijk informed the Bishops’ Conference that the Holy Father and he had decided that the visit would not take place. In her e-mail to Trouw reporter Emiel Hakkenes, of Friday 31 January last, the spokesperson of the Bishops’ Conference made it known that the Pope decided himself not to visit the Netherlands (for now).

Pope to Amsterdam? High hopes and realistic expectations

papal visitTo be honest, I’d be trying to get front row seats if it would happen, but I don’t expect that Pope Francis will really make a papal visit to the Netherlands anytime soon, let alone next year, as Trouw suggests. Then again, even the bishops have been toying with the idea, as we learn from the letter about the ad limina visit that Bishop Punt sent his faithful. There we find the following passage:

“At an earlier occasion I spoke with the Pope about a possible visit to the Netherlands. He seemed very interested. With the other bishops we have agreed to consider the possibilities.”

Both Trouw and Catholic broadcaster RKK are now reporting that a spokesman for Bishop Punt has said that they hope for a visit to Amsterdam sometime next year. I don’t read that in the bishop’s letter, and I have doubts if next year is realistic. Pope Francis does not yet seem to be as keen a traveller as both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, having only visited Brazil (and that visit was scheduled for Benedict), and the Dutch bishops, who have not yet issued a formal invitation (as Cardinal Eijk said during the ad limina), are not the first in line. We may be certain that Pope Francis intends to visit the Holy Land next year, as he himself has said in the most recent interview. The bishops will be discussing possibilities regarding the visit during their January meeting, it is said.

A papal visit will be something to look forward to. It will be an enormous boost in confidence for Dutch Catholics, but we can’t forget the disastrous previous visit of a Pope, in 1985. Pope John Paul II, who was also a much beloved and popular pontiff, suffered much criticism then for the Church teachings on controversial topics like women’s ordination and contraception. Hey, it’s the Netherlands, anything can happen.

While a papal visit may be in the books for an unspecified time in the future, I don’t see it happening next year, nor do I believe that the bishops themselves think so.

EDIT: Anna Kruse, the spokeswoman for the bishops, confirmed on Twitter that a possible papal visit was not discussed during the ad limina visit, and that there has been no formal invitation from the bishops to the Pope. The bishops would welcome a visit, of course, and via Bishop Punt we learn that Pope Francis isn’t opposed either, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Photo credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Back to the threshold, bishops going on ad limina

Logo BisschoppenconferentieAfter many months of speculation and a few days of ever stronger rumours, it was finally confirmed yesterday. Daily newspaper Trouw enquired with the bishops and later that same day an official confirmation was released via the Church province: yes, after nine years, the Dutch bishops are making their ad limina visit to Rome.

The details: Scheduled for five days, the ad limina visit will take place from 2 to 7 December. The bishops will be received in audience by Pope Francis on 5 December. Before and after that there will be meetings with the various offices of the Curia. Every bishops will present a report about the situation in their diocese. These reports will remain confidential. A report on the Church in the Netherlands, compiled by the bishops’ conference as a whole, will be released to the public on the first day of the ad limina.

The reason for the long delay (ad limina visits should theoretically be made very five years, although it is usually longer; nine years, however, is exceptional) is given by the bishops as the backlog created by the ailing health and death of Blessed Pope John Paul II, the conclave of 2005, the time that Pope Benedict XVI needed to get started as Pope, the slower rate of visits in his later years as Holy Father, the conclave of this year and the first months of the papacy of Pope Francis.

Of the 12 or 13 bishops that make up the conference (it is yet unclear of Bishop Jan van Burgsteden is going: he is retired, but retains some functions within the conference), Six wil be making their first ad limina. Of these, two bishops are ordinaries and four auxilairies. They are Bishops Jan Hendriks, Theodorus Hoogenboom, Jan Liesen, Rob Mutsaerts, Hans van den Hende and Herman Woorts. Of the seven who are making their second ad limina, three are doing so in other functions: Cardinal Eijk was Bishop of Groningen and is now Archbishop of Utrecht (and cardinal), Bishop de Korte was Auxiliary of Utrecht and is now Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, and Bishop van Burgsteden was Auxiliary of Haarlem is now Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Haarlem-Amsterdam.

Finally, some who were there in 2004 are now absent: Cardinal Simonis has retired as Archbishop of Utrecht; Bishop Jan de Kok as Auxiliary Bishop of the same; Bishop Ad van Luyn as Bishop of Rotterdam; and Bishop Tiny Muskens as Bishop of Breda (he has passed away since).

punt hendriks francisSome of the bishops, such as Bishops Punt and Hendriks last month, as pictured at left, have met Pope Francis before, while others haven’t. Cardinal Eijk, who is leading the delegation as president of the bishop’s conference commented: “I have met Pope Francis several times, also before he became Pope. For me it is a very special occasion to now speak more closely with him about the developments in the archdiocese and our Church province. I am really looking forward to it.”

Photo credit: arsacal.nl

No tv appearances, please, we’re bishops

eijkIn an interview published today in Trouw, Cardinal Eijk says that he doesn’t think bishops should appear on television very much. Although he doesn’t shy away from personal contacts with people, he prefers that these contacts remain private and do not run via the media. The chief reason for this, the cardinal says, is that restraint is needed on the part of the bishops in the wake of the many reports of sexual abuse by clergy in past decades.

While I think the cardinal is right that this crisis does merit restraint, and while I also think that the bishops are not media personalities or spokesmen for the Church per se, I don’t believe that it is now a good time to stay completely out of the public eye, or even the Catholic eye for that matter.

It is good that the bishops do not go on the defensive in the abuse crisis. They accept the responsibilities they have inherited from their predecessors, and do their best to act accordingly. Mistakes are still made in that process, certainly, as it is a learning process, but I do not have the impression that the bishops of the Netherlands are simply looking out for their own best interests.

But a media blackout can also have adverse effects. The bishops take responsibility, which is a good thing, but they also remain shepherds of the faithful in this country. And some of those faithful, priests and laity alike, appear on television and in other media to explain or defend the Church on whatever topic has caught the public eye. Cardinal Eijk is fully behind that. About one of these ‘media Catholics’, Father Antoine Bodar, he says: “I think that many people do know what Bodar’s role is. He speaks about the contents, and not about policy. That is the bishops’ responsibility.”

Very true, but policy is not the only thing that bishops concern themselves with. The reason behind the policy, the content of the faith, is also very much their responsibility. By being more visible in the media and the public eye, I think that the bishops can much more effectively perform their role of shepherds and teachers, not least in support of those Catholic faithful who go out to explain and defend the faith and the Church they are part of and love.

It’s a balance between reflecting the responsibility they assume for the abuse crisis, and continuing to do their other duties as bishops. A precarious balancing act at times, to be sure. But I want to know my bishop behind me, and I want him to explain, teach and shepherd, both for me and those I encounter.

The Church in the Netherlands needs an openness towards the world, and the media is an important part of that. It is, after all, the channel through which most people relate to the wider world.

So, bishops, do continue to interact with your faithful in the parishes as you do, but do not forget the work done by those Catholics in the media, or the many people who try to understand the world through that same media. Communication is more than just being on tv a lot, more than saying a lot of words, but we do need it. We need you to help us.

“Simplicity, meditation and prayer”, but, for Fr. te Velde, also repentance

In a recent interview (available as a PDF file here) for Trouw, Father Johan te Velde expounds on the major forthcoming change in his life: his entrance as a postulant in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Willibrord. He is now wrapping up his duties as parish priest and diocesan vicar in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, and his new life will start on 1 September.

Following a description of his first encounter with monastic life when he was 17, and his decision not to pursue it at as a student and young priest, Fr. te Velde goes on to explain why he has decided to do so now that he is 58. And this, in my opinion, offers an interesting insight into the motivations of this thoughtful and erudite priest, which have a poignantly current element.

“I never stopped visiting monasteries. Taizé in France, the Poor Clares in Megen, Chevetogne, an ecumenical monastery in Belgium. Three years ago, in Chevetogne, the desire for a pure and sober life in a small community returned. A return to the heart.

I am quite fed up with the society that we life in. It’s all about consumption, entertainment, about satisfying needs. People are finding it very hard to remain faithful to each other. I also see it in my parish, the sort of confusion that young people and young families are living in in that respect. Divorces, parents who are finding it hard to pass something good on to their children.

The Christian faith does have an answer, but we don’t always succeed in presenting it properly. We can say that sexuality is about love and loyalty, but when you see what we have done ourselves, as priests and monastics… As Church we have also been put in the dock.

There are bishops who have held penitential services. They laid down flat on the ground and asked for forgiveness. Others have spoken to victims. Entering the monastery is my contribution. I chose repentance, a life of simplicity, meditation and prayer. I also do this for the Church.”