After the Ad Limina, Bishop Schwaderlapp on the “erosion of faith”

In his homily for the second Sunday of Advent in the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary of that diocese, looked back on the recent Ad Limina visit of the German bishops. The full text of his homily can be found, in the original German, here, and below I present a translation of the relevant section concerning the Ad Limina. It touches upon some of the most frequent criticism against the German episcopate and church, and succeeds, in my opinion, in indicating where the solution lies.

schwaderlapp“Everywhere he went, John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). That promise that John proclaimed can only enter into our hearts when we are willing to repent and begin anew. Repentance is painless when we want and demand it from others. It only becomes real when it is about me personally. Where do we need to repent? Where do I need to repent? When about two weeks ago we German bishops were in Rome for the Ad Limina visit, the Holy Father gave us a speech to take with us, one peppered with warnings: Clear words! In it, he speaks about the “erosion of faith” in our country. I once looked up on Wikipedia what erosion means: Improper land use removing especially fertile soil.

Dear sisters and brothers, the Church in Germany is certainly the best financed and best organised in the entire world. But what do we actually do? How can it be that – with all the means at our disposal – we must conclude that knowledge of and belief in the faith are ever more decreasing?

Are we really taking our mission to proclaim the faith seriously? We do it in other areas. For example: in our archdiocese, in an effort to prevent sexual abuse, hundreds of thousands, who are working with young people, are being trained. They must follow a set curriculum. Is there a similarly compulsory curriculum about questions of faith? No! Pope Francis has said, “New structures are continuously being created, but there are not faithful to fill them.” Are we obsessed with structures? In short, a word that is a warning for us as bishops and the Church in Germany.

And the Holy Father continues with what the erosion of faith means to him concretely. He discusses the Holy Eucharist and Confession. Holy Mass – the gift of God’s presence par excellence! Fewer than 10% of Catholics in our archdiocese attend it on Sunday. And when, because of decreasing numbers of priests, Mass times change or even, in some places, a Mass is no longer possible on every Sunday, a whole range of people stays away from Holy Mass. Has the Holy Eucharist become a sort of folklore in our lives, to embellish our Sundays? Our is it the foundation of our lives?

We are talking about new beginnings needed in our Church. Indeed, that is needed. But one thing is clear: When we do not make the first call of Jesus, “Repent and believe in the Gospel”, our own, when we do not make the call of John the Baptist our own, when we do not rediscover Confession as a place of God’s  mercy, there will be no new beginning! We can not make a new beginning by ourselves, but only implore God’s mercy for it.

Let us also ask ourselves: what does my faith look like? How seriously do I take it? How seriously do I take the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance? Do I try to deepen my attitude, my practice, to really experience this great gift of the mercy of God?”

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Hot topic, or how the Church does, in fact, not promote violence

andrée van esAt a European conference on the emancipation of homosexuals in The Hague, an Amsterdam alderman has called for all religious leaders in the world to take their responsibility regarding the acceptance of homosexuals and transgendered people.

“As long as the Pope and most Muslim leaders do not accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation, millions of people will consider violence against gays, lesbians and transgendered people to be justified,” Andrée van Es (pictured), who holds the diversity and integration portfolio in the Amsterdam city council, said. This sweeping generalisation, putting religious leaders in all their diversity in the same corner, is not only a gross misrepresentation of reality, but also a worrying example of the imposition of one society’s political philosophy on others.

Writing as a Catholic and as a blogger with some knowledge of Catholic teachings on these matters, I will limit myself to the Church and her faith, leaving Muslim thoughts about homosexuality aside.

To begin with the very first words of the statement quoted above, I must explain that the Church does accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation: she accepts that it exists, that people can experience sexual attraction to people of the same gender. However, she does not accept it as a true expression of the ordered nature of man as created by God. That is why she will always be opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, as it is an impossibility. However, that is far from the same thing as advocating violence against homosexuals. The Church always upholds that ancient teaching of hating the sin, loving the sinner. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, he or she has an innate dignity and should always be treated in accordance with that dignity that all men have been given. The Church will always defend that dignity, which is most visibly in her pro-life attitude, but also in her pastoral relations between individual faithful, laity and clergy alike.

However, and this is an important distinction that is often misunderstood or overlooked, this loving understanding of people’s equality in their human dignity is far from the same as accepting everything a person does (not is or has, but does). Indeed, when we love someone, we are bound to correct that person if he or she makes mistakes, and we should guide and help them in their lives, whatever the difficulties are that they may face over the course of it. Be it illness, poverty, social issues or a disordered sexuality, we must be there to stand with them, help them in their lives, to achieve the fulfillment of life as God has willed it. We are people with a purpose, created for that purpose, and God has given us the possibility to achieve that purpose, to live in unity with Him for all eternity, despite the obstacles and barriers that we find on our path. He has given us the means to overcome them, and we often find those means through the help of others.

That reality governs the actions of the Church. God has willed to reach out to us through her, that she may be there to lead us to Him. As members of His Church, we are called to make that possible. We do so through the love that Christ has showed us, and that is not a sappy kind of love which sees everything through rose-tinted glasses and accepts everything. No, that love wants the best for its object: us. And therefore it guides, corrects, teaches.

The Church accepts reality, but does not accept that that is all there is. We can and must always strive for something better, for the very best. God is that very best, and He is what we strive for.

All of the above commits us to something which is not easy, certainly not in our modern society. It can come across as discriminatory, hateful even. But just like a parent correcting a child, there can be no hate between God and man. The Church does not hate homosexuals. She loves them like she loves all men, and she teaches them through the faculties given to her by the Lord, in love, like a parent teaches, guides and sometimes has to correct a child.

When suggesting someone to do something, the first step to is to make sure you know what you are talking about. Ms. van Es has clearly failed to do this, as she so clearly links the Pope, and thus the Catholic Church, to violence. A cursory search soon comes up with Paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

In 2008, while offering some criticism, the Holy See welcomed

“the attempts made in the statement on human  rights, sexual orientation and gender identity – presented at the UN General  Assembly on 18 December 2008 – to condemn all forms of violence against  homosexual persons as well as urge States to take necessary measures to put an  end to all criminal penalties against them” [source].

In 2009, the Permanent Mission to the UN reiterated much the same sentiments:

“The Holy See also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person. The murder and abuse of homosexual persons are to be confronted on all levels, especially when such violence is perpetrated by the State” [source].

Three quotes found through a short search via Google and Wikipedia. Ms. van Es could and should have known much better.

Photo credit: Gemeente Amsterdam

Rigid and one-sided?

A somewhat strange definition of orthodoxy on Dutch news site Nu.nl today. A study by the University of Amsterdam into the Salafi school of Islam – the proponents of which favour a fairly strict interpretation of scripture – and its attitudes towards Dutch society, identifies said school as a “‘normal’ orthodox movement”. And what is a normal orthodox movement then? Well, the news report says, one whose followers have a “rigid and one-sided” world view.

I don’t think that’s a fair description of orthodoxy, be it Muslim or Christian orthodoxy. I consider myself orthodox as well, but I don’t think I’m any more rigid and one-sided than other parts of society. I can generally agree with the description that Wikipedia gives of the word:

The word orthodox, from Greek orthodoxos “having the right opinion”, from orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + doxa (“opinion” or “praise”, related to dokein, “to think”), is typically used to mean the adherence to well-researched and well-thought-out accepted norms, especially in religion.

So an orthodox person adheres to well-thought-out norms, which obviously means that some less well-considered norms are not accepted by that person. Is that rigidity and one-sidedness? Is good consideration of things the same as rigidity? Of course not. The only commonality between the two terms is that neither refers to the automatic acceptance of everything that is humanly possible, as much of modern society tends to do. Is orthodoxy one-sided? I would vehemently disagree with that. Perhaps seen from the outside it may look like it is, but from the inside the orthodoxy of, for example, my Catholic faith, has too many facets to ever be one-sided.

Orthodoxy presupposes a set of norms and values, ideally well-considered and developed over the course of centuries, but around that foundation – because of that foundation – the human being flourishes. Like a house or a tree, people also need a solid foundation to bloom. That, in my opinion, is orthodoxy. A positive concept, not negative like rigidity and one-sidedness.

Some thoughts on same-sex marriage

On Facebook I joined a little group with the catchy title I bet I can find 1,000,000 people AGAINST same sex marriage! The accuracy of that claim is doubtful of course (the group has some 1,600 members as of the time of writing), but it was created in response to a group with a similar title that was in favour of same-sex marriage. A classic case of sloganeering, I would say.

Anyway, the identity of the group being what it may, I nonetheless joined it and that caused two people to ask me why I am against same-sex marriage. A valid question about a very unpopular position to take, and reason to explain a bit more in this blog. I intend to put the question in a slightly larger framework. I want to take a look at what marriage is and if that idea is in agreement with the modern concept of marriage. To find an answer I want to use my own thoughts about it, obviously, and also some Catholic resources. Yes, I am a Catholic and I support the Catholic ideas about marriage. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

What is marriage?

The Code of Canon Law tells us this: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.” [Can. 1055 § 1]

There is a lot of information in these four lines. First of all, marriage is a covenant, a mutual agreement or contract, so to speak. It also involves a man and a woman who establish this agreement between themselves. Marriage is ordered to the good of the spouses, so they will benefit from it, and it will naturally include children and their education. Furthermore, although a human agreement, Christ has raised it to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized. I’ll come back to marriage being a sacrament, but going over these requirement we get a pretty clear picture.

We need a man and a woman who want to be married. Marriage can not be forced. The spouses must not be opposed to having children, because that would take away one of the defining elements of marriage. The inability to conceive or carry a child to term is different, of course, but I won’t go into that here.

The natural order which is alluded to in the above quote from the Code of Canon Law can be described as an order or set of laws which are innate to nature or creation. They were not later enforced on nature, but are a part of it. Of course, like nature, natural law finds its source in God, but He did not create it separately. The natural order becomes visible in the daily tendencies of nature: animals behave in a certain way, plants develop along certain lines in certain circumstances. In humans, and when applied to marriage, we see the natural order in the sexes. Man and woman complement each other, physically but also spiritually: ” This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” [Gen. 2, 23] and “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh” [Gen. 2, 24] (emphasis mine).

Marriage as a sacrament

 Marriage is also a sacrament. What does that mean? Wikipedia tells us that a sacrament is an “outward sign that conveys spiritual grace through Christ.” I have personally heard it defined as “a sign that achieves what it symbolises.” For example, the sacrament of Baptism uses the symbol of flowing water to indicate that we are cleansed from our sins and therefore it achieves that cleansing. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the bread and wine are symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ and therefore they are the Body and Blood of Christ (but I won’t go into an analysis of the transubstantiation here).

The sacrament of marriage is executed by the spouses themselves (the priest serves as a witness to validate the covenant made). Through the symbols of the rings, for example, the contract is signed and that contract must then be consummated to make it binding. All very official, but that is a summary of this particular sacrament. It is clearly a true and binding contract if the requirements are all met. These requirements are indicated in Holy Scripture and communicated through Tradition. I have already some examples in the quotations above, but there are many more.

Although it is an act of free will from the spouses and they have full control over the closing of the covenant of marriage, it is a covenant made before God. He validates it through His witnesses (the priest and others). The concept of marriage is not human-made, although the execution, to a large extent, is.

Modern views of marriage

Modern society in the west obviously values marriage. Many people get married, and I read recently that an increasing number of people actually get married in churches again. So the idea of marriage as something more than a mere agreement is still present, but I am afraid it is present as a vague sense and not as a well-defined idea. In my opinion, a large number of people get married (if they get married at all) because it is expected of them, or they feel it would make for the most beautiful day of their life, or other reasons. But there is no clear sense of marriage as a covenant made before God, a concept created by Him and so outside of our decisive influence: we can’t change what marriage is, simply because we didn’t create it in the first place.

Marriage, for many people, is an agreement between two people who want to share their lives together. They love each other, they are compatible and they want to grow old together, and these are all very lofty sentiments. But the enormous increase in divorces over the past decades would seem to indicate that there is no longer a clear sense of ‘marriage is forever’. It is a covenant that can not be broken. Marriage is also no longer always by definition good for the spouses, or ordered towards having children. The idea of what marriage is has changed from the definition I outlined above.

Same-sex marriage, the sensible idea?

Taking modern society’s ideas of marriage, there is no problem for two men to get married, or two men. For them, too, it is an agreement between two people who love and each other and want to grow old together. But is that marriage? I would say no. Marriage is much more than that and, like I said, the sacrament has certain requirements that spouses need to fulfill in order for it to be a marriage.

You could argue that we then just need to change the definition of marriage, but, like I said, we can’t since we didn’t create it. It’s as impossible as changing the force of gravity or switching off the sun. Since same-sex marriage can never be marriage according to its basic definition, we shouldn’t call it such. In fact, a lot of marriages between men and women aren’t marriages anymore, for the same reasons.

I have heard people claim that the “homosexual lobby stole our sacrament!” An insensitive comment in these words, to be sure, but one with a core of truth. The old Christian concept of marriage has, over the years, been adopted and changed by an increasingly secular society. This has been a relatively gradual process and at its root lies a lack of knowledge and education for which the Church is just as much to blame as any ‘secular lobby’ you’d care to mention.

Conclusion

Why am I against same-sex marriage? Well, I think I’ve clarified it a bit: it is not marriage according to its original definition. The sacraments are means by which God communicates His grace to us. We don’t need all sacraments (some, such as marriage and Holy Orders, exclude each other), but we need the ones we do receive in their totality. We can’t choose the bits and pieces of the sacraments that we like. If two people wish to share a life together before God, they’ll get married in the fullness of that sacrament. If two people wish to share a life together just because they want and God is not included in the decision, they do not get married.

The natural order, which I mentioned above, also plays a part in this, of course. I won’t go into too much detail (this post is long enough as it is), but there is serious problem with anything that is not in agreement with this natural order. Issues like abortion, euthanasia and, indeed, homosexuality are not in agreement with the natural order and should be handled with care, so to speak.

Does that mean that I, or the Church, hate homosexuals? Not in the least. It was Gandhi who told us to love the sinner, but hate the sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it better than I can, and I’ll close this post with this (emphases mine):

2357: Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358: The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359: Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

For continued reading: Persona Humana, declaration on certain questions concerning sexual ethics, published in 1975 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be interesting.

I realise this is a sensitive and emotional topic and that is why I want to stress that everyone is welcome to reply as long as they do not descend into personal attacks or impolite shouting. Debate is a good thing, but requires more than just emotion.