Today is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, and you’re reading The Tuesday Pillar Post.
We bring you this morning, first, the story of Radboud University, a Dutch college which is, in fact, Catholic, but which is not permitted to call itself Catholic.
How come? Well, for the past few decades, the university has been at odds with the bishops’ conference of the Netherlands, over issues related to governance, Catholic identity, and fidelity to Catholic doctrine.
In 2020, the bishops’ conference decided that the university could not call itself Catholic. While the Holy See upheld that decision, it also reminded the bishops in 2022 that the college is still, actually Catholic.
So a tense stalemate has emerged between the bishops and the university, with no clear resolution in sight.
Why does this matter? Because the story of Radboud University is the story of a lot of Catholic colleges. The stalemate it’s facing says something about what happens when bishops try to reform Catholic institutions — the institutions built, by the way, through the financial sacrifices of practicing Catholics wanting a place to form their children in the faith.
As the West grows more secular, we may see more of what’s happening at Radboud — a college which claims it would be more Catholic if it could find qualified Catholic leaders, but with few Dutch people practicing the faith, that is apparently a tall order.
Anyway, if you like well-crafted stories about ecclesiastical governance around the world, you’ll probably like this story from Holland.
A game of das Hähnchen 🐔
Last year, the German “synodal way” decided to establish a new organization of ecclesiastical governance in Germany — a permanent “synodal council,” composed of laity and bishops, which would have deliberative, rule-making authority over issues of “pastoral planning, future perspectives and budgetary issues” in the life of the Church.
You might think it sounds like they decided to create a national Church legislature. Well, you’re not alone. It kind of sounded like that to the Holy See as well.
So last week, three ranking members of the Roman curia sent a letter to German bishops, pointing out that the episcopal conference isn’t actually empowered to create a “synodal council.”
Drawing from the Second Vatican Council, the letter emphasized the unique sacramental capacity conferred to bishops for both teaching and governance, reminding the bishops about the power of governance.
The letter was distributed to German bishops yesterday. And when it was, the president of the German bishops’ conference had a unique spin on things.
He said, in effect: “Of course we don’t intend this proposed governing body, consisting of both bishops and laity, to undermine the authority of bishops. We’ve never intended that. And this new letter will give us guidance as we develop our project.”
It was a curious response, given that the text of the plan actually passed would give governing authority to non-bishops.
So we’ll see what happens next: It’s possible the bishops might go forward as they had planned, creating an uber-decision-making-assembly, while insisting that they’re not. It’s possible they’ll modify their plans, and suggest the new structure is what they intended all along.
For what it’s worth, the Holy See has spent the past few years sticking to a game plan on the German synodal way: A series of letters criticizing elements of the synodal way, and periodic meetings in which those criticisms are expressed more directly.
But for the most part, the Germans have continued on their way, doing what they intend to do, and effectively daring Rome to do something more deliberate than writing letters.
Will either side swerve? Or is a collision inevitable?
And since we’re in Germany, and talking about Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, here’s a story from his diocese.
The guide is, shall we say, “sex-positive” — in the worldly sense of that term, to be clear.
The text encourages pastors and other diocesan personnel to encourage people “in their sexual self-determination, to which every human being has a right.”
“Self-determination means a person decides something for himself,” it adds.
To you, that may seem like a winking endorsement of sexual activity outside the bounds of Catholic doctrine.
You would be wrong. The text is rather an explicit endorsement of sexual activity outside the bounds of Catholic doctrine. It states that: “Sexuality is not only between man and woman. But also between woman and woman. Or between man and man. Or between people who feel neither like a woman nor like a man.”
Indeed, the text calls for liturgical blessings of same-sex couples, despite an explicit Vatican prohibition on that practice last year:
“Church workers rejoice when couples have this wish: To get the blessing in the service for their partnership. The Diocese of Limburg would like to fulfill this wish for all couples.”
At The Pillar, we took a look at the way the text reconciles with recent Vatican documents on sexuality. As you can imagine, it does not reconcile well.
Despite claims that the document is in the spirit of Pope Francis, it is not — the pope’s curia has issued several documents which contravene a relativistic or situationist approach to human sexuality.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the pope has a plan to address the Limburg situation explicitly, but it is clear that the text represents a deviation from Catholic doctrine on sexuality, and from the recent magisterial articulations of such.
But before I move on from the topic, allow me to offer an assessment of where things stand regarding Catholic doctrine and teaching on sexuality.
We have witnessed, in recent years, a profusion of policies or ideas like Limburg’s - although not always as explicit - which come from official Catholic sources, but don’t reflect actual Catholic teaching — offering instead a sexual ethic, and an anthropology, which seems to be a capitulation to the ethos of the sexual revolution and what’s followed it.
We have also witnessed in the Church, from some corners, pushback on the sexual revolution, on relativism regarding sexuality, or on deviations from Catholic doctrine.
There is, it seems, a battle often of competing visions, and one played out in competing policies or statements coming from bishops and other ecclesiastical officials.
In the midst of that, here’s what the Church risks losing sight of: people.
Catholic doctrine, the Church’s unpacking of God’s sacred revelation, is the plan of God for human flourishing, a plan which aligns with our human nature and our supernatural ends.
Catholic doctrine is, to borrow a cliche, not mostly a set of prohibitive "NOs," but a set of "YESes", to a plan by which we can share the very love of the Trinity itself. It is the best plan for our lives. Period.
But for it to be those things, the Christian life has to be taught, lived, modeled, and supported for all people. There remains in the Church a paucity of projects, witnesses, and evangelists who have engaged with people who identify as L,G,B, or T, and found meaningful and compelling ways to share, and live, the Christian life.
What I’m talking about, friends, is accompaniment — and I’m not being glib.
It is important to have clearly articulated policies, especially on issues in which the freedom of the Church to live her faith is threatened. But those policies, too, must support the living of the faith.
If the Gospel is the best answer for every human person - and I believe that it is - we who proclaim it need to be sure that we’re excessive in sharing it meaningfully, and consistently — and most especially to people who believe that the Church has little to say to them.
There are Catholics doing this with people who identify themselves as gay, or transgender, or similar. But very often, discussions about pastoral care, or evangelization, or accompaniment, get bogged down, quickly, into debates about doctrine, or about politics.
So the challenge falls, I think, to the kind of Catholics who uphold the Church’s doctrine in its entirety - who believe it is true and live as if it is true. The challenge is to have real conversations about what more compelling, meaningful, and fruitful evangelization among people who identify as gay or transgender would look like — rather than see them left in a lurch between those would pander to them with cheap grace, and those who got sucked into the politics, without seeing the people.
That’s happening bit by bit, but, as I say, it gets derailed quickly. Or, as in the case of both the USCCB and the Holy See, guidelines on evangelization, pastoral care, and accompaniment have been developed, and then stuck in drawers without publication. Remember that?
Still, if the Church exists in order to evangelize, it seems to me to be among the most crucial challenges of our time.
In other news
We reported last week on the death of Nigerian priest Fr. Isaac Achi, who was killed in his parish rectory last Sunday, before the building was burned to the ground, with his body inside.
The story is important, but it might seem a bit far from home. It’s really not. Hundreds of Nigerian priests serve in dioceses in the United States, and most of them have a pretty close connection to the terror unfolding in their home nation.
Fr. Ahmadu Michael Gadache is one such priest. He serves at a parish in Omaha, Nebraska. But before he came to the U.S., he served at Fr. Isaac Achi’s parish. And the two priests are kinsmen — in Nigerian culture, Achi is regarded as Fr. Gadache’s uncle.
Here’s an excerpt:
Always, we need to forgive those who wrong us. Even now, it is my prayer that God will forgive these evil perpetrators and change their wicked hearts into hearts that love.
But it's difficult to forget. It's very difficult. It's very tough. But that is our Christian calling, to forgive. It’s the same for all who believe in Jesus. We have to learn to forgive. We are believers in Jesus, and that is what Jesus went through in this life. He suffered, he was killed. And even at his dying moment, he cried out and forgave those who were killing him. So he calls on us to do the same.
Bishop Kurt Burnette was appointed yesterday to be the apostolic administrator of two Ruthenian Catholic eparchies, or dioceses, in the U.S. As it happens, the bishop was already diocesan bishop of one Ruthenian eparchy, and apostolic administrator of another.
The new appointments give him four — more than half the total number of eparchies in the entirety of the 400,000 member Ruthenian Catholic Church.
So what’s happening? Well, in part, it’s the difficulty of getting priests to become bishops, and in part it’s some … unsettledness in the Ruthenian Catholic Church.
The cardinal was likely sincere in his remarks, but among Vatican officials, the remark is also seen as a pretty cheeky comment — a poke at the perception that some Vatican officials are more inclined to talk about lay leadership than they are to give up their own leadership gigs.
The remark points to an interesting reality — there are, indeed, lots of jobs that laity could do in the Roman Curia, which few would think require the sacrament of orders — and work in the diplomatic corps of the Holy See seems most obvious.
But many of the calls for lay leadership have focused on other departments, the ones associated with the spiritual authority that has long been taught to flow theologically from the sacrament of Holy Orders.
So is this a case of clericalism in all the wrong places, or an implicit desire to hold onto power, even while handing off authority?
Every rose has its thorn
Like a lot of readers, I encountered St. Francis de Sales as a young Catholic, by reading “Introduction to the Devout Life,” the saint’s master class on spiritual practices and the interior life.
But as an adult, I’ve drawn a lot from “Roses among Thorns,” a guide for perduring in the spiritual life, through the times when it came seem like a slog or a challenge. It’s a book of encouragement in the practice of loving God.
Here’s an excerpt that speaks to me:
Why are we troubled to find that we have committed a sin or even an imperfection?
Because we thought ourselves to be something good, firm, and solid. And therefore, when we have seen the proof to the contrary, and have fallen on our faces in the dirt, we are troubled, offended, and anxious. If we understood ourselves, we would be astonished that we are ever able to remain standing. This is the other source of our anxiety: we want only consolations, and we are surprised to encounter our own misery, nothingness, and folly.
There are three things we must do to be at peace:
– have a pure intention to desire the honor and glory of God in all things;
– do the little that we can unto that end, following the advice of our spiritual father [director];
– and leave all the rest to God’s care.
Why should we torment ourselves if God is our aim and we have done all that we can? Why be anxious? What is there to fear? God is not so terrible to those who love Him. He contents Himself with little, for He knows how little we have. Our Lord is called the Prince of Peace in the Scriptures, and because He is the absolute master, He holds all things in peace.…How happy you will be if while you are in the world you keep Jesus Christ in your heart! Remember the principal lesson he left to us, and in only a few short words, so that we would be able to remember it: “Learn of me, for I am meek, and humble of heart.” It is everything to have a heart that is meek toward our neighbor and humble toward God.
The Prince of Peace holds all things in peace. May he hold us in the peace of his love. May we make our hearts meek, and humble.
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