Friday, December 9, 2011

On the Belgian Reform Manifesto

Hellloooo, Coffee Talkers!

It's been a while, but I've gotten some questions in recently, so let me try to clear the cobwebs out of my brain and get crackin' here. Tonight's topic is an article on a reform manifesto issued by four Flemish priests, which a friend passed on to me, asking if I had any commentary. Anyone who knows me knows that, if nothing else, I am never lacking on commentary, so permit me to post the article here (in black) and to comment intralinearly (in red). Enjoy!

Published on National Catholic Reporter
Dec. 02, 2011 By John A. Dick

Hmm...I'm already a bit suspicious of the credibility of this article due to the source, but I'll keep an open mind.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM -- The week before the start of Advent, four Flemish priests issued a church reform manifesto that called for allowing the appointment of laypeople as parish pastors, liturgical leaders and preachers, and for the ordination of married men and women as priests.

Married men -- fine. You can ask for that, since there already are married priests in the Catholic Church, both in the Eastern Rites and in the Roman Rite among those who have become Catholic priests after having previously served as married Anglican/Episcopal priests. But ordaining women is an entirely different matter (for which I should sometime devote an entire blog post), and perhaps the priests just need to review Blessed John Paul II's document "On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone."

By the week's end more than 4,000 of publicly active Catholics had signed on to the "Believers Speak Out" manifesto. By Dec. 1, the number of signers had reached 6,000.


Among the supporters are hundreds of priests, educators, academics and professional Catholics. Two prominent supporters are former rectors of the Catholic University of Leuven, Roger Dillemans and Marc Vervenne.

I have no idea who these people are, so I can't comment here.

"These are not 'protest people.' They are people of faith. They are raising their voices. They hope their bishops are listening," said Fr. John Dekimpe, one of four priests who launched the manifesto.

"Some people are fearful about approaching church leadership," said the priest, who lives in Kortrijk. "Is this being a dissident? I don't think so. The Belgian church is a disaster. If we don't do something, the exodus of those leaving the church will just never stop. ... I really want the bishops to reflect deeply about the growing discontent of so many believers."

I wish I knew more about the Belgian church so I could offer more insights here, but I have no doubt that they are having serious problems and that some valid concerns are being raised here.

Among the manifesto's demands, made "in solidarity with fellow believers in Austria, Ireland and many other countries," are that:
  • Parish leadership be entrusted to trained laypeople; 
This already happens very frequently in the US, so it's interesting to hear that perhaps this idea is so radical for the church in Belgium that these Flemish priests feel the need to present the idea in the form of a 'manifesto.'
  • Communion services be held even if no priest is available; 
Ditto on my comment above.
  • Laypeople be allowed to preach; 
Well, here is the US lay people do the most informal 'preaching' -- that is, teaching and passing on the faith in the context of sacramental preparation and ongoing formation. The formal homily is reserved to priests and deacons, which I don't see as a huge problem here because the lay people have opportunities for other forms of 'preaching' and proclaiming the Gospel. But okay, what's next?
  • Divorced people be allowed to receive Communion; 
Divorced people CAN receive communion, so that is certainly not what the manifesto is asking for. Don't be deceptive, National Catholic Reporter.
  • "As quickly as possible, both married men and women be admitted to the priesthood.
As I said above, married men -- already allowed for some Catholic priests, so could still be up for discussion in the Roman Rite. Women, married or not, are an entirely different matter (for theological and sacramental, not historically discriminatory, reasons. Read the JP II document above if you care).

So far there has been no official reaction from Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, the Catholic primate of Belgium, any of the other Belgium bishops, or the Vatican. Privately, and off the record, one Belgian bishop has applauded the manifesto.

Why is this bishop afraid to go on the record if he really believes it is all right and true?

Jürgen Mettepenningen, a Leuven theologian and former press officer for Léonard, told the Belgian newspaper De Morgen that he hopes the manifesto can lead to a well-thought-out church reform. "When I reflect on what I have written and said over the past years, I can only say that the spirit of the manifesto is the very same spirit in which I have been trying to work to make the church more credible: true to the faith."
Last year, after reports of abuse rocked the Belgian church, an independent commission discovered sexual abuse in most Catholic dioceses and all church-run boarding schools and religious orders. The commission said 475 cases of abuse had been reported to it between January and June this year.


In one of the more prominent cases, Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe was forced to resign after admitting to years of abusing his nephew. In April of this year, he told Belgian television that he had molested another nephew and that it had all started "as a game."

Horrific, and inexcusable. Still, the cause of these problems in not a problem of theology, or of not admitting married men and women to the clergy, etc.

The full text of the manifesto, "Believers Speak Out":

Parishes without a priest, Eucharist at inappropriate hours, worship without Communion: that really should not be! What is delaying the needed church reform? We, Flemish believers, ask our bishops to the break the impasse in which we are locked. We do this in solidarity with fellow believers in Austria, Ireland and many other countries, with all who insist on vital church reform.

Sounds good to me!

We simply do not understand why the leadership in our local communities (e.g., parishes) is not entrusted to men or women, married or unmarried, professionals or volunteers, who already have the necessary training. We need dedicated pastors!

Again, I have too little knowledge of the Belgian church to say much. In the Diocese for which I work, it is not at all uncommon to see the administration of parishes entrusted to celibate priests, married priests (former Anglicans), married women, married men, single women, single men. However, they are not all pastors, per say. A priest (or deacon, when permissible) still has to serve in the celebration of the sacraments. Evidently, the church in Belgium has a real priest shortage, but little or no openness to lay administrative leadership of parishes. That is a solvable problem, and perhaps these priests do well to bring it to the light.

We do not understand why these our fellow believers cannot preside at Sunday liturgical celebrations. In every active community we need liturgical ministers!

Again, we have many lay liturgical 'ministers,' but they are all 'extraordinary ministers' -- that is to say, they are outside of the ordained clergy. Only the ordained clergy are formal ministers. These lay people can serve in many liturgical roles, but they cannot celebrate Mass. Are they just asking for lay people to be admitted into any liturgical ministries at all, or for them to take the place of ordained clergy?

We do not understand why, in communities where no priest is available, a Word service cannot also include a Communion service.

Agreed. I also do not understand this. The bishops can train and commission lay 'ministers' for this purpose.

We do not understand why skilled laypeople and well-formed religious educators cannot preach. We need the word of God!

I addressed this above.

We do not understand why those believers who, with very good will, have remarried after a divorce must be denied Communion. They should be welcomed as worthy believers. Fortunately, there are some places where this is happening.

If a person was sacramentally married, a civil divorce does not end the sacramental marriage. Only if the original marriage was invalid sacramentally can a person get married in the Church. Otherwise, if they remarry civilly (while still being married to another sacramentally), they are not permitted to receive Eucharistic communion. Divorced people who are annulled from their previous marriage (in other words, it was declared by the Church to have been an invalid sacrament) may marry again and receive communion; also, divorced people who cannot receive an annulment but remain unmarried (civilly) may receive communion. There are many complicated cases for which I believe that the Church (most especially priests and bishops) should have very special pastoral care. These priests are right to point out that many people in this situation remarried with good will, and often with varying degrees of misunderstanding or ignorance of church (or canon) law. Still, there are many other situations for which people are not permitted to receive Eucharistic communion until reconciling themselves with the Church and the community, and the Church's teaching on a sacramental marriage being a lifelong union that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful must be preserved. I think they mention a valid concern, but do not present a real solution.

We also demand that, as quickly as possible, both married men and women be admitted to the priesthood. We, people of faith, desperately need them now!

I already talked about this one a few times, so enough said.

Those are all of my thoughts for now, friends. I'd welcome insights from people with a special knowledge of the church in Belgium.

As always, thanks for stopping by, and be assured of my prayers!

Peace and all good,