The Catholic Church in Belgium strikes me in some respects as a microcosm of the state of the Church in the rest of the developed world (Africa excepted).
In this nominally Catholic country, ordinary people have been turning away from formal religious observance in their droves; the clergy have been collectively tarnished by the clerical abuse problems, which culminated earlier this year in the resignation of a senior bishop; the public has been angered by the inaction and excuses of the bishops in response; churches are being closed for lack of clergy; and the main remedy of the Vatican has been to put in charge a grossly insensitive conservative, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels. At a recent public meeting, one Belgian was so incensed by this man that he threw a pie in his face. More ominously for the Church as a whole, a small but growing band of Belgian Catholics, like their neighbours in the Netherlands, are simply going their own way. They are doing it themselves, practising their faith without depending on the benefits of ordained clergy – “benefits”, which in their eyes are distinctly dubious.
They are not alone. In recent years, local parishes in many other parts of the world have taken similar independent paths. In this, they are true to the very earliest traditions of the Church, where local communities selected deacons and presbyters from among their own ranks to serve them. The role of the bishop was simply to consecrate those chosen. In time however, that custom of episcopal consecration became an established requirement, thereby giving the local bishop a power of veto, which gave way to the power of selection and control over the local priests. And so began the long, continuous power grab by the episcopal oligarchy that we call the bishops and cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican is not pleased with developments in Belgium and the Netherlands. Their response is revealing:
“If there are persons or groups that do not observe these norms, the competent bishops — who know what really happens — have to see how to intervene and explain what is in order and out of order if someone belongs to the Catholic Church,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said.
“Intervene and explain” is a typical response. When a Minneapolis school board intervened to remove from their website which was critical of the local Archbishop’s crusade against gay marriage, it justified it actions by saying they were simply seeking to avoid “confusion” over Catholic teaching on gay marriage. However, there is no public confusion over the teaching – that is well known. The confusion lies at the heart of the teaching itself, and the practices of some bishops who focus exclusively on narrow issues of sexual ethics, while ignoring other teaching on social justice, on equity, and on the primacy of conscience.
There is a simple response to church spokesmen who think they can remedy serious problems in the church by “explaining” the rules. Sr Joan Chittister told of a particularly neat example in her column this week at National Catholic Reporter. In this example,
the local pastor of a parish in Santa Fe, N.M., gave an enthusiastic homily on the importance to the church of a recent ordination in the diocese. Then he ended his remarks by reporting to the congregation his own advice to the newly-ordained.
“I told him to remember that his duty was to serve God,” the pastor said, “not the people.”
The people, however, weren’t buying it. Mindful of the revised code of Canon Law that followed Vatican II, ans specifically of
Canon 212 (which) gave laity “the right and the responsibility” to make known to their pastors their needs.
The people did just that, and wrote to their pastor, telling him to remember a few things himself. It’s an impressive list – read it at NCR. I have a shorter one myself – in fact, just a single item. To those who try to “explain” the church rules, we should explain in response that the entire priesthood and ecclesiastical hierarchy that controls it has been hijacked. The institution of presbyters in the church, like that of the deacons who preceded them, began as a vocation of service to the people of God, not one of control. The early bishops, too, were originally there in service to the clergy and people. (Not all the bishops are hostile to these groups. According to the NY Times, some are quietly meeting with these groups, and discussing their concerns).
I accept that service remains the prime concern of many fine priests and bishops – but some, and especially those at the heart of the institutional structures, frequently forget it, and see themselves instead as policemen or legislators. That is when we, mindful of Canon 212, need to remind them of their true purpose. If they (collectively) cannot always serve their congregations as they should, is it any wonder that some communities choose instead to simply do it themselves – just as the earliest Christians did?
Sr Bridget Mary has a sound reflection on the Ekklesia communities of Belgium and the Netherlands:
It seems like more and more Catholics today are on a collision course with the Vatican. Yet at the same time, new hope for a more vibrant Catholic Church is blossoming in grassroots communities. Kudos to Belgium Catholics leading the way. The Vatican cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church. Let us pray that more courageous women and men in parishes who do not have a resident priest will either call forth women priests or married male priests or go ahead and celebrate Eucharist themselves, knowing that the Holy One is in their midst when two or three are gathered together in God’s name
(One fascinating tidbit for queer Catholics: these Ekklesias have adopted as a symbol of the worship leader a rainbow sash (see the NY Times picture that heads this post), and use rainbow candles. )
Here are some extracts from a New York Times report:
Don Bosco is one of about a dozen alternative Catholic churches that have sprouted and grown in the last two years in Dutch-speaking regions of Belgium and the Netherlands. They are an uneasy reaction to a combination of forces: a shortage of priests, the closing of churches, dissatisfaction with Vatican appointments of conservative bishops and, most recently, dismay over cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests.
The churches are called ecclesias, the word derived from the Greek verb for “calling together.” Five were started last year in the Netherlands by Catholics who broke away from their existing parishes, and more are being planned, said Franck Ploum, who helped start an ecclesia in January in Breda, the Netherlands, and is organizing a network conference for the groups in the two countries.
At this sturdy brick church southwest of Brussels, men and women are trained as “conductors.” They preside over Masses and the landmarks of life: weddings and baptisms, funerals and last rites. Church members took charge more than a year ago when their pastor retired without a successor. In Belgium, about two-thirds of clergymen are over 55, and one-third older then 65.
“We are resisting a little bit like Gandhi,” said Johan Veys, a married former priest who performs baptisms and recruits newcomers for other tasks at Don Bosco. “Our intention is not to criticize, but to live correctly. We press onward quietly without a lot of noise. It’s important to have a community where people feel at home and can find peace and inspiration.”
For some Catholics in the ecclesia movement and academics at the Catholic University of Louvain, Archbishop Léonard is emblematic of a remote church disconnected from a flock that yearns for more relevant rituals and active participation.
“Something is beginning to crack,” said the Rev. Gabriel Ringlet, a priest and former vice rector at the Catholic University of Louvain, which is considering dropping the “Catholic” from its name. “I think the Belgian Catholic Church is starting to feel something exceptional for the first time in 40 years. A lot of Catholics are waking up and speaking out.”
“We are looking for ways to live faith in a modern way,” said Karel Ceule, a Lier member. “If you look at the crisis today with Archbishop Léonard, he is a symbol of an old, conservative church. In Flanders, this doesn’t work anymore. We have reached a stage of history where we don’t accept that the priest has to be the go-between. We want to take charge of baptisms and communion.”
-Read the full report
- Belgian Primate Continues to Draw Fire: André-Joseph Léonard’s Theologian-Spokesperson Resigns (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- An Old Catholic Perspective on the Roman Hierarchy’s “Dumbing Down” of the Catholic Church (thewildreed.blogspot.com)