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Belgian Bishops’ Conference calls for a female diaconate and opening the ordained priesthood to married men – see full text of their letter, translated here

Pursuing “the very meaning of the Synod, which is a space for dialogue” the Catholic bishops of Belgium have issued a letter proposing that the Church establish a female diaconate and allow married men to be ordained to the presbyterate. The bishops’ 4-page letter to all dioceses is to promote discussion on these two ministerial topics as a preparation for the upcoming Synod assembly in October 2024 at the Vatican, and the spring deadlines for submission of input.

The draft text, apparently sent to discussion groups and councils throughout Belgium, makes three basic points, the first of which is thatA synodal missionary Church requires an open dialogue with current developments in the world around us. The Church cannot limit itself to a one-way street in proclaiming the Good News to the world,” said the bishops, continuing the reflection requested by the Synod Secretariat.

In a second point, the bishops ask that the Synod of Bishops “define our Church tradition(s) as dynamic and in constant development”. They also asked for encouragement in pursuing “concrete form to the decentralisation” of certain topics of discussion in the Church, “allowing us to work together in unity with more legitimate diversity”. “We ask for a concretisation of the ‘accountability’ of the bishops in a synodal church,” they said. The bishops then apparently call for a deeper reflection on the role of women in the Church, proposing that the decision regarding women deacons be left up to individual dioceses or national or continental bishops’ conferences. The place and meaning of the ordained office in a synodal Church is up for discussion.

Asking for “the green light to take certain steps per bishops’ conference or continental bishops’ meetings”, the bishops said that by doing this, “the giving of increasing pastoral responsibility to women and the ordination of women to the diaconate need not be universally obligatory or prohibited”. Regarding married priests, the bishops see a need to “rediscover the symbolic-sacramental nature of the ordained ministry,” saying: “There have long been strong questions about the obligation of celibacy for priests and deacons who become widowed.” They said the relationship between priestly ordination and absolute authority in decision-making requires new clarification. They expressed support for one of the major proposals of the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon that Pope Francis chose not to act on – the bishops also weighed in, signalling an openness to the proposition. “The priestly ordination of viri probati should not be universally obligatory or prohibited,” the bishops said in their memo. (See https://catholicherald.co.uk/belgian-bishops-may-back-women-deacons-and-ending-priestly-celibacy-in-a-church-more-open-to-a-digital-world/)

Importantly, the bishops also specifically requested that both priests and deacons involve more laypeople in the decision-making process, working “within teams in which lay people also have their place and task”. They went on, “A more synodal operation with growing involvement of many in consultation and decision-making requires more recognition of legitimate diversity.” The bishops also explicitly ask for “a concretization of the ‘accountability’ of the bishops in a synodal Church“. In working more closely with lay people and with shared pastoral responsibility, the bishops said “We see the need for renewal of the training of priests and deacons so that they can be more pastorally close, listening and welcoming.

These proposals have now been submitted for discussion in the country’s various dioceses. The results of this discussion are to be gathered and submitted to the bishops by 7 April 2024, and will then be sent to the Synod of Bishops office in Rome. A theological committee within the Belgian bishops’ conference will also explore the issues addressed in the letter, delving further into questions surrounding Church tradition and the various offices and ministries in the Church.

The Belgian bishops and their spokesperson concluded with affirmation of a “synodal missionary Church” and “a Church that should have the courage to engage its Tradition — its traditions — in conversation with current knowledge from theological, philosophical, and scientific research”. Very explicitly the bishops stated “We would like to see a growing decision that an open conversation with developments in theology, philosophy and sciences is necessary and should be organized.

The bishops ask overall “that text proposals be submitted in the upcoming October synod on the above priorities with a view to reasoned reflection and discussion”.

“The Church is changing in a truly synodal spirit,” concludes Fr. Scholtes for the Bishops’ Conference, “Let us not be afraid to speak, dialogue, and pray.” 

Draft in English

DRAFT TEXT 24 01 24 Priorities for discussion at the second session of the 16th general meeting of the Synod of Bishops October 2024

I. In view of limited consultation in preparation for the upcoming Synod session, the bishops put forward three priorities for further discussion at the level of the universal Church. Many elements from the synthesis report of the Belgian church (2022) were discussed in Rome last October.

We can strongly identify with the richness of the synthesis report of October 2023 on many points. In what follows, we formulate three priorities that deserve special attention during the synod meeting of October 2024.

1. The desire for a more missionary Church that lives and shares the joy of the Gospel struggles strongly in our context with the question of how we can develop a new missionary dynamic. What approach, what basic spiritual attitudes, what training are needed? Within that general search, we focus here on an element that is essential to us.

A synodal missionary Church requires an open dialogue with current developments in the world around us. The Church cannot limit itself to a one-way street in proclaiming the Good News to the world.

In an open dialogue, the Church will also listen to what developments in science, culture and society can teach her.

This openness cannot be dismissed as a ‘will to adapt to the modern world’ or as ‘a giving up of identity to become relevant in the eyes of the world’. Open dialogue with the world is necessary from the deep conviction that God’s Spirit is mysteriously at work.

In such a conversation the Church can also learn things. Social developments (concerning human rights, democracy and modern freedoms, for example) also encourage the Church to reexamine and/or enrich certain of its positions.

An open and respectful conversation with the contemporary world offers the Church incentives to question and renew its own understanding of the Good News.

We ask that the synodal conversation culture is also used to enter into dialogue as a Church with current developments in the world around us. It will help us to better understand the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel.

2. In the context of the dialogue between the Church and the world, the Church must have the courage to bring her Tradition(s) into conversation with the current state of affairs in theological, philosophical and scientific research. Tradition/traditions should not be approached statically but dynamically. After all, they are the fruit of many developments and they continue to evolve.

The central question in all of this is this: Are the Church’s Tradition(s) the best possible interpretation of the Scriptures for people today? What view of man, God and the world grows from the reading of the Scriptures in conversation with contemporary theology, philosophy and sciences?

This conversation is of great importance for understanding Biblical-Christian anthropology and the doctrine of salvation. It can also have important implications for answering many ethical questions.

We are not asking for this conversation to be elaborated in detail during the synod. We ask that the Synod define our Church Tradition(s) as dynamic and in constant development. We would like to see a growing decision that an open conversation with developments in theology, philosophy and sciences is necessary and should be organized.

3. Can the dialogue with the world (1) and the conversation between ecclesiastical Tradition/traditions and theology, philosophy and sciences (2) still proceed equally for the entire world church?

The theme of ‘unity in diversity’ in the life of the Church needs to be further thought through and clarified. What does a lasting or growing universal consensus within Catholica require? What can be concretely decided by a bishop, a bishops’ conference or a continental bishops’ meeting?

A more synodal operation with growing involvement of many in consultation and decision-making requires more recognition of legitimate diversity.

When bishops (assemblies) are given more responsibility in certain matters, it must also be determined how and to whom they are accountable for their policy. How can this take concrete form? In addition to the relationship of the bishops with the metropolitan and the bishop of Rome, performance and evaluation interviews with the bishops can also be considered. Who has those conversations with them? How can a bishop (assembly) answer to the presbytery and to the people of God?

We ask for encouragement to give concrete form to the decentralization of certain decisions in the Church, allowing us to work together in unity with more legitimate diversity. We ask for a concretization of the ‘accountability’ of the bishops in a synodal Church.

Overall, we ask that text proposals be submitted in the upcoming October synod on the above priorities with a view to reasoned reflection and discussion.

II. 

The importance of the aforementioned priorities is more concretely illustrated by three themes that are strongly alive in the Church in Belgium. We outline the themes in relation to the above priorities.

A. The place of women in the Church

(1) What does our society teach? The equality of men and women, the importance of equal opportunities for men and women. This is not about fashionable trends. These are developments that strengthen the New Testament understanding of the equality of men and women in Christ.

(2) In the light of these social developments, we reread and renew our church Tradition/traditions. More women bear pastoral responsibility, also in recognized church ministry

(minister). The question arises whether women can also be admitted to the ordained office of the diaconate.

(3) We ask for the green light to take certain steps per bishops’ conference or continental bishops’ meeting. Thus, giving women increasing pastoral responsibility and the ordination of women as a diaconate need not be universally required or prohibited.

B. Place and meaning of the ordained office in a synodal Church.

(1) What does our time and culture teach? Pastoral responsibility is no longer solely borne by priests and deacons. Our society has great difficulty with a clerical interpretation of the ordained ministry. There have also been strong questions for a long time about the obligation of celibacy for priests and deacons who become widowed.

In the light of these developments, we reread and renew our church Tradition/traditions. We sense the need to rediscover the symbolic sacramental nature of the ordained ministry. The relationship between the sacrament of ordination and pastoral (ultimate) responsibility requires new clarification. We ask that priests and deacons fulfill their pastoral responsibility increasingly within teams in which lay people also have their place and task.

(2)bearing more and more pastoral responsibility within teams in which lay people also have their place and task. We see the need for renewal of the training of priests and deacons so that they can be more pastorally close, listening and welcoming.

(3) We ask that each bishops’ conference or continental bishops’ meeting be able to take certain steps towards ordaining ‘viri probati’ as a priest. The priestly ordination of ‘viri probati’ should not be universally obligatory or prohibited.

C. Young people and digital culture

(1) What do we see around us? Young generations find it difficult to connect with church life. In recent years, the digital culture and living environment has grown enormously, especially among young people. This new culture has dangers and limits, but it also contains many opportunities for proclaiming the Good News.

(2) This evolution makes us revise and renew our ecclesiastical Tradition(s). We are looking for new ways to work with seeking and faithful young people. There is a growing realization that digitalization is a turn as we knew it with the rise of the printing press. We seek to invest more heavily in people and resources that testify to the Gospel in and through the digital world.

(3) We ask for strong solidarity (people, resources, exchange of innovative initiatives, etc.) between bishops’ conferences and continental bishops’ assemblies so that every local Church has the necessary opportunities to be present in the digital world.

**

Articles:

By Elise Ann Allen, Crux https://catholicherald.co.uk/belgian-bishops-may-back-women-deacons-and-ending-priestly-celibacy-in-a-church-more-open-to-a-digital-world/

By Christophe Henning, In La Croix, 23 Feb 2024 | Belgium https://international.la-croix.com/news/religion/catholic-bishops-in-belgium-push-for-married-priests-and-women-deacons/19233

2022: https://catholicherald.co.uk/belgian-bishops-defy-rome-to-introduce-church-blessings-for-same-sex-couples/

In the run-up to next October’s closing session of the Synod on synodality, the Catholic bishops of Belgium have issued a letter proposing that the Church establish a female diaconate and allow married men to be ordained to the presbyterate.   

The four-page letter, which the Belgian Bishops’ Conference published February 16, has drawn international media attention. The text’s purpose is to promote discussion on these two ministerial topics as a preparation for the upcoming Synod assembly at the Vatican.

“The bishops wanted to resume the work of the Synod’s initial session and continue their reflection at the request of the Synod secretariat. For now, the goal is to debate what we will send to Rome next spring,” said Tommy Scholtes, the Jesuit priest who serves as one of the spokespersons for the episcopal conference.

In the draft text, the Belgian bishops raise the question of how to have “unity in diversity” in a Church that spans different cultures and ways of thinking.

“Specifically, what can be decided by a bishop, a conference of bishops, or a continental assembly of bishops?” the text asks.

Looking at the role of women in the Church 

The bishops use these questions as guiding principles as they propose to examine the role of women in the Church.

“More and more women are assuming pastoral responsibilities… The question arises as to whether women can also be admitted to the ordained ministry of the diaconate,” the Belgian prelates point out.

But they are also aware of the cultural impact, affirming that “the assignment of increasing pastoral responsibilities and the diaconal ordination of women should not be universally mandatory or prohibited”.

Regarding the question of the ordaining viri probati (married men of proven virtue) to the presbyterate, the bishops reach a similar conclusion.

“We ask that each conference of bishops or continental episcopal assembly be able to take certain measures regarding the priestly ordination of viri probati,” they say.

Scholtes, the bishops’ spokesperson, said this is about deepening the questions already addressed during the first phase of the Synod, with the bishops wanting to bring them into consideration with the help of the Catholic faithful. 

“This is the very meaning of the Synod, which is a space for dialogue. And our small Church of Belgium wants to participate,” said the Jesuit.

He also pointed out that Pope Francis has already shown favor towards a female diaconate, even by setting up a commission so that the next Synod assembly can examine the issue. The assembly’s debate on the situation of same-sex couples was also preceded by the publication of Fiducia supplicans, which allows priests to give non-liturgical blessing to couples in irregular situations.

Advocating for a “synodal missionary Church,” the bishops of Belgium are pushing for “a Church that should have the courage to engage its Tradition — its traditions — in conversation with current knowledge from theological, philosophical, and scientific research”. “The Church is changing in a truly synodal spirit,” concludes Scholtes. “Let us not be afraid to speak, dialogue, and pray.” 

Read more at: https://international.la-croix.com/news/religion/catholic-bishops-in-belgium-push-for-married-priests-and-women-deacons/19233

** Courageous draft note from Belgian bishops for synod 2024 Dear Wouters, 19 Feb 2024 PRINT

In the run-up to the synod of October 2024, the bishops are calling for a female diaconate and the abolition of mandatory celibacy.

The Belgian bishops describe their priorities in a  draft text,  which is submitted for discussion to discussion groups and councils in the various dioceses. In the memorandum they start from three observations:

  1. A synodal missionary Church requires an open dialogue with current developments in the world around us. The Church cannot limit itself to a one-way street in proclaiming the Good News to the world.
  2. We ask that the Synod define our Church Tradition(s) as dynamic and in constant development.
  3. We ask for encouragement to give concrete form to the decentralization of certain decisions in the Church, allowing us to work together in unity with more legitimate diversity. We ask for a concretization of the ‘accountability’ of the bishops in a synodal Church.

Place of women in the Church

From there, the bishops call for reflection on the place of women in the Church. ‘We ask for the green light to take certain steps per bishops’ conference or continental bishops’ meeting. Thus, the giving of increasing pastoral responsibility to women and the ordination of women as a diaconate need not be universally obligatory or prohibited.’

Celibacy and ordination of ‘viri probati’

“There have long been strong questions about the obligation of celibacy for priests and deacons who become widowed,” the bishops write. They sense ‘the need to rediscover the symbolic-sacramental nature of the ordained ministry’. The relationship between ordination and (ultimate) responsibility requires new clarification, it is said. ‘We ask that priests and deacons increasingly take on their pastoral responsibility within teams in which lay people also have their place and task.’

Furthermore, the bishops speak about ordaining ‘viri probati’ as priests. Literally the term means ‘proven men’. This refers to men who are married and who qualify for the priesthood because of their way of life.

“The priestly ordination of viri probati should not be universally obligatory or prohibited,” the bishops write.

Young people and digital culture

A third priority concerns communication with young people. The bishops want to invest more heavily in people and resources that testify to the Gospel in and through the digital world. It is striking that they advocate a solidarity mechanism between bishops’ conferences and continental bishops’ assemblies ‘so that every local Church has the necessary opportunities to be present in the digital world’.   

What now?

  1. The draft note will be submitted for discussion to discussion groups and councils in the various dioceses. The echoes of this will be brought together by April 7 and then delivered to the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in Rome.
  2. Together with these echoes, good examples of synodal practice are also collected per diocese to provide to Rome with a view to the compilation of the working document for the second and final session of the synod in October 2024.
  3. Furthermore, the Belgian bishops already want to focus on moments of formation ‘to practice communal discernment and conducting conversations in the Spirit’.
  4. In addition, the theological committee within the bishops’ conference will already thoroughly discuss the above-mentioned themes related to dealing with tradition and questions about offices and ministries in the Church.

Read the full draft text.

https://www.kerknet.be/kerknet-redactie/nieuws/moedige-ontwerpnota-van-belgische-bisschoppen-voor-synode-2024?microsite=223

Statements & Pastoral Letters

Belgian bishops publish text for same-sex blessings, express favor for married priesthood and women deacons

THE PILLAR, September 20, 2022

Belgian bishops published Tuesday a new document on the pastoral care of Catholics who identify as LGBT, which includes a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples.

The bishops of Flanders said that the three-page document, entitled “Being pastorally close to homosexuals: For a welcoming Church that excludes no one,” aims to “structurally anchor [the Church’s] pastoral commitment to homosexual persons and couples.”

The document was signed by the Flemish bishops, who belong to Belgium’s majority ethnic group. They are led by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, president of the Belgian bishops’ conference, which also includes bishops from the country’s French-speaking minority.

The Flemish bishops’ text said that homosexual couples who choose to live “in lasting and faithful union with a partner” deserve “appreciation and support. This relationship, although not a Church marriage, can also be a source of peace and shared happiness for those involved,” the bishops wrote.

CathoBel, the official website of the French-speaking Catholic Church in Belgium, said Sept. 20 that the new document applied only to Belgium’s Flanders region, but noted that “At the beginning of 2022, the [French-speaking] Diocese of Liège published a brochure entitled ‘Welcoming, accompanying, carrying in prayer the life project shared by homosexual persons’ — which was presented to Pope Francis in July.”

“Perhaps a common approach by the French-speaking bishops could also soon see the light of day,” the site said.

The Flemish bishops’ document, which repeatedly referred to Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, concluded with a “Prayer for love and fidelity” — which has been widely received as being a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex couples.

In a preamble to the prayer, the bishops wrote: “During pastoral meetings, the request is often made for a moment of prayer to ask God that He may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity. What content and form that prayer can concretely take are best discussed by those involved with a pastoral leader. Such a moment of prayer can take place in all simplicity. Also, the difference should remain clear from what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage.”

After an opening prayer and Scripture reading, the bishops suggested that the two people involved should “express before God how they are committed to one another.

This would then be followed by the “prayer of the community,” in which those present ask “that God’s grace may work in them to care for each other and for the wider community in which they live.”

The prayer would conclude with intercessions, an Our Father, a final prayer, and a blessing.

The French Catholic newspaper La Croix reported in 2018 that Cardinal De Kesel, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, had signaled openness to a prayer ceremony for same-sex couples, but said that it could not be a “religious marriage” or an “ecclesiastical blessing that too closely resembles the blessing of a marriage.”

Cardinal De Kesel offered his resignation to Pope Francis in June after he turned 75, but remains in post.

The German version of Vatican News reported that a spokesman for the archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels had said that the model prayer was not submitted to the Vatican in advance of its publication.

The Flemish bishops’ document appeared days after German bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of a four-page document calling for “a re-evaluation of homosexuality in the Magisterium” during a session of the country’s controversial “synodal way.”

The Belgian bishops are due to travel to Rome in November for their ad limina visit, which was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and will be their first since 2010. During their trip, the bishops will visit Vatican departments, possibly including the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), which reaffirmed last year that the Church does not have the power to offer liturgical blessings for same-sex unions.

The DDF’s reaffirmation came in response to repeated calls from bishops in Germany, where church blessings for same-sex couples have been a central agenda item of the ongoing synodal way. The response was signed by the dicastery’s prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, and published with an explanatory note saying that Pope Francis had given his personal approval for the document to be published.

In addition to synodal proposals, several German bishops have stated publicly their support for introducing liturgical same-sex blessings, despite Vatican interventions on the topic. Last year, Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz reiterated his support for the recognition of same-sex unions by the Church and defended his endorsement of a book of blessings and liturgical rites for same-sex unions.

The DDF’s 2021 response cited both the final document from the 2019 youth synod and Amoris laetitia. It said that “it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage,” which includes both same-sex unions, and stable heterosexual unions that are not valid marriages, including merely civil unions contracted by Catholics after a divorce.

The Vatican’s doctrinal department reiterated that the Church rejects any form of “unjust discrimination” against homosexual people, and also recognized that those calling for blessings of same-sex unions often do so out of “a sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons.”

But the DDF said, “When a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.”

The doctrinal dicastery went on to explain that, although “positive elements” can be identified in some same-sex unions “which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated,” those aspects “cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.”

In response to the DDF’s statement, and despite Pope Francis’ personal order for its publication, some German priests staged a day of protest, blessing hundreds of same-sex couples in their churches across the country in May last year. While senior German bishops denounced the nationwide protest blessings, and struck a conciliatory tone towards the DDF, a leading Belgian bishop denounced the Vatican’s statement after its release.

Saying that it had come from an “ideological backroom,” Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said he felt “ashamed of my Church” over the DDF’s text.

“Intellectually, this does not even reach the level of high school,” Bishop Bonny said at the time.

Belgium’s national synod synthesis, published in July, urged the Church to respond to homosexual couples’ “request for recognition (ritual and social) based on an interpretation of relationships and sexuality more in line with the commandment of love.”

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