Cardinal Francis Arinze looks over his balcony on to St Peter’s Square, golden in the blazing sunshine. It’s so hot and humid, in fact, that we go back inside and sit down near a colourful tapestry of Blessed Cyprian Tansi which almost covers one of the walls.
The cardinal turns 90 this year but looks and sounds at least 20 years younger. He speaks about Blessed Cyprian, pointing out that his fellow Nigerian priest received him into the faith as a nine-year-old boy and offered him an example of great holiness which has endured for a lifetime.
Cyprian died in 1964, the year before Arinze, at the age of 32, became the world’s youngest bishop and was granted a pass to the sessions of the Second Vatican Council that deliberated on the role of the laity in the Church. It is a subject which remains close to his heart almost 60 years on.
“People talk about lay people in the Church and lay people must do this or that,” he says. “But they don’t speak enough about the theology that is the underpinning – the reason – for the apostolate of the lay faithful.”
This is set out in Lumen Gentium, the 1964 dogmatic constitution of the Church, and Apostolicam Actuositatem, the decree on the apostolate of lay people that was published in 1965.
“I was so happy because I was made bishop just two weeks before the last session of Vatican II so I was there when that document on the lay apostolate was being finalised. It was among those to be concluded at the last session. I remember it well, very much so.”
Cardinal Arinze pauses then speaks slowly and deliberately, keen to make his point clearly. “The Second Vatican Council has done much to encourage the positive theology (of the lay apostolate),” he says.
“It is not in order to share power, it is not in order to empower women, it is not in order to prevent clericalism, although clericalism is wrong,” he continues.
“It isn’t in order to share power with clerics, and it isn’t that their work is just to pray and obey and keep quiet. We all have a role to play in the Church and in the world by force of baptism … the lay people are doing their part, the clerics are doing their part and the religious brothers and sisters their part.
“So lay people who are active in their apostolate are not just assisting the bishops. The bishops don’t own the Church, the Pope does not own the Church. We are only servants. You cannot do my part and I cannot do your part but if each does their own part the Church will become present in the world.”
There must be a reason why Cardinal Arinze raises this matter now, and there is a suggestion that he feels the Church is being pulled in a direction which is contrary to the concluding documents of the Council that he attended in person and which was comparatively less preoccupied with the distribution and exercise of political power.
Ideologies underpinned by neo-Marxism are indeed finding their way into the Church, including through various synodal processes aimed at “listening” or, in the eyes of many people, making the Church more democratic and representative. They are finding greatest currency in the rich liberal democracies of the Western world.
Like other concerned clerics, Cardinal Arinze has become increasingly alert to creeping excesses which now extend to the redefinition of the Church’s identity and mission and those of each of her individual members.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he was one of the earliest signatories of the Fraternal Open Letter of Correction to the German Church which has been supported by more than 85 bishops from around the world, including Australian Cardinal George Pell, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews and Edinburgh and Bishop Stephen Robson of Dunkeld.
His name sits at the top of the list, though this may be because he is the most senior signatory, having served under both Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. His seniority and the caution with which he speaks out make his a voice which surely should be heeded rather than ignored.
It is an intervention in the German Church which, he points out, is justified by Christus Dominus, the 1965 conciliar decree on the pastoral office of bishops in the Church. His episcopal concern for the whole Catholic Church, he explains, means that he had a duty to object to proposals in the German Synodal Way for the abolition of priestly celibacy, for the priestly ordination of women and for aspects of Catholic doctrine on sexuality to be effectively scrapped or redefined.
Besides the Synodal Way, he also takes issue with the claims of two European cardinals who propose that Catholic moral teachings are negotiable or even false, and with the assertion of one of them that the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are “not set in stone”.
“It is not wise for a Catholic bishop or priest or, worse, a cardinal, to suggest that,” Cardinal Arinze says before quoting paragraph four of Fidei Depositum, the 1992 apostolic constitution of Pope John Paul II, which states that the Catechism “is a statement of the Church’s faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium … [and] a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith”.
“No bishop in the Catholic Church can say the words are ‘not set in stone’ – no Catholic who shares our faith can say so, because the Pope has teaching authority. He is not just giving an opinion,” he says. “If the cardinal who said that was thinking about homosexuality he cannot be supported at all. It isn’t setting a good example to Catholics,” he adds.
On the question of blessing same-sex unions, the Cardinal says: “If two men unite to run a legal or lawyers’ chamber, they can be blessed. If two women unite to run a shop to sell rice or clothes, they can be blessed.
“But if two men or two women form a union which they call a same-sex union, then their motive is presumed to involve acts which are an offence against God’s natural ordering and so should not be blessed.”
Divine law – encompassed in the Ten Commandments – can never be redefined or changed by anyone in the Church, he explains. Nor would attempting to dispense with Church teachings to align with contemporary secular mores result in greater popularity. Instead, it could produce a schism, which would be extremely damaging for the Church and societies. Rather, the antidote to the challenges of the age is, for Cardinal Arinze, in the first place greater faithfulness to the Gospel.
“Our effort has to be, with God’s grace, to strive each day to live with greater fidelity to the Gospel. St Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, ‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.’
“When the Lord Jesus sent the Twelve Apostles he didn’t give them directives entirely agreeing with the world of their time – the Greek world and the Roman world. If the Church agreed with the world on everything, we wouldn’t have martyrs at all, beginning from the Apostles – and St Stephen, St Lawrence, St Thomas More, St Maria Goretti. They wouldn’t give their lives if they had agreed with the world on all the details of suggestions put in front of them. No-one likes to be killed but they valued their faith more than human life … if we live in that faith evangelisation will continue.”
The bishops don’t own the Church, the Pope does not own the Church. We are only servants. You cannot do my part and I cannot do your part but if each does their own part the Church will become present in the world.
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