28 March 2023, The Tablet

Scandinavian bishops speak out on sexuality and gender

“God's mercy excludes no one,” the letter states, “but it sets a high ideal.”

Scandinavian bishops speak out on sexuality and gender

Bishop Erik Varden OCSO presides at vespers, Santa Maria dell'Anima, Rome, 28 November 2022.
Daniel Ibáñez / CNA

Catholic bishops from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland have issued a joint pastoral letter on the Church’s teaching regarding sexuality and gender.

The letter, which was read aloud at Masses in those five nations this weekend, states that as bishops, the signatories are “here for everyone” and ready “to accompany all” – but also stresses that said accompaniment has as a goal conformity with Church teaching, which aims, they said, “not to curtail love but to enable it”.

Signed by Cardinal Anders Arborelius, the Bishop of Stockholm, Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim, and six other bishops from across the region, the letter responds directly to the contemporary movement for LGBT rights, which it describes as “a movement at once political and cultural”.

“We recognise all that is noble in this movement’s aspirations. In so far as these speak of the dignity of all human beings and of their longing to be seen, we share them. The Church condemns unjust discrimination of any kind,” the statement continues.

When a “view of human nature that abstracts from the embodied integrity of personhood, as if physical gender were accidental” is put forward, however, “we must dissent”.

Further to this, “we protest when such a view is imposed on children as if it were not a daring hypothesis but a proven truth”. 

The bishops, writing in the name of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference, related these points of dissension to Christianity’s conception of personhood as intrinsically embodied.  

This embodiment is especially manifest in the “complementarity of male and female”, itself “sanctified in nuptial union” and “perfected in the Lamb’s marriage feast at the end of history.

“In the Church’s hospitable fellowship, there is room for all,” the letter states, referring to St Ephrem the Syrian’s description of the Church as “the mercy of God descending on mankind”.

“This mercy excludes no one,” the bishops add, “but it sets a high ideal.” 

“Let us, then, try to appropriate the fundamental principles of Christian anthropology while reaching out in friendship, with respect, to those who feel estranged by them.”

Speaking to The Tablet, Erik Varden OCSO, Bishop of the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim since 2019, explained the pastoral letter as a response to contemporary debates about human identity.

“It seems obvious that the central challenge of Christian proclamation today is anthropological. ‘What is man?’ This question, posed in the Psalms, occupies our times intensely. Discussion is focussed on the area of sexuality, which touches the human being at its most intimate. Strong emotions arise."

Bishop Varden, a Trappist monk and former abbot of Mount St Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire, continued: “It is crucial to take discourse beyond emotional rhetoric. It is crucial to consider the question of human – and consequently sexual – identity in the light of God’s creative and redemptive work in Christ.

“From a Christian point of view, anthropology divorced from christology is bound to walk blindly in circles.

“Our bishops’ conference has tried to indicate the finality of existence christocentrically, hoping to enrich, perhaps even liberate, a conversation about sexuality that has gone rather stale.”

Varden explained that the bishops' letter was informed by the approach of Holy Week and Easter, celebrated this year in the Latin Church on Sunday 9 April.

“We do so as the Church prepares to celebrate Easter. Christ is Alpha and Omega. This is more than a formulaic truth; it is the vibrant principle by which we are called, each of us, to understand and shape our lives.”

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