Bishop Erik Varden spoke to CNA about the role of a bishop, and why the Nordic bishops’ conference chose to publish a letter on sexuality and transgenderism at this time. / Pål Johannes
Vatican City, Apr 5, 2023 / 10:30 am (CNA).
In March, the bishops of the five Nordic countries issued a pastoral letter affirming the Catholic Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
“This covenantal sign, the rainbow, is claimed in our time as the symbol of a movement that is at once political and cultural,” the bishops wrote. “We declare dissent, however, when the movement puts forward a view of human nature that abstracts from the embodied integrity of personhood, as if physical gender were accidental.”
Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim, Norway, spoke to CNA about the role of a bishop and why the Nordic bishops’ conference chose to publish a letter on sexuality and transgenderism at this time.
“Obviously the topic has been on our radar for a long time, as it has been on anyone’s radar,” Varden said via phone call last week. “The importance of saying something constructive has been obvious to us.”
The bishops discussed the issue at their fall 2022 meeting, and one member wrote a draft letter that was discussed at their March assembly.
“We were substantially in agreement about what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it,” he said. “In terms of the substance I think we were entirely agreed.”
He said the pastoral letter was written for the people of their dioceses.
“But I suppose it’s part of this whole synodal dynamic,” he added. “The point is that everyone’s voice should be heard. We felt that we had something that we wanted and needed to contribute to an ongoing debate.”
Varden, 48, is a Trappist monk and spiritual writer. He was consecrated bishop of Trondheim, in central Norway, in 2020.
He noted that in discussions of gender and sexuality, “everything is subjectivized” and focused on people’s individual stories and wounds — giving the idea that everyone “has his or her own truth.”
“What we wanted to make clear was simply that we’re not sending this letter as eight individual blokes who agreed on something and then decided to make this known to the world,” he explained, “but that we have been commissioned to a teaching ministry, and that ministry isn’t about spouting our own opinions but about teaching and expounding as clearly as we can the truth that has been given to us.”
“The notion of the deposit of faith is very deep in the Christian understanding of transmission. It’s an extremely helpful reminder of what a bishop’s task is, which is to keep this deposit, which is vast and expansive, and introduce people to the richness contained in it.”
Talking about the truth
The bishops’ pastoral letter was read aloud at Masses the weekend of March 25 and 26 at Catholic churches in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.
Varden said the bishops were surprised by the range of interest the letter provoked.
“The letter is longer than the average homily, so it was a bit of a Lenten mortification for the faithful” to have it read at Mass, he said. “But they accepted it very graciously.”
He said questions about sexuality are on everyone’s mind these days, especially given their prevalence in the media. Part of the reception of the letter was “a sense of relief that we could talk about it.”
“Part of our desire was to create an environment in which to talk about it without polemics,” he explained. The discussion, he added, has to be “grounded in faith, in Scripture, in Christology,” the study of the person of Jesus Christ.
“From a Christian point of view, anthropology divorced from Christology limps and is incomplete. And when the Church speaks about these issues, she needs to speak from what is her particular treasure of insight, which is a Christocentric insight.”
Though the Church’s teaching on sexuality is not always an easy thing to bring up, Varden said he hopes people will nonetheless talk about it around the dinner table.
“That’s another really important thing,” he said, “that we talk across generations about these things. Different generations speak different languages, but when it comes to issues of sexuality, when there’s a massive culture shift, there’s a risk we talk past each other.”
He said the bishops cannot force people to have these conversations, but they can invite them to.
“It’s hard to talk about, that’s why we need to practice,” he underlined.
“There’s a spiritual motif of the opportune time, and it is important to try to find the opportune time,” the bishop advised, also encouraging the use of tact.
He also said the discourse should be rooted in what it means to be a human and what it means to be the Church.
“Our times try to isolate this topic and discuss it in a bubble. This ends up being both complicating and limiting. As we point out in the letter, a purely secular take on sexuality is necessarily different from a Christian take on it because we’re dealing with very, very different understandings of what it means to be alive and what it means to be a human.”
“We have to be at the same time lucid and delicate. That’s the balance to aim for,” he said.
Varden said when issuing the letter, the bishops hoped it would be a catalyst for further discussion in families, groups, and parishes.
“A lot will depend on local initiatives,” he said. “There’s a bit of a risk that pastoral letters from bishops aren’t what people will keep reading during the year.”
In the Diocese of Trondheim, Varden has encouraged his priests and catechists to incorporate the letter’s content into their preaching, teaching, and work with young people.
Varden will also be producing a series of weekly five- to 10-minute podcast episodes in English on sexuality and other topics. They will be available via online streaming after Easter.
He said he will be returning to the topic in some of his other talks and catechesis as well.
The bishop will also publish a book this summer on related topics and “spelling out the implications of what the bishops have said.”
“I met the other night a group of students and we sat around the table talking about chastity, of all things, and it’s just great to be able to do that in a way that isn’t merely prescriptive but is faith- and theology-based and grounded in real questions and real complexities,” he said.
Catholics have to talk about this topic “simply because it’s fundamental.”