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  • Report on U.S. nuns emphasizes 'gratitude,' reflects changes at Vatican

    Today's Vatican report on the investigation of U.S. women's religious orders was largely positive in tone, in contrast to statements issued when the investigation began in 2009.

    At that time, Cardinal Franc Rodé, who headed the Vatican congregation for religious orders, said the study was aimed at identifying "secular" and "feminist" attitudes that had infiltrated the nuns' orders and helped cause a drastic decline in membership.

    Today's report didn't go there. Instead, it delineated real challenges facing religious orders while thanking the sisters repeatedly for their service to the Gospel.

    This balanced approach reflects a changing of the guard at the Vatican -- but it's a change that began under Pope Benedict. In 2011, Benedict named Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz to replace Cardinal Rodé. The Brazilian cardinal took over the investigation of women religious, but adopted a much more conciliatory approach.

    I think today's balanced report was pretty much a foregone conclusion, given Cardinal Braz de Aviz's continued leadership at the Vatican's congregation for religious orders, and given that Pope Francis clearly wants peace with U.S. sisters.

    Yet there seems to be a "good cop, bad cop" dynamic that still lingers on at the Vatican. A separate Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest association of U.S. sisters, was carried out by the doctrinal congregation, and it has been far more critical. In 2012, the doctrinal congregation issued a "doctrinal assessment" and insisted on major changes in the LCWR to ensure that the organization aligns with Catholic teaching in areas like women's ordination, homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia.

    The tug of war over implementing those changes continues. Last year, in a rare display of divergent views at the Vatican's highest levels, Cardinal Braz de Aviz criticized the way the LCWR review was conducted. That prompted a quick statement from the Vatican that tried to downplay any disagreement between Braz de Aviz and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the doctrinal congregation.

    Cardinal Muller has not let up, however. Several months ago, he rebuked the LCWR for adopting ideas that he said lead to "fundamental errors" about "the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of original sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ."

    The LCWR is working with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was appointed in 2012 to implement the doctrinal assessment. After meeting with the archbishop last August, the LCWR issued a statement that said in part: "We will continue in the conversation with Archbishop Sartain as an expression of hope that new ways may be created within the church for healthy discussion of differences."

    At America magazine, Sister Mary Ann Walsh has a good take on today's report.

     

     

  • Vatican asks for pre-synod consultations that avoid strictly 'doctrinal' approach

    It looks like Synod 2015 may be as interesting as Synod 2014.

    A Vatican preparatory document for next year’s second session of the Synod of Bishops on the family is seeking wide input from the faithful, posing 46 questions and asking that bishops conferences do not answer them with strictly “doctrinal” formulations.

    The document, released Dec. 9 at the Vatican, said the pre-synod consultation should involve every level of the church, including academic institutions, lay movements and other associations.

    UPDATE: English version now available here.

    It said that in preparing for the second synodal session, bishops should remember that Pope Francis has called for a pastoral approach that reflects the “culture of encounter” and goes outside the church’s usual environment, in order to act as a “field hospital” of mercy.

    The questions touch on a number of controversial issues discussed during the synod’s first meeting last October, including sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, church teaching on homosexuality and birth control.

    The document explicitly asked bishops to show “proper realism” in seeking answers to the questions, avoiding an approach that “is merely one of applying doctrine, and that does not respect the conclusions of the extraordinary synodal assembly, and would lead their reflection away from the path that has already been traced.”


  • Pope Francis on Cardinal Burke, the synod, Curia reform and more

    Pope Francis has a new interview out, addressing controversies over the recent Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke and plans to reform the Roman Curia.

    On Cardinal Burke, the pope said his recent departure from a Vatican tribunal should not be seen as punishment for the cardinal’s outspoken remarks during the October synod. The pope said he needed a “smart American” to serve as patron of the Knights of Malta, and that Burke thanked him for the reassignment.

    One of the most interesting passages in the interview came when the pope defended efforts to relax restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics – a contested issue at the recent synod. The pope said the question goes beyond reception of Communion; it also touches on their other potential roles in the church, including that of godparents. Right now, these people seem to be de facto excommunicated, he said.

    Pope Francis was interviewed by Argentine journalist Elisabetta Piqué, whose book Francis: Life and Revolution is one of the best biographies of the pontiff. The full texts can be read at the site of the Argentine newspaper La Nacion in four parts focusing on key topics: the Roman Curia and Cardinal Burke, the synod on the family, the church and politics in Argentina and the recent decision to change the commander of the Swiss Guards. (The first two parts are available in English and Spanish.)

    Here are some highlights.

    On resistance to his ideas surfacing among other church leaders:

    Resistance is now evident. And that is a good sign for me, getting the resistance out into the open, no stealthy mumbling when there is disagreement. It´s healthy to get things out into the open, it's very healthy. … It all seems normal to me, if there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn't be normal.

    On Cardinal Burke:

    One day Cardinal Burke asked me what he would be doing as he had still not been confirmed in his position, in the legal sector, but rather had been confirmed "donec alitur provideatur." And I answered, "Give me some time because we are thinking of a legal restructuring of the G9." I told him nothing had been done about it yet and that it was being considered. After that the issue of the Order of Malta cropped up and we needed a smart American who would know how to get around and I thought of him for that position. I suggested this to him long before the synod. I said to him, "This will take place after the synod because I want you to participate in the synod as dicastery head." As the chaplain of Malta he wouldn't have been able to be present. He thanked me in very good terms and accepted my offer, I even think he liked it. Because he is a man that gets around a lot, he does a lot of travelling and would surely be busy there. It is therefore not true that I removed him because of how he had behaved in the synod.

    On changes in the Roman Curia, the pope said economic reforms were well underway and that the Vatican bank was now “operating beautifully, we did quite a good job there.” But he said the streamlining of other Vatican agencies will probably not be completed in 2015:

    No, it´s a slow process. The other day we got together with the Dicastery heads and submitted the proposal of joining Laypersons, Family, Justice and Peace Dicasteries. We discussed it all, each one of us said what he thought. Now it will be forwarded back to the G9. You know, reforming the Curia will take a long time, this is the most complex part.


    The head of a dicastery such as the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, the liturgical dicastery or the new dicastery encompassing Laymen, Family and Justice and Peace will always be a cardinal. This is best because dicasteries are very close to the Pope. But dicastery secretaries do not necessarily have to be bishops because a problem we have is when we have to change a bishop-secretary, where do we send him? We need to find a dioceses, but sometimes they are not fit for one, they´re good at the other job.

    The pope warned against misinterpreting what the recent Synod of Bishops said on homosexuals:

    Nobody mentioned homosexual marriage at the synod, it did not cross our minds. What we did talk about was of how a family with a homosexual child, whether a son or a daughter, goes about educating that child, how the family bears up, how to help that family to deal with that somewhat unusual situation. That is to say, the synod addressed the family and the homosexual persons in relation to their families, because we come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation. This happened to me several times in Buenos Aires. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.

    On divorced and remarried Catholics:

    In the case of divorcees who have remarried, we posed the question, what do we do with them? What door can we allow them to open? This was a pastoral concern: will we allow them to go to Communion? Communion alone is no solution. The solution is integration. They have not been excommunicated, true. But they cannot be godfathers to any child being baptized, mass readings are not for divorcees, they cannot give communion, they cannot teach Sunday school, there are about seven things that they cannot do, I have the list over there. Come on! If I disclose any of this it will seem that they have been excommunicated in fact! Thus, let us open the doors a bit more. Why cant they be godfathers and godmothers? "No, no, no, what testimony will they be giving their godson?" The testimony of a man and a woman saying "my dear, I made a mistake, I was wrong here, but I believe our Lord loves me, I want to follow God, I was not defeated by sin, I want to move on." Anything more Christian than that? And what if one of the political crooks among us, corrupt people, are chosen to be somebody's godfather. If they are properly wedded by the Church, would we accept them? What kind of testimony will they give to their godson? A testimony of corruption? Things need to change, our standards need to change.



  • A Latin American pope takes his own approach to Europe's problems

    In some ways, Pope Francis’ visit to the European Parliament this week evoked similar encounters by his predecessors, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. There were Big Speeches (no doubt written with input from the Vatican's Secretariat of State), a defense of religious and spiritual values, and a call for cooperation on the European continent. In a passage quoting Pope Benedict, Francis reminded European leaders of the continent’s “religious roots” and warned of the risk of “forgetfulness of God.”


                   Pope Francis addresses the European Parliament

    Yet there were a few distinctive differences about this visit, too. One thing that struck me was that Pope Francis did not dwell so much on the past. For John Paul II and Benedict, Europe was the continent where for centuries Europe had shaped the culture, and now that culture was rejecting its Christian identity. Both popes denounced the “de-Christianization” of Europe and blamed an overreaching secularism. They launched “re-evangelization” of the continent’s Christians as a remedy. They strongly supported European unity, as long as Christian values was a key ingredient in the glue that held it together.

    Pope Francis seemed less interested in fighting theoretical battles with secularism, or in trying to restore the church’s lost cultural and political influence in Europe. Nor did he present Christians as victims of discrimination by secularists. Pope Benedict had critiqued what he called modern hostility and prejudice against Christianity in Europe, framing it as a religious freedom issue. Pope Francis did not go down that road. He spoke about religion and society being called to “enlighten and support one another.” His language was far less accusatory.

    Pope Francis certainly did not go easy in outlining problems in Europe. But these issues were generally immediate and concrete ones – like youth unemployment, the hardships of immigrants and the loneliness of the elderly – and not philosophical arguments. As Pope Francis often does, he zeroed in on economics as the determining factor in the day-to-day difficulties of modern life. He sees the consumerist “throwaway culture” as one of the greatest threats to human dignity, and spoke about it to European leaders. This is something he believes people can relate to more easily than intellectual arguments about secularism.

    I think Pope Francis is more focused on building bridges than winning philosophical arguments. A poll earlier this year said Europeans gave Francis a remarkable 89 percent approval rating. If nothing else, that tells the pope that he has a large potential audience on the continent.


  • Archbishop Kurtz hits the right notes in opening talk to U.S. bishops


                 Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USCCB president

    The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, gave an important talk on the first day of the U.S. bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore today. I was impressed by the tone and points of emphasis, especially when he spoke about how the church evangelizes:

    “We all strive to be faithful pastors, so we know what this looks like. Think of the home visits we've all done in parishes. When I'd come to someone's home, I wouldn't start by telling them how I'd rearrange their furniture. In the same way, I wouldn't begin by giving them a list of rules to follow.

    Instead I'd first spend time with them, trying to appreciate the good that I saw in their hearts. I'd acknowledge that, like them, I was in the process of conversion toward greater holiness. I would then invite them to follow Christ and I'd offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way. Such an approach isn't in opposition to Church teachings; it's an affirmation of them. Our call as bishops is to bring the Good News to others as true missionary disciples, inspiring them to go forth and do the same.”

    It seems to me that Archbishop Kurtz was deliberately tuning in here to the approach of Pope Francis, who has said that in spreading the Gospel, the church needs to emphasize patience, dialogue and accompaniment, and not focus on doctrinal rules. As Kurtz put it, quoting the pope, the church today should be “a place of mercy freely given.”

    Just before Archbishop Kurtz took the floor, the bishops heard from the Vatican’s representative in the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who among other things told the bishops: “We must not be afraid to walk with our Holy Father.”

    Kurtz himself cited the pope’s call for church leaders to be “joyful messengers” of the Gospel and its challenging proposals, to serve the voiceless and the vulnerable, and to “go out into the streets and manifest God’s love.” (That last phrase, by the way, was identified in a footnote as a quotation from the pope’s Twitter feed – a first in my experience.)

    So much of what the bishops discuss at these annual meetings is preordained by prior agendas. I’m hoping those agendas going forward will reflect what Archbishop Kurtz enunciated in his first such address as president of the conference. In delivering a separate report, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain said his committee was discussing specifically how to take Pope Francis’ ideas and “work them into our strategic planning.”

    The Francis effect is clearly on the bishops’ minds. The question is how deeply it will affect their priorities in the months and years ahead.


  • A signal on removal of bishops?

    A single sentence in a papal document issued today may signal that Pope Francis is willing take a stronger hand in removing some bishops from office.

    The one-page document deals primarily with the age of a bishop’s retirement. But it also states: “In some particular circumstances, the competent Authority (the pope) may consider it necessary to ask a bishop to present the resignation of his pastoral office, after letting him know the motives for such a request and after listening attentively to his justifications, in fraternal dialogue.”

    The power of a pope to sack a bishop has always been presumed, but here it is spelled out. It comes after Pope Francis has already removed a Paraguayan bishop from office over pastoral controversies, and accepted the resignation of a German bishop in the wake of a spending scandal. The Vatican is actively investigating the pastoral leadership of at least two other prelates, including Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was convicted two years ago by a civil court on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse by a diocesan priest.

    A Vatican spokesman quickly underlined that today’s document contained “nothing truly new,” but was a forceful restatement of existing norms. But surely there was a reason it was issued.

    In recent months, several Vatican officials have emphasized that church law envisions the possibility of a bishop losing his office for abuse or negligence in ministry. Specifically, some officials have said bishops need to be held accountable for their mistakes in the handling of sex abuse cases.

    A note: Over at his canon law blog, Dr. Edward Peters says that “Roman requests (demands?) for episcopal resignations are occurring much more often these days,” although they did not begin with Pope Francis. Peters said the fact that this is occurring without any recognizable canonical process raises serious questions.


  • Popes, evolution and the Big Bang

    Pope Francis recently said evolution and the Big Bang theory can be compatible with faith in God – a statement that was hardly new, but predictably made news.

    The idea that evolution and a divine creator are not mutually exclusive has long been found in the teachings of popes, beginning with Pope Pius XII and his 1950 encyclical, “Humani Generis.” Even so, the mere mention of the word “evolution” by a pope can set off alarm bells. I remember that when Pope John Paul II said in 1996 that evolution was “more than a hypothesis” and had been widely accepted by scientists, some Catholics simply couldn't believe it.

    Perhaps the most complete treatment of evolution came in a 2004 document published by the International Theological Commission, which said evolution makes sense – but only because “God made it so.” That document accepted the basic science behind evolution: that the universe was born 15 billion years ago in a “big bang,” that the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, that all living organisms on earth descended from a first organism and that man emerged about 40,000 years ago with the development of a larger brain.

    A historical footnote is that the man usually credited as the “father” of the Big Bang theory was a Belgian Catholic priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, who was also an astronomer and physics professor. Lemaitre’s ideas were enthusiastically embraced by Pope Pius XII, who had a keen interest in cosmology and who knew Lemaitre through the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In speeches to the academy, in fact, Pius XII seemed to endorse the Big Bang precisely because he thought it offered scientific evidence of the divine creation of the universe – a “Let there be light” moment. According to contemporaries, after a papal speech along those lines in 1951, Lemaitre spoke with the pope and asked him to stay away from theological endorsements of scientific theories – and Pius took his advice to heart.


  • Open talk, frank debate at the Vatican -- from way back

    The archbishop minced no words in criticizing the draft document:

    I must speak plainly. This document is going to dash the hopes of everyone who has been awaiting it. Its authors do not seem to realize even to whom the message should be directed. Here is an example of their way of writing: “Christians,” they say, “are ready to engage in a dialogue with all men of good will.” But surely this is a pointless thing to say.

    We must protect the authority of the teaching Church. It is of no avail to talk about a college of bishops if specialists in articles, books and speeches contradict and pour scorn on what a body of bishops teaches.

    No, this is not a leaked intervention from the recent Synod of Bishops on the family. It's one of many speeches delivered during the Second Vatican Council, and which are now being published on Catholic News Service's fascinating blog "Vatican II: 50 Years Ago Today."

    Just as at the recent synod, it's apparent that candid and critical talk flowed freely during Vatican II, especially when it came time to revise the proposed documents. The quotes above came from a speech delivered by Archbishop John C. Heenan of Westminster, England, on the schema of the Church in the modern world.

    At one point, Archbishop Heenan zeroed in on an issue that was making waves throughout the Catholic world:

    Everyone knows that doctors all over the world are busily trying to produce a satisfactory contraceptive pill. This special kind of pill is to be a panacea to solve all sexual problems between husbands and wives. Neither the treatise itself nor the supplements hesitate to prophesy that such a pill is just around the corner. Meanwhile, it is said, married couples and they alone must decide what is right and wrong. Everyone must be his own judge. But, the document adds, the couple must act according to the teaching of the Church. But this is precisely what married people want to be told — what is now the teaching of the Church? To this question our document gives no reply. For that very reason it could provide an argument from our silence to theologians after the council who wish to attack sound doctrine.

    Heenan was among a group of conservative council fathers who worried that the church's "opening to the world" was making too many doctrinal concessions. Today, that same debate continues...



  • Vatican condemns terrorism of Islamic State, rejects war as solution

    The Vatican summit today on the Middle East heard a strong call to protect Christian minorities, but also a strong rejection of war as a solution to the situation in Syria and Iraq.

    Pope Francis denounced what he called “terrorism on a scale that previously was unimaginable.”

    The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was more specific, condemning Islamic State fundamentalists for “unprecedented atrocities.” He also said Muslim leaders have a responsibility to publicly denounce the goals and activities of the so-called Islamic State. More broadly, Parolin said the separation of religion and state was an idea that should be developed in the Muslim world.

    Parolin directly addressed the question of “the use of force to stop aggression and to protect Christians and other groups that are victims of persecution.” He said action to stop unjust aggression was legitimate, but needed to be carried out “in respect of international law.”

    “Nevertheless, it is clearly seen that one cannot entrust the resolution of the problem to a solely military response. The problem needs to be faced more profoundly, starting with the causes that are at its origin and that are exploited by the fundamentalist ideology. As far as the so-called Islamic State is concerned, attention should also be given to the sources that support its terrorist activities through more or less clear political backing, as well as through the illegal commerce of oil and the furnishing of arms and technology,” he said.

    There’s also a very important line in Parolin’s speech aimed at the local church leaders in the Middle East, regarding political arrangements with governing authorities. The leaders of the small Christian flocks, he said, are called on to cooperate with Muslims and act as peace-builders, “without ceding to the temptation of seeking protection or defense by political or military authorities of the day, in order to ‘guarantee’ their own survival.”

    Here are a few other important passages (my translation, and my emphases) of the wide-ranging address by Cardinal Parolin to the one-day meeting of cardinals and patriarchs:

    "We have listened with emotion and great concern to the testimony about unprecedented atrocities perpetrated by more than one party in the region, but in particular by the fundamentalists of the group that calls itself the Islamic State, an entity that violates law and adopts terroristic methods in an effort to expand its power: mass killings, decapitations of persons who think differently, the sale of women, enrollment of children in combat, and destruction of places of worship."

    ...

    "In the concrete case of the so-called Islamic State, a particular responsibility falls on Muslim leaders, not only to distance themselves from the pretension of calling itself 'Islamic State' and forming a caliphate, but also to condemn more generally the killing of a person for religious reasons...."

    "Faced with the present challenges, attention must go to the roots of the problems, recognize also the errors of the past and try to favor a future of peace and development for the region, focusing on the good of the person and the common good. Experience has demonstrated that the choice of war, instead of dialogue and negotiation, multiplies the suffering of the entire population of the Middle East. The way of violence only leads to destruction; the way of peace leads to hope and progress. The first urgent step for the good of the population of Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East is to put down the weapons and to dialogue."

    "In the specific case of violations and abuses committed by the so-called Islamic State, the international community, through the United Nations and the structures established for such emergencies, should take action in order to prevent possible new acts of genocide and to assist the numerous refugees. It seems opportune that the states in the region be directly involved, together with the rest of the international community, in the actions to be undertaken, with the awareness that this is not a matter of protecting a particular religious community or a particular ethnic group, but persons who are part of the human family and whose fundamental rights are being systematically violated."

     

  • A few more thoughts on a synod that hasn't ended

    Looking more broadly on what happened here at the Vatican over the last two weeks, it’s important to keep in mind the short-term vs. long-term results.

    The short-term result making headlines is that in the concluding report, the more conservative members of the Synod of Bishops on the family managed to pull back some of the amazingly open language regarding those living in “irregular” unions, including gays.

    But I think the long-term results are more significant. Chief among them is that Pope Francis clearly placed the church on a new path, toward an evangelizing style that is less focused on doctrine and more willing to invite people in, no matter what their “status.”

    The pope himself reclaimed that ground at the end of the synod, in a talk that described the church as a merciful mother who heals people’s wounds, not an institution that looks down on humanity “from a castle of glass in order to judge or classify people.”

    “The church is not ashamed of the fallen brother and does not pretend not to see him, on the contrary it feels involved and almost obligated to help him back on the path,” the pope said. The church of today, like the church of Jesus, welcomes the sinners and eats with them, he said.

    This was the approach of the synod’s midterm document, which said the church must begin by finding seeds of truth even in relationships and unions that fall short of sacramental marriage. True, that document was watered down last week. But you can’t really take back those things, once you’ve said them – and said them so clearly. These positions may not have been ready for a two-thirds majority vote in the synod, but I bet they would have received a two-thirds approval from the world’s Catholics.

    Reading the final document, I have the impression that the editing and the doctrinal buttressing in this text represents an attempt to salvage a vision of the church that, under this pope, is moving in a different direction. It may be, as German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said, “three steps forward and two steps back,” but that’s not standing in place.

    In view of the synod’s second assembly in October 2015, Pope Francis made sure that everything on the synod’s agenda will be open for discussion by the whole church. He did this by deciding to publish the entire relatio synodi, even those paragraphs which did not obtain a two-thirds vote – which included the proposal to study possible readmission to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. That will be the basis for a new questionnaire sent to local church communities, as well.

    By changing the synod methodology and making sure the assembly’s candid, sometimes contentious discussion was heard around the world, the pope showed he was not afraid of real debate. That, too, was an important long-term result for the synod, which in the past has generally limited itself to bland reformulations of official church teaching.

    The pope sees this as the start of a process. The first phase is over, and some will be disappointed that the synod pulled back on the language of welcome. But this was not the day the music died. The ideas and proposals launched at this synod will be coming back.

     

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