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  • 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.

     

  • Synod ends on a cautious note; Pope Francis says church must open its doors

    In a final document, the Synod of Bishops clearly backtracked on a proposed opening to homosexuals. That’s going to be the story line in a lot of newspapers.

    At the same time, the synod retained its call for the church to adopt patient dialogue and accompaniment, and not simply insist on rules, when faced with problematic unions and relationships.

    At the close of the assembly, Pope Francis took the floor and delivered a heartfelt thanks for what was undoubtedly one of the most open and tense sessions in recent Vatican history. The pope said he was glad the disagreements were aired, and that they did not mean the church was divided in an internal battle.

    To many, what will stand out in the synod’s final relatio is the removal of strikingly open language toward homosexuals in a previous draft, which asked whether the church could accept and appreciate the gay sexual orientation, and spoke of “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” in some gay relationships.

    The revised relatio emphasizes the church’s “no” to gay marriage, while saying that “nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and sensitivity.” That modified statement, while approved by most of the bishops, failed to obtain a two-thirds majority, the normal benchmark for consensus in the synod.

    The final document did maintain earlier language that asked pastors to recognize and build on “positive elements” in found in civil marriages and cohabitation, even while holding out the ideal of sacramental marriage.

    But it removed most references to a key concept, the “law of graduality,” which had been proposed to explain how the church must help people accept church teachings in steps and stages, without condemnation.

    On two hotly debated issues related to divorced and remarried Catholics the synod requested deeper study. One section proposed ways to streamline the annulment process. The other proposed a “penitential path” by which divorced and remarried could be readmitted to the sacraments; two numbered paragraphs on that question also failed to get two-thirds approval, though they obtained a majority.

    There were many, many other points made in the document, which touched on the economic and social pressures affecting the family, the need for better marriage preparation, and a renewed style and language in the church’s pastoral response.

    However the synod’s results are characterized, it’s clear the landscape has changed. Pope Francis has pointed the church in a new direction, and the bishops have taken the first cautious steps down that path. Some have gone more willingly than others. Some have registered their objections. But in the end, this assembly launched a process that is destined to move forward, through a year-long period of discussion in dioceses and another, larger synodal meeting in Rome in October 2015.

    The final document of this assembly showed that most of the bishops were with the pope in making evangelization more about dialogue and accompaniment. At the same time, a significant number of these bishops were not ready to completely set aside the church’s traditional doctrinal framework for discussing these issues.

    Compared to the midterm synod document, which I described here as an “earthquake,” the final text is clearly a compromise. Many of the bishops were not comfortable with the dramatic new language that appeared in the midterm report, issued only five days earlier.

    Pope Francis took the microphone at the end of the voting this evening, and said the assembly had been an encounter of joy and beauty, but also had experienced moments of “desolation, tension and temptation.” Among the temptations, he said, were those of a “hostile rigidity” that wanted to close the church inside the letter of the law, expressed today by so-called “traditionalists.” He also warned against a false charity by so-called “liberals and progressives,” as well as the risk of adapting too easily to the spirit of the world.

    All this was part of a constructive process, the pope said, adding that he would have been worried and saddened had there not been these “animated discussions.” He underlined that as pope, it was his role to protect church unity and to remind pastors that their primary duty is to nourish their flock. He added: “The presence of the pope is a guarantee for everyone."

    The pope also returned to his favorite theme of pastoral mercy, saying the church must have “its doors wide open to receive the needy, the repentant, and not only the just or those who think they are perfect!”

    He said the church now has a year to reflect on the ideas proposed by the synod and try to find “concrete solutions” to the many problems faced by families today. His talk received a five-minute ovation in the synod hall.



  • Synod's "message" thanks families for witness of faith in face of problems

    The Synod of Bishops today issued its final “message,” a three-page text that warned of crises in the modern family, including “failures” and problematic new relationships, and encouraged Christians to remain faithful to the authentic family values of the church.

    The message made a point of thanking Christian families for their daily witness of "fidelity, faith, hope and love."

    It also said the church must “be a house with doors always open to welcome everyone.” But the text avoided any detailed discussion of some of the hot-button issues at this synod, including the law of graduality, outreach to cohabitating couples, homosexuality, and readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments.

    Those issues will be taken up in greater detail in the synod’s final relatio, which was scheduled to be voted upon Saturday evening.

    The synod’s message, approved overwhelmingly, outlined a series of problems afflicting modern families. Some were directly tied to attitudes and behavior by spouses and family members: “enfeebled faith,” indifference to true values, individualism, impatience and an unwillingness to make sacrifices.

    "We recognize the great challenge to remain faithful in conjugal love," it said. It spoke of stress and impoverishment of relationships, and crises in marriage that are dealt with in haste and without forgiveness.

     “Failures give rise to new relationships, new couples, new civil unions and new marriages, creating family situations which are complex and problematic, where the Christian choice is not obvious,” it said.

    The message also spoke of external pressures on the family, including economic difficulties like unemployment, the “brutality of war and oppression,” violence and exploitation against women, and human trafficking. In what could be read as a reference to sex abuse scandals in the church, it cited children "abused by those who ought to have protected them and fostered their development."

    “We call on governments and international organizations to promote the rights of the family for the common good,” it said.

    The message said the “authentic encounter” in marriage is between a man and a woman, realized in the sacrament of marriage, exhibiting a love that is also expressed in fertility. “In this light conjugal love, which is unique and indissoluble, endures despite many difficulties. It is one of the most beautiful of all miracles and the most common,” it said.

    "This journey is sometimes a mountainous trek with hardships and falls. God is always there to accompany us," the message said.

     


  • A synod text that explains why the church as 'field hospital' is more than a poetic image

    As the Synod of Bishops winds down, several participants are choosing to publish the texts of their speeches to the assembly. Among them are Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the director of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica, who is considered a close collaborator of Pope Francis.

    Spadaro’s talk not only strongly defended the pope’s new pastoral directions, but did so in language aimed at convincing the more traditional-minded critics in the synod hall – who have certainly let their voices be heard.

    Pope Francis has listened to the proceedings in silence, but Spadaro’s text certainly reflect the pope’s thinking on some key issues. Among other things, Spadaro called for a reconsideration of the church’s pastoral response on homosexuality.

    Spadaro makes six points, and I’ll summarize them here:

    1. The church must never use the family as an ideological weapon, but respond to the needs of real people who are living in complex, fragile situations. The church’s traditional ways of talking about the family are no longer understood by many people today, and that poses a challenge for pastors.

    2. Pope Francis’ vision of the church as a “field hospital” is more than a poetic image – it is an ecclesial model, the opposite of a “besieged fortress.” The main battlefield today is people’ inability to truly love, and to move beyond their own individualistic interests. The church’s first concern must be to avoid closing its doors to these people.

    3. Some see the church and its truths as a permanent lighthouse shining on people’s lives. But a lighthouse stays in one place, and is incapable of reaching people who have moved away from church teaching. The better image is a torch or lamp capable of accompanying and consoling families in all their forms, “no matter how ambiguous, difficult and many-sided.”

    4. The church’s pastoral response on homosexuality need careful reconsideration, especially because it impacts the church’s mission with young people. “We always need to be aware that the attitude we express toward situations that we define as ‘disordered’ and ‘irregular’ among couples will determine how younger generations of children approach the church,” he said. The very question of homosexuality, he added, may deserve better attention from the church, with greater focus on listening and discernment, rather than considering it solely in terms of “disorder.”

    5. The sacraments are meant for healing, and when it comes to situations like divorced and remarried Catholics, the church needs to ask itself whether it can simply exclude such couples from the sacrament of reconciliation. In other words, he said, in light of God’s mercy can there really be any “radically irretrievable” situations? The answer is no.

    6. In general, the church’s doctrinal patrimony needs to be seen in the light of the modern human condition. That means aiming above all at the salvation of each person, helping him or her grow as much as possible in faith.

    One note: Father Spadaro spoke about readmission of divorced and remarried to the sacrament of reconciliation, not Communion. The one implies the other, but supporters of the idea are now underlining the confession aspect. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has argued in favor of such an opening, put it this way in an interview today with Corriere della Sera: “Under the current discipline, these people (divorced and remarried without an annulment) can confess but cannot receive absolution. A person who has an abortion yes, those who divorced and remarried no.”


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