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“To The Sinners In Congress”: Pope Francis isn’t A Liberal. He’s Something More Radical: A Christian Humanist

Pope Francis is causing quite the stir these days.

On Tuesday he will make his first trip to the United States, where he’ll preach the existential urgency of climate change and the moral imperative of economic inequality to a Republican Congress that would probably prefer he talk about abortion and marriage. Conservatives worldwide are upset that Francis is allowing priests to absolve women who repent for an abortion and has “vandalized” marriage by making it easier for Catholics to get their marriages annulled.

In July, Gallup reported that the pope’s favorability among American self-described conservative Catholics had dropped to 45 percent, from 72 percent a year earlier. “This decline may be attributable to the pope’s denouncing of ‘the idolatry of money’ and linking climate change partially to human activity, along with his passionate focus on income inequality,” Gallup said, noting that these are “all issues that are at odds with many conservatives’ beliefs.”

But just because some conservatives are upset with Pope Francis, that doesn’t mean that he’s a liberal. He isn’t, really, politically or religiously.

He is a reformer, and he is shaking things up in a church that had experienced theological and institutional continuity for 35 years under Pope John Paul II, elected in 1978, and Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul’s doctrinal right hand from 1982 until his own elevation to supreme pontiff in 2005.

Francis boldly promotes some policies that make conservatives uncomfortable. But the Pope Francis revolution is probably best described as humanist — and that makes it a much bigger challenge to Catholics in the West, both conservative and liberal.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that Francis is a secular humanist, or capital-h Humanist, by any means. Instead, let’s call him a Christian humanist, defining that as one who cares about human beings more than ecclesiastical considerations.

That might sound like secular balderdash, but it’s actually a phrase coined by Pope Benedict. “Christian humanism,” he wrote in the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), “enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open toward our brothers and sisters and toward an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity.” Benedict explicitly borrowed the idea from Pope Paul VI.

Pope Francis has taken the idea of Christian humanism and put it into practice, with a big smile. He is concerned with the welfare of the Roman Catholic Church, certainly, but he is much more concerned with what the Catholic Church calls the “mystical body of Christ” — that is, the people who make up the Christian church.

There are plenty of examples.

His groundbreaking encyclical on climate change, Laudato Sí (“Praise Be to You”), for one, is a stern rebuke to humanity — that includes industrialist polluters, but also voracious consumers and even environmentalists — for turning the Earth into “an immense pile of filth.” But he intrinsically pairs ecology and social justice, arguing that efforts to save the planet “must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”

Then there’s the pope’s modification of church law to make it easier to get broken marriages annulled, which, Vatican Radio says, is rooted in the core principle of “salus animarum — the salvation of souls.” Catholics whose marriages fail — especially in poorer countries, where annulments are expensive and hard to come by — should be shown mercy and love, encouraged and allowed to fully participate in the sacramental life of the church, whenever possible.

But probably the most illuminating example — the one that shows Francis putting the needs of humanity firmly above the parochial concerns of the church — has to do with the Christian character of Europe.

Pope Benedict, before he retired, fought tooth and nail to keep Europe anchored in Christianity. In 2007, after the European Parliament rejected including references to God and Christianity in the European Constitution, Benedict chastised European lawmakers. How can EU governments “exclude an element as essential to the identity of Europe as Christianity, in which the vast majority of its people continue to identify?” Benedict asked. “Does not this unique form of apostasy of itself, even before God, lead [Europe] to doubt its very identity?”

Pope Francis has not only ignored the issue, he has pleaded with Catholics — and, in fact, all Europeans — to personally house the masses of mostly Muslim migrants seeking refuge in the EU.

The surge of humanity from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya will make Europe more Muslim and less Christian, as some European politicians have noted caustically. But the preeminent Christian leader in Europe is begging Europeans to open their doors, anyway. And in the case of Catholic religious orders, he is more than pleading: He is ordering them to utilize their unused convent and monastery rooms to house refugees, unless they want to start paying property taxes. The Holy See has already chosen two families of migrants to stay in the Vatican, the pope said, and they are welcome to remain “as long as the Lord wants.”

If you think that the church focusing on migrants isn’t novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. Pope Benedict said it was “impossible to remain silent” on the issue of refugee camps in 2008 (years before the refugee camps were in Europe). And, back in 1985, John Paul II said the fact that a migrant “is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership to the human family.” In the U.S., the Catholic Church has long advocated for the rights of immigrants — though the big waves of immigrants in the 20th century were largely Catholic.

But that’s the point of the Pope Francis revolution — it’s not really about new ideas, it’s about what the Catholic Church truly focuses on and where it leads by example. Francis isn’t just visiting the sinners in the U.S. Congress, he’s also visiting the sinners in prison, as well as children, hard laborers, refugees, and other demographics the Bible says that Jesus paid attention to.

Ostentatiously living a more humble papacy, determinedly mingling with the disenfranchised and downtrodden, radically (for the Catholic Church) putting the laity at the center of church solicitude: This is the change Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church. It is making lots of people uncomfortable. Honestly, any Catholic that doesn’t feel challenged by Francis’ subversive papacy probably isn’t paying enough attention.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, calls Francis “an equal opportunity disturber,” noting that “when we listen to some things he says, we smile; as we listen to other things he says, we bristle.” But, he added, “Jesus was like that, remember?”

It’s pretty clear Pope Francis does.


By: Peter Weber, The Week, September 22, 2015

September 23, 2015 Posted by | Catholic Church, Christianity, Pope Francis | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Judgment Day For Pervert Priests?”: Tackling The Enablers Of Child Abuse, The Bishops

For the first time in the long and sordid history of the Catholic Church’s saga with pedophile priests, the Vatican has approved a special judicial tribunal that could bring to justice the bishops who have helped protect offending priests.

But is it enough to protect kids? Survivors groups hope that this time the Vatican has come up with an approach that will work.

“It could be, but only time will tell,” David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP), told The Daily Beast. “But this isn’t like horseshoes. Every ‘miss’—however close it seems to be to the peg—means more kids will be raped.”

The new tribunal was the brainchild of American cardinal Sean O’Malley, who has become a central figure in the popular papacy of Pope Francis, which may make him a major contender when it comes time for the next conclave. As head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and one of the pope’s trusted confidantes who sit on the elite Commission of Cardinals, O’Malley presented the plan at a meeting of the pope’s key men in Rome this week. They adopted it unanimously.

The tribunal will not focus on the abusers themselves per se, but rather on complicit bishops who moved the abusers around, knowing full well they were putting children in harm’s way. The five-point plan drafted by O’Malley allows for a number of changes to the current procedure, including making it a duty for diocese to report claims of abuse to Rome, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

For years, the Vatican has distanced itself from its field offices, effectively toeing the party line that what happens in individual dioceses cannot be blamed on the central church in Rome. By making it compulsory to instead alert the Rome-based tribunal of all complaints, the Vatican is effectively closing the gap and effectively taking greater responsibility for what happens in its dioceses.

The real question, though, is whether the new process will actually translate into effective punishment for proven offenders, and whether the secular courts will still be kept at bay when it comes to punishing child abusers and sex offenders. The organization Bishop Accountability, which keeps a database of extensive public records of accusations against abusers, warned that the very office that enforces accountability must itself be accountable.

“A public docket, prompt announcements of decisions, and release of documents are essential,” the group said in a statement.

The new tribunal will operate under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which was reincarnated from the old Universal Inquisition department of the Holy See. It will have dedicated staff to sort through complaints and help process claims, and it will pass down judgments if it finds bishops complicit in the abuse.

Survivors groups are hopeful, but they say they would prefer that all sex abuse cases are all handled in the secular courts, not dealt with in a Vatican-operated tribunal.

“I don’t think we welcome any new internal cleric-dominated process, especially when it’s in the CDF, which, for decades, has refused to defrock or delayed defrocking some of the worst predator priests,” Clohessy says. “On paper, a mechanism like this looks good. But church abuse mechanisms always look good on paper. If this one is used to prevent cover-ups and punish ‘enablers,’ we’ll be surprised and pleased. If, however, it’s used to mollify distraught parishioners and generate good headlines, we won’t be surprised. That’s been the history of nearly all of the hundreds of church abuse panels over the past three decades.”

At face value, at least, this plan does feel fresh, if only because the Vatican has never directly mandated the investigation of bishops before. But it does call into question what this means for some of the most high-powered Vatican officials who are now facing allegations of taking part in the cover-ups, like Cardinal George Pell the Vatican’s financial czar who has been facing allegations in his native Australia for decades that he bribed victims and mishandled the case of defrocked pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.

Last week, Peter Saunders, one of the few non-clerical members of O’Malley’s Protection of Minors Commission, told Australia’s 60 Minutes program he thought Pell should be removed. “He has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness, almost sociopathic,” Saunders told the program. “I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.” Pell has threatened legal action against the program, and the Vatican was quick to distance itself and O’Malley’s commission from Saunders’ remarks, even though he is a member of the group.

Whether Pell’s case will be among the first heard by the new Vatican tribunal is anyone’s guess, but there are certainly plenty of others who could keep the tribunal busy once it is in place. Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, for one, is in Rome after being brought back from the Dominican Republic where he was the papal nuncio. At the time of his removal, the Vatican promised that Wesolowski would be investigated and brought to justice for the alleged abuse of young boys. So far as anyone knows, that has not happened. By being whisked back to Rome, he escaped secular court judgment in the Dominican Republic and even though he has been defrocked, he still enjoys immunity by living inside Vatican City.

Lombardi said that the O’Malley has given the new tribunal a five-year period to evaluate its success and effectiveness. God only knows how many children will be saved or be made to suffer while the Vatican and the victims groups work out whether the new plan works.


By: Barbie Latza Nadeau, The Daily Beast, June 1, 2015

June 12, 2015 Posted by | Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Catholic Church, Vatican | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Remedial Education On Birth Control”: It Never Fails, Arrogance And Ignorance Often Go Together

You’d really think that an institution with as rich an intellectual history and educational capacity as the Roman Catholic Church could find ways to keep its national spokespeople from saying things as dumb as this:

Is the ability to buy contraceptives, that are now widely available — my Lord, all you have to do is walk into a 7-11 or any shop on any street in America and have access to them — is that right to access those and have them paid for, is that such a towering good that it would suffocate the rights of conscience?

That would be Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, on Face the Nation yesterday. It was Dolan who, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2010 until 2013, guided the bishops into a firm alliance with conservative evangelicals (and implicitly, with the Republican Party) in a crusade for “religious liberty” defined as the right of employers to refuse their employees insurance coverage for contraceptives–typically those they regard, in defiance of standard medical profession and scientific definitions, as “abortifacients.”

Dolan’s dismissive comments about contraceptives and 7-11’s are reminiscent of those of conservative Catholic layperson Justice Antonin Scalia, who said this during oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case:

You’re talking about, what, three or four birth controls, not all of them, just those that are abortifacient. That’s not terribly expensive stuff, is it?

Well, yes, IUDs, the real crux of the “abortifacient” argument being made by Hobby Lobby’s lawyers, are quite expensive, and you cannot simply acquire them by strolling into a convenience store.

Arrogance and ignorance often go together, but you’d figure men as accomplished as Dolan and Scalia would have the wherewithal to avoid sounding like yahoos. Men–especially celibate men like Dolan–should go to the trouble of becoming at least marginally expert on reproductive science and economics before devoting so much of their time and attention to denying women reproductive rights.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 21, 2014

April 22, 2014 Posted by | Birth Control, Catholic Church, Reproductive Rights | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Gatherings Of The Faithful”: The Dominant Class Fiercely Fixed On Keeping Their Privileges And Controlling The Destinies Of Others

How different are they, really, at the end of the day or week in winter—the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and the Vatican Papal Conclave? They were all the talk in Washington and Rome, superpowers of politics and religion.

So how do you feel about Pope Francis and President Rand Paul, R-Ky.? Call it the March epiphany, that they will rule the world. They were voted most popular.

Here’s mine: Rome and the current Republican party would tyrannize us if they could—by us, I mean girls and women. Boys are also secretly victimized in the Vatican’s vale of tears, likely for centuries. But boys grow up; women and girls never escape the yoke.

The “conservative” Republican party and the Roman Catholic Church under the “new” Pope Francis are desperately in need of progressive reform. They are each losing their audiences outside their brittle borders because they refuse to change going forward. Everybody knows it except their gatherings of the faithful. Columnist David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, suggested Rome take a more supple and open approach, in the spirit of St. Augustine, risking vulnerability instead of clinging to tradition.

I see it through a glass darkly. Our subjugation is in fact the common denominator and real reason why each is in crisis: the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church and the Republican party. At the same historical hour, they become more retrograde with each passing year. Thus loyalty is paramount. Pope Francis is firmly old guard. Moderates and reformers, in each case, are rebuked or banished until their voices are no longer heard: not even Gov. Chris Christie’s, R-N.J. bellow.

Just look at the pitiless gaze of Ted Cruz, the freshman Republican senator from the Texas Tea Party who acts like he’s the new sheriff in town. The defiant way he presumed to challenge distinguished Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., passing an assault weapons ban out of the Judiciary committee shocked Washington’s socks off.

Ain’t it because she’s a woman? Sojourner’s spirit still speaks truth. Gladly, the gentle lady from San Francisco gave Cruz the dressing-down he deserved. She leaned in like nobody’s business.

In each institution, white male elders are the smoke and mirrors, the dominant class fiercely fixed on keeping their privileges and controlling our destinies. Our bodies, of course, but also our destinies, human rights and liberties. That’s the larger truth, ladies and gentlemen.

The Vatican’s official investigation into the group representing 80 percent of American nuns, as shown on CBS News “60 Minutes” yesterday, shows what I mean—that’s how Rome under stern Pope Benedict XVI treated thinking women. In the political arena, let’s face it: Republican women have no choice left. Not a single 2012 presidential candidate supported a woman’s reproductive rights. This is also a shrewd strategy to keep the march for women’s advancement frozen in place.

Moreover, the handful of women chosen to represent national or party interests resemble ventriloquist dummies, Sarah Palin most of all. Cruz introduced the darling of CPAC, who called President Obama a liar, except she didn’t say the word “President.” That’s not on, as the English say. She also insulted Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the smartest former Republican in show business. He’s the kind of bright light they need in the winter wilderness.

Inviting the Alaskan hockey mom anywhere near the White House was the most cynical choice ever made when it comes to Republican womanhood.

Just conjure Pope Francis and President Palin.


By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, March 18, 2013

March 19, 2013 Posted by | Catholic Church, CPAC | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Something Is Stirring”: There Is New Space For Debate And Rethinking Of The Catholic Church’s Rightward Tilt

To say that the Belle Harbor neighborhood on New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula was slammed by Hurricane Sandy understates the case. Like many other parts of the region, it has suffered the kind of devastation we usually associate with wars.

In these circumstances, people turn to government, yes, but they look first to trusted friends and to neighborhood institutions that combine deep local knowledge with a degree of empathy that arises only from a long connection with residents of a particular place.

Two of my brothers-in-law who have been washed out of their homes are involved in one such group, the Graybeards, a local nonprofit recently featured on the “NBC Nightly News.” They immediately took up the task of restoring the city blocks they love.

And at the heart of the relief effort is the Roman Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, the epicenter of so many practical works of mercy that it has received a mountain of earned media attention. The Post published a photo last week of a big Thanksgiving dinner organized in the parish gym where I once watched my nephews and my niece compete fiercely on the basketball court. Last week, for a moment anyway, competition gave way to fellowship.

I intend to come back again to the determined struggle of this neighborhood to rebuild. But I also hope that the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops contemplating the future of the church’s public and political engagement notice how the witness of this parish has inspired people far beyond the confines of Catholicism.

During the presidential campaign, many bishops, though by no means all, seemed to enlist firmly on one side of a highly contested election. The church didn’t endorse anyone, but some bishops made clear their preference for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was about as clear as he could be short of putting a Romney-Ryan sticker on his car.

“I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. On the other hand, he said of low-tax conservatives: “You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation.” No doubt Paul Ryan smiled.

For such bishops, the election came as a shock. I’m told by people who attended the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops post-election meeting this month in Baltimore that many of them had been convinced Romney would win. Yet Romney not only lost; he also narrowly lost the Catholic vote, partly because of overwhelming support for Obama among Latinos, the fastest-growing group in the church.

The fallout: disarray in the Bishops’ Conference. This is actually good news. One person’s disarray is another’s openness. There is now new space for debate and a rethinking of the church’s tilt rightward over the past several years.

One surprising result in Baltimore was the refusal to endorse a vague statement on the economy after the document came under attack from more progressive bishops for failing to deal adequately with inequality, the rights of unions and poverty. Rarely does a document reach the floor of the conference and then fail to win the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. Something is stirring.

There are also influential bishops who now want to work with the Obama administration to secure a compromise on the contraception mandate under the health-care law. This, too, would be a positive break with the recent past, and the president should seize the opportunity. He can provide contraception coverage while building on the adjustments he has already made in the mandate to accommodate the church’s legitimate conscience concerns. And there’s nothing that should stop the bishops from cooperating with the administration and other progressives on behalf of immigration reform.

But above all, the bishops need to learn what I’ll call the St. Francis de Sales lesson. A church looking to halt defections among so many younger Catholics should understand that casting itself as a militantly right-wing political organization — which, face it, is what some of the bishops are doing — clouds its Christian message. Worse, the church seems to be going out of its way to hide its real treasure: the extraordinary examples of generosity and social reconstruction visible every day in parishes such as St. Francis and in the homeless shelters, schools, hospices and countless other Catholic entities all over the nation.

Politics divides Catholics. The works of mercy bring us together and also show the world what the power of faith can achieve.


By: E. J. Dionne Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 25, 2012

November 27, 2012 Posted by | Catholic Church | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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