Tag Archives: Vatican

The Synod on the Family and the Developing World

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First World Problems?

Not long after his election, the new Pope explained why he had taken the name “Francis”: “Ah, how I would like a church,” he said, “that is poor and is for the poor.” It was refreshing: the Pope was going to change the basic terms of the conversation between the Church and the world. Instead of waging a grinding “culture war” against a secular West, the Church would instead speak to the most urgent concerns of the global East and South. The first Pope to come from beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin promised to be the champion of those who lived in the parts of the earth where hunger, injustice and persecution abounded. Places like the Philippines, Mexico, and Nigeria had already become the true center of gravity of a global Church, displacing Quebec, Chicago, Milan and Vienna. The new Pope would speak for the populations of the emerging world – for their suffering, their desperation, their resilience, their energy, their sense of hope. The “North/South” polarity would supplant the “Left/Right” one. The Church would make the pivot to poverty. In making that turn, it would address the West too – but by awakening it from the deadly self-absorption of the affluent.

So when one learns that the Synod of Catholic cardinals and bishops summoned by the same Pope has returned the conversation to the culture wars of the West – though with unmistakable overtones of capitulation on many of the bishops’ part — it is, to say no more, a disappointment. Try as it may, the Church under Francis seems to be unable to resist scratching the sores of Western sexuality. The consuming obsessions of the West, now in the terminal phases of the sexual and cultural revolutions that have swept over it for more than half a century, are dominating the Church’s agenda once again. At the Pope’s insistence, the bishops did a reset, plunging the Church into renewed debate over divorce and homosexuality and cutting short the conversation that the Pope had earlier invited over famine, persecution and want. With Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram recently murdering 2500 Catholics in one Nigerian diocese alone, and with Christian children being crucified or cut in half by ISIS, you might think that the world’s bishops would have more pressing things on their mind than the compatibility of same-sex unions with Church teaching. You would, of course, be wrong.

Indeed, even considering “family” issues alone, the non-Western Church was short-changed: how much attention was given to the question of inter-faith marriages, despite its being a major concern for the Church in India? In the Philippines, many marriages break up because poverty forces a spouse or parent to migrate overseas in search of employment, leaving home, spouse and children behind. Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle noted this problem, saying that poverty “goes right at the heart of the family” in his country ; but how much attention did this issue get?

What is more, the organizers of the Synod openly expressed their indifference to – if not contempt for – the opinions of the leaders of the non-Western Church. They spoke as if the opposition of the African bishops to their “modernizing” program could stem only from irrational hatred and prejudice. What the Africans needed, they seemed to be saying, was a good, stiff dose of Richard Posner’s writings. In the controversy over the initial draft of the Synod’s statement, Cardinal Walter Kasper, an octogenarian German theologian and a favorite of the Pope’s, infamously said:

Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.

Kasper later denied having made those revealing remarks – a denial that was then proven to be false. In any case, the remarks hardly seemed out of character for the Cardinal. In an interview with the German magazine Focus published under the heading “Third World Land,” Kasper was reported to have said, “When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country.” The German Cardinal obviously notices different things when he is at the airport from what Cardinal Tagle does. The Philippine prelate spoke of his anguish in watching Filipino mothers at airports forced to part from their children because their poverty is so desperate that they must leave their families and search for work abroad.

Not Just Cardinal Kasper

Even if Cardinal Kasper’s statement were merely condescension on the part of the passenger with the first-class cabin towards the passengers in steerage, it would be bad enough. But Kasper and those like him simply did not seem to understand the position. Perhaps the Africans and Asians are not just squinting narrowly at the issue of homosexuality, but rather looking at the state of Western culture as a whole? And perhaps they do not like what they see? Perhaps the cultural exports of the secular West – its current practices regarding marriage, abortion, childbirth, the family, the relations between the sexes – are no more wanted in Africa and Asia than the West’s toxic wastes and sewage effluents? (New York Cardinal Dolan’s wonderful defense of the “prophetic” African Church effectively made these points. )

But the problem with the Synod went far beyond the tactlessness and incomprehension of elderly European churchmen. Apparently at the Pope’s insistence, the Synod’s final report included three controversial articles that had received the approval of a Synod majority, but not the supermajority required for consensus. The final report will now go to the Church throughout the world for discussion and debate before the Synod reconvenes. You can be sure that the media coverage of the debate in this intervening period will focus overwhelmingly on the articles that the Pope reinstated. Cui bono? In their effort to get the conversation back on the familiar tracks of the Western culture wars, the Pope and his bishops are doing serious harm to millions of faithful Catholics trying to live out the Gospel in hostile and often dangerous conditions in the emerging world.

My former student, Andrew Ratelle, makes the point forcefully:

By upholding the nuclear family, the Church made what was perhaps the most important social investment in history. People in the poorer, more pagan regions of the world where polygamy, polyandry, arranged and child marriages were common, now had a place to look for support when it came to building a life that was most beneficial for themselves and their children. By weakening this support, or at the very least dispersing it to include more “diverse” arrangements, these bishops have weakened the very shield from which the nuclear family has received so much protection. Even in our own country, where “diverse” familial arrangements have almost become synonymous with urban poverty and crime (at least for those who have no gilded safety net to fall into), where should families look to now, since the Church has seen fit to dilute the medicine they have thrived on for so long?

Church leaders in the developing world understand this perfectly well. South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, for instance, wondered how he could deny communion to an African man living in polygamy in accordance with local culture and tradition, if he had to administer the sacrament to a divorced man married to his second wife? “Successive” polygamy, Napier pointed out, is hardly distinguishable from “simultaneous” polygamy.

Pope Francis was right (at first): it really is time to change the conversation. The global Church is not the parochial Western Church; the Church of the poor and the marginal is not the affluent, greying Church of Western Europe and North America. The Church should not be shadowing the West’s cultural trajectory all the way downwards. The future of the Church lies elsewhere. Ex oriente, lux.

Photo from the Catholic News Agency.

Pope Francis Opens Center’s Conference with Statement on Religious Liberty, Persecution of Christians

Pope Francis opened our conference in Rome last week with a statement on religious liberty and the persecution of Christians. He reflected on the place of religious liberty in Catholic thought and decried religious discrimination across the world, particularly against Christians.

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Pope Francis Greets Conference Participants (News.va)

The Pope’s remarks came at a special audience at the Vatican for participants in the conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” which the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored with the St. John’s Center for International and Comparative Law and the Department of Law at the Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta. Referring to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Dignitatis humanae, the Pope argued that people require religious freedom in order to be fully human:

“Every human is a ‘seeker’ of truth on his origins and destiny,” the Pope said. “In his mind and in his ‘heart,’ questions and thoughts arise that cannot be repressed or stifled, since they emerge from the depths of the person and are a part of the intimate essence of the person. They are religious questions, and religious freedom is necessary for them to manifest themselves fully.”

He called religious freedom “a fundamental right of man.” It is “not simply freedom of thought or private worship,” but “the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.”

“Legal systems, at both national and international level, are therefore required to recognize, guarantee and protect religious freedom, which is a right intrinsically inherent in human nature.”

Religious freedom is also “an indicator of a healthy democracy” and “one of the main sources of the legitimacy of the state,” the Pope continued.

Nowadays, international and domestic law protect religious freedom. Notwithstanding this protection, however, religious discrimination continues. In fact, Pope Francis noted, 1700 years after the Edict of Milan, Christians worldwide suffer disproportionate discrimination and persecution. “The persecution of Christians today is even more virulent than in the first centuries of the Church,” he said, “and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.”

We’ll have a fuller discussion of the Pope’s statement when the Vatican releases an official English translation. Meanwhile, here’s a video report on the audience in English.

The UN, Children, and the Vatican

Here is the latest evidence of the clash between contemporary human rights norms and traditional religions. Last week, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child reported on the Vatican’s compliance with an international treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, which virtually every UN member, including the Holy See, has ratified (though not the US), lists universal rights of children, including the right to be protected from discrimination; the right to be free from violence, including sexual abuse; the right to health and welfare; and so on.

The committee had blunt words for the Vatican. With respect to the sexual abuse crisis, it complained, “the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.” The committee had several suggestions for how the Vatican could do better job, including the immediate removal of “all known and suspected child sexual abusers” and referral of cases “to the relevant law enforcement authorities.”

Critics complain that the that the committee did not sufficiently acknowledge the steps the Vatican has taken to address the crisis. I’ll leave that question to others. Whether or not the Vatican’s response has been adequate, everyone agrees that sexual abuse is a violation of children’s rights. But the committee also addressed subjects on which everyone does not agree. It suggested that the Vatican alter its positions on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality in order to meet its obligations under the Convention.

For example, the committee stated that the prohibition of abortion “places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls”and urged the Vatican to amend canon law to “identify circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” It expressed “serious concern” about the Vatican’s policy of “denying adolescents access to contraception.” The Vatican must put “adolescents’ best interests” ahead of other concerns, the committee said. And the committee expressed concern that the Holy See’s disapproval of homosexuality may lead to discrimination against LGBT children and the children of LGBT parents. It recommended that the Holy See amend canon law to recognize diverse family arrangements. 

As my former colleague Julian Ku explains, these recommendations don’t follow clearly from the text of the Convention, which lacks “specific language about LGBTQ rights, the appropriate circumstances for abortions, or birth-control education.” On the contrary, Ku says, the report is based upon an “aggressive” reading of the treaty. And the recommendations obviously conflict with fundamental teachings of one of the world’s great religions. Given these facts, shouldn’t the committee have dialed it back a bit? Why push an aggressive, contestable interpretation of a treaty that purports to be universal, notwithstanding the inevitable conflict with the Catholic Church and other traditional religions?

There are probably two explanations. First, to the committee, these recommendations seem morally incontrovertible. Who could doubt that children’s best interests call for liberalized abortion, unrestricted access to contraceptives, and the recognition of same-sex marriages? From the secular human rights perspective, these propositions are frustratingly obvious. The idea that one might in good faith define “best interests” differently–that many world religions in fact do define “best interests” differently–doesn’t make sense. The committee simply cannot credit the other point of view.

Second, the secular human rights regime believes it is at the brink of final victory in these matters. (It has believed so for about 50 years now.) The forces of obscurity are in retreat and religion no longer dictates people’s lives, at least in the civilized West. The Catholic Church, in particular, is on the ropes, a victim of its own sins and intransigence. Why not put an end to its obstructionism once and for all? This would help the cause of progress, and actually be a good thing for the Church, too.

The committee no doubt expected the negative reaction of the Vatican to last week’s report. But it may have been surprised that so many in the elite media objected too. The Economist criticized the report for being sloppy and taking positions on issues where consensus is lacking. The Atlantic‘s  Emma Green complained that the report inappropriately critiqued deeply-held religious beliefs. And the Boston Globe‘s John Allen argued that the report would only confirm the opinion of skeptics that the UN is motivated by politics and secular ideology. Perhaps the final victory is still a ways off.

Kertzer, “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret Life of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe”

Next month, Random House will publish The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret Life of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, by David I. Kertzer (Brown Pope and MussoliniUniversity). The publisher’s description follows.

 The Pope and Mussolini tells the story of two men who came to power in 1922, and together changed the course of twentieth-century history. In most respects, they could not have been more different. One was scholarly and devout, the other thuggish and profane. Yet Pius XI and “Il Duce” had many things in common. They shared a distrust of democracy and a visceral hatred of Communism. Both were prone to sudden fits of temper and were fiercely protective of the prerogatives of their office. (“We have many interests to protect,” the Pope declared, soon after Mussolini seized control of the government in 1922.) Each relied on the other to consolidate his power and achieve his political goals.

In a challenge to the conventional history of this period, in which a heroic Church does battle with the Fascist regime, Kertzer shows how Pius XI played a crucial role in making Mussolini’s dictatorship possible and keeping him in power. In exchange for Vatican support, Mussolini restored many of the privileges the Church had lost and gave in to the pope’s demands that the police enforce Catholic morality. Yet in the last years of his life—as the Italian dictator grew ever closer to Hitler—the pontiff’s faith in this treacherous bargain started to waver. With his health failing, he began to lash out at the Duce and threatened to denounce Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws before it was too late. Horrified by the threat to the Church-Fascist alliance, the Vatican’s inner circle, including the future Pope Pius XII, struggled to restrain the headstrong pope from destroying a partnership that had served both the Church and the dictator for many years.

 The Pope and Mussolini brims with memorable portraits of the men who helped enable the reign of Fascism in Italy: Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, Pius’s personal emissary to the dictator, a wily anti-Semite known as Mussolini’s Rasputin; Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy, an object of widespread derision who lacked the stature—literally and figuratively—to stand up to the domineering Duce; and Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, whose political skills and ambition made him Mussolini’s most powerful ally inside the Vatican, and positioned him to succeed the pontiff as the controversial Pius XII, whose actions during World War II would be subject for debate for decades to come.

With the recent opening of the Vatican archives covering Pius XI’s papacy, the full story of the Pope’s complex relationship with his Fascist partner can finally be told. Vivid, dramatic, with surprises at every turn, The Pope and Mussolini is history writ large and with the lightning hand of truth.

“For the Common Convenience of the Learned”

Here’s news of an excellent joint project of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Gutenberg Bible(founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V) and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library (which opened in 1602)  to put online a number of very ancient and rare religious and other texts housed in their respective libraries. These include the Bodleian’s 1455 Gutenberg Bible as well as the oldest Hebrew codex in existence and a copy of the Bible written in Italy circa 1100 (housed in the Vatican library).

The website where some of these documents may already be viewed is here.

Vatican Removes Controversial Papal “Interview” From Its Website

Here’s what looks to be the final update on that interview Pope Francis gave to Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica this fall. Readers of this website will recall that the interview quotes Pope Francis as saying, among other things, that “proselytism” is “nonsense” and that, with respect to conscience, everyone must follow his own idea of good and evil. Progressives swooned; traditionalists grumbled; everyone wondered what it all meant.

Shortly after the interview ran, it emerged that Scalfari had reconstructed the pope’s words from memory. Scalfari had not tape recorded the pope nor taken notes during the meeting . In other words, the La Repubblica “interview” was not an interview at all. Why a respected newspaper would publish an imaginative reconstruction as though it were a real interview is beyond me–but the Vatican stated at the time that the interview was basically “trustworthy,” if not verbatim. And the Vatican posted the interview on its website.

Last week, however, the Vatican decided to take the interview down. According to this report from the Catholic News Agency, Pope Francis became concerned that people might misunderstand the interview–particularly the discussion of conscience. According to a Vatican spokesman, “The information in the interview is reliable on a general level but not on the level of each individual point analyzed: this is why it was decided the text should not be available for consultation on the Holy See website.” The music was right, I guess, but the lyrics were bit off. Probably the interview is still available at La Repubblica, though.

Mannaggia!

You know that interview Pope Francis gave to Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica? The one in which the pope made some puzzling comments about conscience and proselytism? The one that so many people, including me, have been poring over for insights into the pope’s thoughts on religion, politics, and law? It turns out it’s not an interview at all, but an after-the-fact reconstruction. Apparently, Scalfari neither tape-recorded his interview nor took notes at the time. Some errors have already begun to emerge. The Vatican has “confirmed the basic ‘trustworthiness'” of the interview–whatever that means. But, John Allen writes:

None of this, of course, is to excuse La Repubblica‘s sloppiness in not making clear to readers that what was being presented as the literal words of the pope was actually a reconstruction, not a transcript.

Barring further clarification from the Vatican, it’s now impossible to cite any particular lines or formulae from that interview and attribute them directly to the pope, since we don’t know quite where Scalfari ends and Francis begins.

Oh, well, never mind, then.

Is that any way to run a newspaper?

Conference: The Lateran Pacts and the Jews (Oct. 24-25)

On October 24-25 in New York, the Centro Primo Levi, the NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marim, and the Museum of Tolerance will co-sponsor a conference, “The Lateran Pacts, the Rights of Jews and Other Religious Minorities”:

In view of the upcoming 85th anniversary of the Lateran Pacts and the current debates on the position of the Church toward the Jews during Fascism and World War II, Centro Primo Levi has invited an interdisciplinary group of scholars to closely examine and discuss the legal, social, political and economic aspects of this redefinition of the relations between Church and State in Italy and in totalitarian Europe.
The conference will offer an overview of the Lateran Pacts, the background of negotiations between Mussolini and Pius XI as well as an analysis of the ways the Pacts affected Italian society, the rights of minorities vis-à-vis family law, education, public moral, protection of minority rights, with a particular focus on the subsequent re-organization of the Jewish communities. Scholars will present new research on the changes to the civil and penal codes brought about by the Pacts, as well as the reforms of key public institution that became necessary in order to make them compatible with a state religion.

Looks interesting. Details are here.

Vatican to UN: More Than 100,000 Christians Killed for Their Faith Each Year

For reasons I’ve discussed before, elite opinion in the West is uncomfortable with the idea of Christians as a persecuted minority. At least since the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals, as a class, have seen traditional Christians as adversaries to be resisted, not victims to be rescued. The idea that in some circumstances Christians might actually be victims complicates the narrative in unpleasant ways.

To be fair, traditional Christians in the West sometimes overstate their difficulties. There are worrisome signals, to be sure. In ways that one would not have imagined even 20 years ago, governments seem willing to require traditional Christians to give up their religious convictions as the price for entering the marketplace, or even doing charitable work. But that’s not persecution, exactly. No one is forcing Christians to the catacombs.

Persecution of Christians in other parts of the world is a fact, however, and one that needs repeating. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s Permanent Representative, thus deserves credit for raising the topic at a meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday. Tomasi deplored the fact that, according to credible estimates, more than 100,000 Christians around the world are killed each year because of their faith. Many others are subjected to rape, displacement, destruction of their places of worship, and the abduction of their leaders. As to that last item, the whereabouts of the two Orthodox bishops whom elements of the Syrian opposition kidnapped last month remain unknown.

It’s certainly true that other religious minorities suffer too; human rights advocates often give this as a reason for not singling out Christians in particular. But what sense does that make? One hears a great deal about the persecution of other religious minorities by name, and rightly so. It’s time the global human rights community spoke of the persecution of Christians, as Christians, as well.

Mayer, “The Roman Inquisition”

In January, the University of Pennsylvania Press published The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo, by Augustana College history professor Thomas F. Mayer. The publisher’s description follows:

While the Spanish Inquisition has laid the greatest claim to both scholarly attention and the popular imagination, the Roman Inquisition, established in 1542 and a key instrument of papal authority, was more powerful, important, and long-lived. Founded by Paul III and originally aimed to eradicate Protestant heresy, it followed medieval antecedents but went beyond them by becoming a highly articulated centralized organ directly dependent on the pope. By the late sixteenth century the Roman Inquisition had developed its own distinctive procedures, legal process, and personnel, the congregation of cardinals and a professional staff. Its legal process grew out of the technique of inquisitio formulated by Innocent III in the early thirteenth century, it became the most precocious papal bureaucracy on the road to the first “absolutist” state.

As Thomas F. Mayer demonstrates, the Inquisition underwent constant modification as it expanded. The new institution modeled its case management and other procedures on those of another medieval ancestor, the Roman supreme court, the Rota. With unparalleled attention to archival sources and detail, Mayer portrays a highly articulated corporate bureaucracy with the pope at its head. He profiles the Cardinal Inquisitors, including those who would play a major role in Galileo’s trials, and details their social and geographical origins, their education, economic status, earlier careers in the Church, and networks of patronage. At the point this study ends, circa 1640, Pope Urban VIII had made the Roman Inquisition his personal instrument and dominated it to a degree none of his predecessors had approached.