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Eamon Duffy on Francis

In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, church historian and sometime Commonweal contributor Eamon Duffy has an excellent review-essay on three books about Pope Francis. I don’t think anything Duffy writes will come as news to most Commonweal readers, but he does cover a lot of territory with his usual nuanced approach to Catholic issues, in his customary elegant prose.

Duffy is perhaps best known for Saints and Sinners, a comprehensive but accessible history of the papacy. He made his academic reputation with The Stripping of the Altars, a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, a book that changed our understanding of the often misunderstood upheavals of that period by documenting the popularity and vitality of traditional Catholic practice and belief. A favorite Duffy book of mine is Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, a collection of essays that strikes the right balance between the inevitability of change in the church and the even greater need to rely on the resources of the tradition to guide those developments. “Faithfulness to that tradition is not a matter of uncritical obedience to authority; it is a shared labor of learning, in which we work together to draw new and surprising growth from the old soil,” he wrote. Tradition is “the trace of a complex shared life, rather than a clear-cut compendium of answers.”

In his NYRB piece, Duffy emphasizes the fact that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council. He does not pine for some allegedly lost, golden age when the church claimed to be a perfect society. Francis’s “commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors,” Duffy writes.

I think that gets at what is perhaps the most obvious nature of the change in tone and focus coming from the Vatican, and that instinctive commitment to the council goes hand in hand with Francis’s determination to encourage debate among the bishops and his sure-to-be-contested push to return real decision-making authority to the local church. Duffy also notes how different Francis’s idea of priesthood is from “the exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates.” He cautions that, although those in the pews are cheering on these developments, many of those ordained during the past thirty-five years are likely to have a difficult time adjusting to Francis’s often blunt critique of clericalism. Divisions within the church are deep and not easily bridged.

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Pope to world's bishops: Get behind my sexual-abuse commission.

Today the Holy See released Pope Francis's February 2 letter to the world's bishops conferences and religious communities asking for their "complete cooperation" with the sexual-abuse commission he established last March. The commission's job, the pope explains, "to improve the norms and procedures for protecting children and vulnerable adults," which--everyone knows--haven't been working out so well.

In his letter Pope Francis related his own experience meeting with abuse victims. "I was deeply moved by their witness to the depth of their sufferings and the strength of their faith," he wrote. "This experience reaffirmed my conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused." Pastors and those in charge of religious communities, the pope wrote, "should be available" to meet with victims and their loved ones. "Such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness."

Because families must feel confident that the church is doing all its can to protect the vulnerable from predator priests, Francis continued, "priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal." To that end, the pope urges local bishops conferences to "fully implement" the sensible 2011 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recommending a series of abuse-response procedures. Francis also recommends that dioceses periodically review their policies--and make sure they are being followed.

That a pope has established a commission to determine the best ways to respond to allegations of clerical sexual abuse is all to the good. Francis recognizes what the Roman Curia and previous popes took far too long to grasp: the sexual-abuse scandal is a global phenomenon that requires decisive action at the highest levels of the church. Local bishops conferences will certainly benefit from the commission's policy recommendations. But it's 2015. Figuring out how dioceses should respond to abuse accusations requires careful attention, but it isn't rocket science.

The more difficult problem is what to do with bishops who--through acts of commission or omission--endanger the vulnerable under their care. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who is in charge of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, says this is one of the problems the abuse commission is "urgently" exploring. We'll see just how urgently soon enough. According to Pope Francis, they meet in just a few days.

Koched up.

In the fall of 2013, the Catholic University of America announced a $1 million pledge from the Koch Foundation, one of the many not-for-profit outfits with strong ties to the billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch. The money, according to the university, would go to the business school, allowing it to hire professors and offer a course on "principled entrepreneurship." You may remember the Kochs from their charitable efforts to undermine public-employee unions, to support a campaign against renewable-energy standards, to suppress the vote, or to discredit the minumum wage (which the U.S. bishops want to raise).

A group of about fifty Catholic theologians certainly remembered. They sent a disapproving letter to Catholic University, voicing their concern that by accepting the grant, the university was sending "a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops." But university president John Garvey and business-school dean Andrew Abela remained unmoved. They replied by pointing out that several of the professors cash paychecks from universities that accept Koch money, and accused them of trying to "score political points."

If any of those theologians were clinging to the hope that, given enough time, Garvey and Abela might come around to the idea that there's something odd about a Catholic business school accepting money from people who are so deeply committed shrinking the social safety net, cutting taxes, weakening environental regulations, ending the minimum wage, and busting unions, they can let go now. Because Catholic University's business school recently accepted another $1.75 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation (in addittion to $1.25 million from other donors).

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An interview with Archbishop Blase Cupich.

A few days before Christmas, I interviewed Blase Cupich, who was recently installed as Chicago's ninth archbishop. We spoke about the Synod on the Family, immigration, the sexual-abuse scandal, the bishops conference, and more. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

GG: As you mentioned, the pope speaks often about the need to foster a culture of encounter and accompaniment. This seems key to his idea of church—a church that goes out of itself and should not fear the discomfort that entails. How is that approach changing the temperament of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?

BC: Institutions are constitutionally prone to protecting themselves, and being conservative in that sense. There are any number of forces in our society today that erode institutional life. We can’t be naïve about that. There are those who would like to truncate the freedom of religion—especially of the Catholic Church, given its footprint in society. At the same time, we can’t let that drive our agenda. That’s what the business of “Be not afraid,” which John Paul II said, is about. We have to be mission-oriented.

In the readings for the Feast of the Assumption, Mary goes off to the hill country to visit Elizabeth, and the image that one comes away with is that this dragon—mentioned in the first reading from Revelation—is chasing Mary. But Mary is not directed by the dragon’s pursuit. In the Gospel we hear that she is directed by her desire to help Elizabeth. The church has to use that image of itself. The trajectory of our pilgrimage is not going to be determined by an escape from forces that are out to harm us. It has to be a trajectory that is determined by helping people. That’s why the pope said we can’t be a self-referential church.

GG: The ethic of accompaniment seems to have guided the pope’s design of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Some bishops expressed some confusion about that meeting—whether it was over the media’s coverage of the synod, or what actually took place.

BC: The media is not to blame at all. I think the media reported what actually took place. What really took place at the synod was that a majority of the bishops voted for all the proposals that were there in the final summary document. And I think Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that at the November bishops meeting. It’s true that three of the paragraphs [about divorce and gay people] did not get two-thirds majority support, but they got more than a majority. That’s what’s new. That’s the story. Those hot-button topics had been highlighted, and the majority of synod bishops voted for proposals that said we need to consider aspects of these issues.

The pope has a firm belief that the spirit of the risen Lord is working in our midst and is alive in the hearts of people—and we cannot squelch that voice. We have to look for ways to listen to how the Lord is working in the lives of people. That’s why the pope said to the synod fathers, “Don’t come to the synod and say ‘You can’t say that’”—because it may be the spirit of Christ who is calling us to say these things. And we have to listen to that.

Read the rest right here.

Science or conscience on climate change?

The announcement Friday that 2014 was Earth's warmest year on record prompted responses from some who accept the scientific evidence of climate change that this should finally convince those who don't. You'd think that with nine such records set and subsequently broken since 2000 alone, not much more convincing would be required, but there you have it. The complexity of climate science has become the fig leaf for those reluctant to acknowledge the role of greenhouse gases to hide behind, and thus to rationalize inaction and obstruction. So if the scientific case is too hard, then what about the moral case?

That's how Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on climate change will couch it, perhaps in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In New Scientist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography climatologist Veerabhadran Ramanathan says "science has taken this issue as far as it can" and now it's time for policy-makers to effect changes in behavior. The thinking is that the encyclical, which may be released as early as March, could with its call to moral action "shock" the nonbelievers into if not accepting the scientific facts, then at least supporting remedies for addressing the "global injustice" of subjecting many of the world's poorest population to disproportionate harm. These would include the 73 percent of white Evangelical Americans who doubt human-generated climate change. Or the 60 percent of white American Catholics who remain very or somewhat unconcerned about climate change. Such an appeal to conscience, the hopeful thinking also goes, might spur Catholic representatives, who account for thirty-three percent of Congress, to maybe, finally, take some meaningful, measurable steps as well. 

With a pope who can candidly answer a question about climate change by saying, "It is man who continuously slaps down nature,” maybe the optimistic anticipation is understandable: This could finally do it, is the hope of backers on action on climate change.  But can a moral case, as compelling as it is, be any more effective than what seems like incontrovertible scientific proof, and a growing body of economic evidence, about the harm of warming? Can it persuade those who seem more invested in not being persuaded?

Papal presser in the sky.

On the flight to Manila today, Pope Francis gave another one of his signature free-wheeling press conferences in which he says a series of interesting things. He spoke about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, religious liberty, freedom of speech, ecumenism, his long-awaited encyclical on the environment, the next saint he'll make, and what he'd do to someone who spoke ill of his mom. Here are a few notable bits, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter and the Boston Globe/Crux:

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A Prayer for the New Year

Pope Francis's Christmas address to the Roman Curia on December 22 contained a lengthy examination of conscience, which was reported on in the press as a pretty stern dressing-down. In his usual vivid style, Francis enumerated 15 "diseases" or pathologies that must be addressed to improve the health of that body as a whole, and offered some prescriptions to help. So, for example, to help get over the disease of thinking one is indispensible he suggests a visit to the cemetery, and so on. Much of the Pope's advice can be helpful for anyone. 

I particularly liked a prayer of Thomas More that Francis mentioned in that talk. It came up in problem #12, "the disease of a lugubrious face." To counter the pathology of severity, pessimism, and treating others "especially those we consider our inferiors -- with rigor, brusqueness, and arrogance" he recommended humor. "We would do well to recite often the prayer of St. Thomas More," Pope Francis said, "I say it every day, and it helps." The prayer was not part of the talk, but was printed in full in the footnotes. I had never seen it before, but I know I shall have recourse to it now!

Here's the prayer:

Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humour to maintain it. Grant me a simple soul that knows how to treasure all that is good and that doesn't frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place. Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumbling, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called 'I'. Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humour. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke and to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.

Happy new year, one and all.

The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (VIII)

This is the conclusion of a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, and the seventh here.

“I want to assure everyone,” Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano wrote in 2008, “that I have never hidden or protected anyone convicted of any crime.” The bishop was attempting to quell the outcry of Catholics in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, over his decision to invite an accused priest and his followers—the Society of St. John—to establish themselves in his diocese. “My track record in these cases is very clear,” Livieres continued. “Just as I have not hesitated to convict the guilty, neither will I punish an innocent victim of slander.” The victim, according to Livieres, was Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, an Argentine native who has been followed by allegations of sexual misconduct across three countries over three decades.

That troubling history, readily available to anyone with an internet connection, made it difficult for many Ciudad del Este Catholics to take their bishop at his word. So in 2009 they mounted a campaign against him, enlisting the support of other Paraguayan bishops and priests, who took the case to Pope Benedict XVI. But, unbeknownst to them, Livieres claimed to have the support of Benedict—in part because of their shared fondness for the Latin Mass. Livieres’s critics would not receive a satisfying response to their complaints until Benedict retired—and Pope Francis was elected.

Livieres was installed as bishop of Ciudad del Este in 2004. Before he even arrived, Livieres—a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei—caused consternation among the bishops, priests, and laypeople of Paraguay. The bishops were surprised by John Paul II’s decision to appoint Livieres because his name was not on the terna—the list of three names recommended by the local bishops conference. Soon after Livieres took over in Ciudad del Este, more than one hundred fifty clerics wrote to Pope Benedict XVI to protest the bishop’s “renewal of church discipline” and “new pastoral guidelines,” as Livieres would later put it. But Benedict did not respond, according to an account Livieres wrote in 2014. Instead, Benedict told him to “form a new clergy,” according to the bishop. He took that advice, and established his own seminary. That failed to go over with other bishops, who wanted to know what was wrong with the main seminary in Asunción.

Livieres also clashed with his fellow bishops over the candidacy of former bishop Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, who ran for president of Paraguay in 2008—and won. Lugo had ties to the liberation-theology movement, which Livieres long opposed. But Livieres also criticized Lugo for fathering children before he left the episcopate—and his brother bishops for remaining “silent” about it. During a radio interview, the archbishop of Asunción, Pastor Cuquejo Verga, publicly called for the Vatican to investigate Livieres. In a follow-up interview, Livieres rebuffed Cuquejo’s suggestion, and called him a homosexual.

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The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (VII)

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.

In November 2003, Joseph Martino attended his first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after succeeding James Timlin as bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. During the weeks following his October 1 installation Mass, Martino had been briefed on the scandal Timlin brought to the diocese in 1997 when he allowed the Society of St. John, a band of traditionalist clerics looking for a home, to set up shop in Scranton. As Martino walked down the aisle of the USCCB convention hall, flanked by nearly all the nation’s bishops, he turned to his auxiliary bishop, John Dougherty, and said, “I think we need to suppress that group.”

But Dougherty wasn’t convinced. Canonically suppressing the Society of St. John, he worried, might put Martino “in the position of attempting to undo an administrative act of his predecessor,” he wrote to a canon lawyer in early 2003. The “administrative act” Dougherty had in mind was Bishop Timlin’s decision to approve the Society of St. John as a “public association of the faithful,” which afforded the group certain rights under canon law—including the right to appeal to the Vatican.  

Timlin’s “Decree of the Erection of the Society of St. John” was issued just a year after he met the group, then led by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity—a native of Argentina. In the spring of 1997, Urrutigoity and his followers were ousted from the Society of St. Pius X—a schismatic organization that rejects the reforms of Vatican II—after it was discovered that they planned to establish a more spiritually rigorous group within the SSPX. Urrutigoity convinced Bishop Timlin that SSJ priests and deacons wanted to return to the Catholic Church in order to promote the old Latin Mass. Timlin was known as a friend to those who preferred the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Urrutigoity claimed that his fondest hope was to establish a seminary, a liberal-arts college, and a Catholic village. None of that would come to pass, as the Society’s efforts became mired in allegations of financial and sexual misfeasance.

Without running background checks on SSJ members, Bishop Timlin secured their reconciliation with Rome and made them priests of the Diocese of Scranton. But a year later, in 1999, Timlin learned that Urrutigoity had been accused of fondling a seminarian before arriving in Scranton. Urrutigoity denied the allegation. Even though three diocesan investigators told the bishop they found the accusation “credible,” Timlin did not sanction Urrutigoity. Later, when Society members were accused of sharing their beds with, and providing alcohol to, high-school boys, Urrutigoity promised that nothing immoral had transpired. Timlin just told SSJ members to stop such practices. The bishop did not discipline any SSJs until 2002, when a federal lawsuit alleged that Fr. Eric Ensey, a member of the Society of St. John, had sexually assaulted the plaintiff—and that Urrutigoity had fondled the young man while he slept. Timlin suspended the priests. Both of them denied the accusations under oath, and the lawsuit settled in 2005 for nearly half a million dollars. (Ensey, Urrutigoity, and Timlin could not be reached for comment.)

The canonical cover Timlin helped to provide for the Society of St. John would make it difficult for his successor to discipline the group. Adding to that difficulty was a letter of support for the SSJ that Timlin wrote in 2007, which found its way to the Vatican. Timlin’s efforts on behalf of the SSJs may have helped pave the way for their reappearance after Martino finally suppressed them in 2004. Ten years after Martino issued that decree, Urrutigoity would be named second in command of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Last September, amid public outcry over the promotion of Urrutigoity, Pope Francis removed Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, the man who reestablished the SSJ in South America, where several members still reside.

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Mexico's missing students and murdered priests

Francisco Goldman (the New Yorker) and Alma Guillermoprieto (the New York Review of Books) are among the journalists who in ongoing reports not only continue to monitor the latest developments in the case of forty-three missing (and all but confirmed dead) students from the Mexican state of Guerrero, but also work to frame the events within a particular political and economic context, which is characterized mainly by government corruption, poverty, and the rampant and indiscriminate violence of drug gangs.

The basic details: In late September, the students were abducted from one of the nation's poorest vocational schools, reportedly at the behest of a local mayor and his wife who were concerned that planned protests by the students would interfere with or overshadow their own scheduled event. According to the government, the abductees were then turned over to a gang related to the mayoral couple, who killed the students, burned their bodies, and dumped their ashes in a river. The national outcry has been such that Goldman wonders whether the case is "spark[ing] a revolution," while Guillermoprieto notes "the marches, vandalism, protests, petitions, and shame too, as the government sinks in disgrace, its inability to guarantee the safety of its citizens or prosecute its criminals more evident by the hour."

Still, three months have passed since the kidnappings, and forensic confirmation that remains discovered are in fact those of the students has been slow in coming. Parents and families of the missing have appealed for Pope Francis's intervention in urging Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government to properly search for the missing students, and at a December 21 Mass in the town where the college is located, Papal Nuncio Christophe Pierre assured the gathered that "Pope Francis knows what's happening here." (Francis told a general audience at the Vatican in November, "I am with the Mexicans, those present and those at home, in this painful moment of what is legally speaking disappearance, but we know, the murder of the students.")

It was also on our about December 21 when a priest from a seminary on the outskirts of nearby Ciudad Altamirano, Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta, was abducted. He was missing for four days before his body was discovered, on Christmas, with gunshot wounds to the head. The motive and killers are unknown. Lopez Gorostieta is the third priest to be murdered in the southern part of Guerrero this year, one of whom was killed for reportedly refusing to baptize a gang leader’s child. Other priests have received death threats for refusing to perform "quickie" marriages or bless such items as automobiles, have been shaken down for protection payments, or have been targets of highway robbery attempts. One was briefly kidnapped after his preaching on "la familia" was misinterpreted by gunmen as an endorsement of a rival cartel by that name.

The Catholic Multimedia Center says Mexico is the most dangerous country in Latin America to be a priest; thirty-six have now been killed there since 1990, counting Lopez Gorostieta. Goldman notes that since 2000, one hundred and two journalists also have been murdered. These are among the quantifiable facts about violence in Mexico, but the numbers tell only so much and seem to have grown wearying besides. "The government offers to investigate, but nothing is ever known," a local priest named Jesus Mendoza Zaragoza recently told the New York Times. Or as Guillermoprieto puts it, in writing specifically about the missing forty-three: "Everyone knows what happens; no one understands why. ... What is this story we are trying to tell and cannot understand?"

The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (V)

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

John Doe had had enough. Enough see-sawing between career paths. Enough retail work. Enough physical labor. Enough aches from such work. Enough pain pills. Enough drinking. Enough wanting to die. Enough denial. He had had enough. So he went through detox, received therapy following his suicide attempts. And now that his head was clear, he was ready to talk.

The first person John told he had been sexually assaulted by priests was his girlfriend, according to his sworn testimony. The second person he told was a friend. Following his suicide attempts, John disclosed the allegations to his counselors. And in late 2001, a few months after he left recovery—before he talked to his parents—John told another person he’d been molested by clerics: Jeffrey Bond. He may have been shocked by John’s claims, but it’s unlikely that he was surprised.

In April 2000, Bond had been hired by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity to establish the College of St. Justin Martyr. Three years earlier, Urrutigoity—originally from Argentina—approached Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see about setting up a community of clerics devoted to restoring liturgical traditionalism to the Catholic Church. In addition to the college, Urrutigoity told Timlin, now retired, that he hoped to build a seminary and an entire town for traditionalist Catholics. Urrutigoity and his associates, who would call themselves the Society of St. John, had come calling because they had just been ousted from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X—which rejects the reforms of Vatican II. Leaders of the SSPX were not happy about Urrutigoity’s plan to organize a new, more spiritually rigorous group within SSPX. Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the SSPX, was also concerned about Urrutigoity’s “strange, abnormal” influence over seminarians and other priests, according to a letter he later sent Timlin.

Misconduct allegations would follow Urrutigoity from Argentina to the United States, and eventually to Paraguay, where as early as 2012 he would be promoted to vicar general by the bishop of Ciudad del Este, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano. Pope Francis removed Livieres last September.

In Bishop Timlin, long fond of the Latin Mass, Urrutigoity found a sympathetic ear. He told the bishop that his group wanted to return to the Roman Catholic fold. Timlin forwarded their request to the Vatican. After it was promptly approved, the SSJs were allowed to reside at St. Gregory’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a traditionalist group that exclusively celebrates the Latin Mass but remains in full communion with Rome. Urrutigoity would later testify that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter had invited his group to St. Gregory's. It would be a temporary arrangement, until the SSJs moved to property they would purchase in Shohola, Pennsylvania, in late 1999. But in the meantime, St. Gregory’s got new chaplains and religion teachers; the SSJs got a home base from which to plan their Catholic college, seminary, and village; and Bishop Timlin got another group of priests who were devoted to the Latin Mass. Timlin didn’t realize it at the time, but by allowing the SSJs to establish themselves in Scranton he had invited the greatest scandal his diocese had ever known.

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Vatican brokers U.S.-Cuba deal

This is a developing story, and both heads of state are about to speak live to give more details. But in the meantime, let's note the amazing fact that Pope Francis directly brokered a diplomatic deal between the United States and Cuba.

From Evan McMorris-Santoro:

WASHINGTON — Pope Francis was instrumental in facilitating the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, a senior White House official said Wednesday.

President Obama is expected to announce a deal with the Caribbean nation Wednesday afternoon that will pave the way for the first U.S. embassy on Cuban soil since the Kennedy administration and a relaxing of many of the American economic and travel restrictions on Cuba that have defined the relationship between the two nations for decades.

Francis played a big role in bringing the longtime rivals to the negotiating table, the official said. Francis sent what was characterized as an extraordinary personal letter to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro over the summer, urging both parties to end their frosty relationship. Following the letter, and the negotiations, Obama and Castro had a phone conversation that helped lead to Wednesday’s announcement.

The letter “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” the administration official said. The Vatican was the only government that participated in the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. Vatican officials were “in those meetings,” the official said.

It remains to be seen what the parameters of the deal are.  But what we know now is that the only other government involved was the Vatican, and that the Pope's personal letters catalyzed the process.

It resulted in the release of an American prisoner, Alan Gross, something intimated months ago by Tim Padgett, a journalist specializing in Latin America. But the release on the first day of Hanukkah is almost too good to be true.

With such promising developments in diplomacy, it no longer seems implausible that the Vatican will play a key role in facilitating the closing of Guantanamo. Secretary of State Kerry addressed just this issue in talks with the Vatican earlier this week.

We wait in joyful hope.

 

The Vatican's Thank-You Note to U.S. Sisters

To read the "Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America," which was released this morning by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (or CICLSAL), you would think the aim of the whole project was to produce the world's wordiest (and most expensive) thank-you note.

CICLSAL is "sincerely grateful for the presence of women religious in the United States," and for the work that they have done "courageously" and "selflessly" for so many generations. That's on page 1 (click here and scroll down for links to the PDF of the report, and of the remarks at this morning's press conference). "The Dicastery expresses its gratitude to women religious" -- page 5. On p. 7, "this Congregation expresses its gratitude to the sisters who minister within their own communities for the precious service rendered to their institute and to the Church." And "once again," on p. 8, CICLSAL "wishes to express the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the church and society."

Way back in 2008, when the visitation was first announced, it did not seem likely to end in a lengthy note of grateful recognition. That was partly because the news came alongside that of the CDF's doctrinal investigation of the LCWR, and partly because of the visitation's opaque origins and stated aims: "to look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States," in light of then-CICLSAL head Cardinal Franc Rodé's concerns about "a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain 'feminist' spirit."

It didn't take a cynical mind to feel pessimistic about a project aimed at exposing feminism among women's religious congregations. The whole point of that "Thank You, Sisters" campaign you may recall -- an outpouring of affection and support, in various media, from Catholic laypeople and priests -- was to counteract what looked like an uncalled-for attack on the lives of faithful U.S. sisters.

But that was years ago. CICLSAL has new leadership. We have a new pope, one who has troubled himself to say unambiguously positive things about women's contributions to the church (and the inadequacy of current provisions for same). The Year of Consecrated Life, the Vatican's tribute to vowed religious, has just begun. And the visitation itself -- which took three years and God knows how much money to complete -- was generally left to sisters themselves to conduct. The result, as Jim Martin has pointed out at America, is "a positive, sometimes adulatory" document that says nothing at all about feminism or any other supposed heresies, and communicates the challenges facing women's apostolic congregations in terms that the sisters themselves would recognize and affirm. That's a relief. It will go a long way toward repairing the strained relationship between the church's male hierarchy and its women religious -- though the ongoing LCWR investigation is obviously still a problem. As Sister X put it in Commonweal in 2009, "Any pastoral invitation to dialogue in the current visitation has largely been compromised by Cardinal Levada’s simultaneous investigation of the LCWR’s doctrinal orthodoxy."

But if the report is a relief and an affirmation, it also represents a huge waste of time, and of money.

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Pope Francis and the Spanish Episcopate: One Knot at a Time

When Benedict was first elected pope, there was a lot of interest around the question of whether he might be able to turn the tide of rising secularization in Europe. Countries that were once bastions of Catholicism had long been experiencing low Mass attendance and growing indifference to church teaching. Bishops faced a steady stream of rejection on public policy issues as well as empty pews in church and low enrollment in seminaries. Benedict cared deeply about Europe, and tried to win back the indifferent with his thoughtful writings and appeals to tradition. Eight years later however, by the time of his resignation, it was clear that Benedict had not reversed these trends.

When Francis was elected pope, the spotlight shifted to Latin America and the developing world. No one particularly expected him to have a significant impact on Europe. Yet Francis is changing the situation in Europe, step by step — not in a dramatic way, but by implementing a pastoral strategy to address some knotty problems, one knot at a time.

A good illustration of this can be seen in recent episcopal appointments in Spain. In September it was announced that Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra of Valencia (photo right) would replace Cardinal Antonio Ruoco Varela as Archbishop of Madrid (photo left). Osoro, in turn, would be replaced by Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, who was then serving as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. U.S. press coverage of these changes was sparse, mostly noting the appointment of a “Francis moderate” in Madrid. These are deft choices, however, and – combined with new elected leadership in the bishops’ conference – they have opened up new possibilities.

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About that celestial menagerie ...

Leave it to David Gibson to ferret out the facts on Pope Francis’s alleged comments about pets going to heaven. He maps out the origins, paths, and mutations along the way of the story many might have wanted to believe in spite of their doubts, and not just the doubt sparked by its appearance on the front page of the New York Times last week (and repeated in brief by Serge Schmemann in the paper’s Sunday Review section). In short: an increasingly common combination of misinterpretation, credulous recounting, embroidery, and misleading headlines—wed with generally held beliefs about Francis’s uncommon appeal—lent the story plausibility, not to mention legs. Why wouldn’t this pope, in particular, make it okay for our pets to meet us in paradise?

As Gibson points out, Francis did not say all dogs go to heaven, and that further he has previously expressed concern over the attention and money society lavishes on pets at the expense of people in need of more of both. Even those who don’t hold with the concept of dominion might wonder more these days where humane treatment and sensible protection slips over into something more than accepted notions of stewardship would warrant. (And what does it say that cat content accounts for fifteen percent of all internet traffic?) Plus there’s the question of where to draw that other line, of just which animals might or might not have consciousness. “Where do mosquitoes go, for God’s sake?” was the widely reported reaction of religion professor Laura Hobgood-Oster. 

New Jersey, I’d answer, the very thing that might make the most densely populated state in the nation hellish for us making it paradise for mosquitoes, of which I recall multitudes. I also recall the neighbor’s German Shepherd, which bit my brother on the day of his first Communion and sent him to the hospital for a dozen stitches to his chest; mightn’t it deserve just a little bit of otherworldly torment? But the majority of the pets I grew up with, even if I could remember them all, I’d be fine not having to encounter again in any realm (the belligerent pair of gerbils that fought each other to the death one night while I slept, for example). All except maybe the beloved family mutt, with the unlikely name of Mulligan, who if he didn’t have a soul definitely had soul. Living in the rural part of the state, we lost a number of pets to “misadventure”—hunters, cars, wild animals—but Mulligan made it to old age, leaving, as well, a number of local descendants. His eventual decline was accompanied by distemper and overwhelming fear of thunder; it was hard then not to treat him like a loved one, and there was no reason not to. I’ll admit it now: Among a handful of occasionally recurring dreams I have is one where he’s hanging around and talking, sometimes sagely from a barstool. In terms of getting to see him again, it seems just about right, and so just about enough.

Through dry bones.

CHICAGO -- The sea of black rose last night as the procession music began: a spiritual, complete with drums and tamborine and energetic choir, a Spanish hymn, followed by another spiritual. The mostly clerical congregation turned toward the rear of the church as the third selection came to a close. "Plenty good room," the chorus sang, "just choose your seat and sit down." The assembled stood in silence, waiting for the new archbishop to seek admittance to Holy Name Cathedral. He knocked three times. The sound echoed through the church, the bronze doors were opened by Msgr. Dan Mayall, pastor of the parish, and Blase Cupich entered what was about to become his cathedral. He was met with uproarious applause.

"All Are Welcome," accompanied the procession, as ecumenical and interrelegious guests moved up the aisle, impressing the assembly with their traditional dress--the colors popping bright against the surrounding black suits. Cupich ascended the sanctuary steps, and turn to face the church. His face took on a look not too dissimilar from the expression on Pope Francis's face when he first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's. But if the congregation sensed trepidation in his countenance, it was dispelled as soon as he saw Cardinal Francis George approach. Cupich smiled broadly, extended his arms toward the cardinal, and applauded emphatically. The whole church joined him.

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Archbishop Cupich to Chicago Catholics: I am your servant-leader.

CHICAGO -- In his first homily as archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich finally answered the question he's been asked over and over since it was announced that he would succeed Cardinal Francis George: What is your agenda? "If I have learned anything over these past four decades as a pastor, I know it is a disaster for me to have my own agenda." That's not because he doesn't have his own hopes and dreams, Cupich explained. Rather, it's that his agenda is "always too small." His agenda, he continued, is "prone to be self-serving, and ultimately unworthy of the people I am called to serve." Rather, "the agenda has to be God’s, which is beyond our imagining and our abilities."

Preaching on Ezekiel (37: 1-14), Cupich highlighted the prophet's concern "to inspire new life in the people living in exile, by offering a vision of the new city to be built by God.... They are like dry bones strewn carelessly to rot in an abandoned field under the scorching sun of oppression."

The archbishop named the dryness we find in our own lives today:

It is the dryness elderly and sick persons can experience when their strength gives way and their bones become unsteady, to the point that they begin to question their worth, their sense of purpose and even the faith that has heretofore directed their lives. We see that dryness caked in on the faces of the homeless street people, in the fatigue of the underemployed worker cobbling together three or four low paying jobs to make ends meet, but also in the hectic pace of the successful business owner whose long hours in the office leave little time for family meals and sharing, for rest and recreation.

Those in public service, Cupich admitted, experience their own dryness "in the tedium of attending to administrative details, which most often go unnoticed or unappreciated, in the frustration we feel as we are called upon to face enormous challenges with limited energies and shrinking resources, and whenever opportunities for real improvement are squandered by petty squabbles and divisive discourse."

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Cardinal George to Chicago Catholics: 'You are my legacy.'

CHICAGO -- The congregation gathered early at Holy Name Cathedral this morning. A half-hour before Cardinal Francis George would begin his final Mass as archbishop before Blase Cupich succeeds him this week, the narthex was nearly full. The people waited for 9:30 Mass-goers to vacate. Msgr. Dan Mayall, pastor of the cathedral (an associate pastor of my childhood parish twenty-odd years ago), greeted arriving parishioners as they came in from the snow, and departing ones as they returned to it.

A bank of cameras on the north side of the transept turned in toward the pews to watch them fill with a very Chicago crowd: Catholics of every ethnicity, some dressed up, others down, some draped in furs and others in NFL jerseys (the Bears were playing at home), suits and jeans, some with toddlers in tow, others carrying babies, or pushing grandparents, some single, others not, some fingered rosary beads, others scanned the expansive wooden ceiling with their smartphones for the perfect Instagram shot. Cameramen moved toward the center aisle, just before the break in the pews. One leaned down to let a couple know that he wouldn't be obstructing their view for the whole liturgy. "Why are all these video cameras here?" the husband asked. The cameraman explained: the cardinal's last Mass. From within his coat pocket the husband produced a camera of his own.

An usher approached as the procession was about to start. "No one in the aisle," he warned the journalists. Besides, "the cardinal doesn't always do the procession." This time he did.

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False Mercies

Pope Francis today spoke to the Association of Italian Catholic Doctors. In his short, but powerful address he said:

The dominant thinking sometimes suggests a "false compassion", that which believes that it is: helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to obtain euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to "produce" a child and to consider it to be a right rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs presumably to save others.

He went on to speak of "the Gospel of Life" in that personal tone so distinctive to him:

Fidelity to the Gospel of life and respect for life as a gift from God sometimes require choices that are courageous and go against the current, which in particular circumstances, may become points of conscientious objection. And this fidelity entails many social consequences. We are living in a time of experimentation with life. But a bad experiment. Making children rather than accepting them as a gift, as I said. Playing with life. Be careful, because this is a sin against the Creator: against God the Creator, who created things this way. When so many times in my life as a priest I have heard objections: “But tell me, why the Church is opposed to abortion, for example? Is it a religious problem?” No, no. It is not a religious problem. “Is it a philosophical problem?” No, it is not a philosophical problem. It’s a scientific problem, because there is a human life there, and it is not lawful to take out a human life to solve a problem. “But no, modern thought…” But, listen, in ancient thought and modern thought, the word “kill” means the same thing. The same evaluation applies to euthanasia: we all know that with so many old people, in this culture of waste, there is this hidden euthanasia. But there is also the other. And this is to say to God, “No, I will accomplish the end of life, as I will.” A sin against God the Creator! Think hard about this.

The full text is here.

Cardinal O'Malley: Vatican must 'address urgently' the Bishop Finn problem.

Are Robert Finn's days as bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph numbered? Judging from comments Cardinal Sean O'Malley made to 60 Minutes, it sure sounds like it. Yesterday CBS News released a preview of Norah O'Donnell's interview with O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, in which he acknowledged that the Holy See must do something about Finn, who was found guilty of a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child endangerment over two years ago, and was never publicly disciplined by Benedict XVI.* “It’s a question that the Holy See needs to address urgently,” O’Malley told O'Donnell. Does the pope understand that? she asked. “There’s a recognition...from Pope Francis,” O'Malley replied. The cardinal also acknowledged that, owing to Finn's conviction, the bishop would not even be allowed to teach Sunday school.

In September, the National Catholic Reporter broke the news that the Vatican had sent Archbishop Terrance Prendergast of Ontario to Kansas City to investigate Finn, after the bishop's former chancellor (who is now posted in Chicago) asked the Congregation for Bishops to intervene (I covered some of this here). That seemed to confirm speculation that Finn was one of the three bishops Pope Francis revealed was under investigation back in May. At that time, the pope said that one of the three had "already been found guilty, and we are now considering the penalty to be imposed." As head of the Vatican's new sexual-abuse commission, and as one of the pope's closest advisers, Cardinal O'Malley is part of that "we."

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