FaithWorld

Vatican editor defends himself against U.S. conservatives

oss-romWhen Gian Maria Vian took over as editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in late 2007, most observers yawned. No-one really expected much change at the staid newspaper. But within a few months, the paper started to rock and roll — at least as much as a paper like that can.

Slowly but surely, change has come to the 148-year-old mouthpiece of the Vatican, considered by many in the past a bland broadsheet at best and once called the “Catholic Pravda”, a reference to the communist party organ in the former Soviet Union.

It started publishing color pictures and more articles by and about women — not bad for an institution that is still a male bastion. It also began including more international cover, war cover and economic cover.
Some of its unorthodox commentaries have also been lighthearted and provocative. To wit: it ran an editorial saying that perhaps the washing machine had done more to liberate women than the pill or the right to work. It post-humusly forgave John Lennon for once boasting that the Beatles were more famous than Christ. And, it finally set the record straight that no, the pope does not wear Prada.

Vian has become a player in his own right, giving interviews on a range of topics from Pius XII (Vian has just written a book defending him) to President Barack Obama. He came under fire from Catholic conservatives in the United States after he stated that Obama was not a “pro-abortion” president. He has now given a very interesting interview to Rome-based religion expert Delia Gallagher in the National Review. The interview, which is very readable and insightful, is worth reading in its entirety.

Gallagher, a Californian with a masters in philosophy and theology from Oxford University, has returned to Rome, where she started her professional career as managing editor of the magazine Inside the Vatican in 1998. She was a Rome-based Vatican analyst for CNN from 2002-2005 and was CNN’s Faith and Values Correspondent from 2005-2009, based in New York.

New on-line forum seeks “common ground” on abortion

A new on-line forum launched on Tuesday seeks to spark discussion among faith and secular leaders and activists about ways to find some elusive common ground on the divisive issue of abortion.

USA/

It’s being rolled out by RH Reality Check, which focuses on reproductive health and rights issues, and can be seen here.

The initial posts include contributions from David Gushee of Mercer University, a leading intellectual figure in the emerging “evangelical center movement,” Katie Paris of Faith in Public Life, and Steven Waldman of Beliefnet.

Most influential U.S. rabbis listed

The third annual list of “America’s Most Influential Rabbis” is out, with the top spot going to David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism and co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve Religious liberty.

 AhavathBethIsrael005.jpg

Saperstein, described in the announcement as a ”Washington insider and political powerbroker,” took the No. 1 ranking away from Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who held that position on last year’s list.

The rankings were made by Jay Sanderson, chief executive officer of JTN Productions (the Jewish Television Network), Michael Lynton, chairman and head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of News Corp.

Pope to bishops: check your mail

pope-pic-1Those of us who thought the pope had said the final word on the Williamson saga will have to think again. It seems to be never-ending.

On Thursday the Vatican officially releases a letter to the world’s bishops in which the pope essentially acknowledges that the Vatican handled the lifting of the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist bishops very badly and that it hurt him personally that things went awry. (Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly audience, 11 March 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

The story started leaking out on Tuesday night in the blog of Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale and a story with partial excerpts was published in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio on Wednesday.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung printed what it said was the full text in German of the pope’s letter. Our story is based on a face-to-face conversation I had with an Italian archbishop who received the letter. We discussed it over a light meal near St Peter’s Square.

A religion board game – satire or scandal?

How much fun — really — can you make of religion?  A U.S. marketer of board games may find out with ”Playing Gods” which it calls “the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare.” It had its European premier this week at the London Toy Fair and will make a U.S. debut at the New York Toy Fair in February.

Ben Radford, head of the company that put the game together, said in a news release it is designed for two to five players who act as “gods” and …

“Try try to take over the world and make everyone on Earth worship him or her. As a god, you can try to convert other gods’ followers, promising them things like Afterlife, Prosperity, and Miracles. Or you can kill them off with plagues, locusts, earthquakes, floods, and other Acts of Gods.

The pope and the Holocaust: Regensburg redux?

The uproar over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust highlights an open secret here in Rome: Vatican departments don’t talk to each much, or at least as much as they should. The pope appears to have decided to lift the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops of the SSPX (including Williamson) without the wide consultation that it may have merited. The Christian Unity department, which also oversees relations with Jews, was apparently kept out of the loop. The head of the office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told The New York Times it was the pope’s decision. Kasper’s office and the Vatican press office, headed by Father Federico Lombardi, were clearly not prepared for the media onslaught that followed the discovery of Williamson’s views denying the Holocaust. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Pope Benedict’s lifting of the ban and Williamson’s comments about the Holocaust are unrelated as far as Church law is concerned. The excommunications lifted last Saturday were imposed because the four were ordained without Vatican permission. As Father Thomas Resse, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told me: “The Holocaust is a matter of history, not faith. Being a Holocaust denier is stupid but not against the faith. Being anti-Semitic, however, is a sin.” This is an important distinction, but not one the Vatican seems to be able to get across.

It was all very reminiscent of the pope’s Regensburg speech in 2006. Few in the Vatican knew it was coming. The Vatican was overwhelmed by the Muslim reaction and the media interest. This time, it is also not clear how many people in the Vatican even knew about Williamson’s history. Surely, those negotiating with the traditionalists for the lifting of the excommunications should  have known. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they not tell Kasper’s department? The Holocaust is such a sensitive issue for Jews that this response could have been seen from miles away.

Where is the line between criticism and blasphemy?

Where is the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable criticism of religion? How should the media cover issues that offend certain believers? These issues came up at last week’s Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome and in the public editor’s column in the Sunday New York Times. In both cases, useful distinctions were made. But I’m not sure how much agreement they will produce the next time someone finds a depiction of a religion, its beliefs or its symbols outrageous. (Photo:Filipino Muslims protest outside Danish embassy in Manila, 15 Feb 2006)

The Catholic-Muslim Forum, an unprecedented meeting between Vatican and Muslim leaders and scholars, approached the issue as one of the rights of a minority religion, since cases they are concerned about — such as the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad — involved criticism of a minority faith by the local majority. They agreed that “religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices … and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.”

When I asked Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Catholic delegation, whether this meant the Vatican would support moves to limit criticism of religion that some western critics see as censorship, he said: “One must distinguish between a critical spirit, a spirit of criticism, and mockery. Freedom of speech means that we have the right to express opinions about religion, philosophy, philosophers and theologians and founders of religion. That is one thing. But deriding them and mocking them is something else… That impacts the values on which millions of people base their lives. That’s why we talk about mockery. I introduced that term… Mockery is very strong.”

Catholic-Muslim Forum ends on upbeat note

The Catholic-Muslim Forum ended on Thursday evening on an upbeat note. After two days of closed-door talks and an audience with Pope Benedict, the delegations held their only public session of the conference (right) to present a joint communique and answer some questions.The final declaration (full text here) had a series of interesting points that show progress in the dialogue among the experts involved. They will need some unpacking in the real world before we know how much real progress has been made. Here are some of the points with some quick observations in italics:

    2. Human life is a most precious gift of God to each person. It should therefore be preserved and honoured in all its stages. (interesting common pro-life slant here. Any joint initiatives coming up here?) 3. Human dignity is derived from the fact that every human person is created by a loving God out of love … he or she is entitled to full recognition of his or her identity and freedom by individuals, communities and governments, supported by civil legislation that assures equal rights and full citizenship. (this means support for minorities, whether they’re Christians in Muslim countries or Muslim minorities in the West, on the basis of both faiths and not just secular notions that can be contested as foreign to a certain culture) 4. We affirm that God’s creation of humanity has two great aspects: the male and the female human person, and we commit ourselves jointly to ensuring that human dignity and respect are extended on an equal basis to both men and women. (that’s pretty clear) 5. Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public. (no mention here of conversion in Muslim countries) 6. Religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices. They are also entitled to their own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule. (this refers in the same sentence to the Catholic concern for churches in Muslim countries and the Muslim concern about caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. Any linkage there? ) 8. We affirm that no religion and its followers should be excluded from society. Each should be able to make its indispensable contribution to the good of society, especially in service to the most needy. (this one also cuts both ways, like item 3) 10. We are convinced that Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions. (that education aspect will be important) 11. We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all. (Western critics often say Muslims don’t denounce terrorism enough, even though many do that they don’t notice. Could this boost that visibility?) 14. We have agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations and of organizing a second seminar in a Muslim-majority country yet to be determined. (this is the crisis management option I mentioned a few days ago)

The final session was actually quite strained, with testy questions and answers, which led some journalists to ask whether the positive signals we’d been getting did not really reflect the mood in the private talks. Several participants, including senior Muslim delegate Seyyed Hossein Nasr who was in the middle of it all, denied that was the case. As all present could see, the strains emerged when Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, the desk officer for Islam in the Vatican’s interfaith department who was moderating the session, tried to stop Nasr from answering questions put to him. Another curious decision was to let a relatively low-ranking delegate, a lay professor from Paris named Joseph Maila, answer questions for the Catholic delegation rather than delegation head Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran or another senior Vatican official.More on this later…

Look who’s celebrating Reformation Day today

Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany and set off the Protestant Reformation. It is a public holiday in the five eastern German states, in Slovenia and — this year for the first time — in Chile.

Chile? Isn’t that traditionally a Catholic country? Even the Catholic parts of Germany don’t celebrate Reformation Day.

Yes, Chile is traditionally Catholic, but now only about 70% so. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Protestant churches — especially evangelicals and Pentecostals — have spread rapidly in recent decades. They now make up just over 15% of the Chilean population, up from 7% in 1970. It’s not a new story, but creating a holiday especially for Protestants is a symbolic step towards recognising the changes in the religious landscape in Latin America.

Pace picks up in international interfaith meetings

November will see an upswing on the interfaith dialogue front with two high-level meetings highlighting different approaches to the challenge of fostering better understanding among the world’s major religions.

The first will be the meeting of the Common Word group of Muslim scholars with Pope Benedict and top Roman Catholic experts on Islam next week (Nov. 4-6) at the Vatican. This will be the third conference initiated by the group, following sessions at Yale University in July and the University of Cambridge this month where Muslim and Christian religious leaders and theologians discussed in detail what unites and separates them. Being the supertanker of the Christian world, the Vatican has turned more slowly towards this theological dialogue than the smaller Protestant churches. But it has agreed to institutionalise the dialogue in a Catholic-Muslim Forum and give it a gesture of approval with a papal audience. Let’s see what comes out at the end of the talks next Thursday.

Here is my curtainraiser on the meeting.

The week afterwards, on Nov. 12-13, Saudi King Abdullah will be at the United Nations in New York to promote the interfaith dialogue that he launched in Madrid last July. This effort is much wider — the Madrid meeting had not only Christians and Muslims but also Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other faiths. It seems like more of an official diplomatic offensive, especially with that U.N. connection. Reflecting that, the White House has announced that President George Bush will join Abdullah at the talks. There are reports that Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni might attend. One might be tempted to write the whole thing off as another talking shop, but an international body like the United Nations may be the right forum now for Abdullah to continue one pioneering aspect of this effort — his outreach to Jews. Several rabbis attended the Madrid meeting and Abdullah has said he wants to hold an interfaith conference in Saudi Arabia. That would have to include Jews if this whole project is to be taken seriously. Watch that space.