FaithWorld

Guestview: Why has Pope Benedict chosen a European strategy?

Pope Benedict will boost the European majority among the men due to elect his successor when he creates 24 new cardinals at the Vatican on Saturday. The nominations are part of a wider strategy by the German-born pope to strengthen Roman Catholicism in Europe. The following is a guest contribution and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Jean-Marie Guénois is deputy editor-in-chief of the Paris daily Le Figaro and a specialist on religion. The article first appeared in French on his Religioblog.*

pope 1By Jean-Marie Guénois

We always knew that Benedict XVI is a European pope, but lately he’s been proving this more and more clearly. In this phase of his five-year papacy, the the old continent is clearly his priority. For the past two years, the European destinations have taken  precedence over all his travel (France, Czech Republic, Malta, Cyprus, Portugal, United Kingdom). Twelve of his 18 international trips have also been devoted to Europe. As for the visits due next year, they will all be in Europe: Croatia, Spain and Germany (his third visit there as pope). (Photo: Pope Benedict with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as King Juan Carlos looks on in Barcelona November 7, 2010/Albert Gea)

The choice of these medium-haul flights could be explained, of course, by his age. At 83-1/2, Benedict takes it slow and easy. Must we recall the health of John Paul II at the same age, six months before his death in 2005? But the real explanation for these short-distance, time-saving trips is surely elsewhere. How can we best explain this? It can be done explicitly, through the speeches the pope delivered in those countries. But also implicitly, through the diagnosis bishops bring to Rome on the state of the European churches.

The diagnosis has led to a strategy that can be seen more and more clearly. After his visit to Spain, this seems confirmed by the clear priority given to the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Spain, Italy and Poland are emerging emerge as the three pillars which underpin this implicit strategy by the Holy See.

pope 2This strategy does not aim to reconquer old ground, because the past will not return. It’s not exclusive either, because the world is wide and complex. The aim is to survive and face up to the decline of European Christianity now seen in Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands. The former bastions of Catholicism there may still be very much alive but they are in the minority.

Libya’s Gaddafi upsets Italy with bid to convert women to Islam

gaddafi 1Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s attempt to convert dozens of young women to Islam during a visit to Italy led to an angry reaction from Italian media on Monday. The mercurial Gaddafi invited a large group of young women hired by a hostessing agency to an event at a Libyan cultural centre in Rome on Sunday and tried to convert them to Islam.

“What would happen if a European head of state went to Libya or another Islamic country and invited everyone to convert to Christianity?” asked the daily Il Messagero. “We believe it would provoke very strong reactions across the Islamic world.” (Photo: Italian woman with Koran at Gaddafi meeting, 30 August 2010/Max Rossi)

gaddafi 2Press reports said three women had converted, but there was no way to verify if that was true. The event, due to be repeated on Monday, followed a similar reception involving some 200 women on a previous visit by Gaddafi to Rome last year.

Italy and 10 allies fight Euro rights court’s school crucifix ban

crucifix (Photo: Demonstrator outside European Court of Human Rights with leaflet saying in Italian and French: “Let’s defend the crucifix,” 30 June 2010/Vincent Kessler)

Italy and 10 other European states urged the continent’s top human rights court on Wednesday to overturn its ban on crucifixes in schools, arguing they were signs of national identity and not overtly religious symbols. The alliance of traditionally Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian countries backing Italy’s appeal against the ban which was handed down last November reflected their concern that the court had set a precedent for strict secularism across Europe.

A group of 33 European Parliament members also supported Rome’s appeal against the ban (full text here), which shocked the country and the Vatican at a time when Italy and other European states are debating immigration and religious rights for Muslims.

Most of Italy’s allies are smaller nations — Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, San Marino and Romania — but they also include Russia.  Moscow’s participation reflects the growing activism of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has joined the Roman Catholic Church in denouncing the widespread secularization of a continent once synonymous with the term “Christendom.”

Italian sexual abuse victims want Pope Benedict to speak out

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Abuse victim Gianni Bisoli in Verona April 8, 2010/Paolo Bona

Abuse victim Dario Laiti is deaf and has great difficulty speaking. But he has a clear message for Pope Benedict: expose predator priests, past and present, living and dead, for the good of the Church.

“I think the pope has to carry out justice. He has to get rid of all the priests who abused children. He has to tell the world who these people were and which of them are still living,” Laiti told Reuters in the northern Italian city of Verona.

So far, the pope has not spoken out directly on the new wave of sexual abuse allegations that is hounding the Church in a number of countries, including the United States, Italy and his native Germany.

Catholic bishops see campaign against Church over child sex abuse

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Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco and Pope Benedict in Paul VI hall at the Vatican 25 April/Osservatore Romano

The Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out for criticism of sexual abuse of children by priests and will not tolerate campaigns to discredit it, the powerful head of Italy’s bishops said on Monday. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco spoke to Italian bishops as the Vatican tried to stem a scandal gripping the Church that has swept across Europe.

Speaking two days after Pope Benedict apologised to victims of sexual abuse in Ireland, Bagnasco said the Church was “not afraid of the truth, however painful and detestable” but would not accept any “generalised campaigns to discredit it.”

Catholic daily buries the news in sexual abuse headline

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Headlines are supposed to highlight the news, but sometimes the news is uncomfortable. Like the sexual abuse cases for the Roman Catholic Church. Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops’ conference, played down the big news in its front-page headline on Saturday about an  interview with the head of the Vatican office dealing with charges of sexual abuse against priests.

In the middle of the front page (at left), it ran the headline “Il ‘pm’ vaticano: in tutto il mondo trecento i preti accusati di pedofilia.” — Vatican public prosecutor: 300 priests accused of pedophilia in the whole world.”  That actually doesn’t sound like that many, given all the cases we’ve heard about all these years.

It’s only in the interview on page 5 that the real picture emerges. There the reader finds a much larger figure of  3,000 accusations of sexual misdeeds of all kinds made against priests since 2001, concerning cases dating back up to 50 years ago. That sounds more like it, although it still must be lower than the real number of cases because so many don’t get reported.

Italy moves towards emulating France on burqa ban

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Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna in the Senate in Rome, 15 May 2008/Max Rossi

Italy may soon seek a ban on full-face Muslim veils, drawing on debate in France where President Nicolas Sarkozy has described the burqa as unwelcome and legislators are considering a vote to outlaw or restrict it. Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna has said the Italian government will quickly follow in France’s footsteps, breathing new life into four draft bills on burqas already circulating in parliamentary committees.

“I completely agree with the French initiative, which I think will push other European countries and hence, also Italy, to enact laws on this issue,” Carfagna said this week.  “This is about a sacrosanct battle to defend the dignity and rights of immigrant women. A law is being studied that would ban the use of a burqa and niqab, which are not religious symbols — that’s not us saying it, but the top religious authorities of the Islamic world, like the imams of Cairo and Paris.”

Visiting synagogues is not getting easier for Pope Benedict

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Pope Benedict at Rome's main synagogue, 17 Jan 2010/Osservatore Romano

Visiting synagogues is not getting any easier for Pope Benedict.

Today’s meeting with Rome’s Jewish community was the third time he has entered a synagogue, which is a kind of a papal record considering that his predecessor Pope John Paul — probably the first pope to do so since Saint Peter two millennia ago — made only one such visit himself.

His first synagogue visit, in Cologne only months after his 2005 election, was heavy with the symbolism of a German pope visiting Jews in Germany.  At one point, the rabbi referred to an elderly woman in the congregation who had a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm. He did this, though, to say that she could not have never imagined back there in Auschwitz that her son — a leader of the Cologne Jewish community present at the ceremony — would one day welcome the pope to a synagogue in Germany. It was tense, but it seemed to be a good start. pope schneier

Pope Benedict receives gift from Rabbi Arthur Schneier in New York, 18 April 2008/Max Rossi

Pope’s synagogue visit splits Italy’s Jews over stand on Pius XII

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Rome synagogue, 7 July 2008/Jensens

Deep splits have appeared in Italy’s Jewish community just before Pope Benedict makes his first visit to Rome’s synagogue, with at least one senior rabbi and one Holocaust survivor announcing a boycott.  The row revolves around the pontiff’s decision last month to raise nearer to sainthood wartime Pope Pius XII, who many Jews say did not do enough to help Jews facing persecution by Nazi Germany, a position the Vatican rejects.

Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni has decided to go ahead with the visit and told Reuters he believed only God could judge Pius XII.

Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, president of Italy’s rabbinical assembly, announced he will not attend the visit on Sunday to protest at what he said were a series of Vatican moves seen as disrespectful to Jews, including the pope’s decision to start the rehabilitation process last year of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who denied the extent of the Holocaust.

Rome’s chief rabbi says only God can judge Pius XII on Holocaust

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Pope Pius XII in an undated file photo from the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano

Only God can judge whether war-time Pope Pius XII did enough to save Jews and whether he should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust, according to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, who will host Pope Benedict for his first visit to the Italian capital’s synagogue on Sunday.

Speaking to Reuters at his synagogue along the Tiber River, Di Segni criticised a comment by Cardinal Walter Kasper that Pius “followed the will of God as he understood it” and had saved thousands of Jews in Rome and elsewhere. Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of not doing enough to help Jews facing persecution.