Bush soon a Catholic? Fantasy, speculation, wishful praying?

U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair often saw eye to eye politically. Are they about to see eye to eye religiously?

Pope Benedict XVI chats with U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush in the Oval Office at the White House in WashingtonBlair, a life-long Anglican, converted to Catholicism in December after he left office in June. The Italian weekly magazine Panorama is reporting in its latest edition that Bush, a Methodist, may follow his political soul-mate and also convert to Catholicism after he leaves office next year.

To be honest, the odds of this happening appear as good as those of the proverbial snowball in hell. In fact, the Panorama article starts with two sentences saying this “might” happen and the rest of the article is background.

Panorama tries to build up its case by reminding the reader that Bush prayed together with Pope Benedict when the pontiff visited the White House on April 16, that Bush’s brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, and that a number of Bush’s advisers are Catholic.

Father ZThe only other Italian publication playing with this idea was Corriere della Sera, which ran a story on April 17 entitled “Bush, a crypto-Catholic president.” Its correspondent Massimo Gaggi pins his speculation on the Washington Post, which ran a story on April 13 by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service. Citing the high number of Catholics in his administration, Burke wrote that “George W. Bush could well be the nation’s first Catholic president.” At the very end of his piece, he has two quotes to the effect that Bush is a “closet Catholic” and the parallel to Blair, but no outright speculation about conversion. Maybe that’s how all this started and found its way into Panorama.

The “pope of the Internet age” on the papal flight

Pope Benedict during his Q&A on his flight to Washington, 15 April 2008/Max RossiJust heard an interesting idea from Delia Gallagher, a Vatican analyst for CNN, who said that Pope John Paul was the pope of the television age but Pope Benedict is the pope of the Internet age. John Paul was good for the dramatic gesture and sound bite, which was just right for television, while Benedict speaks in lectures you should really read from start to finish. Thanks to the Internet, you can do this and more — something that was just not possible when John Paul was globe-trotting around.


As an example, just take Benedict’s comments on the flight over the Atlantic. We covered them in a text report. But we also also have some video of him on the plane, declaring (with his strong German accent) that he was “deeply ashamed” because of the scandal of U.S. priests sexually abusing minors. We’ve read about these in-flight Q&As with the Vatican press corps in the past, but how many have you ever seen? Here’s our clip:

It also used to be that only journalists on the flight had access to all of the pope’s comments. Now, The National Catholic Reporter has produced a rush transcript of his full in-flight Q&A. Here’s the link.

Deciphering the speeches Benedict delivers in U.S.

Pope Benedict prepares to read a speech, 9 April 2008/Max RossiWhen he speaks in public, Pope Benedict is more seminar than soundbite. He often speaks as if only philosophers and theologians are listening, but he can deliver quite simple and clear homilies. Having covered him since his election in 2005, I’m very curious to see how he comes across in such a soundbite culture as the United States. We’ve just issued what might be called a short guide to deciphering the different ways he communicates.

The challenge is double for journalists covering his trips. First, they have to grasp the complex arguments he makes. They’re not incomprehensible, but they are often demanding. Second, they have to boil the message down to its essential points, which can be difficult when some speeches — for example, the controversial Regensburg lecture — are still the subject of debate among analysts who disagree about it.

Another problem is that he can speak in ways his audience may not be ready to hear. If listeners tune in to his speech to Catholic educators in Washington expecting him to upbraid the assembled university presidents and professors, they may be surprised to hear him stress the positive. If readers parse every statement for hints about his views on the presidential race, they may be disappointed. As Peter Steinfels of the New York Times aptly put it :

Allam baptism makes more waves, prompts more questions

The Magdi Allam baptism and debate about Catholic-Muslim relations in its aftermath continue to make waves. Here are a few interesting points that have come up in recent days:

    Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliAt www.chiesa, a well-informed multi-lingual blog on the Roman Catholic Church, vaticanista Sandro Magister says the Vatican is more interested in an inter-faith dialogue proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah than the one it has just begun with the Common Word group of 138 (plus) Muslim scholars. Magister notes that L’Osservatore Romano published stories on “two instances of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, demonstrating how this dialogue is showing promising developments precisely during the days of the controversy over the baptism of Allam, administered by the pope.” He adds: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In the judgment of the Church of Rome, the dialogue with Islam is not limited to the follow-up to the letter of the 138 – one of whose leading exponents, Aref Ali Nayed, has directed extremely harsh criticism against the pope for having baptized Allam – but is developed in multiple areas, some of which it believes are more promising than others.”
    Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewOur Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond, looking at Abdullah’s call, wrote in an analysis,“the king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a well-intended reformer whose plans for change have largely been foiled by hardline clerics and their allies within the Saudi royal family.” One glaring example of this disconnect came recently in the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that has refused to support efforts by many Islamic countries to have the United Nations draw up a global pact on respecting religions and their symbols. This pact is one of the top diplomatic goals for many Muslim countries these days, including Saudi Arabia. One of the main supporters of this pact is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which is based in and heavily financed by … Saudi Arabia!
    That same www.chiesa post cited above included a long analysis by Pietro De Marco, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. In it, he rejects in detail the criticism Sandro Magisterexpressed by the leading Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed and offers an interpretation of the baptism as Pope Benedict offering to help Islam to “seize the opportunity to exit critically from itself, to open itself to the dimension of the universal and to come back to itself as a reflectively renewed Islam.” This sounds like the invitation to dialogue that Pope Benedict offered in the Regensburg speech better known for his controversial use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote criticising Islam.
    Magister’s point about Catholic-Muslim dialogue proceeding on several fronts is interesting, even if we’re not so sure Abdullah’s proposals will get anywhere. The fact the Vatican is still pursuing the Common Word option was made clear in the reply that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi gave to Nayed’s criticism. Check out the full text to see an excellent example of how to reject criticism yet keep all doors open to further dialogue.
    Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, the Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam, has a long analysis on of Allam’s conversion. In it, he notes that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions and adds: “The pope’s baptism of Magdi Allam is not an act of aggression, but an exigency of reciprocity. It is a calm provocation that serves to make us sit up and think. Each one of us must live as a missionary, attempting to offer to the other the best of what one has encountered and understood.”
    The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen interpreted Pope Benedict’s John Allenmessage as follows: (1) For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, receiving a high-profile convert during the Easter Vigil is a symbolic way of making the point, (2) Allam’s baptism can also be read as a statement of solidarity with Muslim converts to Christianity around the world and (3) the episode illustrates an important wrinkle to Benedict’s personality — stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness. Read more here.
    Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliThere have been comments on various Catholic blogs criticising the media coverage (by us and others) of the Allam baptism. The Catholic Church can baptise anyone it wants, they say, so stop making such a fuss about it. We haven’t had much of that in our comments sections but here’s an example of that argument from another blog. Anyone writing this is either wilfully playing naive or is actually naive. We never said Allam should not be baptised — we have no dispute with the Church’s right to do so. What we did was quote others, Catholics as well as Muslims, who questioned whether it had to be done with such publicity. Saying this event didn’t deserve the headlines it got shows a basic misunderstanding of both how the news media work and how the Vatican works.

Osama, Benedict and the Mohammad cartoons

Osama bin Laden in a video grab from undated footage obtained in 2007/Reuters TelevisionIn his latest video, Osama bin Laden charges that the reprinting of a Danish caricature of the Prophet Mohammad amounts to a new crusade against Islam led by Pope Benedict. Complaints about the reprinting of the cartoon, sparked by death threats against the artist who depicted Mohammad with a bomb in his turban, have been spreading in the Muslim world. This seems to be the first time, however, that the pope has been linked like this to the cartoons. We have the news story and a security analysis. This post is simply to point out this curious twist, given the fact that the Vatican’s top official for relations with Islam was recently in Egypt and issued a joint declaration with al-Azhar University denouncing media attacks on religion.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, visited the centre of Sunni learning in late February and signed a joint communique with Sheikh Abd al-Fattah Alaam, head of al-Azhar’s Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions. In it they said they

appeal to those responsible for the mass media, whether written or broadcast, in all countries, to be vigilant that freedom of expression not be taken as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred, but rather to oppose extremism, to encourage mutual acceptance, love and respect for all, regardless of their religion.

Pope breaks “silence” on Tibet with carefully worded appeal

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessings at the end of his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the VaticanAs readers of this blog will have noticed, I posted a note yesterday about calls by Italian intellectuals for Pope Benedict to break his supposed silence over Tibet. On Wednesday he did so at his weekly general audience, making a carefully worded appeal (here in Italian) for an end to the suffering of the people there.

Given the delicate nature of relations between the Vatican and China, the appeal seemed to strike a balance between his concern for the people and Vatican diplomacy. He mentioned the violence without mentioning China.

In fairness to the Pope, the accusations of “silence” made by some in Italy were perhaps, as was noted by his defenders in yesterday’s blog, a bit premature. Unless he is saying a Mass on a Church holy day or a similar occasion, the Pope only has set days in which he can make a public appeal that the Vatican believes is most effective — Sunday at the Angelus prayer from his window and Wednesday at the general audience.

Arab states’ guidelines for sat TV coverage of religion

Satellite dishes in Algiers, 3 April 2004/Jack DabaghianArab Media and Society has published an English translation of the Arab League’s Satellite Broadcasting Charter approved by Arab governments at a meeting in Cairo in February, along with contrasting opinions of the charter widely criticised by advocates of media freedom. In essence, the charter incorporates restrictions which most Arab governments already apply to their own terrestrial broadcasters and to satellite broadcasters which operate from their territory. But the governments have tended to give the satellite broadcasters a little more freedom than they allow terrestrial broadcasters, most of which are state-owned.

The operative clauses for religious broadcasting are clauses 9 and 10 of article 6:

9. To comply with the religious and ethical values of Arab society and maintain its family ties and social integrity.

Are we too addicted to soundbites to discuss religion seriously?

Pope Benedict XVIArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan WilliamsThe uproar over Archbishop Rowan Williams and sharia law brings up a question we’ve asked before with Pope Benedict — are we too addicted to soundbites to discuss complex religious issues in public? Both have tackled difficult issues in nuanced speeches, only to see — rightly or wrongly — that what they thought was their message did not come across.

The Guardian says Williams was naive to discuss such a complex argument in public: “This was the stuff of seminars and was never going to register in the mass market without being boiled down into soundbites. The archbishop did not do that, ensuring others would. As a result, this most humane of men finds himself being caricatured as supporting the severing of limbs.”

Do you think religious leaders should simplify their message when they speak in public? Or do we — the media, politicians, bloggers, readers — have to make more of an effort to understand them?

Minor earthquake at Vatican – pope’s daily goes colour

oss-rom-colour.jpgReaders of this blog will have noticed my interest in the changes creeping into L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of an institution that, as the saying goes, “thinks in centuries.” Under its new editor Giovanni Maria Vian, the Vatican broadsheet has been slowly making up for a delay of decades in terms of its presentation and content. It’s still far from your usual morning newspaper and never will be like it. But “the pope’s paper” did make a cautious switch to colour photos at the weekend, bringing it — in newspaper layout terms — into the late 20th century. By contrast, the articles are more fresh and timely and varied than ever before.

The switch to colour has prompted several other readers to write about the changes, reassuring me that my interest was not just nostalgia for the last time I saw an official organ starting to blossom out of blandness (Neues Deutschland after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989). Our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella calls it a “quiet revolution.” John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter talks about “the latest stage of revolution at pope’s newspaper.” The changes have also prompted a crop of articles in Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.

Anti-Koran film keeps the Dutch holding their breath

Geert Wilders speaks during an interview with Reuters Television, 3 March 2005/Jerry LampenThis is getting to look like a striptease…

The far-right politician Geert Wilders, whose planned anti-Koran film has the Netherlands holding its breath, has revealed that his long-awaited opus will be delayed by two months. There had been speculation he might show it in his party’s broadcasting slot on Dutch television on Friday evening. Viewers instead got shots of Wilders walking along a beach repeating his complaints about Muslims (shown a few minutes into this Dutch TV interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali). For more on his views, he’s here and here spelling them out in English.

The 10-minute movie is now due out in March, Wilders said in an interview in Saturday’s De Telegraaf. This comes after a rising chorus of concern about possible protests against the film and a call from Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende for restraint and reports that Dutch embassies were preparing to evacuate Dutch citizens abroad if things got out of hand.

LoudspeakerThe Rotterdam daily NRC Handelsblad smelt a rat. “Geert Wilders says he’s making a film. Nobody has seen it yet. But his plan has kept the media and politicians in its grip for two months now,” it commented. “In terms of political PR, Geert Wilders is putting on a great showWilders can dominate the news because journalists and politicians are sytematically allowing themselves to be taken hostage by him. Without a loudspeaker, there is no platform. Without political reactions, there is no series to watch.”