Parsing the politics in comments on Benedict’s visit

Pope Benedict leaves Rome for the United States, 15 April 2008/Dario PignatelliEven before Pope Benedict arrives in Washington, there is plenty of speculation about the effect of his visit on U.S. politics. A lot of this is just filling airtime and column space in the media because we don’t even know yet exactly what he will say. Anyway, for those who like to parse every statement for its political implications, below are a few issued on Tuesday before the pope arrived.

Do they seem balanced to you? Or too obviously aimed at recruiting the pope for one view or the other? Leave your comments below.

The White House

Asked whether Bush and the pope were likely to discuss the child sex abuse scandal, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters:

I won’t rule it out but I don’t think it’s necessarily on the president’s top priorities for his agenda for talking to the pope. They’ll talk about … their shared values of human rights and the importance of fighting extremism and also promoting religious tolerance.

Stage for papal Mass is prepared at Nationals Park in Washington, 14 April 2008/Jonathan ErnstThe pope has expressed, as we did, our concern about the Catholics and Christians who are being targeted in Iraq among other innocent people. So I think they’ll talk about that.

Anything behind the Benedict/ White House dinner story?

President Bush at a White House dinner for U.S. governors, 25 Feb 2008/Jonathan ErnstJust before leaving for Washington to cover Pope Benedict’s U.S. visit, I got an interesting comment from a FaithWorld reader on another post about the trip:

Pope Benedict will skip White House dinner (in his honor!) with Bush. This is the incredibly significant detail of Pope’s visit. Why Mr. Henegan (sic) is so shy on this significance? Finally, the highest clerical authorities started behave like adults and demonstrate true feeling to the monster in the White House. The Christian communities around the world condemn the anti-Christian American president, though the American evangelicals are still behind and still cannot see the anti-Christ monstrosities emanating from the current administration.

I thought this was quite imaginative and said so. Pope Benedict does not like big fancy dinners and usually spends quiet evenings on his trips dining and conversing with the local cardinal, archbishop or nuncio. There was never any question of him changing this routine. There’s not much use scrutinising his agenda to see if he has time after all to pop over to the White House.

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 :

Is blogging dangerous to your health?

TypingA while ago, we blogged on how religion reporting can be dangerous to your faith — two top-notch religion reporters lost theirs after covering too many church scandals. Now the New York Times tells us that two bloggers have lost their lives trying to keep up a 24/7 pace. Yikes! And I thought news agency journalism was stressful…

Actually, blogging at a news agency is different because our breaking news takes top priority. Some  big religion stories may not get blogged about on FaithWorld, mostly because they are already being covered as a news story and correspondents may not have any other interesting material (or any extra time) to blog about them.

There are already quite a few blogs in the U.S. on the upcoming visit by Pope Benedict (Washington and New York, April 15-20). We’ll be blogging about it too, when time and the news file permit.

Move over U.S. Religious Right, here’s the evangelical center

Gushee book/Christa CameronMove over Religious Right: you’re getting squeezed by the evangelical center.

That is one of the central points of a new book by David P. Gushee entitled “The Future of Faith in American Politics”.

To Gushee, the evangelical center combines much of the theology of the Religious Right with the social concerns of the left, give it a broad engagement in many of the pressing issues of our day.

New book charts fresh course for U.S. Religious Right

Tony PerkinsTony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, is well known as one of the leading activists of the Religious Right in the United States. Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr, founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, is one of the most influential voices of the black conservative movement.

The two have come together to chart a future course for conservative Christian political activism in a just published book entitled “Personal Faith, Public Policy”. The issues they discuss include the value of life, poverty and justice and rebuilding the traditional family unit.

They argue that conservative Christians need to speak out more on issues like poverty and racial reconciliation while maintaining their opposition to abortion and gay rights. They say no one political party – i.e., the Republican Party – should assume to command evangelical support unless it delivers the goods and that born-again Christians should also woo Democrats.

How many Catholics will hear disputed Good Friday prayer?

A Good Friday procession at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 21 March 2008/Yannis BehrakisGiven the discussion about the new Latin prayer to be read at Catholic Good Friday services in the Tridentine rite today, I’ve tried to find estimates for how many people will actually hear it. Jewish groups have expressed dismay that the new version of the prayer, which drops references to the “blindness” of the Jews but still calls for their conversion. The leader of Germany’s Jewish community said she could not fathom how the German-born Pope Benedict could “impose such phrases on his church.” The Vatican rejects this criticism and sources there say it could soon issue a conciliatory note. So there’s a lot of talk about this issue, but how much is actually happening on the ground?

Actually, the vast majority of Catholics attending Good Friday services around the world will not hear this prayer in Latin but a different one in their own native language. That prayer is based on a 1970 text without any explicit reference to the conversion of the Jews. There is no official number for how many will attend the Latin services in the older Tridentine rite that Pope Benedict promoted with a ruling last year authorising wider use of the old Latin Mass. But even ardent supporters of the traditional rite agree that the number is very, very small. Some have objected to our use of the term “tiny minority” for it, saying this was dismissive and implied the number was insignificant. It wasn’t, but it’s very hard to write about such a small amount without seeming to write it off.

Fr. John ZuhlsdorfLooking for anecdotal evidence, I first turned to the excellent conservative Catholic blog What Does The Prayer Really Say? (which just swept the 2008 Catholic Blog Awards). This was a logical step since its lively moderator, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (“Fr. Z”), had just taken us to task for writing “tiny minority.” I posted a question about how to describe the size of this group and several readers chimed in, suggesting words like “rare” (sounds like an endangered species), “relatively few in number” (too vague), “some” or “a few” (even more vague) or “small but growing minority” (that adds movement, but it’s still vague). Even the most neutral synonyms for “tiny” — diminutive, microscopic, miniature, minuscule, slight or wee (for my Scottish colleagues) — can be read as dismissive. How would Fr. Z put it — paupera lingua angliae?

Rare clerical revolt hits U.S. Catholic diocese

Priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville, Illinois are staging a rare rebellion — demanding that their bishop, Edward Braxton, resign because of a lack of “collaborative and consultative leadership” since his installation in June, 2005.

Bishop Edward Braxton and his coat of armsBecause of the bishop’s lack of cooperation, consultation, accountability and transparency, it is the judgment of a great number of the presbyterate that he has lost his moral authority to lead and govern our diocese,” 46 priests — representing about 60 percent of those regularly assigned to parish work in the diocese — said in a statement issued on March 12. He should resign, they added, “for his own good, for the good of the diocese and for the good of the presbyterate.”

The priests said the problems they’ve had with their bishop were only exacerbated by a revelation earlier this year that he had used restricted funds to buy conference room furniture, vestments and other items for use in the diocesan cathedral.

Muslim student group adapts to life in the U.S.

MSA U.S. & Canada logoThe New York Times has an interesting article about how the Muslim Students Association (MSA) there is adapting to life in the United States. Founded in the 1960s by foreign students who wanted to pray together, the chapters “were basically little slices of Saudi Arabia. Women were banned. Only Muslim men who prayed, fasted and avoided alcohol and dating were welcomed. Meetings, even idle conversations, were in Arabic.” The MSA was largely financed by Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi views presumably came along with the cheques.

The local culture and the growing number of American-born Muslims have over time influenced even an organisation like this. Now some MSA chapters have held barbecues, dodge ball games and other events where men and women could mingle freely. There are debates about whether this is proper, but the events happen. “As American Islam gets its own identity, it is going to have to shed some of these notions that are distant from American culture,” said Rafia Zakaria, a student at Indiana University. “The tension is between what forms of tradition are essential and what forms are open to innovation.”

(The article doesn’t say whether the funds still flow so freely from Riyadh, but after 9/11 that seems unlikely.)A Secular Age

Pakistan’s “Mother Teresa” detained by U.S. immigration

Abdul Sattar Edhi holds baby recovered from human smuggling ring, 15 March 2002

(Update: Edhi returned to Karachi on Feb. 4.)

When U.S. immigration officers question an arriving Pakistani for eight hours and seize his passport, they presumably suspect some kind of link to Islamist terrorism. Abdul Sattar Edhi, 79, “has links” to some horrifying violence, so to speak, but it’s hard to imagine they’re the kind that immigration officers may have suspected when they detained him at New York’s Kennedy Airport on Jan. 9.

Edhi and his colleagues care for — and, when necessary, bury — the victims of violence in his native city Karachi. His private Edhi Welfare Trust foundation runs an extensive ambulance service, buries unclaimed bodies and maintains centres for orphans, the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill. In a country where state-run welfare services are basic or non-existant, his charity work is so unusual and prominent that he is often called “Pakistan’s Mother Teresa”.

When a bomb blast in Karachi last October killed 139 supporters of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto (herself later assassinated), Edhi ambulances were among the first helpers to arrive at the scene. One report noted the trust collected 110 of the victims, and washed and wrapped them in shrouds according to Muslim custom at its morgue so relatives could claim them.