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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Robert Frost’s “Sacramental Poetry”

My children attend Robert Frost Middle School and I drive by their school often, providing me constant reason to call to mind the great American poet. America has a very thoughtful piece just up examining his faith and its impact on his poetry. It’s a splendid article filled with nuggets like this:

The poet cannot easily be placed on the religious spectrum, nor can his lifelong quarrels with God be easily categorized. But any reader of Frost’s poems or observer of his public statements will know that he thought deeply about theological matters, and he wondered aloud about the relations between human beings and God. In 1947 he described himself in a letter to an old friend, G. R. Elliott, as “an orthodox Old Testament, original Christian,” but he claimed that his approach to the New Testament “is rather through Jerusalem than through Rome or Canterbury.” [Frost wrote] sacramental poetry of a high order. It is beautiful and true, but it is also complicated, even thorny. The faith of Robert Frost was nothing straightforward. He was not a simple Christian, but his faith was real, it was profound, and pointed readers in directions where they might find solace as well as understanding, where they would find their beliefs challenged, where they find answers as well as questions.

Jay Parini, the article’s author, also includes insight on Frost’s parents and their religious journeys.

Frost’s mother, Isabelle Moody Frost, was a Scot, and she was a devout follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a Christian mystic who began life as a scientist and, on Easter Day 1774, began to experience visions. One of his most important ideas was that of correspondence. That is, he believed that a relation existed between the material and spiritual worlds. Every aspect of nature revealed some aspect of divine providence. He preached the union of faith and charity in a Christian’s life, arguing that both were necessary for salvation. Mrs. Frost took her young son to a church founded on Swedenborg’s principles, and he absorbed a mystical sense of the world, an understanding of the universe that was founded on the idea that everything we see is a foretaste of things to come and that one must listen for the voice of God in unusual places, such as the wind in the trees or the ripples of lake water against the shore.
It should be noted that Frost’s father, William Prescott Frost, was a severe skeptic and a Harvard-educated journalist who worked on a newspaper in San Francisco, where Frost was born. William Frost had no time for religion, and young Robert would have had his father’s voice in his head long after the elder Frost’s death, when his son was only 11. One certainly hears a wry note of skepticism in Frost’s poetry. It is there in his wonderful sonnet, “Design,” which is a meditation on St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued that the design of the universe was itself an argument for God’s existence. “What but design of darkness to appall,” Frost wrote, noting that everywhere in nature one found aberrations, difficulties, harsh things. The sonnet is very dark indeed, and it remains the centerpiece in a bleak array of poems that reflect the poet in a somber mood. Reading poems like “Desert Places,” “Acquainted With the Night” or “The Most of It,” one can hardly doubt that Frost plumbed the deepest levels of depression.

Benedict’s Farewell: “I do not abandon the cross”

In a moving, personal address Pope Benedict XVI delivered his final Wednesday general audience. For those inclined to view Benedict with affection this address was a stirring affirmation of that feeling. The Holy Father spoke with great candor about the personal prayer journey he has had with God throughout his pontifcate, reaffirming for me at least the depth of his spiritual journey and how that led him even to this final step of faithful departure:

When, almost eight years ago, on April 19th, [2005], I agreed to take on the Petrine ministry, I held steadfast in this certainty, which has always accompanied me. In that moment, as I have already stated several times, the words that resounded in my heart were: “Lord, what do you ask of me? It a great weight that You place on my shoulders, but, if You ask me, at your word I will throw out the nets, sure that you will guide me” – and the Lord really has guided me. He has been close to me: daily could I feel His presence. [These years] have been a stretch of the Church’s pilgrim way, which has seen moments joy and light, but also difficult moments. I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been - and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His - and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure, he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so. This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish. It is for this reason, that today my heart is filled with gratitude to God, for never did He leave me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love. 

I appreciated the deep spirituality of the address and was particularly moved by Benedict’s commitment to “carry everyone in prayer”:

I feel I [ought to] carry everyone in prayer, in a present that is God’s, where I recall every meeting, every voyage, every pastoral visit. I gather everyone and every thing in prayerful recollection, in order to entrust them to the Lord: in order that we might have full knowledge of His will, with every wisdom and spiritual understanding, and in order that we might comport ourselves in a manner that is worthy of Him, of His, bearing fruit in every good work (cf. Col 1:9-10).

The Pope’s touching reference to the letters led to a profound affirmation of the mystery of the Church:

I also receive many letters from ordinary people who write to me simply from their heart and let me feel their affection, which is born of our being together in Christ Jesus, in the Church. These people do not write me as one might write, for example, to a prince or a great figure one does not know. They write as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with the sense of very affectionate family ties. Here, one can touch what the Church is – not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. To experience the Church in this way and almost be able to touch with one’s hands the power of His truth and His love, is a source of joy, in a time in which many speak of its decline. (emphasis added)

To those who have raised profound questions about the pope’s decision to resign, even going so far as to wonder if he had “come down from the cross” by not staying in office until death, the pope spoke forcefully and with the nerve that has always marked his life:

Here allow me to return once again to April 19, 2005. The gravity of the decision was precisely in the fact that from that moment on I was committed always and forever by the Lord. Always – he, who assumes the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and totally to everyone, to the whole Church. His life is, so to speak, totally deprived of the private sphere…The “always” is also a “forever” - there is no returning to private life. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry, does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds.  (emphasis added)
Benedict’s conclusion reflects the universal hope of all Christians, Catholic or not, to live more like our Lord:
God guides His Church, maintains her always, and especially in difficult times. Let us never lose this vision of faith, which is the only true vision of the way of the Church and the world. In our heart, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that He does not abandon us, that He is near to us and that He surrounds us with His love. Thank you!

Monday, February 25, 2013

John Paul II On Christian Unity

The resignation of Pope Benedict has called to my mind the ministry of John Paul II whose work for unity among Christians had such an impact on my life. I have been rereading his encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint, and share the following quotes as a reminder of the deep commitment of the Catholic Church to better relations among Christians. Sometimes I hear Catholics and Protestants speak as if these teachings of John Paul II, grounded explicitly in the teachings of Vatican II, did not happen. Protestants have a stake in the future of the Catholic Church because, according to Catholic teaching, we are all actually part of the same Church. And Catholics need to remember that Protestants are not “not-yet Catholics”, but have a dignity and grace as they are. And we all need to have reignited a desire for deeper unity in faith, hope and love. I hope these excerpts from John Paul II are a blessing to you as they were for me.

John Paul on the Witness of ALL Christian Martyrs:

The courageous witness of so many martyrs of our century, including members of Churches and Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church…united in the selfless offering of their lives for the Kingdom of God, are the most powerful proof that every factor of division can be transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel.

John Paul’s expressions of humility and penance over sins:

Christians cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord's disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today. All together, they are invited by the ever fresh power of the Gospel to acknowledge with sincere and total objectivity the mistakes made and the contingent factors at work at the origins of their deplorable divisions. What is needed is a calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things, a vision enlivened by divine mercy and capable of freeing people's minds and of inspiring in everyone a renewed willingness, precisely with a view to proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of every people and nation…The Catholic Church acknowledges and confesses the weaknesses of her members, conscious that their sins are so many betrayals of and obstacles to the accomplishment of the Saviour's plan. Because she feels herself constantly called to be renewed in the spirit of the Gospel, she does not cease to do penance…Speaking of the lack of unity among Christians, the Decree on Ecumenism does not ignore the fact that "people of both sides were to blame", and acknowledges that responsibility cannot be attributed only to the "other side". (emphasis in original)

John Paul’s Teaching that Non-Catholic Christians are more than just “separated brethren”:

the very expression separated brethren tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion — linked to the baptismal character — which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions. Today we speak of "other Christians", "others who have received Baptism", and "Christians of other Communities"…This broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes. There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ…The "universal brotherhood" of Christians has become a firm ecumenical conviction. Consigning to oblivion the excommunications of the past, Communities which were once rivals are now in many cases helping one another: places of worship are sometimes lent out; scholarships are offered for the training of ministers in the Communities most lacking in resources; approaches are made to civil authorities on behalf of other Christians who are unjustly persecuted; and the slander to which certain groups are subjected is shown to be unfounded…It needs be reaffirmed in this regard that acknowledging our brotherhood is not the consequence of a large-hearted philanthropy or a vague family spirit. It is rooted in recognition of the oneness of Baptism and the subsequent duty to glorify God in his work.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fr. James Martin on "spiritual but not religious"

Fr. James Martin has been in the news a lot lately, particularly for his witty discussion of his qualifications for the papacy (read here, and prepare to laugh). I have been reading Martin’s bestselling book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and came upon this nugget on the whole issue of being “spiritual but not religious”.

Overall, being spiritual and being religious are both part of being in relationship with God. Neither can be fully realized without the other. Religion without spirituality can become a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community. (page 50)

Earlier Martin states:

We all tend to think we’re correct about most things, and spiritual matters are no exception. Not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience. It also means less to chance to see your misguided seeing only part of the picture or even that you are wrong…Religion can provide a check to my tendency to think I am at the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me...
Religion can lead us to terrible things. At its best, though, religion modifies our natural tendency to believe that we have all the answers…religion at its best introduces humility into your life. (pages 47-48)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

George Will on Prisoner Suffering (Torutre?)

I have not read a George Will column that I really loved in a long while, but today’s essay definitely changes that. It is a moving commentary on the commonplace treatment of putting prisoners into isolation. As you will see, Will quotes movingly from Charles Dickens and the folks at First Things were also moved by the column and have posted at their site a detailed excerpt from Charles Dickens. Here, though, are some of the highlights from Will's column:

America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of its prisoners. Mass incarceration, which means a perpetual crisis of prisoners re-entering society, has generated understanding of solitary confinement’s consequences when used as a long-term condition for an estimated 25,000 inmates in federal and state “supermax” prisons — and perhaps 80,000 others in isolation sections within regular prisons. Clearly, solitary confinement involves much more than the isolation of incorrigibly violent individuals for the protection of other inmates or prison personnel…
Supermax prisons isolate inmates from social contact. Often prisoners are in their cells, sometimes smaller than 8 by 12 feet, 23 hours a day, released only for a shower or exercise in a small fenced-in outdoor space. Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds…
Two centuries ago, solitary confinement was considered a humane reform, promoting reflection, repentance — penitence; hence penitentiaries — and rehabilitation. Quakerism influenced the design of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829 with a regime of strict solitude. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited it:
“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”…
Most persons now in solitary confinement will someday be back on America’s streets, some of them rendered psychotic by what are called correctional institutions.


From the Sojourners blog comes a post by Church of Christ pastor Phil Haslanger asking a different question about the use of drones, the kind of question one could imagine Martin Luther King asking were he alive today: 

Yes, drones are efficient, effective, and economical. But what do they do to the soul of this nation, to the psyches of those who push the buttons from half a world away?...When we so disconnect our warriors from the realities of war, what does that do to their souls and to our collective soul? Do we lose sight of the horrible human cost of war? Do we become arrogant in our perceived ability to rule the world from a computer terminal?
As commentator Bill Moyers said in an essay on Feb. 7, our recent wars in Vietnam and Iraq and now with drones all share a “blind faith in technology, combined with a sense of infallible righteousness.”
That’s a recipe for an illusive short-term victory at the cost of the moral high ground that ought to set our nation apart. It’s a policy that is increasing animosity in the nations we target, opens us to counterattacks in the future and corrodes our inner selves. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Key Catholic Bishop Praises Obama On HHS Mandate

It hasn’t gotten nearly the publicity afforded to critics of President Obama, but a post by Michael Sean Winters’ directed me to a fine statement made recently by Bishop Robert Lynch of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida. Bishop Lynch was writing in response to the most recent efforts of the Obama administration to adjust its controversial mandate requiring contraception coverage. Lynch not only brings his perspective as leader of a diocese and former General Secretary of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), but also his current service as a member of the Catholic Health Association Board of Directions which has been at the forefront of the negotiations between the Obama administration and concerned Catholics. The civil language and careful tone that the Bishop uses is striking and from my perspective welcome.

Lynch begins by noting that he waited eight days before commenting because he wanted to study the new HHS regulations carefully and to draw on the wisdom of lay people who have experience in the law, especially those who work for Catholic health care facilities that would be impacted by the regulations. While this would seem to be an obvious step, it was nonetheless refreshing to hear the Bishop say it:

I and almost every other bishop have waited while our own attorneys have studied the “regs” in detail. I also have the added assistance as a member of the Catholic Health Association Board of Directions, having listened to their General Counsel’s careful opinion of what influence these new regulations would have on Catholic Health Care interests. The wise and prudent approach has suggested not rushing into comments without the assistance of those more skilled in reading and understanding government “legalese” than most bishops. (emphasis added)

It was also refreshing to read the bishop’s acknowledgment of a genuine effort by the Obama administration:

1. Clearly, the Administration has been desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics and other people and institutions of conscience, like myself, who had real worries about the regulatory language in possession up till last Friday. There has been a serious effort to accommodate some of the conscience concerns of the Catholic bishops and I feel some expression of gratitude is due to the Administration. (emphasis added)
2. One would be hard put to find any other segment of the American public whose concerns about the Affordable Health Care Act have attempted to be dealt with than those of the Catholic bishops and other like-minded people on this very important matter. There have been moments when I think we should consider ourselves lucky that they are still talking to us. (emphasis added)

The bishop not only felt listened to, he believes that substantive steps have been made and he states those clearly:

The result has been that many of our concerns, about religious freedom and conscience have been attempted to be met. For me the first attempt of the government to define religious ministry outside of our houses of worship has been addressed in the removal all together of the first three prongs of the prior definition and I am personally at peace with this aspect of the challenge. (emphasis added)

The bishop goes on to indicate that there are still areas that he hopes to see changed during the comment period set up by HHS. He agrees with Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB’s decision that “seeks to continue to explore progress on some points which would lead to improvement” and he is hopeful for more changes but very pleased with the steps that have been taken and left to wonder if perhaps the Obama administration has listened to the bishops issues more than the bishops have listened to the Obama administration:

We still have time to work to smooth out some of the rough waters which lie ahead. As one member, I would hope that our episcopal conference might be as open to listening to the issues and challenges which government seems to face as I believe they have been so far in hearing our concerns. But in the end, everyone must prepare themselves for what is likely to be imperfect regulations drawn from imperfect legislation. I still am grateful that more universal health care coverage will be the first fruit of the Affordable Care Act and I am beginning to feel that I can say to my diocesan self-insured employees, all 1400 of them, that their moral right to health care coverage will survive this moment. (emphasis added)

Near the conclusion of his statement the bishop makes a very interesting point about the actions of other bishops, including those at the USCCB headquarters. He clearly states his concern that many of these leaders are not actually listening to the Catholic leadership at the local level who lead the health centers and hospitals that would be affected. It is a serious charge that leads to an interesting conclusion about the need for greater humility on the part of bishops.

As far as I know, at no time up to yesterday (Friday) since the new HHS regs were made available for review and public comment, has anyone from the conference structure consulted with legal counsel for other entities in the Church (hospitals, college and universities, Catholic Charities) to ask their read on how this proposal will affect their ministry. Yet the USCCB statement, it seems, would have one believe that the above mentioned entities might fairly have their “noses out-of-joint” because they are being given consideration under the “accommodation” and not the “exemption.” I did not leave this week’s Board of Director’s meeting of the Catholic Health Association thinking that all those CEO’s of systems and related members felt they were being treated as second class citizens by these new regulations. Perhaps we bishops need a little more humility from time to time, recognizing that we are not the only “game in town” but that there are other players, women and men of great faith who also love the Church, and who can speak for themselves and their organizations, on what effect legislation, proposed legislation, regulations will have on their ministry. A more collaborative effort might lead to greater results. (emphasis added)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jon Stewart on Obama’s Most Glaring Hypocrisy

Four years into any political administration there will be a host of issues where the stated goals of a candidate clash with the realities of their actual record. The clearest example of the difference between President Obama’s stance as a candidate and his stance as president is his drone policy because not only is the policy seemingly inconsistent with his promises but the communication of the policy is also deeply inconsistent with his stated values. This point has been made by many people but never more cleverly or damningly clear than by Jon Stewart on a recent show.  

The Full Scope of the Cardinal Sodano Scandal

If you are looking for a good handle on the scandal(s) surrounding the man who is to lead the upcoming conclave to elect the new pope, Cardinal Sodano, without having to read a book or piece your way through numerous articles then turn to the best article I have found, a May 2011 story from the fiercely conservative Catholic World Report (CWR). In this article you will find an excellent summary of the extraordinary efforts of the reporter Jason Berry whose work I featured in a recent post. The article also has analysis from Jody Bottum, whose work I also featured recently. As you read the article realize that CWR is among the most conservative Catholic periodicals in the English language and known for their steadfast support of Pope Benedict’s teachings as pope and as Cardinal Ratzinger. CWR’s detailed account of Sodano’s participation in numerous scandals makes their conclusion hard to argue with:

"Even under a pope with such a keen sense of justice as Benedict XVI, critics say the Vatican continues to perpetuate a culture of no accountability for wrong actions, leading to an absence of even the appearance of justice. Mysteriously, they say, the Pope appears unable or even unwilling to bring Cardinal Sodano to account"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why Benedict Resigned

Readers of the Washington Post were greeted this Sunday with an extraordinary front-page story on the State of the Vatican. It is not a pretty picture and it serves to amplify points I have been making in recent posts about the level of corruption within key Vatican departments. These stories give dramatic confirmation of Pope Benedict’s humble admission that he lacked the “strength of mind and body” needed “to govern” the Church. Drawing on the extensive leaks revealed by the pope’s infamous “butler” the Post’s story supports their conclusion:

Benedict, a weak manager who may most be remembered for the way in which he left office, was no match for a culture that rejected even a modicum of transparency and preferred a damage-control campaign that diverted attention from the institution’s fundamental problems.

As the College of Cardinals prepares to choose a new pope the full scope of the scandals within the Vatican will be revisited. While many will be tempted to instinctually defend Christians under criticism it is simply the truth that many of these stories, like the one in the Washington Post, will bear truth about the needs of the Catholic Church that can not be ignored.

Friday, February 15, 2013

New York Times echoes First Things: Cardinal Sodano Must Go

In my last post I highlighted a call by the writer Jody Bottum in 2010 at the website of the conservative journal First Things for the dismissal of Cardinal Sodano, a powerful figure at the Vatican and the man who is destined to lead the College of Cardinals in its election of a new pope. In that post I said that resistance to Cardinal Sodano reflects a moral instinct shared by Catholics from a variety of theological and cultural perspectives.  To illustrate this shared moral conscience I am quoting at length from a recent article in the New York Times by the liberal Jason Berry echoing the similar point made by Jody Bottum in his First Things piece:

Benedict has one last chance to right some of the wrongs of the recent past by forcing out Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals and the man who, more than any other, embodies the misuse of power that has corrupted the church hierarchy…Cardinal Sodano ranks with the Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony as an egregious practitioner of the cover up. As John Paul II’s secretary of state, he pressured Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, in two notorious cases.
In 1995, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër resigned as archbishop of Vienna, trailed by accusations, soon proven, that he had abused young men. Cardinal Ratzinger wanted the pope to speak out; Cardinal Sodano overruled him.
Cardinal Sodano also pressured Cardinal Ratzinger to abort a case filed in 1998 by several men accusing the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, of abusing them as seminarians. Cardinal Sodano was a longtime beneficiary of money and favors from Father Maciel. Priests who left the order told me he received at least $15,000 in cash.
Cardinal Ratzinger tabled the case until 2004 but, with John Paul dying, finally ordered an investigation. In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict. Cardinal Sodano’s office then announced the Maciel proceeding was over, while people kept testifying. Benedict dismissed Father Maciel from ministry in 2006; he died in 2008. Still, Cardinal Sodano lavished praise on the Legion, despite the news that Father Maciel had several children.
In 2005, Cardinal Sodano was elected dean of the College of Cardinals, which will select the next pope. At 85 years old, he is too old to vote, though he will oversee the conclave, and will surely have his candidate…As Benedict leaves the crisis he inherited from John Paul to the cardinal who will become the next pope, he should do one sure thing before his Feb. 28 resignation: force out Cardinal Sodano. He owes that to

First Things Prophecy on Cardinal Sodano

One of the more interestint dynamics in talking about the Catholic Church in general and the Vatican in particular is the temptation one often sees to force every issue into a liberal/conservative ideological or theological grid. What that often misses is that there are numerous issues that speak to the common faith and moral vision that virtually all Catholics share in common. Passionate disappointment in the hierarchy's response to sexual abuse is one of those issues. My recent posts critical of the work of Cardinal Sodano, and encouraging of the work of Cardinal Schonborn, should not be seen as merely the musings of a progressive/Commonweal Catholic like me. In fact, some of the clearest writing on Cardinal Sodano has come from First Things. Here, for instance, is Jody Bottum writing for First Things in 2010 and warning in the final sentence quoted about precisely what is about to happen:

"Cardinal Sodano has to go. The dean of the College of Cardinals, he has been found too often on the edges of scandal. Never quite charged, never quite blamed, he has had his name in too long a series of depositions and court records and news accounts—an ongoing embarrassment to the Church he serves. The Vatican has been responding in a disorganized way to the frenzy of recent press stories about often thirty-year-old abuse cases. What it should do is put its own house in order, moving out the unhelpful remnants of the bureaucracy that allowed those scandals to fester for so long.

The latest revelations concern the financial benefits Cardinal Sodano received from Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the corrupt conman who founded the Legion of Christ and its associated lay group, Regnum Christi. And those revelations follow hard on the 2008 convictions of Raffaello Follieri for wire fraud and money laundering. (Follieri’s company, you’ll remember, was trading in decommissioned church property, and it relied for its crimes on the prestige of having Cardinal Sodano’s nephew as its vice president.) That news, in turn, followed the cardinal’s reported role in thwarting a 1995 investigation into the subsequently proved accusations against the episcopal molester in Vienna, Hans Hermann Groër.

In one sense, of course, it’s very sad. A long career in the Church is not ending well, and it would be kinder to protect the man and let him slip away unnoticed. But Cardinal Sodano himself seems unwilling to let it be so. Speaking of the stories that were on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the world, he told the pope publicly at Easter this year, “The people of God are with you and do not allow themselves to be impressed by the petty gossip of the moment.”

Petty gossip? There’s room for complaint about the way the scandals have been used to advance every agenda under the sun, but when the subject is abused and sodomized children, petty is not the adjective of choice. Even in a season of mismanaged Vatican responses to the frenzy of the press, Sodano’s line was stunningly tone-deaf, and it served mostly to give the media yet another day of headlines. As things stand, if (God forbid) Pope Benedict were to die, the obsequies would be led by Cardinal Sodano—and the newscasts, hour after hour, would feature rehashes of all that is now associated with his name." (Emphasis added)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

John Allen on Cardinal Sodano's "troubling record"

In my last post I highlighted the importance of Cardinal Schonborn and Cardinal Sodano in the fierce struggle now in play over the direction of the Catholic Church. John Allen, arguably the leading reporter on the Vatican in the English language, explains in greater detail the significance of Cardinal Sodano and his connection to the abuse crisis:
At least one other cardinal linked to the abuse scandals is destined to be even more prominent over the next month: Angelo Sodano, former Secretary of State under John Paul II and currently the dean of the College of Cardinals. It was Sodano who delivered a brief tribute to Benedict XVI when he made his surprise announcement Monday, and he helped the pope celebrate the Ash Wednesday liturgy tonight.
In his role as dean, Sodano will preside over functions after Benedict steps down and before the new pope is chosen, including the much-watched "Mass for the election of the Roman Pontiff" that marks the last public event before the conclave.
Critics charge Sodano has a troubling record on the abuse crisis for at least three reasons.
First, he's known as a stalwart defender in the Vatican of the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The Legionaries later acknowledged that Maciel was guilty of misconduct, including sexual abuse of former members. As late as 2005, while the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was reaching the conclusion that Maciel was guilty, the Secretariat of State under Sodano issued a public statement denying there was any case against him.
Second, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna charged in May 2010 that it was Sodano who blocked an investigation against Schönborn's predecessor, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, when Groër faced charges of sexual abuse in the 1990s. Although Schönborn later apologized for reprimanding a fellow cardinal, he never retracted the substance of the charge.
Third, it was Sodano who sparked international outrage last year by using a platform during Pope Benedict's Easter Mass to compare criticism of the church on the sexual abuse crisis to "petty gossip."

Cardinal Schonborn and the Vatican's “Moral Filth”

(Part Two of this post is here)

I have no idea if Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, should be the next pope or if he stands much of a chance of being considered seriously, but I do know that he is a man of proven conscience with respect to the moral issue of clergy sexual abuse and that the willingness of Schonborn to challenge key Vatican leaders on the issue is an important subtext to the election of a new pope. While Pope Benedict spoke with great urgency about the “moral filth” that had penetrated the heart of the Church through the leadership’s deep complicity in the crimes of sexual abuse, it has been Cardinal Schonborn more than any other Cardinal in the Church who has spoken and acted with the fierce spiritual urgency that the revelation of these sins calls forth in the Christian Soul. I quote here in full the best article on Schoborn’s courageous stand against the leadership of the Vatican and for the victims of abuse noting only that the Cardinal Sodano referred to in the article was the second-most-powerful official in the church under Pope John Paul II, and he remains dean of the College of Cardinals, which means he would preside” over the conclave that will choose Benedict’s replacement. The struggle between Sodano and Schonborn is a key underlying story in the election of the next pope, as John Allen has reported extensively. Now, to the 2010 article in The Guardian on Schonborn’s courageous stand:

Would any other cardinal but Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, have joined protesters against clerical sexual abuse in a reconciliation service in his own cathedral and spoken as he did – a service with the motto: "I am furious, God"?
Schönborn began by reading out a long and dramatic admission of the Church's guilt. He thanked the abuse victims for breaking their silence and said that abuse in the Church was particularly serious, because it defiled God's holy name. The Church must "get off its high horse", which was without doubt a painful process, he said, "but what is that pain compared to the victims' pain which we overlooked and did not hear?"
A month later, at a press briefing, Schönborn said that in meeting accusations from the general public that abuse cases had been hushed up, the Vatican had reacted "rather clumsily". He was remarkably outspoken about one of the most senior cardinals in the Catholic Church, Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and now dean of the College of Cardinals, who on Easter Sunday in the Pope's presence had called the reports of clerical sexual abuse "petty gossip".
Sodano had "deeply wronged the victims", Schönborn said, and he then revealed that when the then Joseph Ratzinger as head of the doctrinal congregation had wanted to investigate allegations of abuse against his predecessor in Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, it had been Cardinal Sodano who had stood in the way. The Roman Curia was "urgently in need of reform", he added for good measure; more consideration should be given to the "quality of homosexual relationships", as stable partnerships were certainly better than promiscuous ones; and the Church needed to reconsider its attitude to the divorced and remarried "as many people no longer marry at all".
Last week Schönborn went to Rome to see the Pope. According to many of the international media reports, he was "chastised", "rebuked" "rapped over the knuckles" and even "slammed".
But Austrian church insiders remained calm. Schönborn has supposedly been chastised by the Vatican so often in the last fifteen years and yet has emerged stronger and more prominent each time than before. And behind the scenes, his open criticism of Cardinal Sodano is being applauded even in bishops" circles.
So what really happened? Schönborn's audience with Pope Benedict went well. After 38 years – the then Joseph Ratzinger was Schönborn's teacher – the two are as close as ever. I would think it inconceivable that Schönborn would have spoken out about Sodano without the Pope's foreknowledge. But when the Pope asked Sodano and the present Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to join him and Schönborn, the whole atmosphere would seem to have changed. As one would expect in a confrontation between two very angry cardinals.
Whether by ancient tradition or deliberately, or a mixture of both, the wording of Vatican communiqués often closely resembles the clues in cryptic crosswords, where each clue is a puzzle in and of itself. That is why they are usually open to a broad spectrum of interpretations.
According to the official communiqué published immediately after the meeting, Schönborn had asked for a private audience as he wished to report to the Pope personally, first, on the situation of the Church in Austria, secondly on his statements about church discipline, and thirdly on the role Cardinal Sodano played in the Groer affair. When the Pope asked the other two cardinals to join them, "some widely-circulated misunderstandings partially derived from some comments of Cardinal Schönborn were clarified and resolved", we are given to understand.
Schönborn expressed his regret "over the interpretations given", we are told. Two of these "misunderstandings" are then clarified in detail: "when accusations are made against a cardinal, the competence rests solely with the Pope"; and the expression "petty gossip" used by Cardinal Sodano had been "erroneously interpreted as a lack of respect for the victims of sexual abuse". In reality, the communiqué said, it was taken literally from the Pope's Palm Sunday homily, and referred to "the chatter of dominant opinion".
On his return to Vienna Schönborn himself first said that there would be no further comment on his part, but his press spokesman drew attention to the fact that the cardinal had not retracted any of his statements. Two days later Schönborn emphasised that in stating that "when accusations are made against a cardinal, the competence (of judgement) rests solely with the Pope", the Vatican communiqué was referring to the case of Cardinal Groer. Clearly, Schönborn wanted to underline that it did not refer to his criticism of Cardinal Sodano.
Between Schönborn or Sodano, only time will tell who will win. But age is on Schönborn's side – he is 65 - whereas Cardinal Sodano is 83. Schönborn is a conservative in matters of doctrine, but in favour of absolute honesty, especially as far as clearing up clerical sexual abuse is concerned, and wants to see the Church open to dialogue with the world as advocated by the Second Vatican Council. Sodano would seem above all to be determined to continue first and foremost to protect the Church's image. The Church's credibility and the reputation of Pope Benedict are at stake in the middle of what has been called the worst crisis the Catholic Church has experienced since the Reformation. Certainly as far as the next papal conclave is concerned, Schönborn has done himself no harm at all.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Quick Thoughts on Benedict's Retirement

I'm not much into blogging lately, but a few quick thoughts prompted by the extraordinary news of the day concerning Pope Benedict's decision to step away from the papacy:

1) It is an act of great humility in keeping with the Ratzinger/Benedict that people closest to him speak of. I admire him for it.

2) The early years of the youthful John Paul II's papacy dramatically changed the expectations of the men who serve as pope, and the latter years of his papacy which were marked by continual health problems demonstrated the effects of a weakened pope upon the Catholic Church. Ratzinger was a vital part of the Vatican through both of those stages and I believe the lessons learned from both stages effected his decision as Pope Benedict to step down. As historically significant and unique as it is, this is a decision that was in some ways predictable given Benedict's experience with John Paul II, and it could well become the norm. Here is a key quote from his speech this morning announcing his retirement:
"In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

3) A fascinating replacement would be Cardinal Christopher Schonborn. He is a figure of great intellectual capacity and conersvative theological leanings, but tremendously pastoral and prophetic in his response to the sexual abuse crisis. I suspect there will be a strong push for him in the Western media, and I would be quite pleased to see him elevated. Here is the transcript of an interview he gave to my favorite Vatican journalis,  John Allen, in the Fall of 2012.