It is possible I am simply dense and if so, allow me to apologize from the very beginning.
Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously quipped, “A week is a long time in politics.” It is a truism that Pope Francis and the Vatican might well be discovering about the widespread reception of Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.
Every book has an agenda, sometimes blatant, sometimes unintentional, but always present and needing to be judged at least partly on the question of whether it achieves its goal.
A new biography of John Henry Newman, published mere months before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to England and Scotland, during which the Pope will beatify the 19th-century cardinal, thinker and theologian, is a natural subject for agenda detection.
The horror of clerical sexual abuse rocking the Church around the globe is a decidedly multi-faceted phenomenon. Coming to understand and perhaps transcend exactly what the scandal means, it matters deeply which perspective you choose. Over the coming months and years there will be a wave of books available to everyone struggling to make sense of and move forward from the sensationalist detail that preoccupies much of the mainstream media. Joseph P. Chinnici’s When Values Collide is one of the first and it is a truly impressive starting point.
Science and Religion collide a lot these days, though clearly the tension between what Stephen Jay Gould referred to, as the Two Non-Overlapping Magisteriums, has existed for centuries. When the collisions occur it is the result of conflicting values as well as on theological grounds. This was made abundantly clear this week with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Dr. Robert Evans, one of the co-creators of In Vitro Fertilization. On the one hand reaction around the world seemed of a note, sheer excitement and congratulation. On the other hand, Catholic teachings and the ‘wisdom’ of the Nobel Committee slammed into each other. The Church’s clear stance on IVF and Robert Evans socialist politics have both long been rumoured to being behind what many expected to be a much earlier awarding of the prize.
Clearly the Church is not indifferent to the pain experienced by couples incapable of conception but as the International Federation of Catholic Medical Association made clear “As Catholic doctors," we at FIAMC "recognize that pain that infertility brings to a couple, but equally we believe that the research and treatment methods needed to solve the problems of infertility have to be conducted within an ethical framework which respects the special dignity of the human embryo, which is no different from that of a mature adult with a brilliant mind."
None of this can be discussed without reference to the growing number of cases involving ‘mix-ups’, mistakes or possibly worse when it comes to the identity of the babies born of IVF. Recent Canadian cases are making news in Ottawa, and the problem is clearly not confined to individual doctors or to Canada and the ethical problems of IVF are compounded by this growing list of ‘mistakes’.
Nor as even the Indian newspaper The Hindu reports are the problems as simple as any of can imagine, “the widespread use of such methods has created new ethical issues. For example, ‘rent-a-womb tourism' has become a thriving business in India, with wealthy couples from abroad paying poor women large sums of money to carry IVF embryos to full term.”
As this report from ABC news makes clear that Catholics are not alone in considering the Nobel winning tachnology to be a win win: “The bewildering array of options due to the IVF revolution -- from the morality of making "designer babies" to exploitation of poor women as surrogate mothers -- has created much concern and many debates among secular ethicists as well.”
Arthur Caplan, a noted American Bioethicist told the Washington Post "In exploring the fundamental mechanisms of how human reproduction actually works, Edwards unleashed a social, ethical and cultural tsunami that he could not have predicted and I don't think anyone at the time could have anticipated. It opened so many doors that I'm not sure we even fully appreciate it today."
Every event needs a narrative, and this is oh so true of Pope Benedict XVI’s just completed State visit to Great Britain. Prior to the trip, the buzz was about cost, security, protests and anger. During the trip, the buzz was about attendance at Papal masses, outings, ceremonies and the protests outside, inside and about. Now that the trip is done, the buzz centres on what he accomplished, how and whether the entire exercise was worth the effort? Or as Time Magazine put it, “The Pope vs. Britain’s Secularists: Who Won? Notorious British M.P. George Galloway thinks he has it down and declares that the Pope’s critics and much of the coverage were straight out of another time, when even being Catholic was a treasonous offence, “Pope Bashers are Throwback to 1605”. Dominic Lawson, writing in the Independent takes a different tack and places the credit with the Pope instead of the blame with the critics, noting, “I suspect it is precisely the unpolitical nature of Pope Benedict that gives him a certain popular appeal”. Lawson, a leading British journalist concluded his piece by observing “Humility is perhaps the most difficult of all the virtues; the smuggest among the Pope's secular critics could learn from his example.” David Willey in a blog on the BBC site believes that the entire Vatican is heaving a sigh of relief at a trip well executed and euphoria over besting all expectations and even hopes in “Pope’s Visit is deemed to Challenge Stereotypes”. Paddy Agnew in the Irish Times concurs with Willey’s sentiment noting, “there’s no disguising the Holy See’s satisfaction about the trip". Publications as far away as New Zealand couldn’t help but share in the growing international consensus with a report entitled “ Pope Succeeds in UK Charm Offensive”. Even Prime Minister David Cameron heaped praise on the Pontiff and his visit, noting that the Pope had ‘challenged Britain to sit up and think about the role of religion in society”. Anne Applebaum writing in the Washington Post adds an interesting layer of reflection on Cameron’s sentiment in a thoughtful piece “Anger over papal visit shows religious freedom is alive and well in Britain” which actually does a nice job putting much of the coverage into an interesting perspective.
Arguably everything in the news the past few weeks has been about the key importance of tolerance and freedom, especially religious tolerance and freedom. Three different moments capture a sense of the forces at work.
Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom, which started on Thursday, provoked numerous reflections on the nature of anti-Pope bigotry and it’s deeper uglier anti-Catholic bigotry on the part of Brits and throughout the world. In the first day alone, Benedict made clear that despite the criticism, he was intent on fighting back the tide of secularism and insisting on the need for religious liberty. In his first sermon, the Pope, as is his wont, delved into history for evidence of the evil that can flow from the desire to kill off God and Religion. He was referring to Nazism but it seemed to require a media interpretation to calm the secularists. But as is often the case, the reality of a Papal visit can soothe and charm, though of course the jury is still out.
The Papal visit, and its attendant arguments about ‘extreme’ atheism and religious liberty comes in the same week as the 50th anniversary of a critical talk given by John F. Kennedy while running for President. It’s difficult to imagine now, but in that campaign the idea that a Catholic might be President was the subject of bitter debate. And the young candidate traveled to a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association where he delivered a plea and forged an argument about religious tolerance, liberty and the distinctions between “rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God”. By all accounts it defused the issue and made his Presidency possible. But while possibly creating the space for Catholics in politics, the long-term result may have been to render Catholic values in politics difficult, or so argues Archbishop Chaput of Denver and a former Communications officer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Stephen Hawking creates the third corner of this triangle of tolerance and liberty. The physicist made news this month with the assertions in his new book of the ‘non-necessity of God’ in the creation of the universe. This is a shift from his thinking as expressed in early works. Hawking used to believe the universe needed a prime mover but now believes the Universe came into existence on its own. The list of people unimpressed is extensive and includes philosophers, a Jesuit Physicist and thinker, columnists and theologians. The intriguing think about Hawking and the God issue is the ease with which much of the media assumed that if Hawking says so then it must be so. The reality is that an assertion by Hawking that God didn’t exist is still an assertion, not a fact, which takes us back to the ideas of religious freedoms, religious tolerance and the dangers of extreme atheism.
In a little over a week, Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United Kingdom on the first ever Papal State Visit. John Paul II went in 1982 but that was a Pastoral journey. Benedict’s journey is promising, for better or worse, to be a much different event. Context is everything and this visit comes after a year of nasty accounts of clerical abuse in Ireland and Europe as well as a flood on UK commentary on the role the Pope himself did or didn’t play in dealing with the abuse crisis then and now. Just this week it was announced that the Pope would likely meet with abuse victims.
Aside from the sexual abuse cloud over the visit, the most controversial aspect of the trip so far has been the question of cost. As a State Visit the UK picks up the majority of the cost and the Church is charging for attendance at Papal events to cover its share of the costs. And while officials insist that no one will be denied access due to financial difficulties, the question of the cost and value of the trip just will not go away. Opinions on this are truly conflicted with some believing the Church should absorb all the costs while others denounce the Church for charging the faithful.
The visit, in the planning for most of this year has also provoked controversy over security and appropriateness. And the result is thousands of news stories, opinion pieces and arguments. And while surveys suggest many Brits are indifferent to the visit, no one is ignoring the visit. One of the true treats of British Journalism is that the coverage of religion compares favourably to the coverage of politics and sports. It’s lively, witty and engaging, if at times unfair, biased and rude. Consider the treatment given to news that the Pope is insisting that the main part of all masses during the visit will be conducted in Latin as example of the way British media deal with religious news.
There will be tension. The UK Catholic Church and the government are wrangling over ‘equality’ legislation, which insists that Catholic Organizations adhere to non-discrimination laws when it comes to Gay and Lesbian employees. Protests are planned at every Papal stop, though there is a growing argument within the anti-papal forces about the nature of the protests. As well there is lingering angst and animosity over last year’s Vatican outreach to troubled Anglicans. The Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a highlight of the visit, is seen by some as rubbing salt in the wound, given that Newman spent the first half of his life as a prominent Anglican Thinker and the last half as a devout Catholic. Adding to these expected tensions are the plans of noted anti-Church forces led by Richard Dawkins and company and in particular their ‘campaign’ to have the Pope arrested when he comes to British soil for crimes against humanity. In a strange twist of attention, one publication is wondering aloud whether the Papal media team is up to the task of a visit sure to be marked by vitriol and celebration in equal measure.
Given Benedict’s well known love of music, there’s no surprise that one of Britain’s leading Catholic Composer has created a mass that has choirs across the country trying to get up to speed. And news that Susan Boyle, the YouTube sensation, as well as a current fave in Britain’s Got Talent TV show, Liam McNally, are scheduled to sing at Papal Masses has created a real buzz. But perhaps the most intriguing news on the music front is the choice of Ooberfuse, a Catholic Rap group based in London to provide the “official youth anthem” for the visit. You can check them out here.
And what’s a State visit with out souvenirs? In addition to the usual run of plates, cups, glasses and so forth there are new stamps marking the visit and the Newman Beatification. While the souvenirs seem relatively normal, some are complaining they are too ordinary and are calling for something a bit more out there. For even more details, check out the official web site of the Papal visit or link up with the Facebook page.
It’s truly an unfortunate coincidence and couldn’t come at a worse time. In just a week and a half America and the world will mark the 9th Anniversary of the Attacks of September 11th 2001, and Muslims in America and the World will be marking the end of Ramadan. This would be an awkward coincidence at the best of times and has many Muslims spooked at the possibility that traditional celebrations marking the end of a month of fasting might be seen as a celebration of the 9-11 attacks. Being on edge makes sense simply because so many around the globe are asking what Time Magazine asks this week in its provocative cover story “Is America Islamaphobic?” And what continues to drive the issue is the increasingly ugly argument over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. And even though this is not strictly a Catholic Fight, Catholics are involved, enlisted and cited as examples for both sides. In a Papal message issued to mark the end of Ramadan, His Holiness obliquely touched on key tensions, some of which are on the boil throughout the United States. Religious Freedom and Tolerance are big issues for the Church and other religious leaders and the confrontation with truly radical Islam is a tricky one, whether it is provoked by the violence in Somalia, the Libyan Call for the Islamification of Europe, or simply the continuing comparisons made between the Mosque in lower Manhattan and the controversial Carmelite Convent in Auschwitz which necessitated the intervention of John Paul II in 1993. One example of the use of the story to define the Mosque controversy is captured almost entirely in The Wall Street Journal story’s headline: “WTC Mosque Meet the Auschwitz Nuns”. And for every time the Auschwitz example is used to demonstrate the wisdom of ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ then the irrational anti-Catholicism of the turn of the 20th century is offered as evidence of the need to fight anti-religious bigotry. As Commonweal notes, “Wrong then, Wrong now”. This is most vivid in a remarkable blog note that resurrects the history of the building of Knights of Columbus Founder Father McGivney’s Church in New Haven in 1879 and the accompanying bigotry at the time. The stark similarities to the language used today is breathtaking: Catholics were the Muslims of that era, at least as far as the New York Times was concerned. This is a complicated issue with loaded words like ‘hallowed ground’ being tossed around and you need a clear head to try and sort out what’s just and permissible from what’s wrong and understandable. You know just how tricky the territory is when noted anti-religious campaigner and virulent foe of radical Islamism, Christopher Hitchens feels compelled to come to the defence of the principal of the Religious Freedom of the Muslims who want to build the Mosque.
It’s bad enough that the controversy over the building of a mosque at 51 Park Place, New York has become a poster child for religious intolerance in the United States with reverberations around the world but there is a growing controversy over the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mother Teresa that is splitting Catholics. The Albanian Born Indian Sister who founded the Missionaries of Charity 60 years ago in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) was born on August 26th 1910. The Noble Prize winner has become for millions the model of self-sacrifice and charitable works. Father Tom Rosica, of Salt+Light, writing in the National Post captures what he sees as her special qualities, the ones that moved John Paul II to Beatify her after her death in 1997.
There’s a host of celebrations planned worldwide to mark the day, throughout India and around the world. But one suggested honour, lighting up the Empire State Building in New York has provoked an ideological battle over what meaning should be taken from her life. On one side is Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who petitioned the Owners of the Empire State Building to join other prominent landmarks in New York City in lighting up in a birthday celebration. One the other side is a coalition of Catholic reform groups, led by Catholics for Choice, which is accusing Donohue of manufacturing a crisis.
There's a certain sadness to the whole affair. Each side suggests the other is 'extremist' and not representative of Catholics generally and there's a whiff of insincerity about the argument, almost as if the birthday celebration is a mask for another type of argument entirely.
Meanwhile India is focusing on the 'celebration' including the publication of a new comic book honouring the life and work of Mother Teresa. And for those who think there might be more to this story than temporary controversies, Sister Mary Prema, Mother Teresa's succesor has her own thoughts on how we might remember her.