The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Pope Francis to Visit Cuba Before U.S. Trip

Pope Francis will visit Cuba before arriving in the United States in September, the Vatican said April 22.

Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed the news to reporters in a statement made in Italian, Spanish, and English.

“I am able to confirm that the Holy Father Francis, having received and accepted the invitation from the civil authorities and bishops of Cuba, has decided to pay a visit to the island before his arrival in the United States for the trip announced some time ago,” Lombardi said.

The pope is scheduled to visit Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia starting around Sept. 23.

Francis would be the third pope to visit Cuba, after St. John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2012.

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What Struggling Congregations Need to Renew Their Churches

I am in a lovely college town to help a congregation discern its path forward.

It faces challenges that many church leaders will recognize: leadership, finances, isolation from the surrounding community, not enough young and middle-age adults to carry the congregation forward.

It also has pluses. The members aren’t deeply divided or mired in distrust and disdain. They aren’t afraid of change. They don’t bury the future in grand laments about a lost “golden age.”

I think they have a good shot at turning a corner and building a healthy next phase. I hear reports from across the nation that things are improving for Christian congregations. A new generation of clergy is exploring new ideas. Fresh energy is emerging. Denial is losing its hold, as congregations whose average age is 60 to 65 realize they must change or die.

Denominations are slower to adapt, but they, too, are moving forward in practical ways such as training in leadership and stewardship, and flexible deployment of resources.

Yet for this fresh day to last, church leaders will need to embrace a truth that goes beyond organizational development and resolving present issues. It’s a truth that many congregations simply cannot hear.

That truth is this: There is too much shallowness, not enough depth.

Over the years, in a process that isn’t at all unusual, we have equated faith with attending Sunday worship, maybe pitching in on a committee, and forming friendships within the fellowship. People enjoy belonging to the congregation. They radiate a palpable joy in being together. They seem content.

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Crystal Cathedral Founder’s Memorial Covered by Crowdfunding Campaign

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the “Hour of Power” religious broadcaster, once raised $18 million to build his landmark Crystal Cathedral in Southern California’s Orange County.

Yet when he was laid to rest April 20 on the grounds of the cathedral he longer controlled, his fractured family resorted to crowdfunding to cover the costs.

“Dr. and Mrs. Schuller were left financially crippled by the loss of their retirement income previously promised by the organization,” Carol Schuller Milner, Schuller’s daughter, wrote on the site GoFundMe.

“Living on social security for the past years, they were not able to preserve a fund that would cover arrangements for funeral and memorial tributes.”

Christ Cathedral — the name the Catholic Diocese of Orange, Calif., gave the building after purchasing it in 2012 — and a private benefactor covered the funeral’s basic costs, Milner wrote.

The GoFundMe appeal seeks $30,000 to establish a website, an archive of Robert Schuller’s work, and a broadcast of the funeral.

“The funds we seek will help to give Dr. Schuller a lovely, albeit modest, goodbye,” the appeal said.

To date, a little over $6,100 has been raised from 44 donors. Individual donations have ranged from $25 to $1,000 since the campaign’s start April 11. Schuller died April 2 of esophageal cancer at the age of 88.

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Charles Stanley Declines Award After Jews Question His Views on Gays

Amid a heated debate over his vocal opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley will decline an award he planned to accept from the Jewish National Fund in Atlanta on April 23.

News that the longtime pastor of First Baptist Atlanta and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention would be honored by the JNF angered many Jews who pointed to his history of vitriolic anti-gay comments.

Stanley said the award was causing too much strife within the Jewish community, and for the sake of his love for Israel, he would not accept it, according to the JNF, a nonprofit that sponsors environmental and educational programs in the Jewish state.

It was Stanley’s idea not to accept the award, JNF spokesman Adam Brill said Tuesday.

“Dr. Stanley feels that he did not want to see any further controversy and I think it’s a laudable and heartfelt decision, and we totally support and embrace it.”

Decrying Stanley’s “sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions,” the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN) led a campaign to get JNF to change its mind on bestowing Stanley with its Tree of Life award, which was to be given to him for his support for Israel by the JNF’s Atlanta chapter on Thursday, Israel’s independence day.

“We respect Dr. Charles Stanley’s decision,” said Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of Atlanta-based SOJOURN, on Tuesday.

“We are so grateful for the strong support of hundreds of people across the country. We look forward to a productive dialogue with JNF in the coming weeks and building our relationship together to support the local Jewish and LGBTQ communities and Israel.”

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Women of the Wall Pluck Torah Scroll Across Partition to Women’s Section

For the first time in its 26-year history, the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall managed to read from a full-sized Torah scroll April 20 after one of its members surreptitiously borrowed one from the Western Wall’s men’s section.

The scroll’s procurement, which was facilitated by the group’s male supporters standing on the other side of a partition, was a bold move by a group that has continuously challenged the ultra-Orthodox establishment’s sole authority over the holy site.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, has long prohibited women from wearing prayer shawls and reading from a Torah. He based his prohibition on a regulation that forbids any religious ceremony “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshippers at the place.”

Although a 2013 court ruling confirmed Women of the Wall’s right to pray at the Wall, Rabinowitz has continued to ban anyone from bringing a Torah into either the men’s or women’s section and has placed all 100 of the holy site’s Torahs in the men’s section alone.

Although the group recently smuggled a tiny Torah into the women’s section, “you needed a magnifying glass to read it and we had to return it to its owners in London,” said Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman.

But on Monday morning, the group’s male supporters held a Torah reading service at the Wall, next to the gender partition. Once their service finished, the men opened an unlocked gate leading to the women’s section and a female WOW activist stepped into the men’s section and picked up the Torah.

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'Ex Machina' is 'Frankenstein' for the Digital Age

The question of what makes us human has been around pretty much as long as we have. Attempts at tackling it have produced a veritable hall of fame of iconic results: Frankenstein. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire bibliographies of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. The list goes on.

But the thing about big unanswerable questions is that although we may never get closer to figuring out the answers, it can be awfully fun and rewarding to keep asking them. And with advances in society and technology, the question of our humanity — and its future — seems to transmogrify by the day.

In the grand legacy of stories about what separates us from the animals (or, in this case, androids), Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter-novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing new. It’s a direct descendent of FrankensteinThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and scads of stories that have come before, bringing up classic issues of nature, nurture, and what happens when we play God. But Garland’s sci-fi thriller smartly wears those influences on its sleeve, adding to them a sharply modern sense of style, with a plausible approach that’s both intriguing and troubling to consider.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at a large tech company, who wins a contest to hang out for a week with the company’s reclusive genius founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house/research facility. Upon his arrival, Caleb discovers the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he’s created, and determine whether she can convincingly pass for human. The conflict arises when Caleb’s true role in Nathan’s test, and Ava’s own mysterious intentions, come under suspicion. How much of Ava’s behavior is what Nathan has programmed into her, and how much is she acting on her own?

Writer-director Garland has always excelled in creating satisfying thrillers with deeper questions in mind, particularly in the realm of exploring uglier parts of human behavior. In Ex Machina, he may have created his best work yet, working with a very small cast in a limited space that gives the characters plenty of chances to turn on each other in subtle, clever ways.

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Poll: Americans Say There’s No Turning Back on Gay Marriage

The Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in a landmark case on gay marriage, but most Americans already have made up their minds: There’s no turning back.

In a nationwide USA Today/Suffolk University poll, those surveyed say by 51 percent to 35 percent that it’s no longer practical for the Supreme Court to ban same-sex marriages because so many states have legalized them.

One reason for a transformation in public views on the issue: close to half say they have a gay or lesbian family member or close friend who is married to someone of the same sex.

Kraig Ziegler, 58, of Flagstaff, Ariz., acknowledged being a bit uncomfortable when he attended a wedding reception for two men, friends of his wife, who had married.

“I still believe what the Bible says, ‘one man, one woman,’ ” the mechanic, who was among those polled, said in a follow-up interview.

On the other hand, he said, “I got to know the guys, and they’re all right. They don’t make passes or anything at me.”

Now he calls himself undecided on the issue.

In the survey, a majority — 51 percent 35 percent — favor allowing gay men and lesbians to marry, and those who support the idea feel more strongly about it than those who oppose it: 28 percent “strongly favor” same-sex marriage, 18 percent “strongly oppose” it. Fourteen percent are undecided.

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Explaining 'Working Poor' to my Privileged, Middle Class Children

For my privileged, perhaps overly comfortable children, something as trivial as our Internet being down constitutes a crisis. When we do our “gratitude inventory” (aka, a way to get them to reflect and pray), they rattle off things as a matter of routine that many people would only dream of.

So how do I explain something as alien and complex a state as being part of the working poor in a way they can have a at least a chance to internalize?

This was part of my goal in taking on My Jesus Project, a year-long endeavor to more deeply understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus: to move from ignorance to empathy, which can only be achieved sometimes through direct, personal experiences.

For a month, I was assigned by one of my “Jesus Mentors” to go out of my way to walk and/or take public transportation to get places, with the intention that I would come into contact with people I might otherwise miss or overlook. As I did it, I realized my kids could benefit from it as well.

The first sign that they needed such an experience was that when I announced to them we were taking the bus and train to do our family activities one weekend, they were excited. It was a new experience for them, rather than a necessity. As for the mile-long walks to get from place to place when the transit system didn’t get us exactly where we were going — they were a little less thrilled with that. And yet, we slowed down more, spent more time talking, and while on the public systems, I noticed we looked each other in the eye a lot more, rather than all facing forward (with the kinds inevitably with their faces fixed on a screen) in the car.

My son, Mattias, who is on the high end of the autism spectrum, is a keen observer, and I suppose a natural byproduct of that is that he asks questions. A lot of questions.

“Dad,” he said, after jumping off the final leg of the bus route one day, “why were some of the people sleeping on the bus?”

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5 Lessons from the Resignation of Bishop Robert Finn

When Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Missouri Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted three years ago for failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse, he sent a powerful message to the Catholic Church.

Here are five takeaways from the news, which the Vatican announced on April 21.

1. This is a big deal.

During the past decade, the most intense years of the Catholic Church’s long-running clergy sex abuse scandal, thousands of priests have been punished or defrocked for abusing children, and a few bishops found guilty of molestation have also quit.

But until Finn, no American bishop had ever been forced from office (despite the terse Vatican announcement that he “resigned”) for covering up for a predator priest.

That sets a precedent in an institution where many have regarded the hierarchy as a privileged caste that should not be held to the same standards as others in the church. Some feared that if a bishop were pushed out for failing to do his job, it would create a domino effect that could topple the entire superstructure.

“We all know there are other U.S. bishops wondering ‘who is the next?’” tweeted church historian Massimo Faggioli.

But Francis seems to be betting this sort of accountability at the top will strengthen the church, and even help restore the credibility of the bishops.

2. Finn was an easy case.

Finn is the only U.S. bishop ever convicted in court of failing to report a suspected abuser, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who was later sentenced to 50 years on federal child pornography charges.

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Pope Accepts Resignation of Bishop Robert Finn for Failing to Report Abuse

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of an American bishop who was found guilty of failing to tell police about a suspected pedophile priest.

The Vatican on April 21 said the pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, who led the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.

The resignation was offered under the code of canon law that allows a bishop “who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause” to resign.

In 2012, Finn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for failing to report suspected abuse after the Rev. Shawn Ratigan took hundreds of lewd images of children in Catholic schools and parishes.

Finn became the first U.S. bishop to be convicted in a criminal court of failing to report a suspected abuser and was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Ratigan pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

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