David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author, filmmaker, and a convert to Catholicism. He came by all those vocations by accident, or Providence, during a longer-than-expected sojourn in Rome in the 1980s.
Gibson began his journalistic career as a walk-on sports editor and columnist at The International Courier, a tiny daily in Rome serving Italy's English-language community. He then found work as a newscaster across the Tiber at Vatican Radio, an entity he sees as a cross between NPR and Armed Forces Radio for the pope. The Jesuits who ran the radio were charitable enough to hire Gibson even though he had no radio background, could not pronounce the name "Karol Wojtyla" (go ahead -- try it) and wasn't Catholic --- at the time.
When Gibson returned to the United States in 1990 he returned to print journalism to cover the religion beat in his native New Jersey for two dailies and to write for leading magazines and newspapers in the New York area. Among other journalism prizes, Gibson has won the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Award, the top honor for journalists covering religion in the secular press, and has twice won the top prize writing on religion from the American Academy of Religion.
Gibson currently writes for Religion News Service and until recently was covering the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. He would like to write another -- but can’t seem to find the time.
He has co-written documentaries on early Christian and Jewish history for CNN, and recently worked on a March 2011 History Channel special on the Vatican. He currently has several other film projects in development. Gibson has written for leading newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Boston magazine, Fortune, Commonweal, America and, yes, The Ladies Home Journal.
Gibson is a longtime member of the Religion Newswriters Association. He and his wife and daughter live in Brooklyn.
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Americans Prefer ‘Pro-Choice’ Label by Biggest Margin in Seven Years
Despite Americans’ shifting opinions on a range of moral and ethical issues, abortion foes have been encouraged by numbers showing that opposition to abortion rights appeared to have resisted serious slippage, and was even gaining traction.
But a Gallup poll released May 29 shows that may be changing: 50 percent of all Americans now identify as “pro-choice,” the first statistically significant lead over the “pro-life” label, which came in at 44 percent, since 2008.
The data suggest this could signal an end to the seesaw battle that has characterized opinions on abortion over the past few years.
New Jersey Priest Fired as Seton Hall Chaplain Comes Out as Gay
A Catholic priest in New Jersey who says he was dismissed from his campus ministry job over a Facebook post against anti-gay bullying and racism has come out as gay.
The Rev. Warren Hall told Outsports, a magazine for gay athletes, that while he remained committed to his vocation as a priest and to his vow of celibacy, he was not going to hide his sexual orientation.
“I have to be myself,” Hall said.
“I can’t worry what other people think.”
Author Phyllis Tickle Faces Death Just as She Enjoyed Life: ‘The Dying Is My Next Career’
Her once boundless energy starts to fail by midday. She started radiation treatment on May 21, mainly in an effort to forestall the possible collapse of her spine, which would leave her helpless and in intractable pain.
“That sounds a little formidable to me,” she says.
“I was never much for suffering.”
She goes on, her words carefully chosen. “Am I grateful for this? Not exactly. But I’m not unhappy about it. And that’s very difficult for people to understand.”
Breaking Silence, U.S. Nuns Say Vatican Probe Cleared Up Confusion, Reinforced Their Mission
The controversial Vatican probe of American nuns that abruptly ended last month looked from the outside like a tense standoff between Rome and the U.S. sisters, punctuated by occasional public jousts that appeared to signal even tougher negotiations behind closed doors.
Not so, say the sisters, now freed to talk after both sides agreed to a month-long media blackout that ended May 15.
Those involved in the talks said that after a rocky start, the talks settled into a constructive dialogue that cleared up many misunderstandings that Vatican officials had about the sisters.
Once Pope Francis Knows U.S. Capitalism He Will Love It, Says Catholic Theologian-Economist
The Rev. Martin Schlag is a trained economist as well as a Catholic moral theologian, and when he first read some of Pope Francis’ powerful critiques of the current free market system he had the same thought a lot of Americans did: “Just horrible.”
But at a meeting on May 11 at the Harvard Club, Schlag, an Austrian-born priest who teaches economics at an Opus Dei-run university in Rome, reassured a group of Catholics, many from the world of business and finance, that Francis’ views on capitalism aren’t actually as bad as he feared.
Liberation Theology’s Founder Basks in a Belated Rehabilitation Under Pope Francis
Reagan and John Paul helped spell doom for the Soviet empire, and the pontiff waged a decades-long campaign inside the church — helped by his doctrinal chief, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI — to quash liberation theology and silence its most ardent supporters.
Today, however, it’s a wholly different story — and to listen to the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Dominican priest from Peru who is known as the father of liberation theology, one might wonder what all the fuss was about.
6 Things to Expect in the Pope’s Address to Congress
The papal address to the Republican-controlled Congress is likely to be one of the most closely watched talks during the pope’s weeklong visit to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia this fall, especially since the presidential campaign season will be growing more intense.
Francis isn’t shy about tackling controversial topics or upending conventional orthodoxies about Catholics and politics — a prospect that makes U.S. conservatives especially nervous, given Francis’ insistence on raising concerns about issues such as economic justice, climate change, and immigration.
Syrian Catholic Leader Pleads with U.S. Christians Not to Forget His Threatened Church
Just a few decades ago, Aleppo was home to about 170,000 Catholics, about a third of the city’s population. Since the war broke out, Jeanbart has seen a third of his flock reduced by death, dislocation, and emigration while Aleppo’s Muslim population has soared.
The threat of annihilation is constant, as Aleppo has become the main battleground between the government forces of President Bashar Assad and a motley assortment of rebels who include growing numbers of fighters affiliated with the fundamentalist terrorism of the Islamic State group.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Catholic Journalist and Longtime Bishops’ Spokeswoman, Dies at 67
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a quiet nun with a keen wit who led a very public life as a journalist and a longtime spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, died on April 28 after a tough battle with cancer.
She was 67 and passed away in a hospice in Albany next to the regional convent of the religious order she entered as a 17-year-old novice in 1964.
Walsh had moved to her native Albany from Washington last September after it was discovered that the cancer that had been in remission since 2010 had returned.
She was able to receive better care there and live out her days with other members of the Sisters of Mercy. She was transferred to the hospice on April 23 as her condition deteriorated.
“Sister Mary Ann,” as she was known to the many journalists she sparred and joked with and, with regularity, befriended, worked at the communications office of the American hierarchy for 20 years, retiring in the summer of 2014 just before she fell ill again.
She became director of media relations for the USCCB — the first woman to hold that position — after coordinating media for World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, which featured an enormously successful visit by then-Pope John Paul II.
Faith Leaders Call for Religious Protections Ahead of Gay Marriage Hearing
As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on April 28 that could wind up legalizing gay marriage nationwide, dozens of Christian leaders have issued a call to civil authorities to preserve “the unique meaning of marriage in the law” — but also to “protect the rights of those with differing views of marriage.”
The open letter “to all in positions of public service,” released April 23, seems to reflect a growing recognition by same-sex marriage foes that they may be on the losing side of the legal battle to bar gay marriage and need to broaden their focus to securing protections for believers.
Gay marriage opponents are also losing the battle for the hearts and minds of their own flocks: Polls show that American believers, like the rest of the public, are growing much more accepting of same-sex relationships, or at least much less inclined to invest time or resources into waging the fight against legalizing gay marriage.
This week’s statement, “The Defense of Marriage and the Right of Religious Freedom: Reaffirming a Shared Witness,” was signed by 35 religious leaders representing Catholic, evangelical, Pentecostal, Orthodox, and Mormon churches. The only non-Christian signatory was Imam Faizul Khan of the Islamic Society of Washington Area.
The leaders forcefully reiterate their shared belief that marriage is “the union of one man and one woman” and argue that apart from religious doctrines, the state “has a compelling interest in maintaining marriage” for the good of society and the “well-being of children.”
Will the PBS Series ‘Wolf Hall’ Tarnish St. Thomas More’s Halo?
Sir Thomas More loses his head in this Sunday’s episode April 26 of the acclaimed PBS historical drama, Wolf Hall, which is not much of a spoiler since that’s what infamously happened to More in 1535 at the hands of King Henry VIII.
The real suspense now is whether More will also lose his halo.
Not officially, of course: Thomas More remains a Roman Catholic saint by dint of his refusal to accept Henry’s plot to have his first marriage annulled. The onetime Lord Chancellor of England also opposed Henry’s power play against the pope, which led to the establishment of the Church of England.
More was formally canonized in 1935, on the 400th anniversary of his execution.
But in these past decades the secular world was also burnishing More’s reputation by turning him into the contemporary standard-bearer of the righteous man, wielding only his conscience and religious principles against the power of the state — the Man for All Seasons, as the 1966 Academy Award-winning film (and earlier play) depicted him.
“I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first,” More declares in playwright Robert Bolt’s famous line, a riff on More’s own last words.
Yet what Wolf Hall does — and the reason such an intense debate has erupted over the series — is to engage in some bold revisionism by depicting More not as a saint but as “a heresy-hunting, scrupulous prig,” as the Catholic writer George Weigel put it.
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.
Timeline: The Long and Contentious Duel Between Rome and American Nuns
The long and often contentious duel between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious came to an abrupt end on April 16. The probe of the umbrella group that represents most of the nation’s 50,000 nuns concluded with an amicable resolution that avoided serious sanctions for the sisters.
Here’s how the dispute played out:
April 2008: The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taps Bishop Leonard Blair, then head of the Diocese of Toledo in Ohio, to carry out a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR.
December 2008: The Vatican’s office that oversees religious orders — the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life — launches a parallel review of all women’s orders in the U.S. because of reports about “a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist spirit.’”
July 2010: Blair submits his eight-page initial assessment of the LCWR to the Vatican.
April 2012: The CDF announces a surprise crackdown on the LCWR, accusing the group of allowing views that have “serious theological, even doctrinal errors,” and conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
April 2012: The Vatican appoints Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, along with Blair and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., to directly oversee an overhaul of the LCWR that would give the hierarchy the final say on the sisters’ statutes, speakers and published materials.
June 2012: After consulting the membership, the LCWR leadership responds by saying that the Vatican crackdown was based on “unsubstantiated” allegations and caused “scandal and pain” in the church. A week later, LCWR leaders meet with top Vatican doctrinal officials in Rome in what is called an atmosphere of “openness and cordiality.”
Vatican Ends Controversial Investigation of U.S. Nuns with Olive Branch
The Vatican on April 16 officially ended a controversial investigation of American nuns with a face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes from the pontificate of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
“We are pleased at the completion of the (investigation), which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice,” Sister Sharon Holland, president of the leadership network of nuns that had been under investigation, said in a statement released following a meeting in Rome with the Vatican’s top doctrinal officials.
“Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the church and the people it serves,” said Holland.
“We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
A brief statement from Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and leader of the effort to rein in the nuns, who were seen as too liberal, shed little light on what the long-running investigation achieved and seemed aimed at moving past the contentious saga.
Mueller said he was confident that the mission of the nuns “is rooted in the Tradition of the Church” and that they are “essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.” The original report had accused the nuns of promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
In another indicator of the thaw in relations, the delegation of American nuns met later on April 16 with Francis for 50 minutes in a warm encounter that seemed to underscore the sisters’ affinity for the pope’s focus on social justice and on pastoral outreach to the world.
“Our conversation allowed us to personally thank Pope Francis for providing leadership and a vision that has captivated our hearts and emboldened us as in our own mission and service to the church,” the nuns said in a statement.
“We were also deeply heartened by Pope Francis’ expression of appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through our lives and ministry and will bring that message back to our members.”
Pope Francis Throws the Weight of His Office Behind Tackling Climate Change
The Vatican is set to host a major conference on climate change this month that will feature leading researchers on global warming and an opening address by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The meeting, which the Vatican detailed on its website late on April 14, is another sign of Pope Francis’ “green agenda” and another potential red flag for conservatives who are already alarmed over an expected papal teaching document on the environment that is scheduled for release this summer.
The one-day summit on April 28 will also include participants from major world religions and aims to “elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical,” as the papal document is known.
Another goal, says a statement on a Vatican website, is to highlight “the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people — especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations.”
U.S. Catholic Bishops Back Obama on Iran, Warn Congress Against Meddling
The U.S. Catholic bishops have welcomed the Obama administration’s tentative agreement aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and their top spokesman on international affairs bluntly warned Congress against doing anything to undermine it.
The bishops “oppose efforts that seek to undermine the negotiation process or make a responsible multi-party agreement more difficult to achieve and implement,” Bishop Oscar Cantu, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace Committee, wrote to House and Senate lawmakers on April 13.
“The alternative to an agreement leads toward armed conflict, an outcome of profound concern to the Church,” said Cantu, who heads the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M.
The warning — and accompanying support in a letter of commendation that Cantu sent last week to Secretary of State John Kerry — follow a thumbs-up from Pope Francis to the proposed accord, and coincides with an endorsement on April 13 by a group of largely liberal mainline Protestant leaders.
Diplomats from the U.S. and six world powers meeting in Switzerland earlier this month unveiled the framework of what could be an historic accord to inspect Iran’s growing nuclear program and prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, ‘the Pope’s Theologian,’ Reveals the Brains Behind Francis’ Heart
Pope Francis has repeatedly said he expects his papacy to be a brief one, but Cardinal Walter Kasper is working to ensure that the pontiff’s legacy endures long after this pope leaves the scene.
From the first days of his pontificate two years ago, Francis singled out Kasper for high praise; ever since, the retired German cardinal is frequently known as “the pope’s theologian.”
It’s a moniker the churchman shrugs off with a smile, yet it’s also a label he’s doing nothing to shake, especially in light of Kasper’s most recent book, published last month — a short work that basically describes Francis as a theologian in his own right whose pastoral approach is setting Catholicism on a new course.
The title of the book, from the U.S. Catholic publishing house Paulist Press, says it all: Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love.
But the title also sums up the two-pronged challenge for those, like Kasper, who hope that Francis’ papacy represents lasting change.
Is the U.S. a Model of Interfaith Harmony for a Violent World?
Is religion the cause of so much of the violence racking today’s world? Or is faith just one of many factors? Or collateral damage?
Those are tough questions, the kind that are usually posed to religious leaders, not by religious leaders.
But Cardinal Timothy Dolan wanted to switch things up on his weekly radio show, so he invited a minister, a rabbi, and an imam to tackle that issue. What sounds like the opening line of a joke was actually an in-depth discussion of “the rise of religious intolerance.”
“I don’t know if there would be anything more pertinent today, or more timely today, than religious harmony, or the lack thereof,” Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, said March 31 in opening a special edition of his program on the Catholic Channel of the SiriusXM network.
“The elephant in the room is that today, whether we like it or not, religion is often the cause of scandal,” he said.
“Religion is supposed to be an overwhelmingly positive force that brings people together, that increases love and understanding, human progress and human enlightenment.”
But many people today — believers and nonbelievers alike — see religion as the opposite, he said, and “that keeps the four of us up at night.”
New York City to Change Rules to Allow Churches to Rent Schools
Congregations in New York City that rent space in public schools will be able to hold Easter services this Sunday despite a ruling on March 30 by the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting an appeal from an evangelical church in the Bronx that sought to overturn a ban on after-hours worship services at public schools.
A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio also said that the mayor would work to ensure that houses of worship could continue to rent space like any other group.
“Now that litigation has concluded, the city will develop rules of the road that respect the rights of both religious groups and nonparticipants,” Wiley Norvell said in response to the ruling.
“While we review and revise the rules, groups currently permitted to use schools for worship will continue to be able to worship on school premises.”
Pastor Robert Hall of the Bronx Household of Faith, which was the plaintiff in the case, said he was cautiously optimistic after the administration’s response.
“We are gratified that he is allowing the churches to stay,” Hall told The New York Times.
Obama to Host Pope Francis at White House in September
President Obama will welcome Pope Francis to the White House during the pontiff’s U.S. visit in September to “continue the dialogue … on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said March 26.
The meeting with the president and first lady will take place on Sept. 23, apparently near the start of a visit — the first to the U.S. by the Argentine pope — that will take Francis from the U.S. Capitol to New York and the United Nations and will conclude with a huge outdoor Mass in Philadelphia.
“During the visit, the President and the Pope will continue the dialogue, which they began during the President’s visit to the Vatican in March 2014, on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” Earnest said in a statement.
Those issues, he said, include “caring for the marginalized and the poor; advancing economic opportunity for all; serving as good stewards of the environment; protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world; and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”