Catholic Church

Portrait of Pope Francis by Debby Bird, Reston, Va. Via RNS

Pope Francis’ friendly letter to atheists, published this week by Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, has been cheered by Catholics who welcomed another sign of the pontiff’s new openness to the world beyond the Vatican walls.

But it has also prompted some gnashing of teeth among others, who are reacting to headlines about the pope’s letter like this one in the British newspaper The Independent:

“Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.”

Excommunicated Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who advocates for married priests within the Roman Catholic Church, said he has not split from Rome though many of the priests he ordained no longer see themselves as part of the church.

“We are not a breakaway church,” said Milingo, who married Maria Sung, a Korean acupunturist, in 2001. “Within the Catholic Church married priests existed for a thousand years.”

Even as the world’s powers grasped for a last-minute resolution to the crisis in Syria, it remained an open question whether any amount of diplomacy could prevent the conflict from claiming at least one more victim: the classic Christian teaching known as the “just war” tradition.

The central problem is not that the just war doctrine is being dismissed or condemned, but that it is loved too much. Indeed, both sides in the debate over punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons are citing just war theory, but are reaching diametrically opposed conclusions.

Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an “open dialogue free of prejudices” between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”

Francis’ front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.

The pope’s letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis met for three hours with the heads of all Vatican departments on Tuesday, Sept. 10, signaling his desire to introduce more collaboration and transparency in the traditionally secretive and top-heavy governance style of the Catholic Church.

About 30 people attended, including the heads of the Vatican’s eight congregations and 12 councils, as well as top officials from the church’s tribunals and from the administration of Vatican state.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s outgoing secretary of state, also participated, in one of his last official engagements before his successor, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, takes over on Oct. 15.

Pope Francis waves to crowd in St. Peter’s Square. RNS photo: Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis waves to crowd in St. Peter’s Square. RNS photo: Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY — Since mid-July, Pope Francis has been using Communion wafers made by an Argentine prisoner in the daily Mass he celebrates at the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence.

The hosts are made by Gabriela Caballero, a 38-year-old woman who is serving a seven-year jail term in the San Martin Penitentiary outside Buenos Aires.

Her story was revealed by the Argentine news agency NOVA and picked up by Il Sismografo, a blog with close connections to the Vatican.

Caballero gave the hosts, together with a long letter to the pope, to Bishop Oscar Ojea of San Isidro, who regularly visits the prison. Ojea, in turn, delivered the hosts to the pope on July 16 during a visit to the Vatican.

Francis began using the hosts on July 18; the day after he wrote back to Caballero, thanking her for the gift.

Kevin Appleby 8-14-2013
Stamp of an immigrant family. Photo courtesy catwalker/shutterstock.com

Stamp of an immigrant family. Photo courtesy catwalker/shutterstock.com

More than any other organized religion in the United States, the Catholic Church is an immigrant church that has grown with the nation, welcoming successive generations of immigrants who have helped build our country. To borrow a phrase from a toy store, immigrants are us.

More recently, some have questioned the bishops’ involvement in the national debate over immigration, perhaps wanting the church to stay neutral. But if they did so, they’d be untrue to their roots.

The church and her institutions have welcomed and helped integrate into American life Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Central and Eastern Europeans who fled Europe after the Second World War; and Latin American and Asian populations more recently.

RNS photo by David Gibson.

Giovanni Pierinelli checks on his Baby Jesus inventory at the Catholic Marketing Network. RNS photo by David Gibson.

Centuries ago, Roman Catholics helped kick-start the market for religious articles with their insatiable demand for rosaries, icons, prayer cards, and all manner of devotional objects and spiritual souvenirs.

But in recent decades, evangelical Protestants have dominated the art of religious retailing, building a national network of bookstores and stamping the Christian message on almost any item that an American consumer might want, from perfume to golf balls to flip-flops.

Now, Catholic entrepreneurs are looking to catch up, and at the 17th annual Catholic Marketing Network trade show last week (Aug. 6-9) there was a sense that the Catholic sector has a new opportunity to expand — if businesses can update their approach and broaden their inventory beyond the usual catalog of sacred objects.

“If you are a Catholic gift and bookstore and you are not willing to reinvent yourself, you are going to be out of business,” said Alan Napleton, president of the network, which organizes the convention.

Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis answers journalist questions after the World Youth Gathering. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

For more than three decades, the Vatican of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI operated on a version of the conservative maxim, “No enemies to the right.”

While left-wing theologians were silenced and liberal-to-moderate bishops were shunted aside in favor of hard-liners, liturgical traditionalists and cultural conservatives were diligently courted and given direct access to the apostolic palace.

But in a few short months, Pope Francis has upended that dynamic, alienating many on the Catholic right by refusing to play favorites and ignoring their preferred agenda items even as he stressed the kind of social justice issues that are near and dear to progressives.

Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

In message published on Friday, Pope Francis took the rare step of personally expressing his “esteem and friendship” to the world’s Muslims as they prepare to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast.

While it is a long-established Vatican practice to send messages to the world’s religious leaders on their major holy days, those greetings are usually signed by the Vatican’s department for interfaith dialogue.

In his message, Francis explains that in the first year of his papacy he wanted to personally greet Muslims, “especially those who are religious leaders.”

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had fraught relations with Muslims. In a 2006 speech he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Muhammad had only brought “evil and inhuman” things to the world, sparking a worldwide crisis in Christian-Muslim relations.

Christian Piatt 8-01-2013
Painting of Pope Francis by faithmouse / Flickr.com

Painting of Pope Francis by faithmouse / Flickr.com, http://www.flickr.com/photos/dan_lacey_pancakes/

Pope Francis quickly is establishing himself as the “peoples’ Pope.” He has actively advocated for the poor, downplayed his elevated status, and speaks in colloquial terms that make him seem that much more human. He has left open the possibility that non-Catholics, non-Christians, and even atheists may fall within the vast embrace of a radically loving and merciful God. And now, he’s even made what many consider at least a benign – if not affirming – statement about homosexuality.

Historically, popes have toed an ideological line, asserting that homosexuality is inherently evil, and that all gay people are fundamentally disordered. In an expression of sincere humility, political savvy, or perhaps some combination of both, Francis took a more compassionate position, adding at the end of his comments, "who am I to judge?"

Welcome to the 20th century, Catholic Church.

Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 29. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

With his open and easygoing manner, Pope Francis charmed the media as much as the faithful during his successful visit to Brazil, the first international pilgrimage of his pontificate.

But it was the pope’s remarks about gay priests, made during a free-wheeling press conference on the return trip to Rome, that drew the most headlines, raising questions about whether the pontiff was signaling a change in the church’s approach to this volatile issue.

When asked by reporters about rumors of a “gay lobby” of clergy in the Vatican who were exposing the Holy See to blackmail schemes and scandal, Francis at first joked that while there’s a lot of talk about such a lobby, “I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word ‘gay.’”

Then, in a more serious vein, he added:

“I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. … If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”

Kevin Eckstrom 7-23-2013
Photo courtesy RNS.

The Rev. Helmut Schuller is founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative. Photo courtesy RNS.

An Austrian priest who’s been banned from speaking at Roman Catholic churches during his three-week U.S. tour said Pope Francis could be an ally in reforming the Catholic Church, but said it will take more than the pope to open the priesthood to married men and women.

The Rev. Helmut Schuller, founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, has been drawing crowds of several hundred people with his call for greater participation from the church’s lay “citizens” and a married priesthood.

“We are trying to open the church to a real approach to modern society,” Schuller said Monday in a speech at the National Press Club. “There are a lot of questions to our church in these times, and the answers are really old-fashioned.”

Photo courtesy RNS.

Workers at Southwest Creations Collaborative in Albuquerque, N.M. Photo courtesy RNS.

Fundraising for the flagship anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops is slowly recovering after being battered by the recession and sharp attacks on its mission.

Officials at the Catholic Campaign for Human Development said that when 2012 collections are tallied after June 30, the program will match or slightly exceed last year’s mark of about $9.5 million. While that is still significantly down from the $12 million that the nationwide campaign was netting a few years ago, the upward trend is reassuring.

“We are pretty optimistic,” said Ralph McCloud, director of the CCHD. McCloud said he was still cautious, given the uncertain nature of the economy, but added that “if things keep going the way they have been, we could see a bit of an upswing.”

 'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com

'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com

A movement of lay advocates speaking out against sexual violence is gaining steam in the faith communities. But are similar efforts happening inside church doors?

When it comes to leading denominational conversations on sexual violence, clergy across traditions express twin reactions: encouragement over the protocols already in place and the efforts of fellow advocates; and frustration with a culture of silence around sexual violence in the church. Despite strikingly different experiences across denominations — and church by church — the clergy, church staff, and seminarians who spoke with Sojourners are in agreement that addressing this issue in one’s own house is complicated at every level.

The result: a loss of potential by the American church to be a leading and vibrant institution of radical vulnerability and transformative healing.

Priests for Life dedicated naming certificates for babies who died in clinic of Dr Gosnell. Photo via RNS/Priests for Life.

Now that the trial for abortion provider Kermit Gosnell has ended with a conviction, many are asking what public officials in Philadelphia plan to do with the 47 bodies from the case.

After Gosnell’s arrest in 2011, then-Archbishop Cardinal Justin Rigali asked the district attorney’s office for the bodies of the aborted fetuses. The bodies were being retained for the trial, but after it ended and Gosnell was sentenced to life in prison, his successor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, has renewed the request to bury the bodies.

Francis Maier, special assistant to Chaput, said that he doesn’t know whether or not a service would include a Catholic Mass, but he said it would be quiet and dignified.

Photo courtesy BEELDPHOTO / shutterstock.com

A figure walks towards the light. Photo courtesy BEELDPHOTO / shutterstock.com

Though the church remains stuck in a culture of silence on sexual abuse, advocates are steadily building the platforms for individual voices to change the narrative. The depth of reconciliation that plays out upon these platforms can be profound. Rachel Halder, founder of Our Stories Untold — a blog that hosts stories from survivors of sexualized violence within the Mennonite church — has witnessed such moments happen in real time.

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

RNS photo courtesy Graphic News.

Is Pope Francis endorsing heresy?

It might look that way from the eye-catching headlines this week that made it appear everyone was bound for heaven — “even atheists!” — thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The passage that prompted the reports came from Francis’ brief homily at the informal morning Mass that he celebrates in the chapel at the Vatican guesthouse.

Speaking on Wednesday, Francis said that as human beings created in the image of God, everyone has a “duty to do good.”

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists,” he said, answering his own query. “Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

Cue the jaw dropping and head scratching. Atheists were pleasantly surprised, conservative Catholics were dazed and confused, and the pope’s comments raced around the Internet; for a while they were the second-most shared piece on Reddit.

So was Francis preaching a form of “universalism?" That is the unorthodox teaching that says, essentially, that all faiths are equal and all are going to heaven, especially if you are nice to people here on earth. It’s also a heresy that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, spent a career quashing every time he thought he thought he spied a hint of it in some theologian’s writings.

Cathleen Falsani 5-24-2013
 RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis waves from the pope-mobile during his inauguration Mass. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

In his two months as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis has captured the imagination not only of his own flock, but that of the world at large.

Many of us, Catholic or not, seem to hang on his every word both for spiritual guidance and clues to the personality of the man we collectively are getting to know as perhaps the most recognizable Christian on the planet.

Two new books offer further insights into the heart and mind of the former Jorge Bergoglio through his own words. Both are fascinating reads for papal watchers and news junkies alike, painting a vivid portrait of the man, the leader, and the humble follower of Christ.

RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

NEW YORK — When Cardinal Timothy Dolan used the morning talk shows on Easter Sunday to say the Catholic Church could do a better job of welcoming gays and lesbians, his remarks were hailed by one activist as an “Easter miracle” and by another as an encouraging “first step.”

But two months later, it’s still not clear what the second step in this fraught process might be, or even if there is a second step. And there are signs that things may only get more complicated.

Since Easter, three more states have passed same-sex marriage laws, and next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hand down a gay marriage ruling that will again spotlight the bishops’ full-throated opposition to a whole host of civil protections for gays and lesbians, particularly marriage.

Moreover, as Americans — and American Catholics — grow increasingly accepting of homosexuality, and as foes of gay rights grow increasingly determined, conflict at the parish level seems inevitable. The uneasy “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy that once allowed gay and lesbian Catholics to take church positions is clashing with their increasing visibility in the form of marriage licenses or wedding announcements.

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