Pope Francis Arrives, Reassures U.S.: 'I'm a Catholic, Not a Communist!'

Image via Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/RNS

Pope Francis touched down in Washington on Sept. 22 after a historic visit to Cuba, the first Latin American pope in history on his first trip to the U.S. He comes “as a migrant,” as a top papal aide put it, on a six-day visit filled with great expectations for the popular pontiff but also numerous challenges.

Among them are the sharp, even personal criticisms directed at him from American conservatives upset with his thundering pronouncements against economic injustice and climate change, and from conservative Catholics upset that his focus on the poor and marginalized is undercutting the Catholic Church’s focus on battling abortion and gay marriage.

Francis himself addressed those concerns even before he landed, telling reporters aboard the chartered Alitalia jet that everything he has said is in keeping with church teaching and laughing at repeated accusations that he is a communist or radical left-winger:

“I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church,” Francis said, according to Catholic News Service .

“I follow the church and in this I do not think I am wrong.

The Politics of Contraception

Kwangmoozaa / Shutterstock

Kwangmoozaa / Shutterstock 

NOT LONG AGO, a friend asked my opinion about birth control pills. She and her husband, who have several young children, wanted to use them, but she had misgivings.

She had read an article by a Christian couple that had frightened her. “They basically just blasted the entire idea of using hormonal birth control on the basis that it is pretty much abortion,” she said.

Although evangelical sex manuals from the 1970s, including Ed and Gaye Wheat’s Intended for Pleasure, advocated the pill as a means of enjoying the delights of the marital bed without fear of pregnancy, some evangelicals today have a very different perspective. A recent Christianity Today blog series on contraception that I participated in received vigorous and occasionally vitriolic responses, despite giving voice to a range of perspectives: Advocates of hormonal contraception were featured alongside proponents of natural family planning.

How is it that contraception has become a religious battlefield—even, or perhaps especially—among evangelical Protestants?

A certain myth currently in circulation among conservative Christians (Catholic and evangelical alike) harkens back to a pre-contraceptive past when parents welcomed innumerable children, each as a gift from God. In this mythical narrative, the advent in the 1960s of the modern contraceptive pill fostered in people a “hedonistic mentality” and made them “unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality.” After the pill, children were no longer seen as gifts, but as burdens—“diseases” to be vaccinated against. If, despite precautionary measures, a woman conceived, then her modern “contraceptive mentality” would all but determine that she have an abortion. “Abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

Echoing Evangelium Vitae, in 2006 Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler called for the “rejection of the contraceptive mentality that sees pregnancy and children as impositions to be avoided rather than as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured.” He also charged that the “effective separation of sex from procreation” was “one of the most ominous” and “important defining marks of our age,” leading to all kinds of sexual degradation.

The implication, of course, is that earlier ages were more closely aligned with God’s will and with “natural law,” the classical philosophy praised by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.

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How the Vatican Links Human Trafficking, Climate Change, and God

Vladimir Wrangel /

Sunset over the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Photo via Vladimir Wrangel /

On July 21 and 22, the Vatican hosts two conferences on human trafficking and climate change, bringing the mayors of major cities — including several in the U.S. — to Rome for the events. What do human trafficking and climate change have to do with each other? And what does Catholicism have to do with them? Let us explain.

Q: Why is the Vatican concerned with human trafficking and climate change?

A: If Pope Francis has two pet issues, they are human trafficking and climate change. Since the first year of his papacy he has spoken against human trafficking, calling it “a crime against humanity” and lamenting it as modern slavery. It’s an even bet that when the pope addresses the United Nations in late September he will hammer it as one of the crucial issues of our time. Ditto on climate change. In June, the pontiff published his encyclical — the highest teaching of the church — on climate change.

“Our home is being ruined and that hurts everyone, especially the poorest among us,” Francis said just before the publication of the encyclical.

Jim Gaffigan's Catholic Comedy

Image via TVLand/RNS

Image via TVLand/RNS

Jokes about somebody’s religious beliefs are often duds.

But jokes about your own religious beliefs somehow push the line between funny and offensive, making room for laughter and, occasionally, sharp commentary.

That’s the philosophy behind The Jim Gaffigan Show, a new series premiering on TVLand on July 15 featuring Jim Gaffigan — the popular stand-up comedian known for his Comedy Central special and the books Dad Is Fat and Food: A Love Story — and his wife, Jeannie.

The husband-and-wife team say their Catholicism — with its daily prayer, weekly Mass, and rosary recitation with their five kids — is such a part of their own lives that not including it in their work would be dishonest.

“It’s part of the story,” said Jeannie Gaffigan, an executive producer of the new show and Jim’s frequent collaborator.

Five Faith Facts about George Pataki, a Catholic Who Doesn’t Always Toe the Line

Former New York Gov. George Pataki speaks in Nashua, N.H on April 17, 2015. Imag

Former New York Gov. George Pataki speaks in Nashua, N.H on April 17, 2015. Image via RNS/REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Pataki is Roman Catholic but has frequently taken stances that conflict with Catholic teaching. He supports abortion rights and tried to restore the death penalty in New York state. He doesn’t often invoke his faith and has selectively highlighted his Catholicism. Here are five faith facts about the married father of four.

Who Was St. Patrick, and Would He Drink Green Beer?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / RNS

St. Patrick of Ireland. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / RNS

For Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans, March 17 is the Feast Day of St. Patrick. For the rest of us, it’s St. Patrick’s Day — a midweek excuse to party until we’re green in the face. But who was Patrick? Did he really drive the snakes out of Ireland or use the shamrock to explain the Trinity? Why should this fifth-century priest be remembered on this day?

Q: Was St. Patrick a real guy, and would he approve of green beer?

A: Yes, Patrick was a real person, but not much is known of his life. He was born in the late 300s when the Roman Empire extended to England, so he was not “really” Irish — like the vast majority of people who celebrate his day. In his “Confessio,” one of only two surviving documents attributed to him, Patrick wrote that while his father was a Christian deacon, he was not devout. At age 16, Patrick was captured by Irish marauders, carried across the Irish Sea and enslaved. Patrick spent six years alone in the wilderness tending his master’s sheep, praying constantly. “It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was,” he wrote. He began to have visions and hear voices that told him: “Look, your ship is ready.” So Patrick left his first flock and walked 200 miles to the coast. It’s a pretty safe bet he would have loved a beer, green or otherwise, as he stepped into a boat bound for England.

Addressing the Changing Face of Faith

Rawpixel /

Rawpixel /

The 6.5 million people in the greater Houston area now surpass New York City and Los Angeles as the most racially and ethnically diverse urban area in the U.S. That's the site where a broad spectrum of U.S. church leaders met this week to consider the impact of immigration on their congregations, and on the rapidly changing expressions of Christianity within North American culture.

The group gathered at the annual convocation of Christian Churches Together in the USA, which includes the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, several Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, the Orthodox Churches, some Historic Black churches, and nearly all the major historic Protestant denominations. All of these are experiencing the impact of immigration. Most dramatically, for instance, 54 percent of millennials — those born after 1982 — who are Catholic are Latinos. Of the 44 million people living in the United States who were born in another country, 74 percent are Christian, while only 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent Buddhist, and 3 percent Hindu.

While church leaders in the U.S. have expressed united support for the reform of U.S. immigration laws, this is the first time an ecumenical body has gathered to examine together the actual consequences of immigration on the life and witness of its churches.

Pope Francis: 'We Will Not Find the Lord Unless We Truly Accept the Marginalized'

Pope Francis in September, giulio napolitano /

Pope Francis in September, giulio napolitano /

In a powerful sermon that signaled his desire to push ahead with historic reforms, Pope Francis on Sunday said the Roman Catholic Church must be open and welcoming, whatever the costs.

He also warned the hierarchy not to be “a closed caste” but to lead in reaching out to all who are rejected by society and the church.

“There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost,” Francis told hundreds of cardinals and bishops arrayed before him in St. Peter’s Basilica at a Mass centered on the story of Jesus healing a leper rather than rejecting him.

“Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking,” the pope said as he outlined the current debate in the church between those seen as doctrinal legalists and those, like Francis, who want a more pastoral approach.

“Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences,” Francis declared. “For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family. And this is scandalous to some people!”

Breeding 'Like Rabbits,' Sex by Rhythm Method, and Other Natural Family Planning Myths

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano /

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano /

In discussing birth control and population issues when visiting the Philippines recently, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church promoted “responsible parenthood” that didn’t require good Catholics to be “like rabbits.” The frank imagery prompted a flurry of playfully creative headlines that ranged from mocking to woeful. And the byproduct of such reaction stories? The continued misinformation on what Catholics currently practice and what the Catholic Church actually teaches when it comes to family planning.

The pope’s remarks referenced Catholic teaching that prohibits artificial birth control. Family size, according to the Church, should be regulated by abstinence or a form of Natural Family Planning, sometimes characterized simply as trying really hard not to have sex when you’re “not supposed to,” which often fails and results in a ton of kids. Proponents of NFP say the method(s), and its practitioners, are too often misunderstood.

NFP for pregnancy prevention involves charting a woman’s cycles by testing for various biological markers — like basal temperature or cervical mucous — in order to assess fertile days and abstain from sex during that time. According to the World Health Organization, fertility awareness methods like NFP are 95-97 percent effective when used correctly and consistently (75 percent with typical use), and individual NFP models claim higher effectiveness.

Practicing NFP can certainly be complicated, especially when taking into account marriage and family dynamics that aren’t always conducive to the attention it requires.

But while it may be more difficult than, say, popping a daily pill or using an IUD, modern technology — like tracking apps and temperature-monitoting gadgets — is simplifying the process and coinciding with a resurgence in popularity. NFP practitioners say they appreciate the choice it offers — whether the motivation is following Church teaching or simply avoiding synthetic hormones.

You Can Really Call This Wine ‘Vintage Francis’

Photo via Kimberly Winston / RNS

“Our Lady of the Grapes” overlooks the Trinitas Cellars vineyard in Napa Valley. Photo via Kimberly Winston / RNS

It was a good thing for Trinitas Cellars that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Pope Francis, and not, say Pope Malbecius.

When the Argentine cardinal became pope in 2013, Trinitas didn’t have any malbec — the famous Argentine grape — in its cellars. But it happened to have a few barrels of cabernet franc.

Behold! Thus was born “Cabernet FRANCis,” a 2012 red wine from Trinitas, a Catholic-owned winery nestled behind the iconic grape crusher statue at the southern foot of the Napa Valley.

“People kept asking me, ‘Why didn’t you make the pope a malbec?’” said Garrett Busch, the 28-year-old CEO of Trinitas, as he spoke in the winery’s book-lined library tasting room, a bottle of the wine before him. “And I’m like, ‘Come on guys, he made it easy on us.’”

Actually, the story is a bit more complicated. Trinitas, which is owned by Garrett’s parents, Tim and Steph Busch, made the family’s Catholic faith a part of business since its founding in 2002. Meetings and special events begin with prayer, winery dinners start with grace, and the winery’s website announces the family’s intention to “serve God in all they do.”

Even its name is Latin for the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.