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all things catholic | John L. Allen Jr.

After Hobby Lobby, time to face the real war on religion

Pope’s meeting with abuse victims, change at the Vatican bank, and quality control in exorcism

A vigil was held on Monday outside a Hobby Lobby store in Oklahoma in opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision that some companies like the chain of arts-and-craft stores can avoid the contraceptives requirement in President Obama’s health care overhaul if they have religious objections.

AP/file

A vigil was held on Monday outside a Hobby Lobby store in Oklahoma in opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision that some companies like the chain of arts-and-craft stores can avoid the contraceptives requirement in President Obama’s health care overhaul if they have religious objections.

Last week’s big religion story in the States was Monday’s Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case, striking down the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandates for some closely held firms. Predictably, America’s Catholic bishops applauded the ruling while expressing hope it will extend to nonprofits, such as the University of Notre Dame and the Little Sisters of the Poor, which also have legal challenges pending.

Wherever one stands on the merits of requiring employers to cover birth control, this seems a good time for the White House to find a political solution without putting everyone through litigation that now seems terribly redundant.

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Among many faith-based groups, Monday’s ruling is being celebrated as a big win for religious freedom. And protecting religious expression was indeed a major focus of the decision. Yet Americans might do well to recall that in many other parts of the world, believers face threats far graver than lawsuits or fines.

Here’s a partial rundown of what was happening elsewhere while Americans were obsessing over which way the Supreme Court would go.

In Iraq, there was no Mass in Mosul on Sunday, June 15, the first time in almost 1,600 years the city was completely devoid of any Catholic worship on what Christians regard as the Lord’s Day. Observers say the 3,000 Christians who had remained in the city in mid-June, already down from an estimated 35,000 at the time of the US-led invasion in 2003, fled after Mosul fell to the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

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In North Korea, a US citizen named Jeffrey Fowle was arrested for “perpetrating hostile acts,” after an inspection of his hotel room turned up a Bible. Officials say they’ll put him on trial, and it’s no idle threat. Since the armistice in 1953 that ratified division of the Korean peninsula, some 300,000 Christians in North Korea have disappeared and are presumed dead, while 50,000 to 70,000 are believed to be languishing in detention camps.

In Nigeria, scores of church-goers were killed in the latest wave of violence by the radical Boko Haram movement, with militants firing on four churches in Borno state, including the Protestant Church of Christ in Nigeria and the Pentecostal Deeper Life Bible Church, and then setting them ablaze. The death toll reportedly was at least 30.

In China, more than 360 churches have been targeted for either demolition or defacement, such as the removal of crosses on the exterior. The official logic is clearing space for urban development projects. But it seems clear the crackdown is directed at churches that resist the control of government agencies whose mission is what authorities call “theological reconstruction,” meaning purging Christianity of elements which the state regards as incompatible with its methods and priorities.

In India, 35 villages in Chhattisgarh state announced a ban on non-Hindus entering the area, following an incident in which Christian families were beaten by Hindu radicals. Such violence is stunningly common. The Evangelical Fellowship of India recorded 131 such acts in 2012, an average of one every 2.7 days. Perpetrators are rarely arrested or charged, in part because India’s Christian population is disproportionately composed of tribal minorities and the underclass of the old caste system.

In a nutshell, this is what a real “war on religion” looks like.

As the first pontiff from the developing world, Pope Francis seems alert to these realities. One of his standard rhetorical tropes has become that there are “more witnesses, more martyrs in the church today than there were in the first centuries,” often citing the Middle East as his concrete for-instance.

There are signs such consciousness is growing.

When Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York delivered his farewell address as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2013, he called on American prelates to adopt a more global frame of reference.

“Protecting religious freedom will be a central social and political concern of our time, and we American bishops already have made very important contributions to carrying it forward,” he said.

“Now we are being beckoned - by history, by Pope Francis, by the force of our own logic and the ecclesiology of communion — to extend those efforts to the dramatic front lines of this battle, where Christians are paying for their fidelity with their lives.”

For sure, Christians aren’t the only ones suffering, and, if religious freedom is to mean anything, it has to apply across the board.

Yet Christians across the developing world arguably merit special concern, in part because their numbers are higher, and in part because their stories often go untold. Their plight flies in the face of the more common narrative in which Christianity is the faith of the dominant power, not the victims of oppression.

As the examples above illustrate, there are grievous exceptions to that vacuous generalization all over the world.

Perhaps the real winner of the Hobby Lobby case, in other words, could turn out to be those Christians who find themselves in a literal firing line. If Americans can take a breather from their largely metaphorical wars of culture, maybe these folks will finally get the attention they deserve.

What to expect from pope’s meeting with abuse victims

Pope Francis will meet victims of clerical sexual abuse for the first time on Monday. The plan is for a small group to join the pontiff for his morning Mass, and then for the pope to sit down with each victim one-on-one. This time there won’t be any Americans in the group, though the pontiff may meet with victims from the United States when he travels to the country in September 2015.

Pope Benedict XVI met victims six times, and on each occasion the Vatican didn’t announce the encounter until it was over. In this case, Francis revealed plans for the meeting during the return flight from his May 24-26 trip to the Middle East. But even so, organizers are trying to keep things low key. Whatever information emerges is likely to come from the victims rather than Vatican channels.

Francis is famously unpredictable, making it hard to handicap how the meeting will play out. If things hold to form, however, there are three outcomes one can reasonably expect.

First, the meeting should strengthen the pontiff’s resolve.

Anyone who’s ever listened to abuse victims tell their stories knows the experience packs an emotional punch. What action might ensue is a different question, but it’s basically impossible to walk away thinking “no big deal.”

As proof, one may criticize the unfinished business of Benedict XVI, but there’s no denying he moved the ball on the church response to abuse scandals. As the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, he was critical in upholding the American bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy. As pope, he weeded hundreds of abuser priests out of the system, including almost 400 in 2011 and 2012 alone.

Aides say Benedict’s willingness to act was influenced by reading case files in which victims recounted their experiences and was strengthened by meeting them in the flesh. If anything the impact may be even stronger on Francis, who tends to wear his heart on his sleeve to a greater degree.

Second, victims in the room are likely to come away with positive vibes.

As a rule, victims who agree to take part in these sessions tend to be the kind still open to reconciliation with the church, or who at least believe it’s possible the church will do the right thing. Moreover, it’s not as if they’re walking in off the street — they’ve been invited by church officials precisely because they’re disposed to dialogue.

In the press, the victims’ voice tends to be carried by watchdog groups. That’s an entirely legitimate function, but it’s not in every victim’s interest. Some see making peace with the church as part of healing, and some are willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, seeing a mix of light and shadows rather than a uniformly depressing landscape.

Generally, those victims don’t hold press conferences, but they’re part of the story, too.

In addition, many victims over the years have found it hard to get anyone in officialdom to listen. Being taken seriously by the pope, therefore, is in itself often a powerful balm.

Third, victims’ groups and reform movements are likely to strike a skeptical stance.

In the past, critics have warned that these meetings create an expectation of change, and if it doesn’t come, at least to the degree victims expected it would, the disappointment will be correspondingly greater.

Experience lends some credence to that concern. Bernie McDaid, for instance, was 11 years old when he was molested for the first time by Fr. Joseph Birmingham at St. James Parish in Salem, Mass. He was among the first five victims to meet a pope, taking part in an April 2008 encounter with Benedict XVI in Washington, D.C.

At the time, McDaid expressed optimism that the wheels were turning. He later changed his tune, helping to organize a protest at the Vatican in 2010.

Reached for comment on Thursday, McDaid said he’s not optimistic Francis’ encounter will be any different.

“Despite the media hype about what a nice guy this pope is, it’s taken more than 14 months for him to reach out, and that alone says a lot to me,” McDaid said. “[Church officials] talk about moving on, but when you see them doing the same old things it’s almost like getting abused all over again.”

In general, such critics tend to see three things as defining what counts as convincing action:

 A uniform global “mandatory reporter” policy of turning over all accusations of abuse to the police and other civil authorities, and full cooperation with their investigations;

 Full transparency, including releasing all records concerning abuse allegations;

 Accountability, not just for clergy who abuse but also for bishops and other superiors who fail to make “zero tolerance” stick.

Whatever one makes of those demands, they’re likely to figure prominently in reactions to Monday’s meeting.

Transition at the Vatican Bank

On Monday, I posted a story reporting that Ernst von Freyberg, the German businessman named in the final days of Benedict’s papacy as president of the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the Vatican bank, is on his way out. I also pointed to French financier Jean-Baptiste de Franssu, a member of the pope’s new Council for the Economy, as his likely replacement.

That still seems the most likely scenario, with Corriere della Sera, the Italian daily, reporting on Saturday that the Vatican’s anti-money-laundering watchdog has given a green light. According to Maria Antonietta Calabrò’s report, the Financial Information Authority found no conflict of interest in the fact that de Franssu’s son works for the Promontory Group, the US-based regulatory compliance firm hired by the Vatican last year to review accounts at the bank.

The son, Louis-Victor de Franssu, was hired in March, after the contract at the bank expired in December 2013. For its part, Promontory says the hire also complied with its own internal policies about employing family members of current or past clients.

The politics of the situation are that de Franssu and another member of the Council for the Economy, Joseph F.X. Zahra of Malta, are both seen as allies of Australian Cardinal George Pell, tapped by Pope Francis in February as his new finance czar. If de Franssu does take over at the bank, insiders will read it as another way in which Pell is bringing the Vatican’s financial entities into his orbit.

Over the weekend, Vatican sources told the Globe that de Franssu’s appointment is “90 percent certain.” It’s not a slam dunk, however, because resistance is percolating both internally and in the press.

On the inside, reports suggest that when the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisers met this week, the lone Italian member, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, voiced concern over concentrating too much power in the hands of a small group of members of the Council for the Economy, especially Zahra, de Franssu, and Italian businessman Francesco Vermiglio.

Externally, those three figures have been branded in the Italian press as a “Maltese lobby,” with the allegation being that all three have ties to a company founded by Zahra called Misco Advisory and potentially stand to profit from taking control of the Vatican’s investment activity.

On background, Vatican officials say those charges are baseless, noting that “Misco Advisory” was a market research firm, not an investment company, which currently exists only on paper, and that de Franssu never played any role with the company. They also note that members of the Council for the Economy serve pro bono.

In truth, it seems clear that the criticism of Zahra, de Franssu, and Vermiglio is mostly a stalking horse for striking back at Pell, whose rapid accumulation of power has made him a lightning rod. To fans, Pell is a strong leader bulldozing past obstacles to reform; to critics, he’s replicating the same sleazy patterns he was supposed to eliminate, such as appointing cronies to key posts and operating in secret, all the while projecting an air of moral superiority over the old guard.

Pell will take part in a Vatican news conference on Wednesday to talk about where things stand vis-à-vis financial reform.

If things hold to form, the criticism of de Franssu actually may make it more likely that he’ll get Francis’ blessing.

Last year, the pope’s pick to be his personal eyes and ears at the bank, Monsignor Battista Ricca, was the object of a cause célèbre after veteran journalist Sandra Magister published charges that Ricca had cruised gay bars while serving as a Vatican diplomat in Uruguay in the late 1990s. Among other things, Ricca was once allegedly beaten up in a gay neighborhood of Montevideo, and another time he and a young male consort were allegedly trapped in an elevator at the Vatican embassy and had to be rescued by the fire department.

Despite the scandal, Francis never flagged in his support for Ricca, who remains on the job and whose recent critical letter about von Freyberg may well have played a role in the decision to make a change.

On background, sources close to the pontiff said two factors explained his support for Ricca: First, the pope genuinely believes that Ricca is trustworthy, whatever the situation in Uruguay may have been almost two decades ago. Second, Francis didn’t want to set the precedent that opponents of reform can block it by engaging in character assassination against his chosen reformers.

By that logic, seeing de Franssu taking some PR hits may actually seal the deal in his favor.

As a footnote, depending on how things shake out, the question of who runs the bank may soon become significantly less important. One hypothesis is that its “asset management” function, meaning how the bank invests an estimated $9 billion in holdings, may be consolidated with a similar operation in another Vatican department and assigned to a new office.

If that happens, as one observer put it, the bank would become no more than “a neighborhood savings and loan — only without the loans.”

Quality control in exorcism

It never ceases to amaze some people that the Catholic Church persists in taking exorcism seriously. The latest round of perplexity was stoked this week when the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy announced that it has extended formal recognition to the International Association of Exorcists, a group founded in 1990.

For the record, this is not a case of the old guard striking back at Francis. The Congregation for Clergy is led by a prelate hand-picked by the current pope, Italian Cardinal Beniamino Stella, and Francis himself famously invokes the devil more openly than his recent predecessors.

Few media storylines about Catholicism sell as reliably as exorcism, making it possible that last week’s news may stoke a new round of reports about an alleged “revival” or “resurgence” in the practice.

My take is that what is really going on here is an attempt by the church at quality control.

The fact is, belief in demonic possession and deliverance among ordinary believers never went away. What did go into eclipse for a while following the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s was the willingness of seminary-educated clerics to offer exorcisms, and of bishops to permit them, because some among the church’s elite looked upon the practice as an anachronism.

The result was that Catholics who perceived themselves in need of deliverance were sometimes driven outside official venues to find it, into the arms of only vaguely authorized clergy whose practices often raised theological question marks.

Anyone who ever watched Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, the controversial African prelate known as the “Zambezi Zinger” due to his zeal for casting out spirits, fill up soccer stadiums in Italy during the 1990s knows the drill. (Milingo later broke away, with the support of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.)

What’s happening now, in other words, amounts to a belated recognition that making it hard for people to get exorcisms doesn’t mean they’ll stop wanting them. It means they’ll look elsewhere, sometimes in places the church doesn’t approve.

By appointing exorcists in a growing number of dioceses, and by recognizing their organizations, officialdom at least gives itself the possibility of exercising oversight. They can try to flag cases where psychological counseling is more appropriate, for instance, or to see if steps short of full-blown exorcism, such as special prayer devotions, may do the trick.

At the end of the day, Catholicism does include the belief that demonic possession happens, and that exorcism is at times the appropriate remedy. Right now, however, the church isn’t so much on a campaign to revive exorcism as it is to recover its influence over how it’s practiced.

Related:

Editorial: Court loses its way in Hobby Lobby decision

Supreme Court limits birth control coverage rule

Court allows college to avoid filling out document over contraceptives

Dwight G. Duncan: Our legal heritage favors religious freedom

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.
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