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John L. Allen Jr. | All Things Catholic

Getting to the Crux of why Catholicism matters

Also: Francis and picking bishops, ISIS and the pope, and New York’s Cardinal Dolan on fighting sex abuse

An aerial view of St. Peter’s Square.

MASSIMO SESTINI/Italian Polizia di Stato via AFP/Getty Images/file 2011

An aerial view of St. Peter’s Square.

Anyone conducting a global news search over the past few days under the terms “Catholic” and “politics” would find the usual wealth of material, including the following five storylines from around the world:

 In the United States, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the US bishops’ conference, issued a thumbs-down for new revisions to the Obama administration’s mandate for contraception coverage as part of health care reform. The changes came after the Hobby Lobby decision in June, which struck down the mandates for closely held private corporations.

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Kurtz voiced disappointment that the definition of a “religious employer” has not been expanded and that employers who object to the mandates will still be required to sign a form triggering contraception coverage by their insurance carriers.

If nothing else, the reaction suggests that tensions between America’s bishops and the Obama administration are hardly resolved.

 In the Philippines on Monday, retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz led a group of nuns, priests, and laity in joining a “Stand Up Against Pork” rally in Manila’s Rizal Park. It was part of a widespread popular push to eliminate provisions in the national budget providing lump-sum allocations to lawmakers to use however they like, which critics see as an especially galling form of patronage and corruption.

The Catholic Church is a major backer of the reform effort, conducting its own signature campaign out of parishes and dioceses to eliminate pork barrel spending.

In places such as the Philippines, corruption is a signature Catholic concern, and with good reason. Global Financial Integrity, a research organization based in Washington, estimates that corruption cost poor nations almost $6 trillion over the last decade, draining badly needed resources for education, health care, and poverty relief.

 In India, the Catholic Church this week hosted a major conference on family farms, responding to a growing crisis of farmer suicides.

In the last 10 years, 300,000 Indian farmers are believed to have taken their own lives. Generally these are small-time rural farmers squeezed among mounting debts, declining yields, and pressure from large agriculture conglomerates.

Led by Caritas, a Catholic charitable group, the Indian church is proposing a program of support for small farmers that includes favorable tax and credit policies, price supports, organization of rural cooperatives, and stronger social security protection.

 In South Sudan, security services loyal to President Salva Kiir raided the church-run Bakhita Radio in Juba, taking it off the air for alleged violations of national security. Most observers saw it as an effort to muzzle criticism, which was seemingly confirmed when officials said the station could resume broadcasting if it agreed not to air political programs.

Catholics are an important chunk of the population in South Sudan, and Kiir himself is Catholic. The church backed independence in 2012, but many Catholics have soured on the country’s direction. It’s mired in a civil war and, according to the United Nations, has the worst food crisis in the world, with 50,000 children facing death from malnutrition.

Bakhita Radio was a voice of the independence movement, and Kiir appears afraid it could be a threat to his power as well.

 In Lebanon on Thursday, leaders of Eastern Catholic churches from across the Middle East issued a statement denouncing the Islamic State in northern Iraq and urging the international community to stop its “crimes against humanity.”

In a separate interview with Italian TV, Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad called for an international military effort, including Arab nations, to bring down the self-declared caliphate. He objected to the current US strikes, not on pacifist grounds, but because they don’t go far enough. If the United States was serious, Sako said, it would go after ISIS in Mosul.

In their statement, the patriarchs also warned against mounting anti-Christian pressure in Syria and Egypt, saying Christians there are being forced to migrate due to “aggression and criminally hateful acts.”

These cases are all different, but the common thread in each is that Catholicism matters.

One can question the line church leaders have taken in these situations, and many Catholics do just that. What’s not open to debate is that in a staggering number of places around the world, for good or ill, the church is a player.

Catholicism claims 1.2 billion followers, with two-thirds today living outside the West. It has the most visible religious leader on the planet in the pope, it features a rich tradition of social teaching and activism, and it’s the lone world religion with its own diplomatic corps. As a result, it wields influence on matters that go well beyond the strictly spiritual.

In turn, that brings us to the debut this week of Crux, the new site devoted to Catholic coverage sponsored by The Boston Globe.

In the abstract, some may wonder why a secular news organization would launch a site dedicated to the church. As the examples above illustrate, the real journalistic question is, “Why not?” You don’t have to be Catholic, you don’t even have to be religious, to see the logic of it — all you have to do is pay attention.

Not everybody likes the Catholic Church, and sometimes they have their reasons. What the last few days confirm, however, is that no one, whatever their persuasion, can afford to ignore it. From now on, Crux will be there to tell the tale.

Francis and picking bishops

There’s nothing a pope does that’s more important to shaping the culture of the Catholic Church than appointing bishops around the world, and this past week Francis made a couple of significant moves in Spain and in the Vatican that seem to underline the direction he’s trying to move.

By appointing a new archbishop of Madrid on Thursday, Francis has now filled two of the most important slots in the European church. In July he moved Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki from Berlin to Cologne in Germany, and this week he transferred Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra from Valencia to Madrid in Spain, making him the de facto leader of Spanish Catholicism.

As the saying goes, once may be an accident and twice a coincidence, but three times is a habit. We’ll need a third major nomination to firm up impressions of the kind of man Francis wants in these high-profile jobs, and we may get it soon. At the moment, Francis is pondering new leaders for both Chicago and Sydney, Australia.

For now, however, the way Francis shuffled the deck this week already says a great deal.

For the last 20 years, Madrid has been led by Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, whose reputation is as a culture warrior. He fiercely opposed liberalizing currents in Spanish society, including the adoption of a gay marriage law in 2005, bristling that in today’s Spain “not only is faith denied, but also human reason itself.”

There’s long been a split among the Spanish bishops between those who favor dialogue with secularism and those who want to fight it. While Rouco embodied the confrontational option, Osoro is associated with the moderate line.

When Archbishop Ricardo Blázquez Pérez of Valladolid and Osoro were elected president and vice-president, respectively, of the Spanish bishops’ conference in March, it was considered a setback for Rouco and a vote for change.

The likelihood that Francis sees Osoro the same way finds confirmation in the fact that he had another option readily available.

The pope could have sent Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, who for the last six years has served as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the office that sets liturgical policy. Instead, Francis dispatched Cañizares to Osoro’s old job in Valencia.

Although sound bites often conceal as much as they reveal, it’s telling that Osoro has been dubbed the “Spanish Francis” while Cañizares is known as the “little Ratzinger,” not only because he’s short but because his theological and liturgical views are close to those of Pope Benedict XVI.

The nickname dates from earlier in his career, when Cañizares served as the chief of staff for the doctrine committee of the Spanish bishops’ conference from 1985 to 1992 and was seen as a close confidante of Rouco.

As the Vatican’s top liturgical official, Cañizares has expressed reservations about taking communion in the hand, arguing that receiving it on the tongue in a kneeling position better expresses a spirit of adoration. He also robustly defended Benedict’s decision in 2007 to widen permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass.

During the Benedict years, it was widely believed that Cañizares would succeed Rouco in Madrid, with most observers regarding it as a matter of “when” rather than “if.” Valencia, by way of contrast, is no backwater, but it’s definitely not the equivalent of Madrid in terms of visibility and influence.

At the same time, Francis also has created a vacancy at the Vatican’s liturgical office, which he can now fill with someone more in sync with his own vision.

Adding it all up, the profile of the kind of man Francis seems to look for in key posts is this: Orthodox in doctrine but committed to dialogue and outreach, someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously, who emphasizes concern for the poor and those at the margins, and who gets out of the office and into the streets.

Time will tell how successful Francis is in finding such prelates. By now, however, his aides charged with identifying candidates at least ought to be clear on what the boss wants.

As a footnote, it’s become crystal clear that Francis takes these tone-setting appointments seriously, personally reaching out to people in these places, often by phone, to get a read on the situation and to solicit frank opinions on candidates.

On the Madrid choice, sources in the Spanish church said Francis had taken the selection as something of a “personal mission,” speaking with a wide cross-section of Spanish Catholic leaders. Similarly, several American prelates say Francis has reached out to them about Chicago, bluntly asking them who they believe should get the job, as well as for reactions to names he’s collected from others.

This intelligence-gathering comes on top of the ordinary process for bishops’ appointments, which includes a review of the situation by the pope’s nuncio, or ambassador, in that country, culminating in a set of three candidates, followed by further consideration by members of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, who vote on a revised list of names to submit to the pontiff.

What the pope’s behind-the-scenes activity suggests, however, is that he’s not content to rely on the system when it comes to his most important picks.

The bottom line is that these are not papal acts in name only, but personal decisions by Francis. If they pan out, he’ll have earned the credit, and if they don’t, there’s no one else to blame.

ISIS and the pope

There seems to be a law of the universe that dictates if I’m on the road doing something else, a pope story will break that screws up my schedule. It held firm this Friday, when I was in New York to interview Cardinal Timothy Dolan and ended up being called into CNN to do a couple of segments about reports of ISIS threats against Pope Francis.

To cut to the chase, there’s not a whole lot to the story.

For sure, ISIS is no joke, and quite probably the pope would be on any list of high-value targets for many radical Islamic groups. Yet the Italian report that generated the alarm cited only anonymous sources in Israeli security to the effect that ISIS would like to strike at Francis, but no hard intelligence that such a plot is actually imminent or that they even have the capacity to pull it off.

The actual thrust of the piece seemed to be to take a shot at Italy’s relatively lenient immigration policies, which, the writer implied, risk creating a safe haven for terrorists to such an extent that even the pope might be at risk. In other words, this was one part reporting and one part political commentary.

The Vatican played down any concern, with spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi dismissing the reported threat as “not serious” and saying, “There is no particular concern in the Vatican.”

Security experts also voiced doubts, in part because radical Islamists generally don’t see Italy or the Vatican as an enemy tantamount to either the United States or the United Kingdom, and in part because in the past they’ve preferred to use Italy as a staging area for attacks elsewhere rather than seeing it as a target in itself.

Independent of this week’s alarm, Vatican security personnel say they’re in regular contact with their opposite numbers in Italy, the United States, and elsewhere to monitor potential threats against the pope and to take precautions if they seem warranted.

Francis famously can be a bit indifferent to his own security, so keeping him safe is a special challenge, and any pope is always going to be a tempting target for some. That said, there doesn’t appear to be a concrete reason to believe Francis is in the crosshairs right now — at least, any more than normal.

New York’s Cardinal Dolan on fighting sex abuse

I’ll present my exchange with Dolan sometime soon on the Crux site, so watch for it there. Whether you agree with Dolan or not, he’s always a terrific interview — funny, outspoken, and clearly plugged into what’s going on both at the senior level of the American church and in Rome.

We had a wide-ranging conversation, beginning with his thoughts on the pope at the 18-month mark and a possible trip by Francis to New York next year; the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family, where Dolan will take part; why the American bishops have invested so much time and treasure fighting the contraception mandates; how Dolan reacts when people accuse him of being out of sync with Francis; whether his star has dimmed in the Francis era; whether he’s interested in a job in Rome (spoiler alert: not really); how he’s gearing up for a major round of parish closings in New York this fall; and much more.

For now, here’s an appetizer in advance of the main course.

On the sex abuse front, Dolan insisted that Francis has set the right tone by saying “it must be dealt with vigorously, and I’m here to see that it’s done.” Dolan bristled at the suggestion it’s not a priority for the pope, saying only people “who never want to acknowledge any progress on this issue” would think so.

That said, Dolan offered a series of things he’d like to see Francis do to move the ball more concretely.

 Speeding up the Vatican’s response when bishops request punitive measures against accused priests. “We still cringe at the slow pace at which even clean-cut cases that need to be dealt with decisively move [in Rome],” he said.

 Providing “more precision … about putting some teeth” into accountability for bishops who drop the ball on abuse allegations, beyond simply “spiritual and fraternal solutions.”

 Accelerating the pace of the new anti-abuse commission, not just behind the scenes but in full public view. Any sign of forward motion, Dolan said, would be “a very helpful step in the right direction.”

Perhaps most revealing, Dolan confirmed that opposition among the world’s bishops to an aggressive posture on the abuse crisis may have gone underground, but it hasn’t gone away.

“We American bishops find it very demoralizing to hear bishops in other parts of the world, even some leaders in Rome, who still feel this is an Anglo-Saxon problem, and who say we’ve capitulated to the demands of the media,” he said.

“They say we’ve violated the rights of our priests, and that this [abuse crisis] is only a version of vitriolic anti-Catholicism,” Dolan said.

Dolan said some of the same thinking percolates at the Catholic grass roots. In newspapers, he said, bishops are usually attacked for being too lax. In parishes where a priest has been removed, however, he said the most frequent complain he hears is, “Why did you take Father away from us? We want him back!”

In that context, Dolan said, whatever Francis can do to “elevate this issue to a major concern of the universal church” would be a boon.

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