Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt, killed in Syria last week just shy of his 76th birthday, personified the best of the missionary spirit in Catholicism. He spent 50 years in his adopted country, humbly serving poor and disabled persons regardless of their race or religion.
Whenever a Syrian came to his door seeking help, van der Lugt told a friend, “I don’t see Muslims or Christians, only human beings.”
At the time of his death, van der Lugt was the last Westerner in the bitterly contested city of Homs. On Monday morning, a still-unidentified assailant dragged him into the street outside his Jesuit residence, beat him, and then shot him twice in the head.
Most observers believe the killer was an Islamic radical, though a few suspect the Assad regime may have orchestrated the murder in order to blame the rebels.
For the last several years, van der Lugt served at a small center for mentally and physically disabled people. A Muslim charity would give him around nine pounds of flour every week, which he turned into bread, giving half a loaf to the 30 neediest people he knew.
“I try to help the mentally ill,” van der Lugt said in a recent interview, “not by analyzing their problems, as the problems are obvious and there’s no solution for them here. I listen to them and give as much food as I can.”
Because van der Lugt was a Westerner and part of a high-profile international religious order, his death made headlines. Many similar tragedies, however, never do.
Earlier this month, a 25-year-old Coptic Christian woman in Egypt named Mary Sameh George was hauled from her car near a church in Cairo, mauled to such an extent that portions of her scalp were torn off, and then killed when her throat was slit.
The assailants reportedly were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Vietnam, a Catholic convert and human rights activist named Dinh Dang Dinh died April 4 of untreated stomach cancer in prison, having been jailed in 2012 for “antistate propaganda.”
In that context, van der Lugt’s death has to be seen as part of a dramatic, and often untold, religion story of the early 21st century — the global war on Christians.
To be sure, Christians are not the only group experiencing hardship, nor do they always have clean hands themselves. Christians can be oppressors just as easily as they can suffer oppression. In many circumstances, the motives for anti-Christian violence are mixed, having as much to do with politics, ethnicity, and struggles for material resources as religion.
Also, alarmist rhetoric about a “war on religion” in places such as the United States is sometimes stretched past the breaking point, applied not to actual violence and oppression but to policy debates about which reasonable people draw differing conclusions.
That said, the scope and scale of real anti-Christian violence around the world is nonetheless staggering.
In North Korea and Eritrea, tens of thousands of Christians languish in what amounts to concentration camps for religious prisoners. In Nigeria, Christians face a growing menace from the radical Boko Haram movement. In Iraq, a once-thriving Christian community that can trace its roots back to the early centuries of the faith has been decimated. In India, poor Christians who often belong to the “untouchables” in the old caste system are routinely harassed by radical Hindus, suffering a violent attack at a rate of once every other day.
The high-end estimate for the number of Christians killed for their faith each year is around 100,000, while the low end is a few hundred. That works out to somewhere between one new Christian martyr every hour, if the higher figure is to believed, and one every day.
Part of the reason for these stunning statistics is because there are more Christians than anyone else. There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, one-third of the total population. As a result, the raw numbers of Christian victims are bound to be higher.
Also, Christianity’s greatest growth is coming outside its traditional strongholds, in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, parts of the Middle East. Those Christians are often poor, and they’re often members of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural minorities. They’re also targets of convenience for anyone angry at the West.
Why isn’t this global war on Christians more of a cause célèbre?
Fundamentally, the silence is the result of a bogus narrative about religion in the West. Most Americans and Europeans are in the habit of thinking about Christianity as a rich, powerful, socially dominant institution, which makes it hard to grasp that Christians can actually be victims of persecution.
Frans van der Lugt’s death undercuts that lazy assumption, as do scores of other Christian victims whose stories are never told.
Pope Francis on Tuesday expressed “profound pain” upon hearing of the death of his fellow Jesuit, and Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht in the Netherlands has referred to van der Lugt as a “martyr.”
Perhaps van der Lugt can become a new patron saint for all Christians at risk, because God knows they could use one.
Mixed signals on bioethics
It’s always helpful in any organization when middle managers are clear about what the boss wants. When they’re forced to guess, it’s often a prescription for mixed messages and incoherence.
Something like that may be happening in Catholicism with regard to how hard Pope Francis wants his subordinates to press church teaching on bioethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and artificial reproduction.
The latest example comes from Italy, where a constitutional court this week struck down a key provision of :Law 40,” a restrictive and highly controversial law on artificial procreation adopted a decade ago under the conservative government of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Among other things, the law banned donation of sperm and egg cells, meaning that IVF techniques could only be employed when a couple uses its own genetic materials.
The constitutional court has now eliminated that ban, as other courts had already done with other elements of the law.
Law 40 was adopted in 2004 with strong backing from the Vatican and the powerful Italian bishops conference under then-president Cardinal Camilo Ruini, who also helped successfully fend off a national referendum in 2005 seeking to repeal the law.
This time Catholic reaction to the new ruling has been mixed.
Some have come out swinging. Fr. Renzo Pegoraro, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, called the decision “worrying and displeasing,” and warned that it will have negative consequences for family life. The Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana called the ruling Italy’s “latest act of folly,” saying it promotes “savage reproduction for everyone.” Ruini came out of retirement to tell an Italian newspaper that while he sympathizes with infertile couples, there is no “right” to have a child because it’s a human being, not a piece of property.
Others, however, have been notable for their silence. As Fabio Martini noted in La Stampa on Thursday, there was no immediate reaction from L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. So far, there’s also been no comment from the current president of the Italian bishops conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genova, and few other Italian clerics have entered the fray.
In part, these different notes may be the result of a perception of mixed signals from Francis.
The pope has said it’s not necessary to talk a lot about bioethics, because the church’s positions are well known. He’s also said that as a rule, the church should stay out of politics. On the other hand, Francis has confirmed the church’s traditional teaching, and the fear of wading into politics didn’t stop him from reiterating Catholic views on human life, religious freedom, and conscientious objection during a March 27 encounter with President Obama.
Given all that, it may be a little difficult for some bishops and other Catholic leaders to discern exactly what tone the pope wants them to strike.
This perceived ambiguity actually may be deliberate, a reflection of Francis’ moderate instincts and his desire to let local bishops call their own plays. In any event, the new deal under Francis seems to be a softer line about how to engage issues such as the IVF debate in Italy, and thus a wider range of official Catholic responses.
The Vatican and Venezuela
One of the more intriguing questions about Pope Francis is whether he’ll be able to use the considerable political capital he has amassed to make a difference on social issues the Catholic church cares about, such as conflict resolution and the alleviation of poverty. Can the pope translate his popularity, in other words, into political muscle?
If there’s a place where the stars seem to be aligned for that to happen, it may be Venezuela. Two months of clashes between pro- and antigovernment forces have left at least 39 people dead, forcing both sides to accept the need for a negotiated compromise and creating an opportunity for the Vatican to act as a mediator.
Under Hugo Chàvez, church/state relations in Venezuela were strained. Churches were important centers of opposition to his Socialist regime, which led to periodic crackdowns. Church-owned properties were expropriated, church-affiliated media outlets were muzzled or intimidated, and an education reform eliminated instruction in religion from state-owned schools. Hundreds of Christian missionaries were expelled, accused of contaminating the cultures of indigenous populations.
In January 2009, members of the government-affiliated “La Piedrita” militia launched a tear gas assault on the residence of the pope’s ambassador in Venezuela, at the time Italian Archbishop Giacinto Berloco. It marked the sixth such attack in the previous two years, and was believed to have been motivated by anger over Berloco’s decision to grant asylum to members of the political opposition.
Today the climate is better. President Nicolàs Maduro, by all accounts, has a good relationship with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who followed Berloco as the Vatican ambassador in Venezuela and today serves as Pope Francis’ secretary of state. (Maduro affectionately calls Parolin “Don Pietro.”)
Talks between Maduro and the fractious Venezuelan opposition began on Thursday, witnessed by representatives of neighboring Latin American nations and the current papal ambassador in Caracas, Italian Archbishop Aldo Giordano. The day before, Maduro sent a letter to Parolin asking him to join as a “good faith witness.” The Vatican has credibility in opposition circles, but because of Francis and Parolin it is seen as a fair broker by the government too.
On Friday, the Vatican released the text of a letter Francis sent to the various parties to the talks calling them to a “sincere dialogue” based on “recognition and respect of the other.”
All of which makes Venezuela an intriguing test for whether there’s a “Francis effect” in politics.
Francis and the Synod of Bishops
Under ordinary circumstances, a pope naming an Italian Vatican official as a bishop would be the ultimate in business as usual, sort of a “dog bites man” story. Not so on Tuesday, however, when Pope Francis elevated the number two official at the Synod for Bishops to the ranks of the episcopacy.
It’s the latest gesture from Francis intended to drive home how seriously he takes the synod, and therefore how committed he is to collegiality, meaning sharing power with the bishops of the world. (The synod is a representative gathering of bishops from around the world that advises the pope on some topics, usually meeting every two or three years.)
The 55-year-old Fabio Fabene was named to the role of undersecretary at the synod in February, and now Francis has made him a bishop. Fabene serves under another Italian, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who was tapped by Francis in September to head the synod and made a cardinal in February.
Francis already showed his commitment to the synod by taking the almost unprecedented step of making his way down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad street leading up to St. Peter’s Square, to sit in on meetings of the synod council. In February, insiders also noted that when Baldisseri was inducted into the College of Cardinals, his name came before the heads of major Vatican departments such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That was taken as a signal that in the Francis era, agencies of the Vatican are expected to serve the bishops of the world, and not the other way around.
In the status-conscious world of the Vatican, making sure that both top officials of the synod are bishops is another way of signaling that the pope cares about it. The fact that Francis released a 600-word letter stressing how committed he is to the synod in conjunction with Tuesday’s appointment is another way of making the same point, since popes are not in the habit of issuing statements justifying their episcopal choices.
Given how much Francis has invested in the Synod of Bishops, its first meeting in October, on the subject of the family, takes on special significance. It’s emerged from previous attempts at reform more or less unchanged, and if this edition once again seems like the same old unwieldy gabfest, people may become skeptical about how much change Francis can really deliver.
Also of note...
Two other stories are worthy of a brief note from the Vatican beat this week.
First, Pope Francis made a visit to the Roman parish of St. Gregory the Great in the Magliana neighborhood, an iconic site in the Roman imagination because of its association with organized crime. It’s a tough neighborhood where people don’t have much use for pretense, so the notoriously laid-back Francis fit right in.
One sign waiting for the pontiff upon his arrival read, Come butta France?, which, charmingly, translates as, “How’s it hangin’, Frankie?”
The pope invoked several of his now-standard rhetorical tropes, including the idea that while Christianity is a fellowship of sinners, it’s not supposed to be a church of the corrupt. He also again denounced a “throwaway culture,” including not only the poor and victims of crime but also unborn children among the categories of persons too often regarded as disposable.
Second, to no one’s surprise the pope on Monday confirmed that the Institute for the Works of Religion, the so-called Vatican Bank, will continue to exist, albeit with a slightly modified mission to be worked out in concert with the pope’s new financial czar, Cardinal George Pell, and his Secretariat for the Economy.
Though the Vatican bank has been a magnet for scandal, most observers believe that if it didn’t exist, popes would have to invent it. Catholic religious orders, lay movements, and charitable foundations need someplace to park their assets and a way to transfer funds safely around the world. If the Vatican didn’t offer those services, it’s likely there would be intense demand for it to do so. (For the record, of the $9 billion in management at the bank, most of that isn’t Vatican money but belongs to these other outfits.)
As a result, most observers felt all along that Francis was floating the idea of closing the bank only to make it plain how serious he is about reform. Now that he’s confirmed the bank has a future, it’s “game on” — can the press for transparency and accountability overcome entrenched models of doing business, not just at the bank but across the board?
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.