Amman, Jordan — Pope Francis may have characterized his three-day swing this weekend to the Middle East as an “exclusively religious” pilgrimage, but on day one in Jordan he struck a couple of notes that sounded an awful lot like politics.
On Saturday, the pope met 400 young refugees and disabled people, many of them part of the estimated 1.3 million Syrians now living in Jordan who have fled their bloody civil war. He issued what he called a “heartfelt appeal” for peace and called on the international community “not to leave Jordan alone” in confronting its humanitarian challenge.
Earlier, the pope complained that the Syrian conflict “has lasted all too long” and urged both a peace deal there and a “just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” During a speech later in the day, he added a strong condemnation of the arms trade at the last minute, asking that “God convert those who make and sell arms and have a project of war.”
The pontiff also used strong language on a burning political concern for the small Christian community in the Middle East — the protection of religious minorities.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” the pontiff said in remarks at Amman’s Royal Palace, a speech that marked his debut in an Arab nation and a majority Muslim state.
“I cannot fail to express my hope that [religious freedom] will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world,” Francis said, adding that “Christians consider themselves, and indeed are, full citizens.”
He insisted that religious liberty includes “freedom to choose the religion one judges to be true,” seemingly an indirect criticism of laws common in Muslim societies that bar defection from Islam.
(As a footnote, that phrase stirred heartburn in some traditionalist Catholic circles on the grounds that it contradicts earlier papal condemnations of “religious indifferentism,” meaning the idea that all religions are equal. In context, however, that didn’t really seem what Francis had in mind. It may be a sign of the times that just as some liberal activists once stood ready to pounce on every word of Benedict XVI, the other side now has its eyes on Francis.)
Francis is the fourth pope to visit the “Holy Land,” meaning Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel. He’ll spend most of Sunday in Bethlehem before heading to Jerusalem, with a schedule on Monday that includes visits to the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.
He’ll also meet Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and for the first time in the Holy Land the two leaders will preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was buried.
The Vatican recipe for Holy Land outings dictates that Jordan is the primary platform for addressing the Middle East and the Islamic world, while the stop in Israel is mostly for Israelis and the Jewish community and Palestine is for the Palestinians and local Christians.
By raising the refugee crisis and religious freedom in Jordan, Francis thus made it clear that both are matters with wide implications. The two are closely related, since a large chunk of the refugee population in the region is made up of Christians, driven into exile not just by fighting and political chaos but also rising religious tensions.
In a brief departure from a prepared text, Francis offered a one-word exhortation to those Christians, who have dropped from 20 percent of the Middle East’s population in the early 20th century to less than 5 percent today: “Corraggio!,” the Italian word for courage, which is used colloquially to mean “hang in there; stay strong.”
Ironically, Jordan may be one of the least logical Middle Eastern venues in which to make the case, because Christians here are relatively well off. They’re prominent in the economic and political elite, and Jordan’s Hashemite rulers pride themselves on being urbane and tolerant, sponsoring various interfaith projects.
Even here, however, Christians report a sense of being seen as “other,” and some privately wonder how long the monarchy can hold out against the Arab Spring that elsewhere has emboldened fundamentalists.
Against that backdrop, Francis sketched a vision of religious freedom that goes well beyond physical safety.
It includes “the freedom to follow one’s conscience and freedom of worship,” he said, both for individuals and groups.
Quoting the conclusions of a 2010 Vatican meeting of bishops on the Middle East, he said it also means the freedom to “manifest one’s beliefs in public,” a challenge to the practice in some Muslim cultures of tolerating the presence of Christians but discouraging public displays of faith.
Locals seemed pumped up to see the pope, with 2,000 flag-waving Christian youth lining the streets while a motorcade of eight red Land Rover armored convertibles led the pontiff to Amman’s Royal Palace. (The pope took a simple four-door sedan.)
Later on Saturday, Francis said Mass in an Amman stadium and visited a site near the Jordan River that some believe to be where Jesus was baptized.
In a brief salute to reporters aboard the papal plane, Francis promised a press conference on the return flight to Rome Monday night. It’ll be interesting to see if this religious pilgrim has some political points to score then too.
Moderates in, hard-liners out
Whenever new cardinals are created, the countdown begins to see which Vatican departments the pope will assign them to as members. Those decisions matter because, while each office’s staff does the day-to-day work, it’s the member prelates who set policy.
Generally the most-watched appointments are to the Congregation for Bishops, because it’s the body that recommends new bishops to the pope.
Francis named 19 new cardinals back in February, and on Thursday he divvied up their memberships. Strikingly, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was not named to the Congregation for Bishops. Both his predecessors, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI) and American Cardinal William Levada, had been named to the body.
Instead, Francis tapped two cardinals from outside Rome, Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom and Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia in Italy, as well as three other Vatican officials: Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state; Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; and Beniamino Stella, the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.
Formally speaking, one could say that because Levada is still a member, Müller simply has to wait his turn for two years until his predecessor turns 80.
Nonetheless, Thursday’s appointments will likely be seen as another choice by Francis in favor of pragmatic moderates at the Congregation for Bishops, after omitting American Cardinal Raymond Burke and replacing him with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., in December. All five prelates appointed on Thursday are seen as middle-of-the-road figures, while Müller is usually perceived as more of a doctrinal hard-liner.
Now that Francis has his picks in place, it will be fascinating to watch what kind of bishops the new-look congregation finds.
Vatican vs. UN, round two
When a United Nations panel first blasted the Vatican for its handling of the child sexual abuse scandals in February, officials lodged several protests, chief among them that the report from the Committee on the Rights of the Child failed to acknowledge any progress by the Catholic Church in the last decade and that the committee waded into politics by attacking Catholic doctrine on abortion, homosexuality, and contraception.
One could argue that both punches landed, since the latest UN report on the scandals lauded corrective measures by the church and scrupulously steered clear of the culture wars. The Vatican’s envoy to Geneva, Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, told the Globe on Thursday that the new document is “more technical and professional” than the first.
Ironically, that could make the May 23 report from the Committee against Torture more challenging for Rome than its predecessor, which was easier to dismiss as ideologically driven.
The new report cites several specific cases, including Fr. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, a priest who returned to his native India after being charged with molesting a 14-year-old girl in Minnesota in 2004 and is being pursued by American prosecutors, and Polish Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, a former papal envoy in the Dominican Republic accused of sexual abuse both in that country and in Poland who has not been extradited from the Vatican to face charges.
The committee also cited the so-called Magdalene laundries in Ireland, institutions for indigent women during the 19th and 20th century in which abuse was allegedly widespread. The panel asked the Vatican to ensure that victims “receive fair, adequate, and enforceable compensation . . . regardless of whether perpetrators have been brought to justice.”
The committee added it is “concerned by reports’’ that Catholic officials “resist the principle of mandatory reporting” of abuse allegations.
By not muddying the waters with politics, and by acknowledging positive steps taken, the Committee against Torture may have increased the pressure to provide convincing responses. In a statement on Friday, the Vatican pledged to “give serious consideration to these recommendations.”
A financial reformer emerges
From the outside, the trick to financial reform in the Vatican is often framed as breaking the Italian stranglehold by injecting a more “global” approach. Yet there are also different cultures within Italy itself, meaning that one can sometimes alter the center of gravity in the Vatican without looking outside il bel paese.
One such time-honored contrast is between the ecclesiastical and political circles of Rome versus the business and professional culture of Milan.
Enter Franco dalla Sega, a Milan-based professor, lawyer, and corporate adviser who one month ago was named a consultant to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, or APSA, the department that handles the Vatican’s roughly $3 billion investment portfolio and its real estate holdings in Italy and abroad. It’s difficult to estimate the total value of those holdings, in part because heretofore APSA has not carried out regular appraisals to ascertain the real worth of the property.
Dalla Sega’s last name, by the way, means “of the saw,” fitting for someone brought in to help trim costs.
Officially, dalla Sega is a consultant to the Extraordinary Section of APSA, which runs its investment activities. However, the April 5 announcement also said he will be involved in planning an overhaul of APSA as part of Francis’ broader financial reform.
Insiders say dalla Sega has become a go-to figure, winning the trust of APSA personnel and establishing strong ties with other key players, including René Bruelhart, director of the anti-money-laundering Financial Information Authority; Ernst von Freyberg, president of the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the “Vatican bank”; and Cardinal George Pell, who serves as the Vatican’s finance czar.
Dalla Sega’s role is critical, because most insiders believe the Vatican bank today is fairly far down the path to reform and that APSA will be the tougher nut to crack. If there’s a concern, it’s mostly that his role only requires him to be in Rome two or three days a week, and some wonder if he can get his hands around the system on a part-time basis.
Dalla Sega’s ascent, perhaps, goes to show that sometimes you don’t have to change passports in order to change perspectives.
Francis keeps friends close, enemies closer
Any fan of the “Godfather” series knows the line “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” It’s apparently a bit of wisdom that Pope Francis has taken to heart, as illustrated by his choice last week to name an old Argentine rival to a Vatican position with special responsibility for sex abuse cases.
On Monday, Francis tapped Archbishop José Luis Mollaghan, 68, of Rosario, Argentina, for a new position at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, assigning him to a commission being set up to hear appeals in cases in which clergy have been disciplined for “grave offenses,” which usually means sex abuse, through administrative means rather than trials under church law.
(As a footnote, the announcement was a good example of how Francis will sometimes jump the gun, making public reference to a move that hasn’t actually yet been taken. In this case, the decision to set up an appeals commission hadn’t been communicated to anyone before the pope named someone to it.)
The appointment raised eyebrows in Argentina, where Mollaghan is seen as an ally of Archbishop Héctor Rubén Aguer of La Plata, who was well known as the leader of conservative opposition to then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope. When Mollaghan was named to Rosario in late 2005, rumors held that Bergoglio had not been consulted.
Locals say Mollaghan has a rocky relationship with his priests in Rosario, with some taking complaints to Rome. Earlier this year, Francis asked a retired Argentine bishop named José María Arancibia to look into the situation, which also concerned alleged irregularities in the use of church funds.
However, none of this means Mollaghan is unsuited to his new role. He holds a doctorate in canon law from Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University, later taught canon law in Argentina, and served on the tribunal of the Buenos Aires archdiocese. He also served two terms as secretary general of Argentina’s episcopal conference.
Mollaghan has some experience with the sex abuse issue. In 2010, one of his priests was accused of sexually harassing eight people, including a minor. Mollaghan was initially accused of trying to cover it up, but eventually encouraged the alleged victims to go to the police and announced plans to help launch a national commission dedicated to fighting sex abuse.
In sum, Francis may have accomplished two things at once: Solving a problem in Rosario, and at the same time putting Mollaghan in a job in which he can help advance the pontiff’s agenda.
One point is clear: Given the intense scrutiny that surrounds the church’s response to its sexual abuse scandals, Mollaghan’s performance in Rome will be closely watched.
Four other stories worth noting
First, Italy has the only bishops conference in the world in which the president is appointed by the pope. The arrangement arguably poses problems for both sides. It could be seen as limiting the independence of the conference, while at the same time it requires the pope to be involved in Italian affairs and, perhaps, narrows the Vatican’s horizons.
Pope Francis had asked the Italian bishops to consider revising their statutes to elect their own president, but during a meeting in Rome last week they balked. Insisting that their unique link with the papacy is a “value to be upheld,” the bishops adopted a system in which they’ll present a list of three names to the pope and he’ll make the final pick.
What the bishops didn’t add is that the Italian conference is notoriously fractious, and some prelates may have feared direct elections would inject greater acrimony and risk a dictatorship of the majority.
In other words, this may be one of those cases in which papal authority isn’t a threat to collegiality, meaning shared authority among the bishops, but its backstop.
Second, the superior general of the influential Jesuit religious order, Spanish Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, has announced plans to step down in late 2016. The Jesuits will convene a General Congregation, an assembly of members from around the world, to choose a successor.
The Jesuit superior is traditionally elected for life, one of the reasons the role has been dubbed over the years the “black pope.” Nicolás, however, becomes the second consecutive Jesuit superior to resign, following the lead of Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach in 2008.
While comparisons between the leader of a religious order and the pope are an apples and oranges exercise, it’s hard not to see the trend in the Jesuits in tandem with Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down, and to draw the conclusion that resignation, even from the most senior positions, is becoming “normalized” in the Catholic Church.
Third, the Vatican staged a press conference on Tuesday to publicize an anti-human-trafficking project organized around this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, called “Play for Life, Against Trafficking.” It’s sponsored by a network of women’s religious orders called Talitha Kum, the Aramaic version of Jesus’ exhortation after he raised a 12-year-old girl from the dead in the Gospel of Mark: “Little girl, arise!”
Aside from highlighting the struggle against trafficking, the press conference had a layer of political subtext by bringing together Vatican heavyweights and nuns in a spirit of common cause. Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, head of the Vatican department that oversees religious life, shared the stage with Sr. Carmen Sammut, president of the International Union of Superiors General, or UISG, the main umbrella group in Rome for women’s orders.
It’s no secret that in recent years, the relationship between the world’s nuns and the Vatican has sometimes been strained. In that context, I asked both Braz and Sammut if their collaboration marked a sort of healing.
“The relationship between the world of religious life and the Holy See is very close,” Braz said. “It has positive aspects and some not so positive, just like human life. We’ve had to clarify some positions, but we see great collaboration and getting closer to one another.”
“In the face of difficulties, we’ve chosen the path of dialogue,” he said.
Sammut, a Maltese member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, struck a similarly conciliatory note, saying that in the year she’s been president of the UISG she’s experienced “a lot of collaboration” with the Vatican office led by Braz.
“We can have differences, but what’s important is that we stay true to one another, that we can mention what we see as questions and challenges and find solutions together,” she said.
Fourth, news came from Austria last week that the leader of a liberal Catholic reform group called “We Are Church,” which has a significant global profile, along with her husband have been excommunicated for staging Masses without a priest.
(As a technical matter, they likely incurred an “interdict” rather than an “excommunication,” though both penalties involve exclusion from the sacraments, because interdict is the prescribed penalty in church law for this offense.)
Whatever one makes of the development, two small clarifications are in order.
Initial headlines suggested that Pope Francis had excommunicated the couple. In reality, the decree came from a church court in the diocese of Innsbruck, following a preliminary investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that never ended up on the pope’s desk. The Austrian Catholic news agency KathPress reported that Francis had not even been informed of the decision.
Further, purists in church law will insist that nobody imposed a penalty on the couple, but that they penalized themselves. Under canon 1378 and 1379 of the Code of Canon Law, interdict is automatic for the offenses listed in that section, including taking the role of an ordained priest in saying Mass. The Latin phrase is latae sententiae, meaning “sentence already passed.”
In such circumstances, the idea is that the church doesn’t impose a penalty, but simply recognizes a penalty that has already been incurred. That may not be much consolation for Martha and Gert Heizer, but it’s how the lawyers see it.