Somewhere deep in their souls, most Catholics long to feel proud of their church and its leaders. At times, however, that sense of pride can seem all but buried under an avalanche of heartache and bad news.
All Things Catholic
Not long ago, I was invited to address a Catholic organization in the United States that’s experiencing tensions with other sectors of the church. (I know, I know, who isn’t?) A couple of bishops also took part in the meeting. After my usual shtick about avoiding the trap of tribalism, someone asked if I saw any concrete signs of hope.
I was on the brink of answering when one of the bishops -- a guy known for being fairly middle of the road -- volunteered to tackle the question. He said if what we’re talking about is overcoming divisions, there’s a great resource to draw upon: Focolare, a Catholic movement whose spirituality is premised on unity.
I and maybe two or three other people in the room who had actually encountered Focolare over the years were enthusiastic, while everyone else just looked confused.
The story illustrates three points about Focolare (an Italian word meaning “hearth”), a movement founded by Italian lay woman Chiara Lubich in 1943, which today has 140,000 core members and some two million affiliates in 182 nations:
- In a time of bitter divisions, Focolare is one of the few outfits with a track record of bringing people together.
Popular culture is full of misconceptions about Rome, but here are two of the most persistent: That the Vatican is exclusively defined by its worst days, and that Catholic life in Rome is exclusively defined by the Vatican.
As for the Vatican, the working assumption is that unless CNN or the Google news ticker has an item, nothing’s really happening. In truth, most mainstream news outlets are interested in the Vatican only if there’s a meltdown -- if a Holocaust-denying bishop has been rehabilitated, for instance, or if a new document suggesting the pope dropped the ball on the sex abuse crisis has come to light.
Such developments do merit attention, but they hardly tell the whole story. If you want to understand what the institution is all about, you have to cast a wider net.
If ever an object lesson were needed in the complexities of running the universal Catholic Church, a recent interview with Bishop Bernard Fellay, the Swiss head of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, offers it in living color. It may be an especially apposite read for liberals, both inside and outside the church, who sometimes struggle to grasp that there’s actually Catholic life to the right of the pope.
Granted, although its bishops are no longer excommunicated, the Society of St. Pius X -- which broke with Rome in 1988, when the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained bishops in defiance of the pope -- has no formal standing in the church. Granted, too, we journalists probably pay more attention to the traditionalists than their real-world following might justify, largely because they often say and do inflammatory things that make great copy.
For better or worse, Egypt is now a bellwether of the struggle for the soul of global Islam. While a great deal is up in the air, one point seems crystal clear: If the post-Mubarak choice comes down to Islamic militants on one side and Western-style secular liberals on the other -- what we might call the "Facebook crowd" -- then the militants are going to win, and they're going to win huge.
Try as we might to remind ourselves that the Catholic church isn't Microsoft and that quantitative measures of success or failure don't always correspond to the logic of the Gospel, most of us take that lesson to heart only selectively. Some Catholics can't resist touting the huge crowds at World Youth Day as an endorsement of their version of orthodoxy; others cite polling majorities in favor of reform on birth control and other issues as proof of the sensus fidelium.
Here’s a question that astute observers of the religious landscape find themselves asking these days, and which deserves a serious response: Why doesn’t Christianity have its own Holocaust literature?
Any logician worth his or her salt will confirm that deduction, moving from the general to the specific, is a much stronger form of argument than induction, which works the other way around. The problem with drawing broad conclusions from specific cases is that a counter-example may be lurking just around the corner.
Even so, I’m going to try my hand at some induction this week, teasing out broad implications from three specific storylines percolating around the Catholic world.
[Note: There were two Vatican stories this week with wide implications, and which one strikes people as the bigger deal may say something about their sense of the burning issues facing the church in the early 21st century. In Ireland, a 1997 Vatican letter came to light which is being touted in some quarters as proof of a Vatican-orchestrated cover-up of priestly sexual abuse. In Egypt, the prestigious Al-Azhar University announced it has suspended a long-standing dialogue with the Vatican in protest over recent comments from Pope Benedict XVI requesting greater protection for the country's Coptic Christian minority. My take on the Vatican letter can be found at Is Vatican letter on abuse a 'smoking gun'?, while my news item on the Al-Azhar story is at Major Islamic university in Egypt suspends ties with Vatican.]
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The big news of the day has already been posted to the NCR Web site. See the story I filed earlier this morning: Vatican announces May 1 beatification for John Paul II
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We live in a world of warning labels, on cigarette packages, slippery floors, rear-view mirrors, and on and on. Whatever one makes of that, if labeling is to be the rule of the day, I hereby propose that any news item with the word "Vatican" in the headline carry the following proviso: "Warning: The following story may be bunk."
The suggestion is prompted by the latest bogus Vatican news cycle, in this case a flurry of stories last weekend reporting that the Vatican is collaborating with the U.S.-based Discovery Channel on a documentary series called "The Exorcist Files." Wire services and blogs quoted Discovery Channel President Clark Bunting to the effect that the network had secured exclusive insider access to the Vatican for the series, set to debut this spring, which allegedly would include "ride-alongs" with exorcists as they set out to combat demons.