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Thoughts from Rome: the Vatican newspaper, religious life

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Early December in Rome is usually a period of relative calm, as things begin to slow down ahead of the Christmas holidays. That makes it a good moment to take stock, looking back to the major turning points of the past year and ahead to things to come.

Two conversations I’ve had this week illustrate that stock-taking mood.

Only Benedict could go to China

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In the political argot of our time, Pope Benedict XVI is unquestionably a "conservative." A core aim of his papacy is to revive a strong sense of traditional Catholic identity over against radical secularism, a classically conservative agenda.

Precisely because of those credentials, however, the old American axiom that "only Nixon could go to China" fits Benedict XVI like a glove. Because of who Benedict is and what he represents, every once in a while he can do things a more "liberal" pontiff either wouldn't dare or couldn't pull off without splitting the church apart.

In defense of L'Osservatore Romano

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[Note: "All Things Catholic" is being published early this week, ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.]

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising comments on condoms in his new book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, titled Light of the World, obviously has been the big Vatican story this week. I wrote a piece for the BBC analyzing what the pope said and didn’t say, which can be found here: Why condom comments are no earthquake in Catholic teaching. I’ve also laid out other interesting elements in the book in a piece for NCR: Pope on condoms, sex abuse, resignation ... and movie nights

The press and the sex abuse crisis of 2010

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Note: My take on the significance of the election of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan as the new president of the U.S. bishops can be found here: Three keys to reading the Dolan win at the USCCB

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Under the best of circumstances, the Vatican and the secular media struggle to understand each other, and the first half of 2010 was hardly the best of times. As a new wave of the sexual abuse crisis swept across Europe and raised critical questions about Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican officials accused the press of bias, while news reports and editorial pages blasted the Vatican for dishonesty and denial.

Vatican misdirection, the relevance of the pope, Iraq and Sudan

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Magicians understand that playing on an audience's expectations is the heart of making a trick work. When people think they know what's going to happen, where their attention ought to be focused, a little misdirection is usually all it takes.

Making sense of current events, just like catching on to a trick, has a lot to do with seeing past expectations. When a priori assumptions cloud one's perceptions, it's easy to miss what actually happens.

The past week brought two good examples of misdirection, albeit largely unintentional, vis-à-vis the Vatican. Diagnosing how the trick was pulled is important to an accurate understanding of what's going on.

Pondering Islam and its discontents

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While Americans were preoccupied with midterm elections, the besieged Christians of Iraq faced yet another threat to their survival -- survival of the literal sort, not merely political. The blow came with an attack on a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad, Our Lady of Salvation, which was seized by Al-Qaeda terrorists during Sunday Mass. A police raid left an estimated 57 dead and more than 60 wounded.

Thinking straight about Israel, the Jews and the Archbishop

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Editor's Note: All Things Catholic is being posted early this week because of the timeliness of the subject. For background, look to John Allen's full coverage of the the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, located here.

We in the media have a genius for grabbing a small but sensational piece of a bigger picture and banging it like a cheap drum, which usually produces a fun-house mirror view of reality: Relatively small things seem huge, while bigger and more significant things shrink into near invisibility.

To take the most obvious recent example, whatever the big picture is for Islam in America, it certainly isn’t an epidemic of Qur’an burnings. Yet the mere threat of such an event from a Florida pastor whose entire congregation could fit into a phone booth held the world hostage for a month thanks to saturation “will he or won’t he?” coverage.

In some ways, reaction to the close of the Oct. 10-24 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East is following the same script.

Beyond a 'Darth Vader' view of secularism

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The 67 million Catholics in the United States represent just six percent of the global Catholic population of 1.2 billion, but we sometimes have a hard time understanding how the other 94 percent lives. Beginning next week, there’s a golden opportunity to think more globally about the challenges of the early 21st century -- that is, if we’re paying attention.

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April 11-24, 2014

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