I spent part of this week at what is arguably the most courageous annual event in Washington, D.C. -- or the most quixotic, depending upon your point of view. It’s the “Social Ministry Gathering” sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which brings together more than 500 Catholic leaders for a week of issue seminars and knocking on doors on Capitol Hill.
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How bad is the Vatican's image problem right now? Consider that recent weeks have seen CEOs taking corporate jets to ask for government bailouts; the governor of Illinois was tossed out of office in a bribery scandal, and his last-minute appointment to the U.S. Senate may not be far behind; three Obama nominees have embarrassed the administration by withdrawing under a cloud; Japan's finance minister quit after reportedly being soused at a G-7 meeting; the world's best baseball player has been caught taking steroids, and the world's best swimmer caught smoking a bong.
Yet even in that sorry context, Monday's New York Times saw fit to devote a lead article to the pope's communications woes. Managing to stand out amid this PR carnage is, in a perverse sense, a rather remarkable accomplishment.
I was in Ireland this week, delivering the inaugural lecture sponsored by the Irish Catholic newspaper on Wednesday night in Dublin. The subject was, "Christianity and Europe: Pope Benedict's vision and the question of European integration."
Whenever high-profile stories break within a short span, commentators will often try to appear clever by finding some common thread. Frequently these are apples-and-oranges exercises which, in retrospect, seem rather forced; the sappy encomia linking Princess Diana and Mother Teresa simply because they died within six days of one another in 1997 offer a classic example.
Within the past seven days, three major stories on the Catholic news beat have raised eyebrows, stirred discussion, and generated diverse reactions both inside the church and out:
On the lecture circuit, I'm sometimes asked for my opinion about the Vatican's communications strategy. My glib answer generally is, "As soon as they have one, I'll be glad to tell you what I think of it."
The line usually draws a few chuckles. However, this week's furor over the lifting of the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including one who's a Holocaust denier, offers a reminder that the lack of PR savvy in Rome is actually no laughing matter.
A year into Benedict XVI’s papacy, the early line was that the people most disappointed were the same ones most jazzed by his election. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus had voiced “palpable uneasiness,” pointing to what some saw as a lack of disciplinary muscle and a few ill-advised appointments. Over time, that uneasiness receded as Benedict took several steps more reassuring to the right, such as his lecture in Regensburg challenging Islamic radicalism and his revival of the Latin Mass.
Recently I was on the PBS "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" show, along with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Kim Lawton of PBS, looking ahead to the big religion stories of 2009. We rounded up the usual suspects, from church/state relations under Obama to debates over gay rights. At the end, host Bob Abernethy asked each of us to flag a "sleeper question" in '09 that we hadn't yet discussed.
British media are justly renowned for their tongue-in-cheek treatment of matters Catholic, and this week they’ve had some fun with a story about a new set of Vatican guidelines for investigating reports of apparitions and visions, such as those surrounding the Virgin Mary. The story first broke Jan. 6 in Rome, on the Italian Catholic web site “Petrus,” but it’s taken a week or so for the Anglo-Saxon press to catch up.
No crisis in the Middle East would be complete without a mini-drama involving alleged Vatican bias in its criticism of Israel, and as if on cue, just such a spat erupted this week. On Wednesday, an Israeli official complained that the Vatican has swallowed "Hamas propaganda," following comments from Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, comparing the Gaza Strip to a "huge concentration camp."
Editor's Note: We're posting Allen's Friday column early this week because of the New Year holiday.
'Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, and in that spirit, I’d like to propose a resolution for Catholics everywhere: To make 2009 truly the “Year of Africa” that Pope Benedict XVI intends.