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A truly international gathering of Catholic ethicists

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I'm reluctant to use the term
"unprecedented" to characterize events I cover, mostly because, upon
inspection, such claims almost always turn out to be hype. Yet it's really
the only way to describe an international gathering of more than 400
Catholic ethicists that took place in Padua, Italy, July 8-11, which lived
up to its billing as the "first international cross-cultural conference
for Catholic theological ethicists."

I've attended any number of theological congresses over the years
styled as "international," which usually means a slew of Europeans and
North Americans, and a smattering of people from other parts of the globe.
What happened in Padua, on the other hand, really was something of a
microcosm of the global church, with dozens of leading thinkers from
Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania mixing with their opposite numbers
from the north.

An African perspective

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To unpack some of this, I sat down with Fr.
John Mary Waliggo of Uganda, a widely influential African theologian and
currently a member of his country's human rights commission. Waliggo is an
enormously appealing figure, with a ready smile, an infectious laugh, and
a salty tongue. In Padua, he led a group of Africans who decided to create
a steering committee for a new society of African ethicists.

The pope in Spain

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Benedict XVI's July 8-9
trip to Valencia, Spain, offered a classic illustration of the dilemma
facing popes when it comes to secular politics, an arena in which they are
almost literally damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they take a
stand, they risk being accused of interference in the secular sphere; if
they don't, critics will complain about their silence.

The solution modern popes have embraced is to speak in generalities
that usually leave little doubt as to their mind, but avoiding direct
statements about particular politicians, governments, or debates. That's
just what Benedict did during his brief, 26-hour trip to Valencia, Spain,
for the close of the fifth Vatican-sponsored "World Meeting of Families."

Changes at the Vatican Press Office

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The Vatican announced
Tuesday that the longtime Director of the Holy See Press Office, Spanish
layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has been replaced by Jesuit Fr. Federcio
Lombardi, the head of both Vatican Radio and Vatican Television.

Lombardi will hold onto those jobs while he steps into the Press
Office.

An assessment of Navarro-Valls' legacy, including his contribution to
the pontificate of John Paul II and to the media sophistication of the
Vatican, will have to await a future column.

For the moment, it's worth noting that one of the most frequent
complaints from cardinals and others in recent years about the Vatican's
communications operation is that there are too many separate fiefdoms,
often speaking independently of one another: Vatican Radio, Vatican
Television, the Press Office, L'Osservatore Romano, and so on.

With Lombardi's appointment, most of these organs are now under a
single leader.

Pope's Spain trip promises drama

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Tomorrow Benedict XVI
travels to Valencia, Spain, for one of the briefest papal trips of recent
memory -- just 26 hours from his arrival at 11:30 am Saturday to wheels-up
again at 1:30 pm Sunday.

Those 26 hours, however, promise to be packed with drama.

The highlight, at least in terms of press interest, is likely to come
at 6:30 p.m. Saturday local time, when Pope Benedict meets José Luis
Rodr'guez Zapatero, the Socialist Prime Minister and bête noire of
European Catholicism. Since taking office in 2004, Zapatero's government
has either adopted or discussed legislation in favor of:


  • Same-sex marriage legislation;
  • Fast-track divorces;
  • Curbing religious education in state schools;
  • Supporting embryonic stem-cell research;
  • Easing abortion laws;
  • Reducing or eliminating public funding for the church.

The latest such move came just a month ago, when the government
proposed allowing transsexuals to legally change their gender without
undergoing surgery.

Expert background

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For context on the Spanish
situation, I turned to Dr. Mary Vincent, an expert on Spanish history at
the University of Sheffield in England. She's the author of the
Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal (Checkmark Books).

Are the clashes between Zapatero and the church the continuation of
tensions that go back to the Civil War?

They're in continuity with
conflicts surrounding the emergence of democracy in Spain in the 1970s.
Especially under Cardinal Manuel Joaqu'n Tarancón y Morón, the church was
hugely important in creating a new model of Spanish society. Lay Catholics
had been active leading up to the transition, inspired by the Second
Vatican Council (1962-65). The days of the confessional state were over,
and that was accepted by Spanish Catholics.

The Holy Chalice of Valencia

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One intriguing sidebar to
the Spain trip is that the Cathedral of Valencia, which Benedict XVI will
visit Saturday, houses what is traditionally believed to be the Holy Grail
itself, i.e., the cup used by Christ to celebrate the Last Supper.

Believers regard it as a relic equal in importance to the Shroud of
Turin, the reputed burial cloth of Christ.

In its current form, the storied "Holy Chalice of Valencia" consists of
two parts.

The upper cup, regarded as the original cup of Christ, is made of red
agate stone, semi-spherical in shape, sometimes described as the size of
half an orange. According to the tradition, the cup was sent to Spain by
St. Lawrence, himself a Spaniard, during anti-Christian persecutions under
Emperor Valerian in 258 AD.

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