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Italy's radical left and Catholics

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Anyone who has followed American politics in recent
years knows the revolution that has taken place in the "religious vote."
Once the Democrats were the party of immigrant Catholics, and the
Republicans the party of the Protestant establishment; today the Democrats
tend to be the party of secularism, and Republicans the party of voters
for whom religion is a major concern.

Now a provocative article by Italian political scientist Ernesto Galli
della Loggia suggests there is a parallel phenomenon in Italy, which he
calls the "death of cattocommunismo," the term for the Catholic
version of leftist radicalism which was long a potent force in Italian
politics.

The expansion of Catholicism in the South

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When I give talks in Europe or North America, I
usually get some version of the following question: "What are the church's plans
for dealing with the priest shortage, or the decline in vocations to the
religious life, or dwindling Mass attendance rates, or the problem of
transmitting the faith to the next generation?"

The premise is usually that
the church is in a crisis, one serious enough to provoke a re-examination of
current doctrines or disciplines.

While there's perfectly legitimate debate to
be had on each of these questions, the underlying assumption of decline reveals
a particularly Western focus. The reality is that worldwide, these are boom
times for Catholicism, not bust.

Ambassadors discuss Vatican diplomacy

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Tuesday night, Georgetown University hosted its annual event for alumni
and friends at Rome's Minerva Hotel. I was asked to moderate a panel
discussion on Vatican diplomacy featuring Ambassadors Francis Rooney, who
represents the United States to the Holy See, and Francis Campbell,
representing the United Kingdom.

Both are Catholics who do not come out
of conventional diplomatic circles. Campbell is a policy wonk who worked
for Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, while Rooney is a
successful businessman with construction firms in Oklahoma and Florida.

Rooney said there is a great "symmetry" between the interests of the
Holy See and the American government in promoting "human dignity and
essential freedoms in the world," which he described as "under attack" in
places such as Venezuela, China, Bosnia and Russia. He specifically
mentioned the struggle for religious freedom in various parts of the
world.

Benedict XVI intends to visit Israel in 2007

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A long-time veteran of Jewish-Catholic relations told NCR this week that the Vatican has confirmed Benedict XVI's intention to visit Israel in 2007, though no date has yet been established for the trip.


According to this source, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo relayed the pope's intention in conversations with Israeli officials.

Lajolo, this source said, expressed two "desires" with regard to the prospective visit. The first is that long-running negotiations between Israel and the Vatican over the tax and juridical status of church institutions in Israel will be resolved before it happens. The second is that no violence will occur during the pope's trip, to avoid it being "instrumentalized" to serve the political ends of any party to the Middle East conflict.

More on Jewish relations

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On Wednesday, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls released a statement which is also likely to cause some consternation in Israel and among sectors of Jewish opinion. In the wake of Israeli bombings in Gaza and elsewhere that have resulted in civilian casualties, Navarro said:

"The Holy See is following with great apprehension and sorrow the episodes of growing, blind violence which are causing blood to flow in these days in the Holy Land. The Holy Father is close, especially in prayer, to the innocent victims, to their families and to the populations of this land, hostages to those who delude themselves that the ever more dramatic problems of the region can be solved with force or in unilateral fashion."

U.S. court OKs legal action against the Holy See

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News reports last week suggested that a U.S. district court in Oregon had opened the door to legal action against the Holy See in a case related to the sexual abuse of minors. If that ruling were to hold up, it would mark an important blow to the immunity the Holy See generally enjoys as a sovereign entity under international law.

In fact, legal experts stress this was merely a preliminary decision, and that we're a long way away from any American court actually agreeing to hear a lawsuit seeking damages against the Vatican.

For Benedict XVI, less is more

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Journalists have a rather peculiar way of evaluating public figures. Like athletes, we want to be in the game, and that means covering someone who consistently makes news. That way our copy makes the front page, or our TV packages become the lead item on the nightly news.

Even reporters who didn't share his faith convictions, therefore, generally enjoyed covering Pope John Paul II, because he dominated the world's attention for more than a quarter-century. Some journalists made their careers as chroniclers of his life and papacy. Biographer Jonathan Kwitny once dubbed John Paul "the man of the century;" I suspect many in the Vatican press corps would add that he was "the story of the century" as well.

The Auschwitz visit

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On the subject of Benedict's visit to Auschwitz, it is by now clear that in the Jewish world, the event drew mixed reviews. Some said that the pope's presence, all by itself, was significant at a time when the president of Iran has publicly questioned the Holocaust; others were moved by Benedict's somber, reverent tone, and his plaintive question of "Where was God?"

The next battle in the war on relativism

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Perhaps the biggest win for Benedict XVI against the "dictatorship of relativism" came in Italy last summer, when a strong push by the country's bishops, in tandem with lay activists, annulled a referendum that would have liberalized the country's restrictive law on in-vitro fertilization. (Opponents prevailed by persuading a majority of Italians to abstain from voting).

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