Predictions are always hazardous, but here's one I feel pretty good about: 2011 will be remembered as the year when religious freedom came into focus as the premier social and political concern of the Catholic church in the early 21st century.
All Things Catholic
John L. Allen Jr., NCR senior correspondent, writes weekly on the goings-on in Vatican and in the church around the world.
Last Sunday Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up a four-day trip to Germany, which, depending upon whose word you take, either generated “widespread acclaim” (Italian commentator Sandro Magister) or a national yawn (the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s headline was, “He came, he spoke, he disappointed.”)
This was the German pope’s third homecoming, though his first state visit, and the 21st foreign trip of his papacy.
Pope Benedict XVI is in Germany at the moment, where last year’s sex abuse scandals brought his own record squarely into focus. That debate has flared up anew with a splashy public appeal by a New York based legal foundation, along with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, to the International Criminal Court to prosecute the pope and other senior Vatican officials.
Ecumenism, meaning the push for Christian unity, today stands at a crossroads. On the one hand, it's among the towering religious success stories of the last century, wiping away old prejudices and building new friendships in the historical blink of an eye. Just ask my 97-year-old grandma out in rural Hill City, Kan., where only decades ago her Protestant neighbors tried to block the sale of a parcel of land to build a Catholic parish, and where today the churches do virtually everything together.
Mythology is not only loads of fun, but often highly profitable. For proof, look no further than this: Dan Brown has written a book about the Vatican, which was pure fantasy; I’ve also written a book about the Vatican, which, if I do say so myself, has a fairly decent grasp of the basic realities. Care to guess which one sold better?
Back in 1966, a young German Catholic theologian penned a commentary on the final session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), expressing some fairly strong reservations about what he saw as the overly optimistic and “French” tone of its concluding document, Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”
If one were to poll Catholic insiders as to which bishops are considered global leaders on the sexual abuse crisis, a few names would likely pop up repeatedly: Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Ireland, for instance, or Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Germany. Martin's searing candor has made him a hero to some and a lightning rod for others, while the German bishops are considered to have mounted one of the most effective responses to the scandals of any national conference, and Zollitsch is their chairman.
Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Madrid for what is officially the 26th edition of World Youth Day, a total which includes off-year events organized, at least in theory, at the diocesan level. Counting just the massive international gatherings headlined by the pope, Madrid is the 12th World Youth Day since John Paul II launched the tradition in Rome in 1985.
Collectively, those gatherings have generated crowds in excess of 15 million people, making World Youth Day the Olympic Games of world religion: The largest regularly held international religious event on the planet.
On a slow summer day, it might be fun to compose a list of dubious distinctions for Catholic clerics. No-longer-excommunicated Bishop Richard Williamson, for instance, might get the prize for most famous interview ever on Swedish TV. (In 2009, he set off a cause célèbre by denying that the Nazis used gas chambers). Bishop John Magee of Cloyne, Ireland, now retired in disgrace for his mishandling of sex abuse complaints, might claim top honors for creating the biggest mess in the smallest diocese.
L’Osservatore Romano normally isn’t the place to seek Vatican criticism, in the same way that no one watches Fox News for satires of the Tea Party, or reads the New York Times for send-ups of snobbish secular liberalism. Whatever their business model, media outlets usually aren’t in the habit of biting the hand that feeds them.
Yet, mirabile dictu, the July 29 edition of L’Osservatore offered one of the most pointed brief critiques of a Vatican statement you’ll ever see. It came from Italian Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, in reply to a July 7 essay by Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, about the “Interreligious Meeting for Prayer for Peace” convened by Pope Benedict XVI and set for Oct. 27, 2011, in Assisi.