Tag Archives: Benedict

Hottest ticket in Washington is pope’s Sept. appearance at the Capitol

Rep. Peter Welch’s sister, Maureen, had better intelligence than the five-term Vermont congressman about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the United States and his historic address to Congress.

“She called before the announcement and said, ‘The pope is coming, can I have your ticket?”” recalled the Democratic lawmaker.

He eagerly said yes to Maureen — Sister Maureen, an Ursuline nun who has been a member of the order for 50 years.

While Welch’s decision was somewhat easy, other lawmakers are struggling with an extraordinary demand — from spouses, family, friends, constituents — for the one ticket they get for guests to sit in the upper galleries of the House chamber when the pontiff addresses Congress on Sept. 24. A chance to see and hear the 78-year-old Argentinian famed for making the comfortable uncomfortable is the hottest ticket in Washington.

“We have more requests for this appearance than anything anybody can ever recall around here,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky., said weeks ahead of the event.

The first time a pontiff will be addressing Congress rivals a presidential inauguration and State of the Union wrapped into one.

The president’s Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and members of the Supreme Court, six of whom are Catholic, are expected to join senators and House members in the seats on the floor of the chamber. The House recently took the unusual step of voting to limit the people who can sit in those prime seats, essentially barring former members.

That leaves the current 434 House members and 100 senators figuring out who to please with a gallery ticket and who they might upset. Whether a freshman on the job less than a year or a committee chairman with decades in office, lawmakers face the same rules as a State of the Union speech — one guest ticket per lawmaker.

“I’ve been thinking long and hard about that,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinoiw, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “Turns out I know a couple of Catholics,” he said, laughing. “And this is a hard call.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is giving her ticket to her mother, Pat, who headed Catholic Charities of Maine. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, said his choice “starts with family,” but he hasn’t decided yet.

Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, R-New Jersey, faces a nearly Solomonic choice straight out of the Old Testament.

“Either my wife (Heidi) or my twin brother (James), but I’m a very popular fellow these days because of that one ticket that I get,” Lance said.

Several spouses have already claimed the seats.

“My wife is getting my ticket,” Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Illinois., said of his wife Judy. “Even before I knew that the official announcement was made that the pope was coming to speak to a joint session of Congress, I received the email from my wife saying, ‘Don’t give my ticket away.””

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said simply: “It’s not my seat, it’s my spouse’s seat,” a reference to his wife, Myrna.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, avoided picking one family member and disappointing several others.

“I gave it to a nun who I love — Sister Simone. She’s the nun on the bus,” Boxer said. “She fights for social justice and she’s so happy.”

Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, and is no stranger to Capitol Hill, lobbying on the 2010 law overhauling health care and immigration. In 2012, she organized the “Nuns on the Bus” tour of nine states to oppose Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which the group criticized as detrimental to the poor.

Ryan was the Republican vice presidential nominee that year.

The presence of nuns will be a reminder of the changes at the Vatican from Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, to the current pontiff. Under Benedict, the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns had come under scrutiny, accused of straying from church teaching. The nuns oversee much of the church’s work at hospitals and schools, and the issue roiled the church in the United States.

Earlier this year, under Francis, the Vatican said that it was ending its overhaul of the group, a quick resolution widely seen as an effort to quiet a dispute ahead of the pope’s visit.

While lawmakers are limited to one gallery ticket, there is a consolation prize of sorts. Members of Congress can promise a few dozen more family, friends or associates a chance to see the Pontiff, just not in the House chamber.

Each congressional office can request one ticket for seats on the lower West Terrace of the Capitol. Jumbotrons will be set up on the West Front of the Capitol, facing the National Mall, so thousands can watch the broadcast of the pope’s speech. Francis is also expected to appear on the Capitol balcony after his speech.

Each lawmaker also can request 50 standing-room-only tickets for the West Lawn, plus one ticket for guests who can sit in the cavernous Cannon Caucus Room and watch the pontiff on TV.

Vatican unexpectedly ends crackdown against U.S. nuns

The Vatican has unexpectedly ended its controversial overhaul of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, cementing a shift in tone and treatment of the U.S. sisters under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.

The Vatican said on April 16 it had accepted a final report on its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and declared the “implementation of the mandate has been accomplished” nearly two years ahead of schedule. The umbrella group for women’s religious orders had been accused of straying from church teaching.

The brief report stated the organization would have to ensure its publications have a “sound doctrinal foundation,” and said steps were being taken for “safeguarding the theological integrity” of programs. But no major changes were announced and the direct Vatican oversight that the sisters considered a threat to their mission was over.

“I think there are still some questions about how this is going to play out, but that it concluded early was an overwhelming affirmation of what the sisters do,” said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College.

The report’s tone stood in stark contrast to the 2012 Vatican reform mandate, which said the nuns’ group was in a “grave” doctrinal crisis. Vatican officials said the Leadership Conference had over-emphasized social justice issues when they should have also been fighting abortion, had undermined church teaching on homosexuality and the priesthood, and had promoted “radical feminist” themes in their publications and choice of speakers. The nuns’ group called the allegations “flawed.” But Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle was appointed to conduct a top to bottom overhaul of the conference.

Just last year, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, sharply rebuked the nuns’ group for its “regrettable” attitude and behavior during the process. He accused the LCWR of being in “open provocation” with the Holy See and U.S. bishops because they planned to honor a theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose work had drawn sharp criticism from the U.S. bishops.

But this week, leaders of the umbrella organization and the Vatican officials in charge of the overhaul released statements of mutual respect, and the sisters met in Rome for nearly an hour with Pope Francis. The Vatican released a photo of the nuns sitting across a table from a warmly smiling Francis.

The turnabout suggested possible papal intervention to end the standoff on amicable grounds before Francis’ high-profile trip to the United States in September. The investigation, and a separate but parallel review of all women’s religious orders, prompted an outpouring of support from the public for the sisters, who oversee the lion’s share of social service programs for the church.

The review of the Leadership Conference emerged from decades of tensions within the church over the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles, taking on higher-level professional work in hospitals and schools, with sisters increasingly focused on social justice issues. Theological conservatives grew concerned that the sisters were becoming too secular and too political, instead of focusing on traditional prayer life and faith. The tensions worsened as the number of American nuns dwindled from about 160,000 in 1970, to less than 50,000 today, and church leaders searched for a way to stem the losses.

Conservative-minded Catholics argued a return to tradition would help.

The investigation of the sisters’ group began about seven years ago under Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a German theologian who spent a quarter century as the Vatican’s doctrine watchdog, after complaints from conservative U.S. bishops and influential Catholics about the organization’s doctrinal soundness.

The first sign of a different outcome for the nuns’ group came in December, when the Vatican’s investigation of all women’s religious orders ended with sweeping praise for the sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor.

On Thursday, Mueller said in a statement he was confident that the LCWR is now clear in its mission of showing its members a Christ-centered vision of religious life that is “rooted in the tradition of the church.” Sister Sharon Holland, president of the nuns’ group, said in a statement the process had been “long and challenging” but “we learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”

The Vatican asked the sisters and church officials not to comment on the report for a month.

“Given the current moment in the church, with Francis emphasizing mercy and not judging and trying to see the best of what people are doing, they had to find a quiet way out of this,” said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist specializing in the Catholic Church. “What you’d love to hear directly from LCWR leaders is what exactly this oversight means. Who decides what’s really the authentic doctrine?”

Pope Francis says he won’t judge gay priests

Pope Francis, returning to Rome from a hugely popular trip to Brazil, said this morning that he won’t judge gay priests.

The Associated Press said the leader of the Roman Catholic Church chatted with reporters during a 22-minute news conference at the Vatican.

On the issue of priests who are gay, Pope Francis said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, in 2005, had signed a document saying that gays were not fit to serve as priests.

Responding to the morning’s news, Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights group in the United States, said, “While Pope Francis’s words do not reflect a shift in church policy, they represent a significant change in tone. Like his namesake, Francis’s humility and respect for human dignity are showing through, and the widespread positive response his words have received around the world reveals that Catholics everywhere are thirsty for change.”

Griffin also said, “But as long as millions of LGBT Catholic individuals, couples and youth alike are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they are born – how God made them – then the church is sending a deeply harmful message. One’s sexuality is an immutable characteristic and every leading medical and mental health organization has declared that attempts to change or suppress that fact are profoundly damaging. It’s time to send positive and affirming messages to all people, because the Bible is clear. All people have dignity in themselves and in their love for one another. It’s time for church teaching to reflect that simple fact.”

Pope takes denunciation of gay marriage to new level

The pope has taken his opposition to gay marriage to a new level, saying “in the fight for the family, mankind itself is at stake.”

Benedict made the comments on Dec. 21 in his annual Christmas speech to the Vatican bureaucracy – one of his most important speeches of the year and one he dedicated this year to promoting family values, according to the AP.

In it, Benedict quoted the chief rabbi of France in saying the campaign for granting gays the right to marry was an “attack” on the traditional family made up of a father, mother and children.

He also spoke of the “falseness” of gender theories and said people were manipulating their sex and gender to alter their God-given nature.

Benedict also issued a denunciation of gay marriage in his recently released annual peace message, saying gay marriage, like abortion and euthanasia, was a threat to world peace.

Vatican shifts ground on condoms, HIV, contraception

In a seismic shift on one of the most profound – and profoundly contentious – Roman Catholic teachings, the Vatican said that condoms are the lesser of two evils when used to curb the spread of AIDS, even if their use prevents a pregnancy.

The position was an acknowledgment that the church’s long-held anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn’t justify putting lives at risk.

“This is a game-changer,” declared the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit writer and editor.

The new stance was staked out as the Vatican explained Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms and HIV in a book that came out on Nov. 23 based on his interview with a German journalist.

The Vatican still holds that condom use is immoral and that church doctrine forbidding artificial birth control remains unchanged. Still, the reassessment on condom use to help prevent disease carries profound significance, particularly in Africa where AIDS is rampant.

“By acknowledging that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV between people in sexual relationships, the pope has completely changed the Catholic discussion on condoms,” Martin said.

The change came on a day when U.N. AIDS officials announced that the number of new HIV cases has fallen significantly – thanks to condom use – and a U.S. medical journal published a study showing that a daily pill could help prevent spread of the virus among gay men.

“This is a great day in the fight against AIDS … a major milestone,” said Mitchell Warren, head of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition.

Theologians have debated for years whether it could be morally acceptable for HIV-infected people to use condoms to avoid infecting their partners. The Vatican was reportedly preparing a document on the subject years ago, but it never came out.

The groundbreaking shift, coming as it does from the deeply conservative pontiff, would appear likely to restrain any public criticism from Catholic conservatives, who have insisted the pope was merely reaffirming the church’s moral teaching.

Conservatives have feared that a comment like this would give support to Catholics who want to challenge the church’s ban on artificial contraception in an environment where they feel they are under siege from a secular, anti-Catholic culture.

George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writer, said the Vatican was by no means endorsing condom use as a method of contraception or a means of AIDS prevention.

“This is admittedly a difficult distinction to grasp,” he told The Associated Press in an e-mail. What the pontiff is saying is “that someone determined to do something wrong may be showing a glimmer of moral common sense by not doing that wrong thing in the worst possible way – which is not an endorsement of anything.”

Benedict’s comments come at a time when bishops in the United States are intensely focused on upholding the strictest views of Catholic orthodoxy, emphasizing traditional marriage, natural family planning based on a woman’s menstrual cycle and making abortion the most important issue.

In the book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” Benedict was quoted as saying that condom use by people such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since it indicated they were moving toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadly infection.

His comments implied that he was referring primarily to homosexual sex, when condoms aren’t being used as a form of contraception.

However, questions arose immediately about the pope’s intent because the Italian translation of the book used the feminine for prostitute, whereas the original German used the masculine.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters that he asked the pope whether he intended his comments to apply only to men. Benedict replied that it really didn’t matter, the important thing was that the person took into consideration the life of another, Lombardi said.

“I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Lombardi said. “He told me no. The problem is this: … It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”

“This is if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual. … The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

Those comments concluded the press conference, and Lombardi took no further questions about how broadly this interpretation could be applied.

The clarification is significant.

UNAIDS estimates that 22.4 million people in Africa are infected with HIV, and that 54 percent – or 12.1 million – are women. Heterosexual transmission of HIV and multiple, heterosexual partners are believed to be the major cause of the high infection rates.

Benedict drew harsh criticism when, en route to Africa in 2009, he told reporters that the AIDS problem couldn’t be resolved by distributing condoms. “On the contrary, it increases the problem,” he said then.

In Africa, AIDS activists, clerics and ordinary Africans alike applauded the pope’s revised comments.

“I say, hurrah for Pope Benedict,” exclaimed Linda-Gail Bekker, chief executive of South Africa’s Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. She said the pope’s statement may prompt many people to “adopt a simple lifestyle strategy to protect themselves.”

In Sierra Leone, the director of the National AIDS Secretariat predicted condom use would now increase, lowering the number of new infections.

“Once the pope has made a pronouncement, his priests will be in the forefront in advocating for their perceived use of condoms,” said the official, Dr. Brima Kargbo.

Lombardi said Benedict knew full well that his comments would provoke intense debate. Conservative Catholics have been trying to minimize the scope of what Benedict said since excerpts were published this weekend in the Vatican newspaper.

Lombardi praised Benedict for his “courage” in confronting the problem.

“He did it because he believed that it was a serious, important question in the world of today,” Lombardi said, adding that the pope wanted to give his perspective on the need for greater humanized, responsible sexuality.

Luigi Accatoli, a veteran Vatican journalist who was on the Vatican panel that launched the book, put it this way:

“He spoke with caution and courage of a pragmatic way through which missionaries and other ecclesial workers can help to defeat the pandemic of AIDS without approving, but also without excluding – in particular cases – the use of a condom,” Accatoli said.

The launch of the book, which includes wide-ranging comments on subjects from the sex abuse crisis to Benedict’s belief that popes should resign if physically unable to carry out their mission, drew a packed audience to the Vatican press room. Making a rare appearance, Benedict’s secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein, sat in the front row – an indication of event’s significance.

In the book, the pope reaffirms Vatican opposition to homosexual acts and artificial contraception, as well as the inviolability of marriage between man and woman.

But by broadening the condom comments to also apply to women, the pope was saying that condom use is a lesser evil than passing HIV onto a partner, even when pregnancy is possible.

“We’re not just talking about an encounter between two men, which has little to do with procreation. We’re now introducing relationships that could lead to childbirth,” Martin said.

Individual bishops and theologians have applied the lesser evil theory to the condom-HIV issue, but it had previously been rejected at the highest levels of the Vatican, Martin said.

Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau, an expert on the Vatican’s bioethics advisory board, said the pope was articulating the theological idea that there are degrees of evil.

“Contraception is not the worst evil. The church does not see it as good, but the church does not see it as the worst,” he told The Associated Press. “Abortion is far worse. Passing on HIV is criminal. That is absolute irresponsibility.”

He said the pope broached the topic because questions about condoms and AIDS persisted, and the church’s teaching hadn’t been clear. There is no official Vatican policy about condoms and HIV, and Vatican officials in the past have insisted that condoms not only don’t help fight HIV transmission but make it worse because it gives users a false sense of security.

The late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo famously said in 2003 that the HIV virus could “easily pass through” a condom – setting off furious criticism by AIDS activists.

“This pope gave this interview. He was not foolish. It was intentional,” Suaudeau said. “He thought that this was a way of bringing up many questions. Why? Because it’s true that the church sometimes has not been too clear.”

Lombardi said the pope didn’t use the technical terminology of “lesser evil” in his comments because he wanted his words to be understood by the general public. Vatican officials, however, said that was what he meant.

“{The contribution the pope wanted to give is not a technical discussion with scientific language on moral problems,” Lombardi said. “This is not the job of a book of this type”

 

Pope says condoms OK for male hookers

 Speaking to a German journalist whose book was excerpted in a Vatican newspaper Nov. 20, Pope Benedict XVI said the use of condoms may be acceptable in some cases to prevent the transmission of AIDS, possibly foreshadowing a shift in the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on the issue.

The pontiff said that in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, condom use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”

AIDS advocates welcomed the Pope’s comments, although they cautioned that the remarks fell short of declaring condoms an acceptable method of disease prevention for all.

“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican today,” the U.N.’s top AIDS official said. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”

A UNAIDS spokesman in Geneva said that while over 80 percent of HIV infections are caused through sexual transmission, only 4 percent to 10 percent result from sex between men. There are no reliable statistics about how many infections might be prevented if male prostitutes routinely used condoms.

However, even the limited example cited by the pope was a step in the right direction, the spokesman said. “We are welcoming this as an opening up of discussion,” he told The Associated Press.

In Britain, where the Vatican’s opposition to condom use has come under particularly fierce criticism, relief over the Pope’s statement was tempered with caution over the relatively limited scope of his comments.

Gay activist Peter Tatchell, who helped coordinate the protests against Benedict when the latter visited Britain earlier this year, said the new papal policy on condoms amounted to a “volte-face.”

“He seems to be admitting, for the first time, that using condoms can be morally responsible if they help save lives,” Tatchell said in an e-mail. But he went on to slam the Vatican for a range of positions on a variety of moral issues.

“If the Pope can change his stance on condoms, why can’t he also modify the Vatican’s harsh, intolerant opposition to women’s rights, gay equality, fertility treatment and embryonic stem cell research?”

In South Africa, which has an estimated 5.7 million HIV-positive citizens – more than any other country – and 500,000 new infections each year, activists guardedly greeted the Pope’s message.

Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, a Cape Town, South Africa-based advocacy group for people living with HIV, called the Pope’s words a “step in the right direction.”

But she said the message was unclear, and could lead to misinterpretation.

“It shows that only male prostitutes should use condoms and could make people in heterosexual relations think they are not allowed to (use) them,” she said. “The pope has a lot of followers – he’s an opinion leader and a world leader – and if he’s going to take on a message, especially a message of life and death, it has to be very clear.”

Church members in the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, praised the pontiff’s words even as their leaders rejected any suggestion that the Vatican was softening its line on contraceptives.

While the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception was not in question, Benedict’s stunning remarks could re-ignite debate on contraceptive use in places like the Philippines, where the issue has recently pitted the new president against the influential Catholic Church.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III recently expressed support for the right to contraception. A church official has threatened to launch civil disobedience protests.

For those focused on battling the scourge of AIDS, however, the Pope’s message came as a welcome surprise.

Father Peter Makome, a Catholic priest in Zimbabwe, said he would spread the news.

“I’ve got brothers and sisters and friends who are suffering from HIV because they were not practicing safe sex,” said Makome, who works in the capital Harare’s Southerton Parish. “Now the message has come out that they can go ahead and do safe sex; it’s much better for everyone.”

Sex worker Constance Makoni from the nearby town of Mbare, said she was also pleased to hear the Pope’s message. She said she uses condoms to protect herself against HIV, even though it is against her beliefs.

“It is very good to learn that our church has now come out in the open to allow the use of condoms by its members to prevent the spread of AIDS,” she said. “I think Pope should have made these announcements a long time ago and it was going to be helpful among the church folks.”

But she said she would also like to see papal recognition of contraception.

“If they would also expand this to contraceptives as well, because it’s another form of family planning which is not being discussed,” she said.

In Liberia, some non-Catholic clergymen reacted strongly to the Pope’s statement. The West African nation is predominantly Christian, but Catholics are not the majority.

“I sharply disagree with the Pope,” said Rev. Venicious Reeves, a popular Pentecostal preacher in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. “The Pope should instead encourage people he classifies as male prostitutes to get out of prostitution and live in morality.”

Baptist preacher Rev. Gardea Johnson asked: “If his concern is about male prostitutes, what about the female ones who are even more vulnerable?”

In the central Swiss city of Lucerne, where the majority of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, a church spokesman said the Pope’s remarks would come as a relief to many believers.

“We are happy that this discussion, which already existed in the church because several bishops have talked about it, has been picked up by the Pope,” said Florian Flohr.

Catholic churches in Lucerne raised eyebrows last month when they distributed some 3,000 condoms as part of an outreach program aimed at young people.

“We think what the Pope said confirms our view that if you want to talk about AIDS, you have to talk about condoms,” said Flohr.

He added that the pontiff’s words had been carefully chosen to avoid the impression that condoms could be seen as a panacea against AIDS, while at the same time deflecting long-standing criticism at the Vatican’s absolutist stance on condom use.

“I think many Catholics will be relieved,” said Flohr. “His past comments about condoms meant there couldn’t be a proper discussion about the subject. Now we can talk about human sexuality more openly.”