Signs of the Times

Archbishop Weakland Says He’s Not Disobeying Pope

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee declared, in a message read in all parishes on July 15, that he is not disobeying the pope by going ahead with the renovation of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. The archbishop expanded on that in an interview the following day with The Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper. “I can say that having consulted canonists and other bishops on the nature of the letter I received [from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments], it means that things were left in my hands,” he said.

In a letter dated June 30, Cardinal Medina had said aspects of a planned $4.5 million renovation of the Milwaukee cathedral violated church and liturgical law and asked the archbishop to revise the project. In his message read at churches on July 15, Archbishop Weakland said, “Many of the concerns raised are merely a matter of personal preference, not matters of church law.” In the interview, he noted that he also had to take into account that the archdiocese had signed all of the cathedral renovation contracts in April. The potential financial cost of changing contracts makes it “almost impossible for me to redo the plans at this point,” he said.


“In church law, the renovation of church buildings is one of those areas where the local bishop is to make the decision. To take that away from a bishop would be really contrary to the way the law is stated,” Archbishop Weakland pointed out. He also explained that receiving a critical letter from a Vatican congregation is different from receiving one from the pope. “Normally Vatican congregations act on their own,” he said. “They’re like a cabinet, like a president’s cabinet.... I would have to distinguish between documents they take to the pope and things they do on their own.”

The archbishop said he has received messages of support from bishops worldwide. “There’s no doubt that this has been seen around the world as an example of extreme centralization of the church.”

Key elements of the renovation include moving the altar and sanctuary to the center of the church, realigning the seating accordingly, putting the baptismal font and pool in the nave near the front doors, and moving the tabernacle from its present location on the original main altar to a new eucharistic chapel where the old baptistry was located. An organ is to be built in the apse where the original main altar and baldacchino were.

Vatican Won’t Punish Nuns Who Spoke at Ordination Conference

The Vatican said it would not punish two nuns it had asked not to attend a conference on women’s ordination. The Vatican spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, confirmed on July 6 that the Vatican had asked the nuns not to attend the Women’s Ordination Worldwide Conference held in Dublin, Ireland, on June 29-July 1. A U.S. nun who spoke at the conference, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, said her participation was not “divisive or defiant,” but was “rooted in the best history of the church.” Also speaking at the conference was Myra Poole, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who is based in London, who said she “had the full support” of her congregation.

Sister Joan Chittister’s superior, Christine Vladimiroff, O.S.B., said that she was ordered to prohibit Sister Chittister from attending the conference, but she refused. “Sister Joan Chittister, who has lived the monastic life with faith and fidelity for 50 years, must make her own decision based on her sense of church, her monastic profession and her own personal integrity,” said Sister Vladimiroff. “I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing. I do not see her participation in this convention as a ‘source of scandal to the faithful’ as the Vatican alleges. I think the faithful can be scandalized when honest attempts to discuss questions of import to the church are forbidden.”

Priest Speaks for Dead Murderer to Free Innocent Convicts

A Jesuit priest testified that a man, now deceased, told him that he had committed a murder for which two other men were wrongly convicted. The conversation took place in 1989 in the New York City borough of the Bronx, when Jesus Fornes invited Joseph Towle, S.J., to his home to get his advice about what he should do when Jose Morales and Ruben Montalvo were convicted of the murder he had committed. They were sentenced to serve a minimum of 15 years for the murder.

Father Towle encouraged Mr. Fornes to come forward, which he did by contacting a lawyer representing one of the men. Mr. Fornes, on the advice of his own counsel, later invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about the murder because he did not want to go to jail himself. Now that Mr. Fornes is dead, his lawyer has also come forward and testified that Mr. Fornes admitted to him that he had killed Jose Antonio Rivera on Sept. 28, 1987. Both Father Towle and Mr. Fornes’s lawyer felt that they were bound by professional secrecy not to disclose the information while Mr. Fornes was alive, but believe that he would want them to come forward now. Mr. Fornes was himself murdered in 1997.

After the counseling session, Father Towle asked Mr. Fornes if he wanted to go to confession. While what was said under the seal of confession could not be revealed, the counseling session and later conversations with Mr. Fornes were a different matter in the mind of Father Towle and officials of the Archdiocese of New York whom he consulted. Father Towle’s testimony is part of an appeal of the convictions being considered by Judge Denny Chin of Federal District Court in Manhattan.

Vatican Says Mormon Baptism Is Not Valid

The baptism conferred by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be considered a valid Christian baptism, said the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.The ruling by the doctrinal congregation was published in the July 16-17 edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, after being approved by Pope John Paul II. While the Mormon baptismal rite refers to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mormon belief about the identity of the three persons is so different from Catholic and mainline Christian belief that “one cannot even consider this doctrine to be a heresy arising from a false understanding of Christian doctrine,” said a Vatican explanation of the ruling.

C.H.A. Leader Sees Promise in Bush’s Medicare Reform Plan

The Medicare reform plan outlined by President Bush on July 12 holds promise for much-needed congressional action “to address the current deficiencies in today’s Medicare program,” said the president and C.E.O. of the Catholic Health Association. The Rev. Michael D. Place had particular praise for Bush’s proposal to offer prescription drug discount cards for seniors, beginning next year. “It is essential that all seniors have the option of a Medicare prescription drug benefit, with substantial subsidies for low-income seniors,” Father Place said.

Fiorenza Asks Congress Not to Fund Human Embryo Research

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked Congress not to fund stem-cell research that destroys human embryos. The government funds extensive research on adult human stem cells but up to now has banned funding for research on embryonic human stem cells, which can be obtained only by destroying the embryo. Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, U.S.C.C.B. president, said the bishops have “grave concern” that Congress will give in to increasing pressure and start to fund such research. “We believe it is more important than ever to stand for the principle that government must not treat any living human being as research material, as a mere means for benefit to others,” he wrote.

Church Welcomes U.N. Efforts to Curb Illicit Trade in Small Arms

The Vatican welcomed the United Nations conference on curbing the illicit trade in small arms as “a sign of hope.” Msgr. Celestino Migliore, an official of the Secretariat of State who headed the Vatican delegation to the conference, said arms could not be “treated simply like commercial goods” but have a human dimension requiring special attention to their transfer by illicit means. Msgr. Migliore presented the Vatican statement on July 11 at U.N. headquarters in New York as part of an International Conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, held on July 9-20.

Catholics Mirror the General Population on Abortion

When asked about abortion, American Catholics mirror the general population, according to a poll conducted by ABC News and Beliefnet. Out of the general population, 52 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 43 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases. ABC News said the 52 percent support for abortion was the lowest it had recorded since 1995 and seven points less than a similar poll in January. Sixty-three percent of evangelical Protestants said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, but only 44 percent of Catholics agreed. Fifty percent of those who said they opposed abortion said that viewpoint was based on their religious beliefs.

Kenyan Church Criticizes Plan to Import Condoms

A Kenyan church official criticized a government decision to import 300 million condoms to fight the H.I.V.-AIDS pandemic. The Rev. Michael Charo Ruwa, secretary-general of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, said importing the condoms implies that the government sanctions promiscuity. Father Ruwa said promiscuity and adultery are against natural law, undermine love within families and “destroy the dignity of sex in the human person.” He said the condom campaign is based on the false premise that the public is incapable of self-control even when faced with death and cannot change its behavior.

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