Signs of the Times

Catholic-Jewish Statement on Conversion Draws Controversy

A Catholic-Jewish statement published on Aug. 12 repudiating campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity has drawn controversy, including sharp criticism in some Catholic quarters and a charge of Catholic anti-Semitism by a top Southern Baptist official. The statement, "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," was issued by Catholic and Jewish participants in a national dialogue co-sponsored by the National Council of Synagogues and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Jim Sibley, coordinator of Jewish ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention, interpreted the document’s rejection of campaigns that target Jews for conversion as having effectively targeted the Jews for exclusion from Gospel proclamation. There can be no more extreme form of anti-Semitism than that, he said.


Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Sibley’s comments completely absurd. At a time when other faiths are striving for unity and interfaith civility, the leadership of the Southern Baptist ministry has once again shown arrogance and contempt for other religions, Foxman said. Coming from a ministry with a track record of denigrating other religions and engaging in aggressive campaigns aimed at converting Jews, this [Sibley] statement is the height of hypocrisy.

On the World Wide Web site Catholic Exchange, the publisher and editor of Crisis magazine, Deal W. Hudson, questioned the assertion of the Catholic consultation participants that while the Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of human salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God. If we’re saved only through Jesus, Hudson asked, how can we say that God’s covenant with the Jews is a saving covenant’?

The Rev. John Echert, who responds to questions about faith on the Web site of EWTN, Mother Angelica’s cable television network, said on Aug. 17 that parts of the statement strike me as contrary to divine revelation. Father Echert, who teaches Scripture at St. Thomas University and St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., said the document is an embarrassment, lacks any teaching authority and serves to reveal the thinking of some people who hold powerful positions in the national conference [of bishops]. If a document such as this gains approval, as it currently stands, I will seriously consider the prospect that we are moving into one of the signs of the end times, namely, apostasy. In answer to another question on Aug. 25, Father Echert said that precisely because Jews share an expectation of the coming of the Messiah, they should be targeted and the primary focus of our efforts for converts to Christ.

Co-chairmen of the consultation are Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ moderator for Jewish relations, Rabbi Joel Zaiman of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism and Rabbi Michael Signer of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The statement consisted of a brief joint preface, summing up the thrust of the document, followed by separate Catholic and Jewish reflections. The consultation’s Catholic participants affirmed the continuing validity of the covenant of God with the Jewish people, citing St. Paul’s statement in the Letter to the Romans that the gifts and the call of God are irrevocablethe passage cited by the Second Vatican Council when it described the Jewish people as very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made.

They affirmed the church’s mission of evangelization but called evangelization a complex reality that is sometimes misunderstood by reducing it only to the seeking of new candidates for baptism. The Catholic Church must always evangelize and will always witness to its faith in the presence of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ to Jews and to all other people, they wrote. In so doing, the Catholic Church respects fully the principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, so that sincere individual converts from any tradition or people, including the Jewish people, will be welcomed and accepted.

Pope Calls for Global Action to Protect Environment

On the eve of a summit meeting on the global environment in Johannesburg, South Africa, Pope John Paul II urged international leaders to find effective ways of balancing development with ecological protection. The idea of an ecological vocation has become an urgent moral responsibility in today’s world, the pope said on Aug. 25. A seven-person Vatican delegation attended the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development held on Aug. 26-Sept. 4.

We all hope that the numerous heads of state and government who attend, as well as other participants, succeed in finding effective ways of integral human development, keeping in mind the economic, social and environmental dimension, the pope said. In an increasingly interdependent world, peace, justice and the protection of the created world must be the fruit of a firm commitment by all to promote the common good.

In preparation for the Johannesburg summit, the Vatican recently published a book summarizing basic principles and recent developments in the church’s environmental teaching. It highlighted the moral responsibility for a just distribution of the goods of the earth and said present rates of consumption and pollution were not tolerable. It also warned against new forms of genetic manipulation.

The head of the Vatican’s delegation to Johannesburg, Archbishop Renato Martino, repeated a point the Vatican has made many times in international conferences: that there are ample resources to nourish all the earth’s people, but that the problem of distribution needs to be resolved.

Guatemalan Bishop Criticizes Government Control of Papal Visit

The Guatemalan government controlled Pope John Paul II’s recent visit and subjected him to a show of military force, said Bishop álvaro Ramazzini Imeri of San Marcos. At the arrival ceremony, the government absorbed everything. It was as if the episcopal conference didn’t exist. We bishops didn’t have an opportunity to greet the pope when he arrived nor when he departed. We had no personal encounter with him, the bishop said.

Bishop Ramazzini also criticized the greeting the pope received at the airport from a group of blond children, dressed in traditional Indian costumes, who later turned out to be the grandchildren of the country’s vice president, Francisco Reyes. That was an affront to the pope and to the indigenous communities. To dress up a child who isn’t indigenous in indigenous clothing is a farce. We need to be proud of the Guatemala that really exists and stop living in a farce, Bishop Ramazzini said.

Many in Guatemala expected the pope to comment during his visit on the recent persecution of Catholic activists. Bishop Ramazzini, six priests and several staff members of the church’s human rights office have received death threats. Forensic anthropologists who were digging up massacre victims from decades past have been forced to flee the country. A church building holding records from the exhumation of mass graves was burned. Yet the pope made no comment on those events, nor did he mention Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera of Guatemala City, who was beaten to death in 1998 just two days after releasing the report of a church-sponsored investigation into responsibility for massive human rights violations during the country’s civil war, which ended in 1996.

Priests Concerned About Gay Subcultures

A study of priests conducted in 2001 found that substantial numbers believed there were homosexual subcultures among priests in their dioceses and religious institutes, but priests were more concerned about such subcultures in seminaries. Authors of the paper, delivered on Aug. 16 at the meeting in Chicago of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, were Dean R. Hoge, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, and his doctoral student and research assistant, Jacqueline E. Wenger.

In the questionnaire a subculture was defined as a definite group that has its own preferential friendships, social gatherings and vocabulary. When asked if such a homosexual subculture existed in their diocese or religious institute, more than half answered Yes, clearly (19 percent) or Probably but not clearly (36 percent). Only 17 percent said No, and 28 percent answered Don’t know. When asked about the existence of such a subculture in the seminary during their student days, 15 percent said yes, 26 percent probably, 44 percent no, and 15 percent don’t know. When respondents were broken down by age groups, younger priests were considerably more likely than older ones to be certain of a homosexual subculture as part of their seminary environment.

From focus group findings, the researchers reported that no priests described negative impacts in their diocese or institute from homosexual subcultures. But we heard numerous negative reports about homosexual subcultures in seminaries, they added. One priest called it extremely corrosive. Another described some seminarians as kind of predators to other people in the seminary community.

The researchers concluded, A principal reason why subcultures had a greater effect in seminaries than later [in priestly life] is that in seminaries, men preparing for the priesthood are thrust into a close, communal setting. Once out in the parish, priests interact much less with each other and are less affected by whatever subcultures might exist.

On celibacy questions, the researchers found that priests now ages 56-65, most of whom were ordained around 1963-72, are the most liberal. Among them, 73 percent agreed that celibacy should be a matter of choice for diocesan priests and 68 percent thought the church should invite resigned priests back to active ministry, even if they are married. Among priests ages 25-35, only 33 percent agreed with making celibacy optional and only 23 percent wanted resigned priests to be welcomed back. Among priests ages 36-45, those figures rose to 41 and 34 percent, respectively, and in the 46-55 group the numbers went up to 64 and 53 percent.

Pope Retraces Steps Made As Young Man

On a four-day trip to his Polish homeland, Pope John Paul II said the legacy of St. Faustina Kowalskaa devotional movement dedicated to God’s healing mercyoffered the remedy to a world torn by suffering, conflict and sin. How greatly today’s world needs God’s mercy, the pope said during a sermon at the dedication Mass at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy. The visit on Aug. 16-Aug. 19 to Cracow, where he had been archbishop, was an emotional one, as the pope retraced his steps as a young man, a priest and a bishop. Poles welcomed him as their favorite son, in a homecoming made all the more moving by the pontiff’s frailty. The 82-year-old pope reminisced and bantered with the crowd from his residence window every evening, teasing well-wishers that if he had aged 23 years since his first trip home, so had they. On his last night, he sang the crowd a goodbye song before dining with a group of old friends.

News Briefs

The executive board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on Aug. 24 expressed grief and outrage over clergy sexual abuse of minors. But it also criticized the bishops’ zero tolerance policy. We abhor the behaviors of perpetrators and we desire to see them prevented from doing further harm, it said. Yet we cannot affirm any policy which makes no distinction among offenses committed or possibilities of rehabilitation.

In the Aug. 25 issue of Sooner Catholic, the Oklahoma City archdiocesan newspaper, the archdiocesan priests’ council questioned whether Oklahoma’s Gov. Frank Keating, chairman of the national review board, can give the board open and unbiased leadership. We are concerned about Gov. Keating’s past criticism of church leadership, his history of inappropriate remarks and his appearance of having already formed conclusions before the work of the review panel could begin, the priests’ council said in a statement signed by 11 members.

In a letter to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was to visit India, Pakistan and China, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom strongly recommended that issues of religious freedom be given a prominent role in the Bush administration’s dialogue with the foreign governments.

The finding by the F.B.I. and the Kenyan government that the death of Mill Hill Father John Kaiser was a suicide was wrong and tarnished the name of the priest, said Archbishop Giovanni Tonucci, the papal nuncio to Kenya. Father Kaiser, who had served for about 36 years in the dioceses of Kisii and Ngong, was found dead with a bullet hole in his head on Aug. 24, 2000. Honored for his role as a human rights activist, in 1999, he testified before a government commission that two cabinet ministers were responsible for the violent tribal clashes prior to Kenya’s first multiparty elections in 1992. Father Kaiser alleged that the ministers organized militias to foment clashes to allow them to seize land vacated during the fighting.

The Vatican pages on the World Wide Web were consulted 6.4 million times in 2001. Those hits came from 532,000 different computers.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments dispensed 540 men from the obligations of the priesthood in 2001.

Although 52 percent of Americans oppose the use of state vouchers to expand access to private education, support for vouchers grew to 46 percent, up from 34 percent last year, according to a poll conducted for Phi Delta Kappa by the Gallup Organization.

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