Signs of the Times

U.S. Policy Challenges Church Aid Workers

The U.S. government’s policy of no contact with Hamas leaders has complicated church aid workers’ duties in the Palestinian territories, said an official of Catholic Relief Services. The United States lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, and diplomats and officials of U.S.-based aid agencies are forbidden to have any contact with Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in January. Of course we’re not going to talk to people from a terrorist group, but we are talking every day to people in the communities, and we often don’t know what their political affiliations are, said Tom Garofalo, country representative for Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

Garofalo told Catholic News Service that it was easy for some staff members of C.R.S., the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, to avoid Hamas-controlled ministries within the Palestinian Authority. But for staff members who work in the Palestinian communities, avoiding Hamas becomes more difficult, he said.


U.S. Bishops Downsize Their Conference

In a far-reaching move, the U.S. bishops voted Nov. 14 to restructure their national operations significantly. They sharply reduced the number of committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and approved a 16 percent cut in diocesan assessments for the conference in 2008 - decisions that will result in downsizing their national staff by 60 jobs. Despite strenuous objections by some bishops to some of the planned staff cuts, the bishops adopted the comprehensive program of reorganization and strategic planning for 2008-11 by a vote of 213 to 19.

Diocesan assessments, which will cover almost $11.9 million of the U.S.C.C.B.’s $139.5 million budget in 2007, will be reduced in 2008 to just under $10 million. Only bishops who head dioceses are allowed to vote on decisions directly affecting the finances of their dioceses.

Turkish Government Controls All Religions

Turkey’s unique brand of secularism is not separation of religion and state, but rather government control of religion, which affects both the Muslim majority and religious minorities. The government builds and funds mosques, employs Muslim prayer leaders, controls religious education and bans Muslim women and men from wearing certain head coverings in public offices and universities. The Turkish Constitution guarantees the religious freedom of all the country’s residents, and a 1923 treaty guarantees that religious minorities are allowed to found and operate religious and charitable institutions. Secularists in Turkey see control of religion as the only way to guarantee that Islam will not overpower the secularism of the state and its institutions.

But the fact that the Constitution and Turkish law do not recognize minority religious communities as legal entities has severely limited their ability to own property, and laws restricting private religious higher education have made it almost impossible for them to operate seminaries and schools of theology. Pope Benedict XVI is expected to address the issue of religious freedom guarantees during his Nov. 28-Dec. 1 visit to Turkey.

Lebanon Sinking Into Political Crisis

The head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church has criticized the country’s bickering leaders for plunging the nation into political crisis. Lebanon does not and should not encompass enemies, but brothers, said Cardinal Nasrallah P. Sfeir, the Maronite patriarch. Referring to Christian politicians, Cardinal Sfeir asked, If politicians were aware of the principles of Christian education, wouldn’t they put an end to their challenges and insults of one another? Wouldn’t they throw out hatred and envy and other feelings that do not reflect their respect for each other? Cardinal Sfeir spoke Nov. 13 at the 40th session of Lebanon’s Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Bkerke, the headquarters of the Maronite Church in Lebanon.

Vatican Reviews Celibacy, Return of Some Priests

Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican officials, meeting to review the status of married priests, reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy and said its importance should be highlighted among priests and seminarians. At the same time, the participants examined the possibility of the return to active ministry of some priests who may have left the priesthood to marry but who now meet certain conditions, a Vatican statement said. The pope presided over the three-hour meeting of more than 20 heads of Vatican congregations and councils Nov. 16. The value of the choice of priestly celibacy according to the Catholic tradition was reaffirmed, and the need for solid human and Christian formation was underlined, both for seminarians and for those already ordained, a brief Vatican statement said. The meeting was triggered by the case of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia, recently excommunicated after ordaining four married men as bishops without papal permission.

Catholic Voter Shifts - Not So Dramatic

Much has been made of the supposed shift of religious voters to Democrats in the midterm election. Exit polls showed that more Catholics and more frequent churchgoers in general voted for Democrats in the 2006 election than voted for Democrats in the 2004 election. News stories and press releases in the first few days after the election an-nounced, Catholic voters abandon Republicans, and God gap narrows.

But according to John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the much-vaunted statistics that supposedly show dramatic shifts by Catholics and regular worshippers of any faith lose their distinctiveness when compared with how voters as a whole cast their ballots this year. Catholics and regular churchgoers voted pretty much the same as the overall majority of the country in supporting more Democratic candidates, he said. Enough voters shifted their support to Democrats this year to swing majority power to the party in both the House and the Senate for the first time in 12 years.

National Lay Council Advises Bishops

The U.S. bishops’ National Advisory Council is taking an increasingly public role in making recommendations about documents the bishops are considering and topics they might address in the future. Made up of more than 50 laypeople, men and women religious, deacons, priests and bishops, the council could be seen as a national pastoral council, said Bishop David A. Zubik of Green Bay, Wis., in a brief interview with Catholic News Service Nov. 14 at the bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore. In a report to the bishops the day before, Bishop Zubik said the council members represent the adult Catholic population by age, occupation, ethnicity, geography, vocation and avocation.... The council has been called the church in miniature.’ The council meets three times a year, immediately before the U.S. bishops’ Administrative Committee holds its sessions. Council members receive the same documentation given to the Administrative Committee members and pass along their comments in both written and oral form, Bishop Zubik said.

Vatican on Rights Violations in Holy Land

By not addressing human rights violations fairly and consistently, especially the violence unfolding in the Holy Land, the U.N. Human Rights Council risks losing credibility, a Vatican official said. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said shortsighted political and economic interests have prevented the U.N. council from addressing with fairness and consistency ongoing human rights violations in some parts of the world. Archbishop Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to Geneva-based U.N. agencies, spoke Nov. 15 during the council’s special session in Geneva on Israeli military incursions in occupied Palestinian territories.

Catholic News Service in Rome obtained a copy of his text. A human rights council that does not contribute to change the quality of people’s life on the ground, in their daily tasks and normal activities, seriously risks a loss of credibility, he said. The council’s special session voted Nov. 15 to send a fact-finding mission to investigate the Nov. 8 Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians in the town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.

Cure in Boston Credited to Cardinal Newman

Evidence of an alleged miraculous cure in the Archdiocese of Boston attributed to the intercession of Cardinal John Henry Newman has been sent to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes in Rome. The Roman postulator of the cause, Andrea Ambrosi, was assigned by the archdiocesan tribunal in Boston to be the official carrier of the package of documents, which contained two copies of the evidence. He flew from Boston to Rome and handed over the package Nov. 14 to congregation officials at the Vatican. The package, containing the sworn testimonies and the medical evidence of the healing of Deacon Jack Sullivan, 68, of Marshfield, Mass., was sealed during the closing session of the tribunal Nov. 9. Deacon Sullivan had a severe spinal disorder but was restored to full mobility in 2001 after praying for Cardinal Newman’s intercession.

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11 years 10 months ago
Bob Casey’s convincing victory in Pennsylvania over Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate suggests that Catholic voters, no less than others, chose a centrist candidate’s moderate, pragmatic positions and rejected extreme stands on the war, immigration, social security, tax breaks, death penalty, family planning and lobbying reform. Catholics did not vote as a bloc, yet a significant majority of them pulled the Democratic Party to the mainstream middle (Signs of the Times, 12/4).

A new modus operandi will be possible: seeking bipartisan consensus on many issues, listening to those not in total agreement on some issues, looking for common ground and accepting possible outcomes when holding out for ideal ones is futile.

On a few issues, having failed to win over the majority of their fellow citizens, Catholics will have to accept their defeat in the democratic process and refocus their efforts to persuade their own and others by education and, as in the case of abortion, by supporting such remedial measures as an increase in the minimum wage and better child care and family health provisions that would make less likely a woman’s choosing to abort.

Looking ahead to ’08, Catholic voices for moderation will, I think, join other centrists in favoring candidates who see in the common good a vision that can unite the country.


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