Signs of the Times

High Hopes for U.S./Vatican Diplomacy

VATICAN CITY--While registering its disappointment over an early presidential decision to restore funding to programs that offer abortions overseas, the Vatican has struck a predominantly positive tone as it opens relations with the administration of President Barack Obama, emphasizing hopes for cooperation on issues of peace and social justice. In interviews over recent weeks, Vatican officials said their expectations for the new administration were highest on international questions of war and peace—most specifically, the Israeli-Palestinian war.

What is expected of the Obama administration, officials said, is an initiative to restart and sustain the Mideast peace process and move it toward a definitive solution. Vatican diplomats were disappointed by the Bush administration’s peace-promoting efforts in the Holy Land. They said those efforts came late and that the most promising initiative—the peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in late 2007—was not followed up with diplomatic pressure. While few expect Obama to alter the United States’ fundamental support for Israel, Vatican officials said the new president begins his term with a certain amount of much-needed trust and sympathy among Arabs.


The Vatican was also always uncomfortable with the Bush administration’s self-proclaimed “war on terror,” even though Vatican officials gave qualified support to U.S. military action against terrorist enclaves in Afghanistan in 2001. Vatican sources said the hope is that the antiterrorism effort under President Obama will be carried out with two principles in mind: first, respect for legal rights—that is, a rejection of torture—and second, attention to the underlying causes of terrorism, including injustice and political frustration.

On economic issues, Vatican officials cited potential areas of agreement with President Obama, including his concern for those on the margins of society. They said the hope is that the president’s stated concern for the poor in the United States will translate into a serious U.S. commitment to help alleviate global poverty. This was an important area of cooperation between the Vatican and the Bush administration, and the Vatican wants that to continue under President Obama.

On pro-life issues, Vatican officials said they hoped Obama, who is seen as a deft politician, would not pick unnecessary fights with the church. Although it was expected, the Vatican reacted quickly to the president’s executive order on Jan. 23 to remove a ban on federal aid to programs that promote or perform abortions overseas. Yet pro-life and family issues are not merely U.S. domestic affairs, they said. Vatican diplomats know that questions regarding population control, bioethics, the family and even homosexuality increasingly come up for debate in international forums, including the United Nations. While the Vatican and the Bush administration were in close agreement on such topics, there is apprehension about the policies of the new president—and how hard his administration will push those policies.

The Vatican is also closely watching for Mr. Obama’s choice of a new U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. An early appointment would be viewed at the Vatican as a sign of the president’s interest in the Holy See. The choice of ambassador is, of course, up to the president. One informed Vatican official dismissed an earlier report that the Vatican, in a nod toward conservative Catholics, might veto the appointment of any high-profile Catholic supporter of Obama. Rejecting an ambassador for such political motives is not in the tradition of Vatican diplomacy and would, in fact, be very dangerous, the official said.


Nonprofits Face Recession Pressures

As the recession grows and deepens, nonprofit organizations across the country face the prospect of strained services and shrinking donations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy expects that more than 100,000 nonprofit groups will fail during the next two years in the aftermath of the September 2008 financial meltdown. “It’ll be a tight year” for funding agencies, said Frank J. Butler, president of the Washington-based Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, or FADICA. Butler added, however, that “If you have a good charity and it’s run well, you shouldn’t be that worried… Your donors are going to stick with you.”

The economic slide that has forced corporations and foundations to tighten their budgets is also pushing agencies large and small to scale back how much they seek from donors. At Mercy Health Partners in Knoxville, Tenn., officials are seeking smaller contributions for hospital projects. “We’re scaling back the big $1 million ask,” said Carlton Long, regional vice president of philanthropy for Catholic Healthcare Partners, Mercy’s Cincinnati-based parent company. “We’re doing more of the $10,000 and under asks.” Citing stock losses and smaller returns on other investments, some individual donors have also slowed payment of pledges for Mercy’s most recent capital campaign.

Meanwhile social service nonprofits on the front lines are witnessing the consequences of recession firsthand. “This is the worst economy since Herbert Hoover,” said Joseph Hubbard of Catholic Urban Programs in East St. Louis. Hubbard reports that those who just months ago held working-class jobs are showing up in greater numbers than ever at his agency for food, clothing and help paying their heating bills.

Yet the news is not universally bad. At Catholic Charities USA, the country’s economic woes have actually had a positive impact on donations. Patricia Hvidston, senior director of development, said the agency took in slightly more in 2008 than in 2007. “The data is showing we have more donors than in ’07 and the average gift is down just a little bit. To me that says everybody in this country is hurting, but our donors really understand with compassion that there are others hurting even more,” she said.

Kenya Confronts Food Shortages

NAIROBI--As nearly 10 million Kenyans suffer food shortages, the country’s Catholic bishops have urged the government to provide assistance and food-for-work programs. While the food crisis has been blamed partly on harsh weather conditions and the country’s post-election violence, in which many food stores were burned, the bishops also expressed concern over the sale of maize, the country’s staple food, to neighboring countries like Sudan.

“We are concerned also about serious allegations of the export of maize by individuals who seem to be above the law,” the Kenya Episcopal Conference said in a statement on Jan. 21. Members of Kenya’s National Cereals and Produce Board, which regulates the cost of grains, have been accused in an export scandal. The bishops called on the government to be accountable and truthful, as well as to provide subsidies and food-for-work programs. Kenyan media have reported on the food shortages in Kenya, showing pictures of Kenyans eating tree roots to survive. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared a national disaster in mid-January and launched a campaign to raise money to address the food shortages. He said he would “reduce the price of seeds by 10 percent.” President Mwai Kibaki also appealed for international assistance and said that the Kenyan government, in collaboration with the U.N. World Food Program, was feeding 1.4 million people under an emergency program.

Pope Seeks to Allay Jewish Concerns

Pope Benedict XVI restated his “full and unquestionable solidarity” with the world’s Jews and condemned all ignorance, denial and downplaying of the brutal slaughter of millions of Jewish people during the Holocaust in a statement on Jan. 28. The pope’s comments came a day after the Chief Rabbinate of Israel broke off ties with the Vatican in protest over the pope’s lifting of the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop, Richard Williamson, who has minimized the severity and extent of the Holocaust. Pope Benedict XVI said he was motivated by a desire for church unity when he removed the excommunication of four bishops of the breakaway Society of St. Pius X. The four bishops were ordained against papal orders in 1988 by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The Vatican has held on-again, off-again talks with the society since 2000.

Iraqi Bishops Seek Synod for Mideast

Iraq’s Catholic bishops called on Pope Benedict XVI to convene a synod to address the mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East and the lack of full religious freedom there. Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk said a general synod dedicated to the challenges Christians face in the Middle East would help the church forge a clear plan of action for the present and future. “We can’t do anything by ourselves that would be as well researched, prepared and analyzed” as it would be during a two- or three-week synod, he said. He said topics of top priority for a potential synod would include the problem of Christians fleeing the Middle East, offering Christian witness in a predominantly Muslim world, relations with Muslims, the role of Christians in civil and political life, lack of full religious freedom and Christians’ prospects for the future.

Leon Klenicki, Dead at 78

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, a longtime voice on Catholic-Jewish relations, died Jan. 25 at his home in New Jersey. He had spent 28 years working on interfaith matters for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and was a longtime professor of Jewish studies at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y. He is credited with writing or co-writing 19 books, including The Holocaust, Never to Be Forgotten: Reflections on the Holy See’s Document “We Remember,” co-written with Cardinals Avery Dulles and Edward Cassidy. “One can only look back on Leon’s career with gratitude to God for the paths that he opened up for so many religious leaders committed to reversing centuries of estrangement between their own faith community and other traditions,” said Cardinal William H. Keeler, the U.S. bishops’ moderator of Catholic-Jewish affairs. Klenicki is survived by his wife, Myra Cohen Klenicki, and their two children.

News Briefs

The annual March for Life drew tens of thousands to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 22, the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. A concurrent Walk for Life West Coast drew an estimated 32,000 people. • The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference has called on Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe “to step down immediately.” • Pope Benedict XVI has formally accepted the election of Bishop Joseph Younan as the new head of the Syrian Catholic Church. • Sister Nirmala Joshi, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, was among 10 people selected to receive India’s second-highest civilian award. • The new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who has been in charge of the church’s ecumenical relations for the past 20 years and has had dozens of high-level contacts with the Catholic Church. • Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat member of the U.K. Parliament, has introduced a bill that would abolish the sections of the Act of Settlement of 1701 that prevent British monarchs from becoming Catholic or marrying a Catholic. The bill will be debated in March.

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