What the Pope can do for Middle East Christians

What the Pope can do for Middle East Christians

ROME — In his latest expression of concern for Christians and other minority groups in the Middle East, Pope Francis this week summoned all his ambassadors in the region to a special meeting in Rome to discuss “initiatives and actions at all levels.” The gathering builds on earlier gestures by

ROME — In his latest expression of concern for Christians and other minority groups in the Middle East, Pope Francis this week summoned all his ambassadors in the region to a special meeting in Rome to discuss “initiatives and actions at all levels.”

The gathering builds on earlier gestures by Francis, including his May 24-26 trip to the Middle East and his June 8 peace prayer in the Vatican gardens with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents. It comes ahead of a projected late November trip to Turkey in which the pontiff hopes to travel near the Iraq border and to meet refugees from the self-declared ISIS caliphate.

Certainly the Christians of the Middle East could use the help. The recent trauma in Iraq and Syria involving ISIS is merely the latest instance of a slow-motion death spiral for Christianity across the region.

In the early 20th century, Christians represented 20 percent of the region’s population. Today, they represent just 5 percent, no more than 12 million people, and projections show that number dropping to 6 million by the middle of this century.

The decline is fueled by several factors, including immigration and lower birth rates among Christians. But the growing wave of jihadist hostility obviously doesn’t help. To some extent, those forces are beyond the power of any one person to control, even a pope.

If Francis wants to think outside the box, however, here are three options he might consider.

Interdict for arms dealers: Francis used this week’s summit of envoys from the Middle East to once again raise the issue of the arms trade, which has become one of the standard rhetorical tropes of his papacy.

There’s no doubt that the flow of sophisticated weapons to forces such as ISIS is a key element in turning relatively low-level conflicts into major global crises. So if you want to help Christians in the Middle East, disarming their oppressors would be a good way to start.

In the Middle Ages, popes used the legal instrument of an “interdict,” which denies access to the rites and sacraments of the Church, to punish groups and even whole countries. The Kingdom of England was placed under interdict by Pope Innocent III from 1208 to 1213, for instance, for refusing to accept his pick as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Maybe Francis could dust off interdiction and apply it to any arms dealer who provides weapons to groups or states that persecute Christians or other religious minorities.

Of course, today, interdict no longer packs the same political and spiritual wallop, and likely would mean little to most arms merchants who presumably aren’t regular Mass-goers. Yet as a statement of moral disapproval it would still say something, perhaps especially in the United States, given that such a huge portion of the weapons in use in the Middle East conflicts — including arms seized and used by ISIS — originated in the US.

Cajole the G-20: When Russia hosted the G-20 summit in September 2013, a debate broke out over whether to use force to try to bring down the regime of Basher al-Assad in Syria. Vladimir Putin invoked a letter from Pope Francis pleading for peace to oppose the push for military intervention.

In the end, there was no intervention and Assad remains in power. This might be a good time for Francis to cash in some of the political capital he earned a year ago, demanding that the G-20 make the defense of persecuted Christians and other minorities a priority.

As it happens, the G-20 summit next year is actually scheduled for the Middle East, in Turkey. Maybe Francis should invite himself to the meeting and bring a cross-section of Christians from the region with him, refusing to leave until concrete pledges of protection are delivered.

Bring Benedict off the bench: Pope Benedict XVI stirred a firestorm of protest in the Islamic world in 2006 with a speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor linking Muhammad with violence. Regardless of whether the citation was ill-advised, it made Benedict XVI a hero for Christians and other minority groups in the Middle East suffering at the hands of Islamic radicals.

Given Benedict’s age and frailty, Francis has to be careful about how to use him. However, Benedict really hasn’t spoken on anything substantive in public since his resignation in February 2013, and for him to break the self-imposed silence over the issue of Christian survival in the Middle East would be dramatic indeed.

Imagine, for instance, Francis convening a summit of mainstream Islamic leaders from across the region in Rome, joined by Christians, Yazidi, Baha’i, Druze, and other minority groups, and then turning the floor over to Benedict. Or imagine Francis launching a special global fundraising appeal for the Christians and other minorities in the Middle East and making Benedict XVI the honorary chair, with a special appeal via video link from his residence on Vatican grounds.

The two popes joining forces publicly would underline like little else that this is a mammoth Catholic concern.

There are, of course, other possibilities one might dream up, and if we’ve learned anything about Francis over the past 18 months, it’s that he’s capable of surprise. These examples suffice, however, to suggest that the pope is not yet out of options.

A viewer’s guide to the Synod of Bishops

Sunday marks the formal opening of the Synod of Bishops on the family, though to be honest there’s been so much public jockeying in the run-up it feels like the Oct. 5-19 summit of bishops actually started months ago.

Crux has been running a “Countdown to the Synod” series laying out the substantive issues expected to surface, and I won’t rehearse any of that here. Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is likely to be one flashpoint, but all manner of other issues should be in play too, given that there’s almost no hot-button concern that doesn’t somehow fall under the rubric of the family.

I’m in Rome along with two other members of the Crux team, national reporter Michael O’Loughlin and Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín, so watch the site for our daily reports. Here I’ll lay out a brief viewer’s guide to the Synod of Bishops, with four things to bear in mind as the drama unfolds.

1. It’s truly the journey that matters rather than the destination.

The point applies generically to any synod, since a synod is merely consultative. This isn’t a political convention, in which platform items will be voted in or out, candidates nominated or rejected, and so on.

At most, what a synod does is present recommendations to the pope, and it’s always up to him what to do. As a result, there will be no new policy in Catholicism on anything as of Oct. 19, when the synod ends.

This time the final product is even less decisive, because this synod is merely preparatory for another, larger synod on the family set for October 2015. At most, all that will be accomplished over the next two weeks is setting an agenda for the second meeting, and presumably Francis won’t make big-picture final decisions before both synods run their course.

As a result, the best way to view this synod is as a way to take the temperature of the bishops on a variety of issues, looking for clusters of opinion and surprising notes along the way, rather than investing much importance in whatever they come up with at the end.

2. There is no single narrative about “what happened” at the synod on any given day.

Although in theory there are themes for each day’s discussion in the synod, they’re extremely broad: “natural law,” for instance, or “difficult pastoral situations,” which can apply to basically everything under the sun.

In reality, the roughly 180 bishops and few dozen other participants can talk about whatever they want. Francis also has asked that time be set aside each afternoon for free discussion, and there’s no set theme for that period.

Each day, therefore, a wide variety of points will surface, and different media outlets and advocacy groups will highlight things of interest to them. One account may stress what a bishop from Europe said about gay marriage, and another what an African said on polygamy. Viewers probably will have to piece together the full picture.

Moreover, it’s also important to realize that the working sessions of the synod are closed, so reporters have to rely on daily briefings and after-the-fact conversations with participants. Given that, accounts will likely vary in terms of reaction in the room when certain points were made, what people were buzzing about over coffee breaks, and so on.

The bottom line is that covering a Synod of Bishops is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, only without the picture on the box telling you what it’s supposed to look like at the end.

3. Perhaps the best thing about a Synod of Bishops is the global perspective on Catholicism it provides.

Truth to be told, most American Catholics probably won’t be terribly surprised by the kinds of things American and European bishops say at this synod, especially if you already know who the players are and the views they represent.

Americans will have something to learn from bishops and other participants from Asia, and from Latin America, and Africa, and the Middle East. They will relate experiences and perspectives we don’t generally hear, and thus the Synod of Bishops is a sort of graduate-level crash course in the realities of living in a global church.

Here’s a bit of basic Catholic math: There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and roughly 70 million in the United States, which means American Catholics are roughly 6 percent of the global Catholic population. Think of the synod as a chance to hear from the other 94 percent of the Catholic world.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a difference in American bishops between those who’ve been to a Synod of Bishops and those who haven’t, in that the former tend automatically to think more globally about the Church. The same can be said for reporters who’ve covered a synod, and for average folks out there who’ve paid attention during one.

4. Finally, expect the unexpected.

This will be the ninth Synod of Bishops I’ve covered over the years, and in each of the previous eight there was some “black swan” development, meaning something out of the blue, that at least momentarily steered the debate down an unpredictable path.

During the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in October 2012, for instance, discussion was briefly hijacked by a YouTube video on Muslim immigration in Europe that Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, elected to show during a free discussion period.

Although the video was overheated and contained some dubious statistical claims, Turkson nonetheless succeeded in sparking a debate about Islam and pluralism that today can’t help but seem more relevant than ever.

The basic message is, don’t go to sleep on the synod, because you never know when something out of left field might change the game.

Accountability for sexual abuse

News this week that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, is facing a Vatican investigation has sparked speculation that Pope Francis might be on the brink of a step forward in accountability for the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals, by disciplining a prelate not for the crime of abuse, but for the cover-up.

Finn is the lone US bishop to be criminally convicted for failing to report a suspected abuser to police, making him a symbol of what critics see as a lack of accountability for making the Church’s official “zero tolerance” policy stick.

I wrote a Crux piece this week describing the Finn review as potentially the most important step Francis will ever take on the sexual abuse front, precisely because accountability is the central bone of contention for many victims and advocacy groups with the way the Church has responded to the abuse crisis.

Here I’ll offer three other observations.

First, if Finn is removed or otherwise sanctioned, critics likely will intensify their press for Pope Francis to tackle other cases.

Americans may want to see him impose retroactive discipline on Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in Boston at the peak of the abuse scandals there in 2003, and was brought to Rome by Pope John Paul II and given a largely ceremonial Vatican post. Others may point to retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who drew fire in 2013 when internal Church records released as part of a lawsuit suggested that Mahony and aides had tried to keep accusations against abuser priests quiet.

Still other Americans may raise the situation of Archbishop John Nienstedt in Minneapolis-St. Paul. In July, a plaintiff’s law firm made public a redacted copy of a 120-page affidavit by Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer and victims advocate who claims she was ignored, marginalized, and bullied for trying to warn superiors about abuser priests when she was chancellor of canonical affairs for the archdiocese. In a deposition as part of a lawsuit, Nienstedt acknowledged withholding information on accused priests, saying he had done so on the advice of aides.

The Irish may wonder if Francis will do something about retired Cardinal Sean Brady, who came under fire for his role in the Brendan Smyth case. Smyth abused at least 20 children between 1945 and 1989, and it would later emerge that Brady and other Church officials conducted an investigation in 1975 in which they learned of the abuse but didn’t report it.

Belgians may cite a discrepancy in the fact that while Finn is facing investigation, retired Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels is a special guest of the pope at this month’s synod. Some Belgians fault Danneels for his handling of a scandal surrounding retired Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who in 2010 acknowledged having sexually abused two nephews over the course of a 15-year period while serving first as a priest and then as bishop.

As revelations surrounding the affair rolled out, a taped conversation came to light between Danneels and one of Vangheluwe’s victims in which the cardinal appears to pressure him to keep quiet about the abuse and to allow Vangheluwe to retire without incident. Two priests came forward to say they had tried to warn Danneels about Vangheluwe in the 1990s, but he had not taken action.

Italians undoubtedly will point to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the former Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and still the dean of the College of Cardinals. In 2010, another cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, publicly accused Sodano of blocking an investigation against the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The order eventually acknowledged that Maciel had been guilty of a wide range of sexual abuse and misconduct.

One could go on multiplying examples, but the point is that critics around the world will insist the accountability challenge doesn’t end with Finn.

Second, satisfying those critics may be difficult for reasons both substantive and political.

It’s one thing in Catholicism to sanction a relatively low-ranking bishop in a mid-sized diocese, and quite another to go after a cardinal. In addition, all of the cases cited above other than Nienstedt involve prelates who are now retired, making it unclear what “discipline” could be imposed, apart from a largely symbolic gesture such as removing Sodano as dean of the College of Cardinals.

Moreover, the justice of retroactive punishment would have to be examined.

In Finn’s case, the basis for moving against him would be fairly straightforward. The charge is that he learned of accusations against a priest in December 2010, but didn’t report them until May 2011. By 2010 the US bishops had a clear anti-abuse protocol, and the Vatican had approved special norms. If Finn didn’t follow those procedures, there’s no question of holding him to an anachronistic standard.

In cases such as Law and Brady, the situation is murkier. However dubious their decisions may seem in hindsight, it’s not clear-cut that they actually violated any Church law or policy in force at the time.

As a result, however hard it may be to take action with Finn, it might turn out to be comparatively easy relative to other cases.

Third and finally, it may not actually be necessary for Francis to go after every bishop accused of mishandling abuse claims in order to set a new standard of accountability.

The term of comparison would be to the pope’s intervention last year in the diocese of Limburg, Germany, where Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst had become infamous as the “bling bishop” for spending more than $40 million remodeling his residence.

Francis initially gave Tebartz-van Elst an unspecified sabbatical outside the diocese, and eventually accepted his resignation.

To date Francis hasn’t disciplined anyone else for over-spending, but he really doesn’t have to do. In the wake of Limburg, bishops in several other parts of the world have been compelled to either scale back or abandon their own renovation projects, not by Roman decree but by the force of negative public opinion.

Much the same thing might occur if Finn or Nienstedt or someone else, were to suffer a similar fate for their roles in the abuse scandals. Any bishop perceived to be in violation of the “zero tolerance” standard would face a new level of backlash, which might make formal ecclesiastical procedures less necessary.

The Nobel Peace Prize

Speculation is building that Pope Francis may win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which is to be announced Oct. 10. If so, that means the Synod of Bishops will be on hand to celebrate with the pontiff.

Were that to happen, it would mark a breakthrough of sorts in relations between the Vatican and the Nobel establishment.

During John Paul II’s papacy, he was frequently touted as a leading candidate for his efforts at peacemaking and interreligious dialogue. However, one member of the Nobel Prize committee, Lutheran Bishop Gunnar Staalseth of Oslo, Norway, publicly vowed in 2001 that no pope would win the award until the Catholic Church changed its teaching on contraception, which he insisted “favors life rather than death.”

In effect Staalseth imposed an informal veto, and John Paul II never got the honor.

If Francis is chosen this year, it would thus mark not only a recognition of the efforts of this “peace pope,” including his role in avoiding a widened conflict in Syria and his novel peace prayer for the Middle East, but it would also mark a sort of détente between the Church and one of the most important secular centers of moral authority on the planet.

Ordinarily, one might argue that bestowing the Nobel Prize on popes, presidents and other global celebrities amounts to a missed opportunity, since those figures already have built-in support systems, while relatively unheralded peacemakers actually need the limelight that comes from the prize.

As a statement about reconciliation with secularism, however, giving the 2014 award to Francis might have some added value. Tune in Oct. 10 and we’ll see.

NOTE: An earlier version of this column said that Jennifer Haselberger made her affidavit public; in fact, it was the plaintiff’s attorneys who released a redacted version of her affidavit. Haselberger is still a canon lawyer, but no longer is chancellor of canonical affairs for the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese.

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