Francis poised for Era of Good Feelings with secularism

Francis poised for Era of Good Feelings with secularism

Both in secular Europe and in the Vatican, it’s a measure of how much things have changed that a visit by a pope next Tuesday to the European Parliament and to the Council of Europe seems to be generating almost zero controversy. Pope Francis will make a day trip to

Both in secular Europe and in the Vatican, it’s a measure of how much things have changed that a visit by a pope next Tuesday to the European Parliament and to the Council of Europe seems to be generating almost zero controversy.

Pope Francis will make a day trip to Strasbourg Tuesday, departing early in the morning and returning to Rome in the late afternoon. It will be the shortest foreign journey in the history of papal travel, a mere three hours and fifty minutes.

In 1988, when John Paul II became the first pontiff to address Europe’s most important political institutions, there was hostility to a pope being given such a platform. The late Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland’s Protestant community, had to be dragged out of parliament shouting anti-papal slogans, and not everyone was happy to see him go.

More recently, the European Commission became a leading symbol of secular hostility to Catholicism in 2004 when Italian philosopher and politician Rocco Buttiglione was blackballed as its commissioner of justice because he said that he accepted Catholic teaching on abortion and homosexuality.

Buttiglione said he wouldn’t enforce those convictions as a matter of law, but he was still deemed unacceptable. The decision prompted howls of protest, including from Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who famously warned of a “nasty secular inquisition” taking shape.

In that atmosphere, any visit by a pope to the EU would have been the political equivalent of Pacquiao v. Mayweather.

Back then, the leader of the leftist bloc in parliament was a German MP named Martin Schultz who introduced the motion to block Buttiglione. Today, Schultz is the two-term president of the European Parliament who’s preparing to roll out the red carpet, having already traveled to Rome twice to meet with the pontiff on his home turf.

There’s been no serious backlash against the invitation. (As an example of slightly whimsical opposition, however, there was a tiny Nov. 14 rally in St. Peter’s Square staged by “Femen”, a women’s rights group, which featured three topless women wearing only leather mini-skirts and garlands in their hair.)

On the Vatican side, proof of how delighted they are is that the pope is sacrificing a day to travel to Strasbourg just 72 hours before a grueling outing to Turkey.

To explain the improved climate, we may have two native Spanish-speakers to thank: José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Zapatero was the two-term prime minister of Spain from 2004 to 2011 who emerged as the Darth Vader of Catholic opinion in Europe. His paternal grandfather was a Republican army captain killed in 1936 by Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco, and Zapatero seemed to see his presidency as a chance to complete the unfinished business of the Spanish Civil War.

Within the first two years of his election in 2004, Zapatero’s government either adopted or discussed legislation in favor of:

• Same-sex marriage
• Fast-track divorces
• Curbing religious education in state schools
• Supporting embryonic stem-cell research
• Easing abortion laws
• Reducing or eliminating public funding for the Church

Over time, it became clear that Zapatero had overreached. Individually many items on his agenda were popular, but the impression of waging a holy war against the Church proved bad politics. (He had other problems, but bitterness among Catholics didn’t help.)

The lesson many European leftists drew is that graciousness is the better strategy. There’s greater openness today to what former French President Nikolas Sarkozy took to calling laïcité positive, meaning a congenial rather confrontational form of church/state separation.

The election of Bergoglio, a pontiff from Argentina who enjoys strong popularity, has also changed the atmosphere. For one thing, there isn’t a politician on the planet today – at least one who has to stand for reelection – who wouldn’t want a photo-op with Francis.

Further, Francis’ social priorities seem a better fit for the current European power structure. This isn’t John Paul, who waged titanic battles with the European Union over the so-called “God clause” in its new constitutional document, or Benedict XVI, whose agenda for Europe pivoted on the relationship between reason and faith.

Instead, Francis’ concerns tend to be the protection of immigrants, especially avoiding tragedies such as the death of impoverished migrants off the coast of the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa; promoting multi-lateral strategies in foreign policy, and the role of the United Nations; fostering assistance for developing nations and critiquing the inequities of global capitalism; and opposing war and religious extremism.

Those are all also top-shelf diplomatic and geopolitical concerns for the EU, creating the basis for a meeting of minds.

There still will be flash points, such as abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage. In an interview with Vatican TV this week the pope’s top diplomat, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, cited “recovering an integral vision of the human person” as something to discuss with the European authorities, which is often an indirect way of raising what Catholics call the “life issues.”

That said, the forecast seems to be for the differences to be manageable.

The fact that a pope could walk into the belly of the European beast and be welcomed with open arms is compelling proof of how Francis has the Catholic Church poised for a new Era of Good Feelings with the secular world.

The Pope in Turkey

Next Friday, Pope Francis departs for a three-day trip to Turkey that will be one of the most highly anticipated and challenging outings of his papacy.

Aside from the political and inter-faith dimension, the trip also poises obvious security concerns for the pope, given the proximity to the self-declared Islamic caliphate in Iraq. Inevitably, any papal presence in Turkey also raises the memory of Mehmet Ali Ağca, the gunman who almost killed Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981.

Vatican officials have voiced confidence in Turkish authorities to keep the pope safe. On background, they add it’ll be slightly less arduous this time because Francis won’t be taking the open-air Pope-mobile, since Turkey is 98 percent Muslim and large crowds aren’t expected to line the streets.

(As a footnote, a major Italian paper this week asked whether in light of security considerations Pope Francis might be persuaded to abandon the Domus Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where he’s taken up residence, in favor of the papal apartments. The idea was that since more people come and go on a regular basis at the Santa Marta, it’s harder to be sure that someone with bad intentions doesn’t slip through the cracks. Vatican officials, however, have said that the pope is staying put.)

Inés San Martín of Crux will be on the ground in Turkey reporting beginning on Tuesday, and I’ll be on the papal plane with Francis for his stops in both Ankara and Istanbul. Watch Crux for our coverage.

For now, here are three talking points about the significance of the trip.

First, Francis is still hoping to make an excursion somewhere near the border with Iraq to express his concern over the violence unleashed by the Islamic State. His ability to do so, however, depends on the Turkish authorities’ assessment of the security situation.

If the pope is going to roll the dice with some sort of dramatic gesture to try to break the ice, as he did on the Israeli/Palestinian front on May with an invitation to a peace prayer in the Vatican gardens, this would likely be the moment.

Francis will also face questions, both in public from journalists and behind the scenes from diplomats, as to how tolerant the Vatican will be of the use of force against the Islamic State. He said in August that it’s legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor, but the question will be whether that grudging support will hold if things heat up, and especially if outside powers decide to do more than launch limited airstrikes.

Second, this is Francis’ opportunity to lay out a broad vision for Catholic/Muslim relations in the early 21st century.

The Argentine pontiff has already gained significant street credibility in the Islamic world, both for his opposition to Western intervention in Syria last year and his gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians at the security barrier on the West Bank in May. His friendships with Muslim leaders in Argentina are also well known in Muslim circles.

Now he has the opportunity to solidify that goodwill with a more concrete statement of how he sees the relationship, both its theological and spiritual foundations and its possibilities for practical partnerships in the here-and-now.

Third, Francis also has the chance to boost the prospects for the survival of Christianity across the Middle East.

The dire situation facing the region’s Christian minority is well known. This week Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio movement which often functions as an informal parallel diplomatic corps for the Vatican, announced plans for an international conference in Cyprus March 5-6, 2015, on the future of Christians in the Middle East.

Though the announcement was phrased as a proposition, the subtext is that it really needs a question mark – does Christianity actually have a future in a region where the upper hand often seems to belong to Islamic theocracy?

We got a reminder of the brutal realities recently when the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic church in Iraq ordered nine priests who have taken refuge in the United States to return and they balked, with one of them saying that going back to Iraq today as a Catholic priest would be tantamount to “suicide.”

Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aspires to an ever-greater leadership role in the Middle East, and given its legacy of secularism and moderation it would seem to be one of the great hopes for protecting religious pluralism. Yet even in Turkey the small Christian minority faces mounting threats, and many Christians wonder about their long-term prospects.

The key question on this front about the pope’s three-day visit, therefore, is whether at the end of it Christians will feel as if they’re in a stronger position to ride out the storm than they were before the pope came.

Those three points may be asking a lot from a single 72-hour tour, but nonetheless they form the drama of Francis in Turkey.

Over/Under in the Philippines

The Turkey trip will be Francis’ last overseas journey of 2014, but the first one of 2015 is right around the corner. On Jan. 12 the pope leaves Rome to spend two and a half days in Sri Lanka and then the better part of four days in the Philippines, marking his second trip to Asia after a visit this past August to South Korea.

The Philippines is one of the most pervasively Catholic cultures on earth. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1995 for a celebration of World Youth, his Mass at Luneta Park is believed to have been attended by more than five million people, the largest single crowd in Catholic history and one of the largest peaceful gatherings of any kind.

Francis will celebrate an open-air Mass in Manila’s Rizal Park on Jan. 18. I hereby declare the betting open, and I’m setting the over/under at six million.

Personally my money is on over, although to some extent it may depend on what the weather looks like the closer we get to the event. I recall, however, that when John Paul II received the then-Filipino Ambassador to the Holy See on the one-year anniversary of his 1995 trip, she promised the pope that if he ever came back they’d turn out even more people.

John Paul didn’t cash in that promise, but now Francis is in a position to do so. Anyone who knows the Filipinos won’t take it as a hollow boast.

When reform gets real

Pope Francis was elected on a reform mandate, and the two most persistent sources of scandal he inherited concerned money and sexual abuse. Meltdowns on both fronts had hobbled the reign of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and frustrations over that record were a large part of the reason the cardinals turned to a complete Vatican outsider and a Latin American Jesuit with a track record as a good manager.

Though talk about “turning corners” is often cheap, it may be that November 2014 is remembered as the period under Francis when reform on both fronts became real.

In terms of the financial clean-up operation, we’ve seen several signals this month that the push for transparency and accountability isn’t going away.

Earlier this month, the new Secretariat for the Economy under Australian Cardinal George Pell released a manual outlining procedures to be followed by all Vatican departments beginning Jan. 1, 2015, intended to bring the place in line with international standards of accounting. Among other things, each office will be expected to have an honest annual budget providing a reliable picture of its assets and expenditures. That may not seem like much anywhere else, but in the Vatican it’s a cultural revolution.

This week, Italian authorities announced the return of roughly $30 million in Vatican bank assets that had been frozen as part of a money-laundering investigation in 2010.

The move came after the Vatican bank sent a letter to the institution where the finds had been sequestered, Credito Valtellinese, volunteering an explanation of 36 transactions carried out through that account, which involved the Italian bishops’ conference, the government of the Vatican City State under Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, today the papal ambassador in the United States, and the Catholic relief organization Aid to the Church in Need.

The decision suggests that Italy’s main financial regulatory authority, the Bank of Italy, has regained confidence that the Vatican is on the up and up, which bodes well for avoiding future scandal.

Finally on Wednesday, the Vatican announced that Swiss lawyer René Brülhart, who’s become synonymous with reform, has been elevated from director of the Financial Information Authority to president. It invests Brülhart with additional power, and also makes clear that he’s bullet-proof under this pope.

In effect, the combined message about financial integrity delivered this week amounts to, “Resistance is futile.” No matter how nostalgic some old-guard figures might be about the old ways, after this month it would take an extreme case of denial not to realize those ways are dying.

The same impression surrounds reform on the abuse scandals.

First, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston used a “60 Minutes” interview last Sunday to say that it’s “urgent” the Vatican do something about Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the lone American bishop criminally convicted of failure to report an accusation of child abuse.

Since O’Malley is both the president of the pope’s new anti-abuse commission and a member of his council of cardinal advisors, the statement puts an exclamation point on impressions created when Francis dispatched an investigator that a gesture about holding bishops accountable for failing to make “zero tolerance” stick is in the cards.

Second, speaking of that commission, its chief of staff, American Monsignor Robert Oliver, gave an interview to Inés San Martín of Crux in which he outlined its progress.

Not only does the commission now have offices in a piece of Vatican real estate that signifies its importance, nestled near the pope’s residence at the Santa Marta, but it’s also on the brink of rolling out new members and a series of working groups intended to tackle hard questions such as mandatory reporting of abuse allegations.

Third, we now know that Pope Francis spoke to man in Spain back in August who had written him to describe abuse he claimed to have suffered at the hands of priests as a young man. According to accounts in the Spanish media, Francis phoned the man to apologize in the name of the Church and to encourage him to go to the police.

As a result, according to those reports, a criminal network of pedophiles has been uncovered in the Spanish diocese of Granada.

However, complicating these impressions of a turning point, Michael Rezendes of The Boston Globe reports today that the Vatican’s new top prosecutor on abuse issues, an American Jesuit named the Rev. Robert Geisinger, played a role years ago in the case of a notorious abuser priest in Chicago who was allowed to remain in ministry rather than being swiftly removed.

Yet in light of other recent developments, the story actually seems to underscore just how differently such cases are being handled now.

The clean-up operations on money and sex abuse may still be works in progress, in other words, but mid-November 2014 has brought indications of forward movement under a pope elected to mitigate the church’s propensity for scandal.

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