Pope faces gut checks on anti-Christian persecution and the death penalty

Pope faces gut checks on anti-Christian persecution and the death penalty

As good politicians know, the first test of leadership is amassing sufficient political capital to get things done. The second is willingness to spend down that capital on things that matter, even when doing so comes at a cost. Although he’s not really a politician – anyway, not merely a

As good politicians know, the first test of leadership is amassing sufficient political capital to get things done. The second is willingness to spend down that capital on things that matter, even when doing so comes at a cost.

Although he’s not really a politician – anyway, not merely a politician – there’s no doubt Pope Francis has passed the first test. His global approval ratings remain sky-high, including in the United States.

He’s also undeniably consequential. Francis has been credited by the presidents of both the United States and Cuba with paving the way for their recent détente, and Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged his impact in preventing Western military strikes against the Assad regime in Syria in September 2013.

Two looming gut checks should provide a gauge of how well Pope Francis passes the second test, meaning how willing he is to put his political cachet on the line.

The first comes Sunday, as Francis celebrates a Vatican Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of what Armenians call a genocide, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of Turks, and what Turks insist on terming an unfortunate loss of life created by a civil conflict.

Inés San Martín of Crux reported this week that in the run-up to the anniversary, Francis finds himself trapped between two imperatives: Denouncing the Armenian genocide as a harbinger of today’s waves of anti-Christian persecution, while not alienating a strategically crucial nation regarded as a potential force for moderation in the Islamic world.

Vatican sources said in advance of Sunday’s Mass with a host of Armenian dignitaries that the pontiff probably wouldn’t use the “g” word, despite the fact that he’s done so before, and that both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI also employed it.

Francis knows what’s at stake. When he visited Turkey in late November, President Recep Erdoğan offered the pontiff a deal: You take up the fight against Islamophobia in the West, and I’ll defend Christians in the Middle East. It’s a potential game-changer, one Francis probably doesn’t want to sacrifice because of an avoidable diplomatic row.

On the other hand, Francis has become increasingly outspoken on anti-Christian persecution. He’s angrily accused the world of “trying to hide” Christian suffering, and he’s even broken with the Vatican’s typical opposition to any military intervention in the Middle East to offer carefully circumscribed support for an anti-ISIS use of force.

If Francis fails to call a spade a spade on the anniversary of the 20th century’s first mass murder of Christians, believers in the firing line today may doubt the pontiff’s resolve.

Perhaps one could argue that the truly bold thing for Francis to do is to show restraint, playing the long game with the Turks rather than indulging an emotional desire to point fingers. Holding the anniversary Mass in itself certainly puts the world on alert that he hasn’t forgotten what happened a century ago.

In any event, it will be fascinating to watch how Francis navigates the dilemma.

Update: The pope called the Armenian slaughter a genocide, and Turkey’s not happy

His second gut check comes in America, in the wake of Wednesday’s verdict in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The defendant was found guilty on 30 counts, including 17 that carry the death penalty.

The trial is now entering the sentencing phase, and Catholic leaders at all levels will be pressed to bring the Church’s teaching on capital punishment to bear on the outcome.

Led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, the Massachusetts bishops responded on Tuesday with a statement on the Tsarnaev case.

“The defendant has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm,” the statement said. “Because of this, we, the Catholic bishops of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, believe that society can do better than the death penalty.”

In the abstract, Francis has voiced the same sentiment.

Just three weeks ago, he called capital punishment “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and said it is “unacceptable,” no matter the severity of the crime, in a letter to the International Commission against the Death Penalty.

The pontiff denounced “the terrible wait between the sentence and the application of the punishment,” calling it “a ‘torture’ which, in the name of a just process, usually lasts many years and, in awaiting death, leads to sickness and insanity.”

Francis knows that the death penalty is controversial in the United States, and that a strong camp in the American Catholic Church passionately defends it. Looking ahead to his trip here in September, this could be one of those moments in which discretion seems the better part of valor.

On the other hand, it’s also a chance for Francis to show that he’s serious about the death penalty by saying something he knows full well many Americans, including some members of his own flock, don’t want to hear.

For the record, there’s precedent for papal intervention in an American death penalty case. In 1999, Pope John Paul II appealed to then-Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri to spare the life of convicted murdered Darrell Mease, who was scheduled for execution while the pontiff was in St. Louis. Carnahan commuted the sentence to life in prison.

Taken together, these two gut-checks could provide insight into whether Pope Francis is as savvy about spending his political capital as he is about stockpiling it.

No ‘Vatican school’ for exorcists this week

An annual week-long course on “Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation” run by Regina Apostolorum in Rome, a university sponsored by the Legionaries of Christ religious order, opens on Monday. It covers a lot of ground, from the anthropological and social context of “Satanism” through the nitty-gritty of what an exorcist actually does.

In terms of drawing eyeballs, reporters can never go wrong with a headline on exorcism, so the course generates strong media interest every year. Typically the coverage comes with a few mistaken assumptions and over-hyped conclusions, so I’ll mention two perennials here.

First, despite what you may hear, the course is not a “Vatican school” or “Vatican camp.”

It’s offered by the “Sacerdos Institute,” a program of priestly formation operated by the Legionaries, in partnership with a private Bologna-based foundation called the “Group of Socio-Religious Research and Information” that tracks New Age movements and the occult.

For a bit of context, the Roman calendar is always chock-full of seminars, conferences, mini-courses, etc., offered by orders, lay movements, private foundations, Catholic colleges, activist groups, and so on. Walk into any Roman hotel, any day of the week, and you’ll likely find at least one. Though organizers often try to play up their Vatican contacts, even inviting a Vatican official or two to speak, none of that makes these initiatives Vatican events.

The course on exorcism is a case in point. It carries a loose endorsement from the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, and a couple of Vatican officials typically make presentations. This year the line-up includes Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican’s court for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church.

Yet nobody is required by the Vatican to attend, there’s no Vatican certification at the end, and one cannot assume that every word uttered represents the Vatican’s take on things.

Second, because the Rev. Gabriele Amorth’s name appears on the list of past speakers for the course, it’s a good bet that somebody will seek out the 90-year-old Italian priest for an interview this week on the current state of the Satan-fighting business.

When they do, Amorth likely will be identified as “the pope’s exorcist,” a designation that’s appeared so often in media reports over the years he probably should have it printed on business cards. The only problem is that it’s not true, and never has been.

Amorth is the most famous living exorcist in the Catholic Church. His 1994 memoir, published in English under the title An Exorcist Tells His Story, became an instant classic.

Amorth is adept at recounting possession stories that make your toes curl, so he has become an obligatory reference. For the record, he’s a priest in good standing, honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, and since 1986 has been authorized as an exorcist by the Diocese of Rome. A member of the Pauline order, he worked out of a small office in the order’s headquarters in Rome, receiving people who sought his help 365 days a year.

Yet Amorth is not a Vatican official and does not perform any Vatican-licensed activity. In fact, there may be no one on the planet more critical of the Vatican’s approach to exorcism.

When the Vatican issued a revised version of the ritual for exorcism in 1999, Amorth loudly objected that the rules prevent exorcisms to counteract “evil spells,” such as curses or the evil eye, which he said account for 90 percent of the cases an exorcist faces. The new rules also stipulate that exorcisms should only be conducted when there is “certainty” of demonic possession, when Amorth insists that certainty can only be acquired by performing an exorcism.

In an interview with 30 Giorni magazine, Amorth bitterly complained that he had run into a “wall of refusal and disrespect” when he attempted to change the minds of Vatican officials, and said it was clear to him that the so-called experts who prepared the new ritual “don’t have the least idea of what an exorcism really is.”

To present Amorth as a “Vatican exorcist,” therefore, is not only inaccurate, but in some ways Amorth himself might take offense.

The Vatican and gay ambassadors

French and Italian news outlets reported this week that the nomination of Laurent Stéfanini, a veteran French diplomat, as the country’s new ambassador to the Vatican, has been pending since early January. Reportedly the hold-up is due to Vatican concerns, given that Stéfanini is both Catholic and openly gay.

In 2008, a similar scenario unfolded when then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France first toyed with sending an envoy who was a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic, and later one who was openly gay and living in a civil union with his partner. Both ideas drew Vatican disapproval, and now something similar may be afoot under President François Hollande.

Assuming that’s the case, it would be news under any circumstances. It’s especially intriguing, however, under a pope whose signature phrase vis-à-vis gay people is, “Who am I to judge?”

Here’s some background on how these things work. To begin, there’s nothing untoward about the Vatican turning down a potential envoy.

Under the rules of diplomatic courtesy, before a state appoints a new chief of mission to represent it in another state, it seeks what’s called the agrément, or consent, of the host government. It’s usually granted as a matter of routine, but it can be turned down for all sorts of reasons – security concerns, for instance, or worries about a financial or political conflict of interest.

In other words, it’s not just the Vatican that vetoes an ambassador once in a while. All states have the right to do so, and some use it.

The host state is not required to specify a reason for turning someone down, but in the Vatican’s case traditionally the lone basis has been someone’s marital situation, especially if the candidate is Catholic. The Vatican doesn’t want to appear to legitimize choices that break with the Church’s moral teaching, and it’s generally considered a sign of respect for the sending government not to put the Vatican in that position.

On background, Vatican diplomats argue that screening nominees in this way is in their own best interest, since it serves no one’s purposes to tap an ambassador who would be frozen out, or kept at arm’s length, once they arrive.

As a final note, one way for governments to avoid these headaches is not to name Catholics as their ambassadors.

If you ask the Vatican’s diplomatic elite, they’ll tell you they couldn’t care less what an ambassador’s religious affiliation is. What they’re interested in is whether the envoy is effective, meaning able to move the ball on areas of shared concern.

Since establishing full diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1984, the United States has insisted on naming Catholics to the post, in part because presidents have seen the job as a way to reward important Catholic supporters. The Stéfanini case, however, may represent a memo to whoever wins in 2016 that it might be time for a rethink.

On priests and money

The US bishops’ conference released statistics this week on the 2015 class of new priests across the country, with the big news being a significant jump in numbers. This year 595 new priests will be ordained in America, up from 477 in 2014 and 497 in 2013. The increase over last year represents an uptick of almost 25 percent.

One interesting nugget about this year’s crop comes from the Rev. W. Shawn McKnight, a conference official.

“Over 26 percent of those ordained carried educational debt at the time they entered the seminary, averaging a little over $22,500,” McKnight reported in a news release.

“Considering the high percentage of the men ordained already having earned an undergraduate degree,” McKnight said, “it will be important to find ways to assist in debt reduction in the future.”

McKnight left unspoken the implied warning – if candidates don’t get some help, they may not pursue the priesthood, as already happens with other career paths. A 2011 study by Jesse Rothstein of the University of California at Berkeley and Cecilia Elena Rouse of Princeton found that taking out a college loan makes someone less likely to consider a low-paying public interest job, such as teaching.

If the Catholic Church were an industry worried about losing young talent, the response would be immediate and obvious. Forward-thinking dioceses and religious orders would put money into helping seminarians cover their loans while they’re still in training, and then create a system for gradually paying those loans down for every year of service a priest delivers.

Billboards would sprout around college campuses cheerily blaring, “You don’t have to go broke answering God’s call!”

Catholicism, however, obeys a somewhat different logic. Basically, there’s a certain kind of Catholic uncomfortable with any financial or material incentive being attached to the priesthood. Such folks may balk at a debt relief program, on the basis that they don’t want candidates entering the seminary to escape debt rather than for more noble reasons.

In reality, that’s not a terribly Catholic way of looking at things. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said that “grace builds on nature,” which in this case suggests that reasonable concern for material security does not rule out a supernatural element to a priestly vocation. Instead, it can help lay the groundwork for it.

In the past, the Church would absorb the cost of undergraduate and graduate education for priests through its own institutions. In principle, there’s nothing different about helping priests today pay down a tab that they picked up going someplace else.

In other words, here’s a news flash: Priests are human, and if the Church wants to boost their numbers, it has to think about their needs on that level, too.

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