Category: Vatican

Pope Benedict’s visit to secular France and its reformist President Sarkozy has proved to be successful above all expectations, as reported by Vatican newspaper L’Osseservatore Romano. During his Paris homily, at the Esplanade des Invalides, the Holy Father encouraged the 250,000 faithful in attendance to turn to God and to reject false idols, such as money, thirst for material possessions and power.

In his homily the Pope referred to the teachings of Saint Paul to the early Christian communities in which the Apostle warned the ancients of idolatry and greed. The Pope explained how modern society has created its own idols just as the pagans had done in antiquity.

The Pope emphasized that these idols represent a “delusion” that distracts man from reality, that is, from his “true destiny” and “places him in a kingdom of mere appearances” as quoted in Zenit’s article. Benedict underlined that the Church’s condemnation of such idolatry is not, however, a condemnation of the individuals per se, but more so of the evil temptations themselves.

“In our judgments, we must never confuse the sin, which is unacceptable, with the sinner, the state of whose conscience we cannot judge and who, in any case, is always capable of conversion and forgiveness,” he said.

The Pope recognized that the path to God is not always easy, but through the Eucharist, he said, man understands that God “teaches us to shun idols, the illusions of our minds” and that “Christ is the sole and the true Saviour, the only one who points out to man the path to God.”

This does not mean that the Benedict condemns business, trade, all the positive economic phenomenon that allow for wealth and prosperity. But concerned for France’s extreme tendencies toward materialistic relativism, the Pope rightly pointed out how France cannot marginalize itself from religion.

Benedict’s sermon strongly underlined how every believer in the light of God should pursue his own vocation, which may include business or particular talent God has instilled in him.

Had it not been so, I doubt that secular and business orientated President Sarkozy would have ignored State protocol and met the religious leader on his arrival at the airport. The French President was eager to promote “a new dialogue” with the Church and to talk about the need of a “positive laicity” in Europe and its expanding economic unity.

Pope John XXIII was once asked how many people worked for the Vatican. “About half” he humorously replied, alluding to a workforce not known for its speed and efficiency. Under the pontificates of John Paul II and especially Benedict XVI, however, the Vatican seems to have made some efforts to improve the delivery of various services.

Take for example this interview with the city-state’s head physician, Dr. Giovanni Rocchi, who boasts of minimal waiting periods for patients at Vatican-run health clinics and laboratories. Such medical services are provided to Vatican employees and residents, including the Swiss Guard, local security officials, and the thousands of daily visitors to the Vatican.

Emergency treatment, Dr. Rocchi says, is immediate and often relies on its own ambulance service to transport the injured and sick. Clinical test results are typically received within 2-3 days. Major medical interventions such as heart or back surgery are usually arranged within a maximum of 2-3 weeks upon diagnosis, which is nothing compared to the purgatory Italian citizens must endure in the country’s public health care system for similar and even very minor treatments.

The Vatican’s health care system is small-scale, offering limited medical services such as emergency first aid, clinical analyses, immunization, physical check-ups, with much of the routine care provided by general practitioners. Major medical surgery must be arranged through outsourced medical facilities found in Rome’s private religious hospitals, like the Fatebenefratelli hospital located on the Tiber Island or the Gemelli hospital, which cared for Pope John Paul II on several occasions. (more…)

In the July 24 edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano , a couple of articles related how Italians are reading less than their European counterparts, with 62 percent of the population failing to read even a single book during the year. “Above all, reading increases innovative capabilities, the ability to understand phenomena and in the ultimate analysis, worker productivity,” said Federico Motta, president of the Italian association of publishers.

According to Motta’s article, only 31 percent of Italian 20-29 year-olds have a university degree, compared to 34 percent in Spain and 56 percent in the United Kingdom. This pattern mirrors the levels of unemployment among the young: 20.3 percent in Italy, 18 percent in Spain and 14 percent in the UK. By affecting educational levels and worker productivity, this lack of reading also results in less social mobility and opportunities for growth.

In human capital terms alone, the cost is evident, but there are even greater cultural ones. With the growth of television, cell phones, video games, the Internet, and iPods, it is no surprise that young Italians are not developing a taste for books, i.e., the ability to read, understand, and learn from greats such as Dante, Leopardi, and Manzoni.

And we can’t forget about the Book of Books. Can there be any hope for regaining the Christian roots of Europe without understanding the Bible? Here, at least, there is some reason for hope. The Italian Bishops Conference and in particular its National Catechism Office have promoted various initiatives that have successfully brought the Word of God to young people. Many Bible-study groups are also promoted by lay movements and parishes. This coming October, Pope Benedict XVI will launch a six-day reading of the entire Bible on Italian television, as the Vatican journalist John Allen has reported.

It will be interesting to see how the country reacts to such a public reminder of this lost treasure. Taking books seriously again will benefit Italy not only in terms of its economic productivity, but may also help rekindle its faith.

In his weekly column, the National Catholic Reporter‘s John Allen notes Pope Benedict XVI’s references to the environment during the recent World Youth Day events in Australia.

Allen writes:

Although the point didn’t get much traction amid the pageantry of World Youth Day, it’s a striking fact that the most frequent social or cultural concern cited by Pope Benedict XVI in Australia was the environment. The pope talked about ecological themes seven times.

[snip]

If there was a distinctive twist to what the pope said in Australia, it was the need for reconfiguration of lifestyles, beyond and beneath policy questions. Repeatedly, Benedict warned against what he called the “folly of the consumerist mindset.”

One sign that somebody was paying attention: the Acton Institute, a Grand Rapids-based think tank with a pro-free market message, put out a press release rejecting impressions that the pope has “gone green” in the secular sense. Benedict wasn’t warning against a climate crisis, the Acton release stated, but a moral crisis.

Allen, the most reliable English-speaking journalist covering the Vatican during my time there, appears to have gotten this one wrong by misunderstanding the point of the Acton press release, which did in fact mention the Pope’s criticism of consumerism, but as a moral problem rather than an environmental one.

More seriously, Allen seems to misunderstand the Pope’s use of environmental issues. The Pope is not interested in the particular issues in themselves; rather he is more concerned with what our use or abuse of the rest of creation says about our relationship with God.

Whatever Benedict’s concerns for the environment may be, it is absolutely clear that he follows traditional Catholic doctrine by placing man at the center of all creation. Here is the key passage that follows the quotation cited by Allen from the World Youth Day welcoming address:

And there is more. What of man, the apex of God’s creation? Every day we encounter the genius of human achievement. From advances in medical sciences and the wise application of technology, to the creativity reflected in the arts, the quality and enjoyment of people’s lives in many ways are steadily rising. Among yourselves there is a readiness to take up the plentiful opportunities offered to you. Some of you excel in studies, sport, music, or dance and drama, others of you have a keen sense of social justice and ethics, and many of you take up service and voluntary work. All of us, young and old, have those moments when the innate goodness of the human person – perhaps glimpsed in the gesture of a little child or an adult’s readiness to forgive – fills us with profound joy and gratitude.

(more…)

In the July 14-15 Italian edition article of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Luca M. Possati examines the crisis of the Italian university system. Where most secular intellectuals blame the Church for its suppression of “academic freedom,” it turns out the real culprit is the vast education and research bureaucracy propagated by the national government.

Possati notes how the different governments have tried to reform public administration in different sectors, but have failed miserably, only creating more public debt, inefficiency, and confusion. The recent university reform, known as the “Moratti reform,” began in the year 2000 and set out to improve Italy’s academic system with the two-cycle degree system of three years each also known as “3+2″. Alas, it only resulted in more obstacles for students and professors, especially those involved in post-graduate and scientific research.

While the article addresses the cause of the problem, it does not seem to offer any practical solutions, besides ending with a meek call for a more flexible labor market in the university. This is a shame, because Possati could have sought guidance from Catholic social teaching, especially the principle of subsidiarity, which would allow for greater decentralization, if not privatization, of the education system. Simply making it easier for the bureaucracy to grow will not solve anything; cutting the bureaucracy and reducing its incentives to grow get closer to the core issue.

To recognize just how big a mess the system is in, take as an example the University La Sapienza in Rome. With 147,000 students, the university is the largest in Europe and one of the oldest, founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 (it’s no longer run by the Church but by the State, as readers will recall). It is also known for its high drop-out rates and endless wait lists and lines. A student can spend months trying to collect all the forms necessary to enroll. Others have to get up at 6am to get a seat for a 10am lesson. Some medical students even get their degrees without sitting through one anatomy lessons because they prefer to study at home.

As a result, the percentage of the Italian population with a university degree is quite low, just 11% of 25-44 year-olds have one. This kind of inefficiency also affects those with higher degrees, frustrating young researchers and forcing them to go abroad to continue their projects. This exodus obviously depresses Italian productivity and results in “brain drain” among the most talented and educated.

It should be no surprise that Catholic and private universities such as LUMSA and LUISS are better off because they govern themselves as small firms with a concern for the quality of their services. These universities have much lower drop-out rates and much more satisfied, education students as a result.

Greater decentralization and privatization of the Italian education system would disproportionately affect the very administrators who have created all the problems in the first place. It may not be a panacea, but it will be a first step in allowing teachers to teach, researchers to research, and students to learn without the ridiculous interference of power-hungry government officials.

On Tuesday the 17th Mons. Rino Fisichella was called by Pope Benedict XVI to succeed Mons. Elio Sgreccia as the head of the Pontifical Academy of Science, Social Sciences, Life. His Excellency was also raised to the title of archbishop while maintaining his role as Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome.

The Pontifical Academy for Science, Social Sciences, Life has as its scope: “to pay honor to pure science, wherever it is found, and to assure its freedom and to promote its research, which constitute the indispensable basis for progress in science.” It assures dialogue on bioethical issues while defending those primary moral values of the Church and its position on non-negotiable issues such as, research on stem cells, human embryos, cloning, euthanasia and other bioethical and scientific issues.

The position of the Church on bioethical issues is often incorrectly interpreted by secular academic circles as an obstacle to scientific research and progress. This is a common mistake that representatives of the scientific world easily run into and is usually dictated by ignorance of the purpose of the Church’s mission, which is to act for the preservation of human dignity and for the salvation of souls.

In Veritatis Splendor, one of many of Pope John Paul II ‘s encyclicals, there is a passage that clearly mentions how human knowledge cannot be sufficient to grant true freedom and truth to mankind:

the development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of human capacity for the understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us to face the most painful and decisive struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience.

The Pope also underlines the role of Church in safeguarding man from relativism and from the false conviction that God’s law is a burden, a restriction to his freedom. It is quite the opposite, man is as much free as he can understand God’s teachings and accept his commands. Therefore, the Church, being the body of Christ, has the “duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life to come and how they are related.”

Archbishop Fisichella will certainly be able to face such a task, thanks to his excellent academic background and his personal concern for the promotion of human dignity. He is long time Acton friend and was an important speaker at two of the Centesimus Annus Conferences on May 4 2006 and on May 2 2007. During his participation at the Centesimus Annus Conferences, archbishop Fisichella recalled how the social teaching of the Church “consists in favoring, promoting and defending the central role of the dignity of the human person, of every person, of the entire person, of every individual without any exception.”

There is no choice to make because there is no opposition, there simply cannot be knowledge without truth, or scientific research without the raising of further questions or of new challenges that will require answers. These answers can be found in Christ, who is always present in the Church.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosted 183 governments at a three day summit in Rome, from June 3-5. World leaders tried to find possible solutions in order to tackle the recent food crisis which has already caused hunger and civil unrest in several developing countries. Jacques Diouf Director General of FAO asked for $30 billion a year in extra financing to the United Nations needed to address world hunger threatening 862 million people.

Despite international efforts and estimates, the situation appears to be far more complex and certainly requires more than just a call for greater funding and a return to discredited subsistence economies. There is an alarming “silence” on what has contributed to this crisis and on what possible solutions already exist and can be found in Catholic social teaching.

The market economy, for instance, should not be looked upon with suspicion of greed and pure self-interest. Instead, the market economy has defeated poverty and paved the way for democracy, the promotion of human dignity, all important values of Christian social thought. It should, therefore, be considered as a resource used to fight corruption and misgovernment part of many developing countries affected by this crisis.

New solutions are, likewise, urgently required. Archbishop Silvano Tommasi, head of the Holy See’s office to the U.N. in Geneva, clearly pointed this out in an interview with the Vatican Radio. He also stressed the need to support local entrepreneurs and small farmers, encouraging them not to abandon the agricultural market.

Pope Benedict XVI in his address to the FAO summit also called for new solutions, defining this crisis as “unacceptable.” Highlighted by Zenit, the Pope underlined the need for “political action which, inspired by those principles of natural law written in man’s heart, protects the dignity of the individual.” He also underlined the need to “increase the availability of food by rewarding small farmers’ hard work and guarantee them market access; too often in fact, small farmers are penalized domestically by industrial farming and internationally by protectionist policies and practices,” as recalled by Asia News.

Diverse solutions have also been proposed by humanitarian NGOs who are following the FAO Summit, such as Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontiers, and Care, who are condemning traditional financial aid, specifying the need to, once again, eliminate bio-fuels, protectionists regimes, VAT on food and the need to cultivate nutrient-rich food.

Unfortunately, Catholic NGOs such as Caritas Europa, FOCSIV, and Sant’egidio still do not seem to have an opinion on the matter. It is a great loss to the creativity needed for solving this crisis. These Catholic NGOs have field projects in several developing countries and surely with their longstanding experience could develop new perspectives to this situation in the light of Catholic social teaching.

While we await Pope Benedict’s first social encyclical, it has been interesting to note what he has been saying on globalization and other socio-economic issues affecting the world today. None of these amounts to a magisterial statement but there are nonetheless clues to his social thought.

So that makes his address to the Centesimus Annus pro Pontifice Foundation noteworthy. The Pope spoke about the current state of globalization, reminding the audience that the aim of economic development must serve the progress of man.

Benedict stressed that commercial interests must never become so exclusive that they damage human dignity. He expressed the hope that the process of globalization which has so far affected finance, culture and politics should in the future also lead to a “globalization of solidarity” and respect for all parts of society. This would be necessary in order to make sure that economic growth is never cut off from the search for the comprehensive development of man and society. The Pope pointed out that the principle of subsidiarity is vital in guiding globalization:

“In this respect, the social doctrine of the Church stresses the importance of intermediate bodies in accordance with the principle of solidarity. It allows people to freely contribute to give meaning to cultural and social changes and direct them towards the authentic progress of man and the community.”

The conference was entitled “Social Capital and Human Development” and the foundation’s name recalls John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical of the same name, which drew together 100 years of history of the Church’s social doctrine.

What Benedict has said on globalization is very much in line with what John Paul II said before him. This may not seem like much, but when one considers the technical nature of economics and finance today, it is a humane and necessary message that supports the positive aspects of market economics.

UPDATE:

The journalist and author Will Hutton (described in his Wikipedia entry as “Britain’s foremost critic of capitalism”) was invited by the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation to address the conference. In an article for the Observer he shared his impressions. Interpreting Benedict within the framework of his own left-leaning ideas he failed to understand what the pontiff actually said.

According to Hutton, “the Catholic church is again alarmed by the way capitalism is developing” and has attacked “sweatshop call centres, declining trade unions” and “directors paid tens of millions”.

The Pope mentioned none of this and Hutton offers no evidence of why that should be Church teaching. Nor did John Paul II in his encyclical demand “stakeholder capitalism” as Hutton claims. Besides raising the obvious question why Hutton was invited to speak on a subject that he knows little about, this is a worrying example of how a defense of an ethical grounding of economics is misinterpreted as a call for socialistic solutions.

The new Italian government was sworn in on May 9, headed for the third time by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The center-right coalition has a vast majority both in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, giving it a good chance of serving its full five-year term.

For the first time since 1948, there will be no communists represented in either chamber. For forty years following World War II, the Italian Communist Party was the second largest party in the country and the most influential in Western Europe, as Michael Barone points out in a recent analysis.

The largest party was the Christian Democrats (DC), who led every government and guaranteed a type of “Italian” stability. Most of all, the DC was perceived by the people as the only defence against the communist threat. But after the corruption scandals of the 1980s, the fragmentation of political parties and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the threat of communism faded away along with the Christian Democrats’ primary raison d’être.

In the 1990s, the political situation changed systematically with splits in both parties. Hard-core Communists re-fashioned themselves into smaller fringe parties and will not be represented at all in the new parliament. While not left out of parliament entirely, the old Christian Democrats, now primarily known the Unione Democratica di Centro, are not a part of Berlusconi’s governing coalition.

This means that for the first time in the history of the Italian republic, a government will not have a Christian Democrat minister or an explicitly Catholic spokesman. This does not mean, however, that none of the new ministers are Catholics. For example, the minister for economic development, Claudio Scajola, was a Christian Democrat when he was younger, and Berlusconi himself received a serious Catholic education. And most if not all of the ministers are baptized Catholics and would call themselves as such. However, Sandro Magister a known journalist has underlined that Berlusconi can be considered the most secular politician.

But will the new government reflect a Catholic identity? The upstart newspaper Il Foglio has called it “post-Catholic” but the influential Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica is pleased with the defeat of the communists and seems more worried about coalition parties such as the secessionist Northern League. A weaker Catholic identity may affect not only the Church’s reputation and influence but reinforce radical secularism.

While the Christian Democratic tradition is rich in Italy and some other Western European countries, the question now is whether such “officially” Christian parties are necessary. On several matters of Catholic social doctrine, good Catholics can and probably should disagree on its application. Sometimes a secular politician can have more common sense than an “officially” religious one. The formation of individual politicians and voters, rather large political parties, seems more suitable to the spirit of the times.

This does not mean the Catholic Church in Italy will be silent; it never has been. The Church’s public statements are usually on matters such as marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and biomedical research. But beyond these non-negotiable issues, there are many areas where Catholic politicians and other members of the laity can and must promote Catholic identity and Church teaching. All without a Christian party label.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, April 16, 2008

It’s an otherwise fine story by an AP writer, but I’m on the prowl for media infelicities in the pope coverage, so silly lines get noticed:

After making little headway in his efforts to rekindle the faith in his native Europe, the German-born Benedict will be visiting a country where many of the 65 million Catholics are eager to hear what he says.

I like the “making little headway” clause. As though reestablishing Christendom were a matter of uttering a few well chosen words. Benedict’s been pontiff for three years. The secularization of Europe has been going on for anywhere from fifty to five hundred depending on how you want to look at it. Taking into account the Vatican’s vaunted tendency to “think in centuries,” I doubt the pope expected to rekindle the faith of a continent in a few months. Nor for that matter is it likely that he possesses such power in a post-Christian Europe. I suspect his goals are more modest and realistic.