Category: Vatican

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.

Pope Benedict XVI is in the United States the next couple days, as you may have noticed. In case you’re interested in fleeing the inane, inaccurate, or ideologically charged coverage that will likely be on offer from most media outlets, you can instead pay attention to the following more reliable sources:

“Benedict in America” at Pope Benedict XVI FanClub. A resoundingly Catholic look at things, these folks have earned their stripes: they were the Ratzinger Fan Club back when Benedict was the much-maligned head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

On the Scene blog at Fox News. I can’t vouch for the rest of Fox’s coverage, but Legionary Father Jonathan Morris gets things right.

“A Papal Discussion” at the New York Times. This one will display a diversity of viewpoints, but it is an interesting and informed group including Amy Wellborn and Colleen Campbell.

And, of course, PowerBloggers will be weighing in as well.

If you’re looking for the latest on how “Sensationalist Reporting Muddles Catholic Social Teaching”, check out these recent contributions:

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a perceptive op-ed, noting the negative consequences of relaxed strictures on items such as sex and eating meat on Fridays. The author uses economic thinking to justify more traditional mores:

Larry Iannaccone, an economist at George Mason University who has studied religions, notes that some of the most successful, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Pentecostal Christians, which have very fervent congregations, have strict requirements. Religions relax the rules at their own peril.

“Religions are in the unusual situation in which it pays to make gratuitously costly demands,” Mr. Iannaccone said. “When they weaken their demands they make on members, they undermine their credibility.”

[Snip]

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the church has been pushing the other way. Pope Benedict XVI has brought back rites abandoned after Vatican II and reasserted the church’s hold on truth.

In this context, it could be tricky to update sins in a way that could de-emphasize individual trespasses and shift the focus to social crimes bearing a collective guilt. New sins might be a better fit for the modern world, but they risk alienating the membership.

On a lighter note, The Weekly Standard‘s P.J. O’Rourke has some fun at Bishop Girotti’s expense:

Not to argue theology with the Vatican, but environmental pollution is hardly among Satan’s strongest temptations. Pollution is not a passion we resist with an agony of will for the sake of our immortal souls. I’ve been to parties where all seven of the original deadlies were on offer in carload lots. Never once have I heard a reveler shout with evil glee, “Let’s dump PCBs in the Hudson River!”

If all environmental pollution were stopped forthwith–as any proper sin ought to be–wouldn’t this result in “causing poverty”? Eschewing New Deadly Sin #3 forces us to commit New Deadly Sin #4. And New Deadly Sin #5 as well, since “social injustice and inequality” cannot be eliminated without global economic progress. Furthermore, that progress depends in part on New Deadly Sin #6, the genetic manipulation entailed in the bioengineering of new
high-yield crop varieties to feed the hungry. Here we have Bishop Girotti, who is supposed to be leading us to God, leading us instead to a hopeless paradox and the unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost, despair.

Speaking of which, modern economists despair of any way to quit causing poverty except by accumulating excessive wealth–the excess supplying the capital needed for global economic progress. Also the Right Reverend should get out more and take a walk around Vatican City. A Mother Teresa leper hospital it ain’t.

And don’t forget to examine your conscience against O’Rourke’s own new deadly sins as well …

The Roman Catholic Church’s authoritative reference source, the Annuario Pontificio (Papal Yearbook), is published in March of every year. It is a weighty book in more ways than one: It comprises of over 2,500 pages, has a very limited print production of 10,000 copies, and contains just about every bit of information you would want to know about the make-up of the Church.

The publication of the 2008 Annuario made news earlier this week when, in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the editor announced that for the first time in history there are now more Muslims than Catholics in the world. Read Acton’s translation of the article below.

According to Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, in 2006 the Muslim population became the single largest segment among world religions, surpassing Roman Catholicism by 1.8 percentage points: 19.2 percent compared to 17.4 percent.

It should be noted, however, that the Church is only sure of its own numbers; the Muslim statistics come from the United Nations. Comparing two sets of numbers gathered with different methodologies does not necessarily result in an accurate picture.

It is not, however, all that surprising to those who are aware of current demographic studies. The Church has also issued widely-documented warnings on diminishing family size among Catholics as the result of widespread use of contraception, public advocacy of non-procreative and delayed marital unions, and unfriendly fiscal policies on the family. These negative trends are particularly evident in Catholic Western nations such as Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal.

It would be a mistake to read Msgr. Formenti’s interview as alarmist, however. He notes that when Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants are also taken into account, Christians remains a much larger segment of the world’s religious population, totaling about 33 percent, nearly double that of all Muslims.

Catholicism has also experienced a modest upward growth trend in three areas: the total number of faithful (+1.4 percent); ordained diocesan priests (+0.023 percent); and seminarians (+0.9 percent). These percentages are small but demonstrate growth in areas that had been in decline in the last few decades.

And finally, despite what the statistics say, Catholics are prohibited from giving in to the sin of despair. “The gates of hell shall not prevail….” (Matthew 16.18-19) (more…)