1. From a communications point of view, ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is a shipwreck.

By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Contributor, Crux, August 23, 2017

I am not a moral theologian or a canon lawyer, so I do not feel qualified to comment on the content of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s controversial document on the family that includes a cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

I don’t have any problems with Pope Francis’s teaching, and when it comes to dealing with the divorced and remarried, obviously something needs to be done, so I’m glad the powers that be are trying to sort things out.

However, although I am not a moral theologian, I do have some experience and training in communications. So, while I leave it to others to quarrel about the pope’s teaching, it does seem that, from a communications point of view, the document and its subsequent handling has been a shipwreck.

The problem can be traced to a seemingly innocuous footnote in chapter eight, in which the pope seems to open the door for some divorced and re-married Catholics to receive Communion.

After pointing out that some people might objectively be in a state of mortal sin, the pope observes that because of their circumstances and intentions they may not be very culpable. He says pastors should accompany the faithful who are in difficult and irregular relationships. In the footnote he adds, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.” … I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

The first communications problem is that the pope dealt with what was bound to be a controversial topic not with clear teaching, but with sentimental platitudes. It was the ambiguity of the footnote that made people squirm.  What does “help of the sacraments mean”? Does the pope mean that confession is the sacrament such people need? But then he mentions the Eucharist. Does he mean they may receive Communion, or that they should receive strength by participating in Mass and Eucharistic adoration but without receiving communion?

Pope Francis and his supporters are pleading for a recognition of the complexity of the problem for pastors and their people. The pastoral problems certainly are perplexing. However, the acknowledgement of complexity comes across as ambiguous and relativistic to those who demand clarity as well as charity.

Unfortunately, the pope’s response to his critics has sometimes come across as dismissive and patronizing. When he defers to Schönborn, it looks like he is sidestepping, and when he appears to demote those who are firmly against giving Communion to the divorced and remarried, such as American Cardinal Raymond Burke and German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, those who have stopped giving him the benefit of the doubt only give him the doubt.

Argentine Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, the rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires, and a close colleague of the pope, has stepped into the ring and launched a vigorous defense of Amoris Laetitia, as reported by Austen Ivereigh.

Again, just from a communications point of view, there’s a good case that he only made matters worse.

First, Fernández comes across as a papal surrogate. While the pope continues to deflect dialogue with those who disagree, it looks like he is using others to fight his battles. Rather than addressing the concerns himself, or taking the high ground and rising above the fray, he seems to be ducking for cover and sending out his lieutenants to take shots at the enemy.

Unfortunately, Fernández, who is known as the pope’s adviser, seems to resort to derogatory remarks. Fernández says some of the critics deploy a kind of logic that amounts to a “death trap,” subjecting the gospel and papal teaching to “intellectual Pelagianism … administered by an oligarchic group of ethicists.”

Of course, it’s a pope’s job to point out error, and sometimes that requires strong language. There’s a fine line, however, between correction and snark. Doesn’t the archbishop know that this is just the sort of inflammatory language which the conflict hungry media are going to pick up on and headline?

The archbishop says the pope knew the footnote in chapter eight could be explosive, and deliberately put his idea in that form so that it would be “discreet.” There are two problems with this explanation.

First, coming so long after the publication of the document and the controversy it has caused, it looks like one of those weak explanations politicians issue to take the heat off a controversial decision.

Secondly, because his critics already have suspicions, when the archbishop says “discreet” they will hear him say “sneaky.” They will conclude that the pope, not having got his way at the Synod of the Family, sneaked his loophole about the divorced and remarried into the exhortation by use of a footnote.

When it comes to good communications, this just adds fuel to the fire.

Worst of all, the fuss has detracted from the main message of Amoris Laetitia, which was a positive and powerful re-affirmation of Catholic teaching on love and marriage-a message the church and the world desperately needs to hear.


2. Iraqi Christians still need America’s help, former congressman says.

By Catholic News Agency, August 23, 2017, 6:04 AM

A recent trip to Iraq drove home the perilous state of Christians and Yazidis there, a former US Congressman from Virginia has recounted in a new report.

“If nothing is done, I believe that we will see the end of ancient Christianity in Iraq within a few years,” former Congressman Frank R. Wolf has said in a report from the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

“Currently, the population is getting dangerously close to dipping below the critical mass needed for these Christians to maintain their long-term presence in their ancestral homeland,” he said. “If this trend is allowed to continue, the Christian population will follow that of the Jewish population, which has decreased from 150,000 individuals in 1948 to just 10 people today.”

While there are signs of hope, such as the return of 600 families to the Plains of Nineveh, Wolf said “bold action” is required by the U.S. and the West to address the situation. The loss of Christianity in the region would further destabilize the Middle East and threaten U.S. national security, he warned.

Wolf offered several policy recommendations. He said the Senate should pass the Iraq and Syria Genocide Accountability Act, which authorizes and directs the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide funds for humanitarian aid to religious and ethnic minorities affected by war crimes and genocide. It also authorizes support for criminal investigations in Iraq of Islamic State members and perpetrators of war crimes.

He called for a fresh assessment of the situation in Iraq and for an international coalition to secure the Nineveh Plains, possibly including a U.S. base or a joint-training base. He suggested that security restrictions on embassy and consular employees limit their ability to learn about local Iraqis which hinders their own policy judgement. Local contractors, then, should move freely throughout the region to survey the situation and develop a better strategy.

Wolf advocated pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to implement reforms to provide equal citizenship, security, and economic opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities.


3. Pope prays for Ischia victims as Italy recalls bigger quake.

By Associated Press, August 23, 2017, 5:07 AM

Pope Francis is praying for the victims of an earthquake on the resort island of Ischia that struck as Italy prepares to mark the first anniversary of a far more deadly temblor on the mainland.

Francis led pilgrims and tourists at his general audience Wednesday in prayer for the victims and those who lost their homes in the 4.0-magnitude quake Monday. Two women died and two dozen were injured. Rescue crews also pulled three brothers and their father alive from the rubble of their collapsed home.

Thursday will mark the first anniversary of a much stronger, 6.2-magnitude quake that destroyed several towns in central Italy, killing nearly 300 people. A candle-lit procession is scheduled for Wednesday at midnight in the hardest-hit town, Amatrice.


4. Vatican secretary of state urges Russia to help in Venezuela, By Associated Press, August 22, 2017, 12:43 PM

The Vatican secretary of state visited Russia on Tuesday for talks spanning inter-church relations to global crises.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and also met with Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill.

Lavrov said the talks focused on conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, as well as the Ukrainian crisis. Parolin urged Russia to use its close ties to Venezuela to help ease tensions there.


5. Trump wants atheist group’s suit over church order dropped.

By Associated Press, August 22, 2017, 7:44 PM

The Trump administration wants to nix a legal challenge to a presidential order easing enforcement of an IRS rule that limited religious organizations’ political activity.

The Justice Department on Tuesday asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed in May by a Wisconsin-based atheist group. The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues President Donald Trump’s order is unconstitutional because it grants preferential treatment to religious organizations while secular groups must still abide by the law.

At issue is a 1954 federal law that forbids groups such as churches from participating in political campaigns. Trump’s order directs the Treasury Department not to take “adverse action” against churches or religious organizations for political speech, part of a promise to conservative Christians who supported his White House bid. He said at the time that he was giving churches their voices back.

The atheist group immediately sued, arguing the president lacked the power to overturn legitimate law.

In court filings, the Justice Department said the executive order does not alter existing law and called the group’s claims baseless.


6. Top Vatican diplomat focuses on Ukraine, Middle East in Russia talks. 

By Elise Harris, Catholic News Agency, August 22, 2017, 10:23 AM

The need to find peaceful solutions to global conflicts, particularly in Ukraine and the Middle East, has taken a front seat so far in the Vatican Secretary of State’s meetings with Russian government and Russian Orthodox Church officials.

In a statement following his Aug. 22 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the meetings so far have been intense, and offered his thanks to the Russian authorities for their cordial welcome to the country.

He met with Lavrov on the second day of his Aug. 21-24 visit to Russia, which marks the first time a Vatican Secretary of State has traveled to Moscow in 18 years. It also falls 18 months after Pope Francis’ meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana.

While conversation with Lavrov touched on several issues, Cardinal Parolin said that when it came to topics of international interest, he first of all reiterated the Holy See’s desire to find “just and lasting solutions” for the global conflicts raging in “the Middle East, Ukraine and various other regions of the world.”

On the situation in the Middle East, Cardinal Parolin said that while the two states have different approaches to the issue, they share a “strong concern for the situation of Christians in some countries of the Middle East and the African continent, as well as in some other regions of the world.”

He also voiced the Holy See’s concern for religious freedom, specifically that it is “preserved in whatever state and whatever political situation.”


7. It’s a Culture War, Stupid. 

By George Weigel, First Things, August 22, 2017

Those who persist in denying that the Church is engaged in a culture war, the combatants in which are aptly called the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” might ponder this June blog post by my summer pastor in rural Québec, Father Tim Moyle:

Tonight I am preparing to celebrate a funeral for someone (let’s call him “H” to protect his privacy) who, while suffering from cancer, was admitted to hospital with an unrelated problem, a bladder infection. H’s family had him admitted to the hospital earlier in the week under the assumption that the doctors there would treat the infection and then he would be able to return home. To their shock and horror, they discovered that the attending physician had indeed made the decision NOT to treat the infection. When they demanded that he change his course of (in)action, he refused, stating that it would be better if H died of this infection now rather than let cancer take its course and kill him later. Despite their demands and pleadings, the doctor would not budge from his decision. In fact he deliberately hastened H’s end by ordering large amounts of morphine “to control pain” which resulted in his losing consciousness as his lungs filled up with fluid. In less than 24 hours, H was dead.”

Canada’s vulnerability to the culture of death is exacerbated by Canada’s single-payer, i.e. state-funded and state-run, health care system. And the brutal fact is that it’s more “cost-effective” to euthanize patients than to treat secondary conditions that could turn lethal (like H’s infection) or to provide palliative end-of-life care. 

But in Canada, a mature democracy, that utilitarian calculus among government bean-counters wouldn’t survive for long if a similar, cold calculus were not at work in the souls of too many citizens. And that is one reason why the Church must engage the culture war, not only in Canada but in the United States and throughout the West: to warm chilled souls and rebuild a civil society committed to human dignity.

Then there is the civic reason. To reduce a human being to an object whose value is measured by “utility” is to destroy one of the building blocks of the democratic order—the moral truth that the American Declaration of Independence calls the “inalienable” right to “life.” That right is “inalienable”—which means built-in, which means not a gift of the state—because it reflects something even more fundamental: the dignity of the human person.

When we lose sight of that, we are lost as a human community, and democracy is lost. So the culture war must be fought. And a Church that takes social justice seriously must fight it.