1. Where’s the Pope on Syria?: No papal prayer vigils to protest the military solution Putin has imposed on Aleppo., By William McGurn, The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2016, Pg. A15, Opinion.

If you are like this columnist, you may have missed the recent prayer vigil in front of St. Peter’s, which featured Pope Francis leading tens of thousands of the faithful in protest of the sickening Russian military strikes in Aleppo that have targeted hospitals, aid convoys and innocent civilians.

Surely there must have been such a vigil, right? And at least as prominent as the one in September 2013? Back then Pope Francis led a much-publicized vigil aimed at dissuading President Obama from launching airstrikes on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military assets after the strongman had gassed more than a thousand people in the suburbs of Damascus, including hundreds of children.

Remember those heady days? The tweets from the Holy Father himself: “War never again! Never again war!” Or his letter to Vladimir Putin during the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, in which Pope Francis implored leaders there (read: Uncle Sam) “to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.”

Not to mention Mr. Putin’s own use of Pope Francis in an op-ed that appeared shortly after in the pages of the New York Times. There Mr. Putin put it this way: “The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.”
So surely if the Holy Father was outraged in 2013 by what Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized would be an “unbelievably small strike,” he must be even more indignant over the cynical way Mr. Putin has used the entree the pope helped give him in Syria to use Russian air power to launch his own deadly strikes.

But somehow there are no Pope Francis vigils over the war crimes committed by Mr. Putin’s war planes.

Let’s hope what has followed in Aleppo might occasion some papal modesty, and perhaps a more ecumenical outlook when it comes to regarding the use of force by global powers. For the essence of civilization is this: The strong protect the weak. When the use of force is taken off the table, the strong prey on the weak.

In September, the pope thundered that those bombing civilians in Aleppo will one day have to “account to God.” Until then, the moral undermining of American intervention has guaranteed they will account to no one.


2. The Death Penalty’s Continuing Collapse, By The Editorial Board, The New York Times, December 27, 2016, Pg. A18, Editorial.

Piece by piece, the death penalty continues to fall apart. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court invalidated between 150 and 200 death sentences — nearly half of all those in the state — because they were imposed under a law the United States Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in January.

Juries around the country imposed 30 death sentences in 2016, a 40 percent drop from last year and fewer than at any time since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that opposes capital punishment. Twenty people were executed this year, the lowest number in a quarter-century.

The practice is not only increasingly rare, it is concentrated in an extremely narrow slice of the country. Only five states carried out executions in 2016, the report found, and only five imposed more than one death sentence. California sentenced nine people to die, the most of any state, but no one has been put to death there since 2006.

Public support for the death penalty keeps dropping, too — falling below 50 percent for the first time in more than four decades, according to a Pew Research survey. Support falls even further when respondents are given the alternative of a long prison term like life without parole. Though voters in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma last month preserved the death penalty, the overall trend is toward growing discomfort with state-sanctioned killing.

The total abolition of capital punishment, however, will depend on the Supreme Court’s reading of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.


3. Anti-abortion groups expect quick action from Trump, By Peter Sullivan, The Hill, December 26, 2016, 5:40 PM.

Anti-abortion groups are hoping President-elect Donald Trump will start changing federal abortion policy on his first day in office.

While there are big-ticket items on their wish list like filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court, there are also a range of abortion policy changes the Trump administration can make on its own.

The groups also want increased enforcement of “conscience protections” for religious organizations, which they say are being improperly forced to cover abortions in their insurance plans by states like California.

Anti-abortion groups hope Trump will reinstate what is known as the Mexico City Policy, preventing U.S. foreign aid dollars from going to organizations overseas that perform or promote abortions. The policy has flipped on and off in the past depending on whether a Democrat or Republican was in the White House.

There is even more that Trump can do with the help of Congress. Abortion opponents are pushing for federal funds for Planned Parenthood to be cut off as part of a bill early in 2017 repealing ObamaCare.

Trump also said in a letter in September that he was committed to signing a law banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and making permanent the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding from being used for abortions.


4. Pope Francis channels his inner Grinch, for a good cause, By John L. Allen Jr., Crux, December 26, 2016.

Typically, the pontiff’s Christmas rhetoric is strong, concrete, and a bit plaintive, apparently calculated to get his listeners to connect the dots between the birth of Christ in a poor family on the margins of a great empire, a savior who would first have to suffer and die, and the often harrowing realities of today’s world.

That was certainly the spirit of Pope Francis at Christmastime 2016.

On Christmas Eve, Francis began by recalling the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth, and then said, “In order to discover him, we need to go there, where he is. We need to bow down, humble ourselves, make ourselves small. The child who is born challenges us: he calls us to leave behind fleeting illusions and go to the essence, to renounce our insatiable claims, to abandon our endless dissatisfaction and sadness for something we will never have.”

The pontiff then ticked off a series of ways in which the story of the Christ child should inspire concern for today’s children, including children found “hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants.

“Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who do not have toys in their hands, but rather weapons.”

Sunday brought the traditional Christmas Urbi et Orbi address, preceded by the usual mustering of both the Swiss Guards and the Vatican Gendarmes, the playing of anthems, and various formations by the troops. Once again, Francis came off as restrained and serious, without much by way of hamming it up with the crowd.

When it came time to deliver the address, Francis didn’t pull any punches, making direct reference to the war in Syria, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the on-again, off-again peace process in Colombia, the scourge of terrorism in Nigeria and elsewhere, and several other dark clouds on the global horizon.

It’s noteworthy that virtually all the hot spots cited by the pontiff are areas where there are signs of some hands-on diplomacy of his own, from his relentless campaign for humanitarian corridors amid the Syrian conflict to recently assembling both Colombia’s president and his main political rival in the Vatican to try to revive the peace negotiations.

The bottom line is that Francis seems content at Christmastime to leave the manufacturing of good cheer to others, viewing the global interest his holiday messages always attract as a moral and social teaching moment, not a photo-op.


5. Pope Pays Tribute to Iraqi Christians Persecuted by Islamic State, By Reuters, December 26, 2016, 7:57 AM.

Pope Francis paid tribute on Monday to Middle East Christians who have clung to their faith during persecution by Islamist militants, saying there are more Christians martyrs now than in the Church’s early days.

The pope spoke to thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his holiday blessing on the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

He mentioned the persecution of Christians in Iraq, many of whom where able to spend their first Christmas since 2013 in churches after towns and cities were retaken from Islamic State.

“This was an example of fidelity to the Gospel,” he said. “Despite trials and dangers, they courageously show that they belong to Christ,” he said.

“Today, we want to think of them and be close to them with our affection, our prayers and even our tears,” the pope said.

Christians in northern regions of Iraq held by Islamic State were given an ultimatum: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most of them fled to the autonomous Kurdish region to the east.

Leaders of various churches, including the Coptic Church in Egypt, whose members have been beheaded and churches bombed, have called the fact that Christians of all denominations were being killed in the Middle East an “ecumenism (unity) of blood.”

“There are more Christian martyrs today than in the first centuries,” said the pope, who has often denounced Islamic State and condemned the concept of killing in God’s name.


6. Text of Pope Francis’ Christmas day message, By The Associated Press, December 25, 2016.

The following is the Vatican’s official translation of Pope’s Francis’ traditional “Urbi et Orbi” Christmas day message, delivered in Italian from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica Sunday:

Peace to men and women in the war-torn land of Syria, where far too much blood has been spilled. Particularly in Aleppo, the site of horrendous fighting in recent weeks, it is most urgent that, in respect for humanitarian law, assistance and support be guaranteed to the sorely tried civilian population, who continue to live in desperate straits and immense suffering and need. It is time for weapons to be still forever, and the international community to seek actively a negotiated solution, so that civil coexistence can be restored in the country.

Peace to the women and men of the beloved Holy Land, the land chosen and favored by God. May Israelis and Palestinians have the courage and determination to write a new page of history, where hate and revenge give way to the will to build together a future of mutual understanding and harmony.

May Iraq, Libya and Yemen – whose peoples suffer war and the brutality of terrorism – be able once again to find unity and concord.

Peace to the men and women in various parts of Africa, especially in Nigeria, where fundamentalist terrorism exploits even children in order to perpetrate horror and death. Peace in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so that divisions may be healed and all people of good will may strive to undertake the path of development and sharing, preferring the culture of dialogue to the mindset of conflict.

Peace to women and men who to this day suffer the consequences of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, where there is urgent need for a common desire to bring relief to the civil population and to put into practice the commitments which have been assumed.

We implore harmony for the dear people of Colombia, which seeks to embark on a new and courageous path of dialogue and reconciliation. May such courage also motivate the beloved country of Venezuela to undertake the necessary steps to put an end to current tensions, and build together a future of hope for the whole population.

Peace to all who, in different areas, are enduring sufferings due to constant dangers and persistent injustice.

May Myanmar consolidate its efforts to promote peaceful coexistence and, with the assistance of the international community, provide necessary protection and humanitarian assistance to all those so gravely and urgently in need of it. May the Korean peninsula see the tensions it is experiencing overcome in a renewed spirit of collaboration.

Peace to all who have been injured or have suffered the loss of a loved one due to the brutal acts of terrorism that have sown fear and death in the heart of many countries and cities.

Peace – not merely the word, but real and concrete peace – to our abandoned and excluded brothers and sisters, to those who suffer hunger and to all the victims of violence.

Peace to exiles, migrants and refugees, to all those who in our day are subject to human trafficking.

Peace to the peoples who suffer because of the economic ambitions of a few, because of sheer greed and the idolatry of money, which leads to slavery.

Peace to those affected by social and economic unrest, and to those who endure the consequences of earthquakes or other natural catastrophes.

And peace to the children, on this special day on which God became a child, above all those deprived of the joys of childhood because of hunger, wars or the selfishness of adults.

Peace on earth to men and women of goodwill, who work quietly and patiently each day, in their families and in society, to build a more humane and just world, sustained by the conviction that only with peace is there the possibility of a more prosperous future for all.

Dear brothers and sisters, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;” he is the “prince of peace.” Let us welcome him!


7. A Christian Answer to the Age of Terror, By Sohrab Ahmari, The Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2016, Pg. A11.

Anxiety roils that human welter these days. In Europe the Islamist threat, the problem of Muslim integration and the return of blood-and-soil nationalism top the litany of Western gloom. Cardinal Schönborn had been embroiled in these worldly controversies when we sat down for an interview recently.

The physical insecurity and social incohesion created by ill-assimilated Muslim communities are there, to be sure. But these things are byproducts of the West’s own existential confusion. “The real challenge is: What does it mean for the Christian roots of Europe?” asks the cardinal. Christianity, he says, is a “missionary religion by its founder. Jesus said, Go and make all nations my disciples, teach them what I taught you, baptize them. And a similar thing is true for Islam.”

Only many in the West have relinquished their own inheritance, let alone any desire to share it. Meanwhile, Muslims remain devout and are growing more so. The clash between a secularized, doubt-ridden West and a missionary Islam is Europe’s cultural crisis in a nutshell. “For Muslims in Europe,” Cardinal Schönborn says, the question is whether they can learn to “respect the other’s conscience,” as Christendom did across painful centuries.

As for Christians: “Do we believe that the Gospel teaching of Jesus is really what helps people lead a good life, for a good society, for paths to eternal life, which is finally the final question and the purpose of life?” Early Christianity, he points out, didn’t expand through arms or proselytism “but through attraction—it was attractive to become a Christian.” A West imbued with similar metaphysical confidence today needn’t “fear other people and other religions.”

A spiritually unmoored West is vulnerable to its own demons, chief among them exclusionary nationalism and various ideologies that treat human beings as means to an end. Threats to the dignity of life on the Continent, such as the relentless expansion of euthanasia, and the resurgence of the “idolatry of the nation”—nationalism pushed to extremes—suggest that “the demons of Europe are still around,” the cardinal says.

Vatican observers have described Cardinal Schönborn as Pope Benedict XVI’s spiritual son. Yet since Benedict resigned the papacy in 2013, Cardinal Schönborn has emerged as one of Pope Francis’ defenders against traditionalists who argue that the Argentine Jesuit lacks the moral and theological clarity of his recent predecessors.

“Some people inside the church or outside the church are longing for very clear answers,” says Cardinal Schönborn. “But Pope Francis is the right man for the right time.”

Is there a risk that the pope’s shifts could upturn doctrinal pillars, such as church teaching on divorce? Some pastors have interpreted Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), published this spring, to authorize case-by-case exceptions to the rule against divorced-and-remarried Catholics’ taking Communion. The document is vague, and the pope has so far declined to offer a black-letter ruling.

“This a very Catholic balance,” says Cardinal Schönborn. “It’s often said that Catholics don’t say ‘either/or’ but ‘one thing as well as the other.’ ” As the cardinal interprets it, Amoris laetitia says, “Let’s take families as they are. God is at work not with ideas but with real people.”

Even as they are called to uphold absolute moral standards, Christians must recognize that “from the very beginning the drama of humanity is that we are lapsed, that we are broken, that we are wounded by ourselves and by others.” Still, it’s hard to blame Catholics who fear the erosion of the church’s capacity to say “No” to the ways of the world, notwithstanding such clarifications. A few words of orthodox reassurance from the pontiff would help.


8. Christmas in the Middle East: Radical Islam poses an existential threat for the region’s Christians., By The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2016, 5:53 PM, Review and Outlook.

Britain’s Prince Charles devoted his annual Christmas message this week to religious persecution around the world. He opened by quoting a Jesuit priest from Syria who had told him it’s “quite possible there will be no Christians in Iraq within five years.”

Christian persecution has accelerated in particular with the rise of Islamic State, which views non-Muslims as infidels whom it is justifiable to slaughter if they don’t submit to Muslim domination, and often even if they do. Islamists persecute other minorities, notably the Yazidis in northern Iraq. And there is a larger sectarian war inside Islam between Sunnis and Shiites. But Christians are targeted in particular as radical Islamists seek to restore the Muslim religious rule of the pre-modern era.

It’s fair to say the fate of Middle East Christians has not been the focus of Western leaders. Pope Francis has made statements about it, though not with the fervor you would think is deserved for men and women dying for their beliefs. Western Europe has largely been de-Christianized, and the Obama Administration has spoken up only rarely, perhaps out of concern that this would offend Muslims.

Muslim-majority nations are diminishing themselves if they let Islamists use violence and bigotry to purge citizens who believe in a different God. No one in the West wants the return of a religious war, but that is all the more reason for Western leaders to speak up for religious tolerance and the ability of Christians and other minorities to practice their faith.