Setting the record straight

Cardinal Dolan

Yesterday the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights complained that we had downplayed last Friday evening’s letter from Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to his fellow bishops. The cardinal’s strongly worded letter charged that the White House was ignoring the bishops’ religious freedom concerns in the rules that would mandate contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans.

Here’s what the Catholic League initially said about our coverage:

Catholic News Service never commented on, or posted, Cardinal Dolan’s letter in its “News Stories” section; instead, it relegated it to its blog postings, never highlighting the USCCB-America dispute.

As we advised the Catholic League shortly after the news release was issued yesterday, this seriously misrepresented our coverage of the cardinal’s letter.

Cardinal Dolan’s letter to his fellow U.S. bishops on Friday was an expanded version of his Thursday blog post. We reported on the cardinal’s blog item (More ‘confusion than clarity’ about HHS mandate, Cardinal Dolan says), but Friday’s expanded letter came too late for us to update that story.

Since we had already closed the wire for the week when the letter arrived late Friday afternoon, our solution — which we often do when news breaks at odd hours — was to write about the cardinal’s letter on our blog for Catholic readers over the weekend. We also posted a link to it on our Facebook page describing it as breaking news that evening.

Monday morning after we reopened the wire we wrote and posted for our clients a 650-word story on the cardinal’s letter. You can read that story here.

Our public website only includes a fraction of the stories, photos and other material we provide to our paying clients. This is why the Catholic League presumably assumed in issuing its release yesterday that we had not done a detailed story on the cardinal’s letter. (Our Monday story also prominently mentions the USCCB dispute with America magazine’s editorial, which the Catholic League says we never highlighted.)

The Catholic League’s initial misrepresentation of our coverage of the cardinal’s letter has spawned other errors. Spero News ran the Catholic League’s release under the ludicrously silly headline Catholic News Service spikes Cardinal Dolan.

Catholic League communication director Jeff Field did respond to CNS’s concerns today and amended the original post to note that “while there was no CNS story on this issue posted to its website, there was one that was sent to its client list.” We appreciate the Catholic League’s willingness to set the record straight. Unfortunately in a digital world, the original remains in places like Spero and other news aggregators.

Finally, no other news organization — Catholic or secular — has covered the U.S. bishops struggle on religious liberty issues, including the HHS mandate, more than Catholic News Service. Nor has CNS taken any editorial position, even benignly, against the work of the USCCB. As a wire service, CNS does not take editorial positions. It is too busy covering the daily news of a global church.

Politics of peace? Patriarch’s visit does not include Washington

As Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai begins a visit to the United States, one prominent city is missing from his itinerary. The patriarch will not be visiting Washington, D.C., nor will he be meeting with U.S. President Obama, despite a meeting Maronite officials said was scheduled at the White House for 2 p.m. Oct. 3.

To some, including Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of Brooklyn, this is a public rebuff. In a strongly worded open letter to Obama, Bishop Mansour called it “pure hypocrisy for the leader of the free world to refuse to meet with Patriarch Rai, especially since the prime minister of Israel can come and completely disregard essential parts of a peace plan and still be given a warm welcome, and the king of Saudi Arabia, where Christians have no freedom whatsoever, can be received with highest honors.”

Patriarch Rai is not a head of state, so many will find these comparisons invalid. He is the elected leader of the world’s Maronite Catholics, members of an Eastern rite in union with Rome. Of the approximately 5.5 million Maronite Catholics worldwide, approximately 4.5 million live in outside Lebanon.

Why then, would Maronite officials be so incensed?

Chorbishop Michael Thomas, Bishop Mansour’s vicar general, told Catholic News Service that, last spring, after the new patriarch was elected, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is of Lebanese descent, visited the new Maronite leader to congratulate him. At that time, LaHood invited Patriarch Rai to visit Washington and meet with Obama, and the patriarch accepted.

Chorbishop Thomas said Bishop Mansour was given the Oct. 3 date early in September. He said that, early the week of Sept. 19, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon visited the patriarch “to ask his stance on certain issues,” including Syria. Chorbishop Thomas said Lahood told Bishop Mansour Sept. 22 that Obama had no intention of meeting with the patriarch because of the Maronite leader’s stance on Syria.

Many Maronite officials, including Bishop Mansour, feel the patriarch is being punished for speaking honestly about the plight of Christians in Syria, where, like Iraqi Christians under Saddam Hussein, they have been somewhat protected by a dictator.

Archbishop Paul El-Sayah, former archbishop of Haifa, Israel, and now Patriarch Rai’s vicar general, recently told Catholic News Service’s Doreen Abi Raad: “The patriarch and the Maronite church are for the promotion of freedom, democracy and rights for all, and the church never supported any regime of any kind. We’re neither for nor against a regime. We judge a regime on its merits and how it deals with the values of freedom, democracy and rights.”

Speaking specifically about Syria, Archbishop El-Sayah said: “Change is important, and it should come about when those values are not honored. But we’d like to see peaceful change — change through dialogue, not through violence. And we are concerned also that violent change could lead to civil war.

“Everyone knows what kind of disaster civil war is,” he added. “Iraq is a very loud example. In Iraq the Christian minority paid a huge price. Two-thirds of Christians had to leave Iraq.”

UPDATE: A White House spokesman told Catholic News Service that the White House neither scheduled nor canceled a meeting with Patriarch Rai.

After the Arab dictators fall, will democracy follow?

A big question on everyone’s mind since the Arab Spring began  and dictators from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula began falling like dominos is “what will take their place?” In some places — Egypt, Tunisia and Libya the most recent — the rebels prevailed. Yet the opposition is unorganized. Who will fill the power vacuums and what form of government will emerge are still largely guesswork. Western hopes always look to democracy, but there is no guarantee. None of these states has ever had anything remotely resembling a democracy. Can it work?

Another even more compelling debate is whether democracy can work in an Islamic culture. Can one of the oldest forms of government and one of the world’s largest religions exist in harmony? Recall that not so many years ago some wondered whether Christian principles and a secular democracy could go hand-in-hand.

In the July issue of One magazine, the official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, scholar John L. Esposito explores this issue in his article, “Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?” Esposito, a professor of international affairs and of Islamic studies, is the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington. His conclusion: “The relationship of Islam and democracy remains central to the development of the Middle East and the Muslim world in the 21st century,” but it won’t be easy ironing it out. Moreover, the survival of ancient Christian communities in these lands may very well depend on a successful outcome.

Also check out the Alwaleed Center site for a video of Esposito discussing the future of Christian communities in the Middle East with pollster James Zogby.

What are your thoughts on the chances of democracy catching fire in these once oppressed nations?

Bishops join in fighting cuts to anti-poverty programs

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., and Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., have joined an ecumenical effort to oppose budget cuts to anti-poverty programs and congressional plans to make additional reductions in spending on programs supporting the poor.

The two California bishops will join evangelical, mainline Protestant, African-American and Latino Christian leaders in a series of press conferences today to introduce an ecumenical coalition called the Circle of Protection.

The coalition was formed as Congress and the White House debates federal spending priorities in the face of the mounting budget deficit.

The religious leaders say they believe the U.S. budget must favor moral principles over political choices and expressed concern that anti-poverty programs are among those seeing disproportionate cuts.

“As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice,” said a statement on the coalition’s website. “We are also committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity and rights of poor and vulnerable people. Therefore, we join with others to form a Circle of Protection around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”

CNS will have full coverage later today.

Faces of note in the gallery for presidential address

While news reports focused on all the collegial aisle-crossing in the House chamber for the State of the Union address Jan. 25, there were some interesting people in the gallery seats above the floor as well.

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl was among the guests of House Speaker John Boehner, along with an assortment of students and teachers representing the archdiocese’s Consortium of Catholic Academies, other supporters of school choice and the Heritage Foundation.

(CNS photo by Reuters)

In first lady Michelle Obama’s box were several Catholics who recently have made the news. They included Roxanna and John Green, and their son, Dallas. The family was among guests from Tucson, Ariz., with a connection to the Jan. 8 shootings that left 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green dead, along with five other people and 13 who were wounded. Also seated with the first lady were Daniel Hernandez, the intern who helped save his boss, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and Dr. Peter Rhee, one of Giffords’ physicians from Tucson’s University Medical Center.

Another guest of the first lady was Mikayla Nelson, a freshman at Central Catholic High in Billings, Mont., who led her team to a first-place finish at the National Science Bowl with the design of their solar car.

Also among Michelle Obama’s guests and saluted by President Barack Obama in his speech were Gary and Robert Allen, brothers who volunteered their roofing business in Rochester Hills, Mich., to help repair the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack there. The brothers’ company was highlighted in CAM Magazine, of the Construction Association of Michigan, for its work on the roof of St. Paul Albanian Catholic Church in Rochester Hills.

Pax Christi calls for celebrations to mark Convention on Cluster Munitions

Remnants of a cluster bomb discovered in Bosnia-Herzegovina. (CNS/Damir Atikovic, Norwegian People's Aid)

The Convention on Cluster Munitions enters into force Aug. 1.

The agreement, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions, was seen as a milestone among disarmament proponents when it was adopted by 107 countries meeting in Dublin in 2008.

Since then, countries have been formally considering the convention. To date, 106 countries have signed it and 37 more have ratified it. Noticeably missing from the list are China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia, Pakistan, Syria and the United States.

Pax Christi International is calling particular attention to the convention. The Catholic peace organization, based in Brussels, Belgium, is asking parishes and local to celebrate the historic pact by educating others about the agreement.

Proponents of the ban said that banning cluster munitions protects civilians from unacceptable harm because such weapons are inaccurate and unreliable when used. Handicap International reports that 98 percent of victims of cluster munitions are civilians.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that carry dozens or even hundreds of small bombs. When deployed from the air or the ground, the “bomblets” scatter over a wide area and do not distinguish between civilian and military targets, critics say. In many cases, significant numbers of the mini-bombs fail to explode and land in open areas where children can find them or adults can step on them, causing them to go off and inflict serious injury.

The convention culminated a long campaign coordinated by the Cluster Munition Coalition, a network of 200 civil society groups including nongovernment organizations, faith-based groups and professional organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations.

Pax Christi International is a coalition member.

The coalition continues its work to ban cluster munitions around the world through educational programs and grass-roots organizing.

Inside the John Paul II-Gorbachev meeting

Pope John Paul II meets Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY  — The release of a transcript of the 1989 meeting between Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of one of the more important papal audiences of the 20th century.

It’s a translation of the Russian record of the private meeting, released by the National Security Archive, an independent institute in Washington. For background on this and other documents being made public, look here.

I remember the Dec.  1, 1989, encounter well. I was among the pool journalists allowed inside the Vatican for the event. We chatted with some of Gorbachev’s aides as the two leaders held their closed-door talks. Those talks lasted 76 minutes — an extraordinarily long time for papal audiences — and journalists always wondered how the exchange had gone.

We reported today on the new disclosures, in a story available only to CNS subscribers. Here is the transcript of the meeting provided by the National Security Archive. It picks up when interpreters entered the papal library following about five minutes of one-on-one talks between the pope and the Soviet leader:

Record of Conversation of M.S. Gorbachev and John Paul II

Vatican, December 1, 1989

For the first several minutes the conversation was one-on-one (without interpreters).

Gorbachev: I would like to say that I appreciate your words at the beginning of the conversation regarding the fact that this is a meeting of two Slavic people, among other things. I don’t mean to appear as a pan-Slavist, but I believe in the mission of Slavic people to strengthen the understanding of human values of life, peace, and goodness everywhere.

John Paul II: Yes, this is so. Peace and goodness.

Gorbachev: We welcome your mission on this high altar, we are sure that it will leave a great footprint in history. I am familiar Continue reading