Europe’s Catholic bishops establish Christian rights watchdog

Europe’s Roman Catholic bishops have set up an organization to defend the rights of Christians as well as monitoring prejudice and injustice across the continent. “Our first task will be to provide people around Europe with objective and reliable data about the anti-Christian discrimination which is taking place, as well as to alert Catholic bishops’ conferences and other religious institutions,” Thierry Bonaventura, media officer of the Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe, told ENI news.

“But we also want to encourage local church groups to be involved and take concrete steps against intolerance, such as by presenting reports to the United Nations and the Council of Europe, and encouraging them to take appropriate measures.”

Bonaventura was speaking after the announcement of the formation of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination, headed in Vienna by Bishop Andras Veres of Hungary, and Austrian lay director, Gudrun Kugler, during a meeting of the bishops in Zagreb.

In an interview on 6 October, the bishops’ spokesperson said the decision to set up the body had been taken in 2009 by the CCEE, which is based at St Gallen in Switzerland and groups bishops’conferences from 33 countries and Monaco and Cyprus.“The cases we highlight will involve Christians throughout Europe, so the scope of the organization will be ecumenical,” the media officer told ENI news. “For now, though, it’s a Catholic initiative, involving the CCEE and Catholic groups.”

In a statement on 4 October, the CCEE said the observatory would work autonomously but also enjoy support from local church leaders, especially in collecting data on anti-Christian acts.

“The cases of Christians who suffer some form of discrimination have seen a rapid increase in recent years in Europe. Although this often happens in a hidden manner, the discrimination is all too real,” the statement added.“The aim is to awaken public opinion to what is happening, so that such situations do not become habitual and run the risk of degenerating into real hatred.”

At the same time, the CCEE’s Hungarian president, Cardinal Peter Erdo, said the observatory would also assist evangelisation and “authentic democracy based on equality,” by promoting a society “more respectful of religious freedom, and more capable of understanding and accepting its own roots and reality through a healthy secularism.

“When the existence of God is denied at all costs, as some groups seek to do,” said Erdo, “the result is always the denial of the possibility of basing life and societal structures on a solid foundation, basing them instead on the opinions of some or on the apparent momentary consensus of certain lawmakers.”

The cardinal noted, “Europe needs God. It needs to remember its own roots and thus look to the future with realism and hope. The situation is often not easy for Christians, who seek to bear witness with their lives to the faith and hope that is in them, through a lifestyle that becomes a challenge for others.”

Jonathan Luxmore, Warsaw (ENI)


Poland’s Catholic schools ‘can bar homosexual teachers’

Poland’s Roman Catholic Church has defended the right of its schools to refuse employment to homosexual teachers, after human rights groupscalled for the resignation of a government minister who supports the policy.

“We must defend someone’s right to declare their views and convictions publicly,” Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw told the Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper on 5 October. “Under both State and church law, Catholic schools must clearly state the norms under which they take on teachers. It’s a long time since I encountered such an attack on a State official because of something they said.”

The archbishop was reacting to criticism of Elzbieta Radziszewska, the government representative for equal treatment, after she confirmed that Catholic schools are entitled to dismiss gay or lesbian staff members. She was also backed by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, who praised her for standing up for the rights of Catholics.

“Catholic schools must defend themselves. They are Catholic precisely because they want the moral values presented by the Catholic Church,” the cardinal told a radio interviewer. “They cannot accept values they don’t identify with, so they can indeed refuse employment to a declared lesbian.”

In a mid-September interview with Poland’s Catholic Gosc Niedzielny weekly newspaper, Radziszewska said church-owned schools and colleges could refuse jobs to declared homosexual staff and sack those already employed.

However, the claim was criticised as a violation of anti-discrimination laws by Elzbieta Czyz, a director of Poland’s Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and rejected by the head of the country’s Anti-Discrimination Rights Association, Krzysztof Smiszek. He said the minister’s “hurtful statements” were in conflict with European Union norms and risked creating “a climate allowing homophobia”.

Grzegorz Schetyna, the speaker of Poland’s lower house of parliament, the Sejm, said he believed Radziszewska, a member of Poland’s governing Civic Platform, had “gone beyond a certain limit,” noting that her “indiscretion” risked “causing trouble for the political class and the State”.

Gay and lesbian groups have frequently complained of discrimination in Poland, where the predominant Catholic Church opposed clauses in the 1997 constitution barring discrimination on grounds of ‘’sexual orientation” and has rejected requests for a pastoral service for homosexuals. Although church leaders have condemned gay awareness events, homosexual groups say anti-gay violence has been met with silence in the country, which has been accused of tolerating homophobia by Amnesty International and the European Parliament.

Warsaw (ENI)


Divorce, Evangelical Style

Mark A. Smith, who teaches political science at the University of Washington, pays close attention to what is now commonly called the “culture war” in America. Though the roots of this cultural conflict reach back to the 1960s, the deep divide over social and moral issues became almost impossible to deny during the late 1970s and ever since. It is now common wisdom to speak of “red” states and “blue” states, and to expect familiar lines of division over questions such as abortion and homosexuality. In the most general sense, the culture war refers to the struggle to determine laws and customs on a host of moral and political issues that separate Americans into two opposing camps, often presented as the religious right and the secular left. Though the truth is never so simple, the reality of the culture war is almost impossible to deny.

And yet, as Professor Smith surveyed the front lines of the culture war, he was surprised, not so much by the issues of hot debate and controversy, but by an issue that was obvious for its absence – divorce.

“From the standpoint of simple logic, divorce fits cleanly within the category of ‘family values’and hence hypothetically could represent a driving force in the larger culture war,” he notes. “If ‘family values’ refers to ethics and behavior that affect, well, families, then divorce obviously should qualify. Indeed, divorce seems to carry a more direct connection to the daily realities of families than do the bellwether culture war issues of abortion and homosexuality.”

That logic is an indictment of evangelical failure and a monumental scandal of the evangelical conscience. When faced with this indictment, many evangelicals quickly point to the adoption of so-called “no fault” divorce laws in the 1970s. Yet, while those laws have been devastating to families (and especially to children), Smith makes a compelling case that evangelicals began their accommodation to divorce even before those laws took effect. No fault divorce laws simply reflected an acknowledgment of what had already taken place. As he explains, American evangelicals, along with other Christians, began to shift opinion on divorce when divorce became more common and when it hit close to home.

When the Christian right was organized in the 1970s and galvanized in the 1980s, the issues of abortion and homosexuality were front and center. Where was divorce? Smith documents the fact that groups such as the “pro- traditional family” Moral Majority led by the late Jerry Falwell generally failed even to mention divorce in their publications or platforms.

“During the 10 years of its existence, Falwell’s organization mobilized and lobbied on many political issues, including abortion, pornography, gay rights, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, and sex education in schools,” he recalls. Where is divorce – a tragedy that affects far more families than the more “hot button” issues? “Divorce failed to achieve that exalted status, ranking so low on the group’s agenda that books on the Moral Majority do not even give the issue an entry in the index.” But the real scandal is far deeper than missing listings in an index.

The real scandal is the fact that evangelical Protestants divorce at rates at least as high as the rest of the public. Needless to say, this creates a significant credibility crisis when evangelicals then rise to speak in defense of marriage. As for the question of divorce and public law, Smith traces a huge transition in the law and in the larger cultural context. In times past, he explains, both divorce and marriage were considered matters of intense public interest. But at some point, the culture was transformed, and divorce was reclassified as a purely private matter.

Tragically, the church largely followed the lead of its members and accepted what might be called the “privatization” of divorce. Churches simply allowed a secular culture to determine that divorce is no big deal, and that it is a purely private matter. As Smith argues, the Bible is emphatic in condemning divorce. For this reason, you would expect to find evangelical Christians demanding the inclusion of divorce on a list of central concerns and aims. But this seldom happened. Evangelical Christians rightly demanded laws that would defend the sanctity of human life. Not so for marriage. Smith explains that the inclusion of divorce on the agenda of the Christian right would have risked a massive alienation of members. In summary, evangelicals allowed culture to trump Scripture.

An even greater tragedy is the collapse of church discipline within congregations. A perceived “zone of privacy” is simply assumed by most church members, and divorce is considered only a private concern.

Professor Smith is concerned with this question as a political scientist. Why did American evangelicals surrender so quickly as divorce greater urgency. How did divorce, so clearly identified as a grievous sin in the Bible, become so commonplace and accepted in our midst?

The sanctity of human life is a cause that demands our priority and sacrifice. The challenge represented by the possibility (or probability) of legalized same-sex marriage demands our attention and involvement, as well.

But divorce harms many more lives than will be touched by homosexual marriage. Children are left without fathers, wives without husbands, and homes are forever broken. Fathers are separated from their children, and marriage is irreparably undermined as divorce becomes routine and accepted. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin, but it is sin, and it is a sin that is condemned in no uncertain terms.

Evangelical Christians are gravely concerned about the family, and this is good and necessary. But our credibility on the issue of marriage is significantly discounted by our acceptance of divorce. To our shame, the culture war is not the only place that an honest confrontation with the divorce culture is missing.

Divorce is now the scandal of the evangelical conscience.

Mark A. Smith, “Religion, Divorce, and
the Missing Culture War in America,”
Political Science Quarterly


Anglicans warned church is on its knees

The Anglican Church in Sydney is in diabolical trouble. Already battered by the global financial crisis, the diocese is planning further savage spending cuts. The archbishop, Peter Jensen, told the annual synod on Monday: “The financial issues are grave.”

One of the biggest and richest dioceses in Australia, Sydney leveraged its huge investment portfolio in the boom and sold when the market hit rock bottom. After losing more than $100 million, it was forced to halve its expenditure. “There was considerable pain,” the archbishop told the annual gathering of clergy and laity in Sydney. But it wasn’t enough.

“In round terms, it seems possible that the amount of money available … to support diocesan works in the next few years is going to be reduced from the $7.5 million of 2010 to something like $4 million. Our major rethink of last year was only the beginning.”

Back on the cards is the sale of Bishopscourt, the Gothic mansion on Darling Point where Anglican archbishops have lived since 1910. Real estate agents believe it would fetch more than $25 million. But that would only be a drop in the Anglican bucket.

Two investment funds underwrite the diocese. Both are in trouble. New management at the Glebe Administration Board, which funds the general work of the church in Sydney, has identified “lazy and unproductive” assets and warned that it will have to cut payments to protect the value of the endowment.

The Endowment of the See, which funds the government of the church, has hit big problems with St Andrew’s House, the office block it owns behind Sydney Town Hall. The archbishop told the synod that $20 million worth of renovations begun before the financial crash and the decision of one tenant to quit the building meant “the cash flow from the rental at St Andrew’s House would most likely be reduced to nothing for the next several years”.

The big picture is that about $200 million in total assets will yield only $4 million a year for at least the next three years. “We are,” the archbishop said, “asset-rich but cash-poor.”

He blamed boards with an ethos “too trusting of one another and not sufficiently acute in seeking accountability”; he spoke darkly of “unconsidered and unhelpful relationships”; and warned against “the real, fatal and ever-present danger” of allowing ministries to be taken over by those who do not share the gospel outlook of the diocese. But he counselled against recrimination. He even took a little
of the blame himself: “Looking back, I can now see many of the things I should have done, things Ishould not have done and even clear moments when I should have spoken up or insisted on different behaviour.”

This year he set up an archbishop’s commission to advise on resolving cash flow problems and identify changes the diocese needed to make in the way it was governed and the way it did business. Among the possibilities are cutting the number of Sydney bishops and leaving the parishes to pay for those who survive.

The archbishop has also “asked a parallel group of mature Christians to pray for the work of the commission and at every point their work has been bathed in the intercessory prayer of these saints”.

David Marr


Last Episcopal Diocese
ordains female priest

Women have been ordained as priests in all 110 dioceses of the Episcopal Church, after the last holdout, in Quincy, Illinois, ordained its first woman on Saturday, October 16, 2010.

The Reverend Margaret Lee, a grandmother of five and former chemist, is the first woman ordained a priest in the Peoria-based Diocese of Quincy’s 133-year history, according to Episcopal News Service. She had been a deacon since 1996.

A spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church said all 110 dioceses in the 2.1 million-member church have now ordained at least one female priest. The Episcopal Church voted to open the priesthood to women in 1976.

Quincy, which has about 1,800 members in 24 parishes, was one of three dioceses that had refused to ordain women, but its former bishop, a staunch conservative, retired in 2008. The other dioceses — San Joaquin, Calif., and Fort Worth, Texas — had also refused to ordain women, but conservatives in those dioceses, and the bishops who led them, have seceded from the Episcopal Church in the last three years.

Remaining Episcopalians in those dioceses have since ordained women.