National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
April 1, 2005

Letters Christians in Israel

Fr. Drew Christiansen’s analysis of Christian communities in Israel and the Palestinian territories is replete with inaccuracies, misrepresentations and serious omissions.

He fails to make a clear distinction between Israel’s responses to challenges to its security in the occupied territories in a context of conflict and to the reality that Israel’s Christian citizens are full participants in Israel’s democracy. In fact, according to Israel’s National Bureau of Statistics, Christian socioeconomic and educational levels place them above the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis.

His claim that Israel unilaterally canceled its meetings with the Holy See’s delegation regarding Catholic institutions’ tax exemptions has been categorically refuted by the papal nuncio in the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who affirmed that delays were made by mutual consent. Indeed, earlier this month the two delegations met (contrary to Fr. Christiansen’s claim that “no further dates for the parley have been set”) and the nuncio publicly expressed his satisfaction at the progress made, anticipating a solution shortly.

Additionally, Fr. Christiansen’s allegation that Israel’s deportation of illegal foreign workers reflects some kind of discrimination against Christians is simply ludicrous, and no more valid than the suggestion that U.S. policy against immigration is motivated by prejudice.

I do not claim that there is no room for legitimate criticism of Israel. However, Fr. Christiansen’s criticisms go overboard. In contrast to his harsh treatment of Israel, his description of the conditions of Christians under Palestinian rule completely ignores the attacks on Christians, churches and cemeteries by increasingly militant Islamist elements in recent years. Indeed, Msgr. Sambi is on record complaining that despite the late Yasser Arafat’s bombastic claims of protecting Christians, absolutely nothing was done to protect them.

Moreover, one cannot but be amazed at his sanguine reference to the Palestinian constitution’s declaration of the supremacy of Muslim law. Some Christian leaders may feel the substantial pressure to publicly acquiesce, but anyone familiar with what Christians really feel and say behind closed doors can only wonder what motivates Fr. Christiansen’s remarkable confidence in such undemocratic legislation.

Notable is Fr. Christiansen’s complete omission of any reference to the influx of at least 50,000 additional Christians into Israel in the last decade. These Christians from the former Soviet Union have made a substantial difference to the demographic state of Christianity in the Holy Land. (They became Israeli citizens under the Law of Return that allows people even with just a Jewish grandparent to benefit from the historical bond of the Jewish people with its ancestral homeland.)

Israel undoubtedly could and should do more for the well-being of its Christian communities. Yet an unfairly biased critique of Israel’s behavior is unlikely to be the most effective way of encouraging it to move in that direction.


Rabbi David Rosen is the International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee.

Fr. Christiansen replies:

Thank you for allowing me to reply to Rabbi David Rosen’s letter. I would like to address some of the points he raised.

1) Negotiations with the Holy See. Readers should note that Rabbi Rosen does not refute my account of the pattern of nonnegotiation and feigned talks of the period covering September 2003 to December 2004.

The nuncio’s statement about mutual agreement on the last delay in negotiations came after the Israelis had communicated their intentions to postpone the talks, to which Archbishop Sambi then agreed. My reporting was based on at least two sources very close to the negotiation and double-checking of those sources. Rosen also failed to account for the government’s statement to the Israeli Supreme Court that the Fundamental Agreement is “not binding” in Israel and to successive governments’ failure to submit enabling legislation to the Knesset.

2) Deportation and Immigration. Israel is certainly within its rights to deport illegal immigrants and set limits on legal immigration. There is a problem of consistency, however, when one remembers that three years ago the Israeli Foreign Ministry was pointing to the presence of foreign guest workers as a reason to have a special diocese in Israel for Hebrew-speaking Catholics. As to Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union, for the most part they are un-churched and do not worship in public for fear of losing their citizenship.

3) Protection in the Palestinian Territories. My story acknowledged the deterioration of the situation of Christians in the Palestinian Territories and the popular Christian assessment of these problems as motivated by anti-Christian sentiment. In citing Joshua Hammer’s A Season in Bethlehem, I tried to point out the difficulty of evaluating claims of anti-Christian activity in the disorder of the al-Aqsa intifada.

4) Holy Land Christians and Jewish-Christian Relations. On the third anniversary of the Fundamental Agreement (1996), I shared a panel with Rabbi Rosen at the Israeli embassy in Washington. My message then was that the Fundamental Agreement should be regarded as an international treaty and it should be treated as such, rather than simply as a positive statement of Catholic-Jewish friendship. Little has happened since then to show Israel’s intention of taking the agreement seriously.

I look forward to the day when Israelis themselves, at all levels, will be ready without prompting to defend the Christians of Israel and of Palestine against discrimination and intolerance and welcome open reporting on problems as an occasion to demonstrate their goodwill. Catholic-Jewish friendship and Catholic-Israeli friendship should not have to depend on turning a blind eye to the problems Christians in the Holy Land face from whatever source. True friendship should flourish in the light of day.

Grim analogy

John Allen’s Feb. 25 article “Doctrinal jousting” made it depressingly clear that “Catholic theologian” is to “theologian” as “military music” is to “music.”

St. Paul, Minn.

Religious life clarification

Sr. Antonia Ryan’s reflection on religious life in the Feb. 25 NCR was honest and forthright. Its fundamental principles -- the value of contemplative prayer as a way of life, the free choice that brings a woman into religious life, the source in prayer of all fruitful action -- were common ground for all of us. In her account, Antonia gave considerable space to the History of Women Religious Conference held last June in Atchison, Kan. As the presenter she cited at some length, I need to clarify a few statements.

Her interpretation of my reference to journalists John Fialka and Ken Woodward, who have recently inquired into reasons for Catholic sisters’ diminishing numbers, was seriously mistaken. The point of citing Fialka’s book and Woodward’s review was to dissent from their implicit conclusions that abandoning common habit, common prayer and convent life and institutions caused such losses. The paper made clear that the conclusions, even if tentative, are uninformed and premature. More, the writers’ premises are similarly questionable. Change for honestly discerned reasons is not abandonment.

A fact from the paper was not heard correctly. The approximate one-third of the populations of religious communities reduced during 16 years before and during renewal was a datum of national research into departures from 437 congregations. It did not refer, as Antonia indicated, to my community. The paper written for the History of Women Religious Conference drew upon data gathered for a history, in preparation, of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth for the half-century 1955 to 2005.

Antonia and I have enjoyed neighborly exchange over all this. It’s a happy outcome of misinterpreting each other.

Leavenworth, Kan.

Gramick coverage

I am responding to a letter by Sulpician Fr. Gerald Coleman, (NCR, March 4) regarding Sr. Jeannine Gramick and the Paul Shanley case. At the end of his letter, Fr. Coleman says: “The ‘winners’ are the thousands of children abused by priests and bishops, and the ‘losers’ are Shanley and, by extension, Gramick.”

I found Sr. Gramick’s article a difficult read. Why? Because her challenge was to find Christ in Paul Shanley. I must say I would not have read this piece had it not been written by someone who has always sought the moral high ground and someone I have a great deal of respect for.

I think Fr. Gerald Coleman’s response was a little off-target. I hope Fr. Coleman is not pitting justice against compassion. I do not know at this point if I agree or disagree with Sr. Gramick; however, she has given me pause for thought. She challenges us to find Christ where many will say Christ cannot be found.

Be angry at the bishops who covered up, be angry at the priests who abused innocent children, but please don’t be angry at someone who is calling you to find Christ in another, even if you think that other is a monster.


Joe Murray is the U.S. convener of the Rainbow Sash Movement.

* * *

For 25 years I have advocated for children who have been abused physically, sexually and emotionally. I’ve worked with adult survivors, one in particular whom I know quite well. This person has been in intense psychotherapy to deal with abuse that was suffered in childhood. Seventeen years of therapy has afforded the help the person needed to forgive the abuser. It has been a long, painful process, one that should never be minimized by writers who truly don’t understand the impact that the actions of abuse have on the victims. Sr. Jeannine Gramick presents a simplistic view of a complex psychological process. It takes years for the abused to come to the point of forgiveness.

Yes, mercy and forgiveness are the ways of Jesus, but people who have suffered abuse do not suddenly forgive the abuser.

The priests in the Roman Catholic church, a church of which I am an active member, are guilty of an abhorrent sin. Paul Shanley has been found guilty in a court of law. Let him pay for the wrong he has done.

There are so many important issues about the church to be addressed. Instead, it seems as though Sr. Jeannine has appeared in every issue of NCR this winter -- a broken record, really. I am tired of reading about Sr. Jeannine. I am hoping that you will re-direct your energies to address the issues that are inclusive, not those that are divisive, in the church today.

White Hall, Md.

Burke and the interdict

There is a correlation between “Parishioners defy archbishop” by Geri L. Dreiling and “Laity wonder where the money goes” by Dennis Coday (NCR, Jan. 28).

Something good is happening in St. Louis at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church. The laity said “no” to a bishop. The parish’s lay board refused to transfer money and property to the archdiocese. Archbishop Raymond Burke is in a power struggle for control of the assets. The laity is using its legitimate civil power and fiduciary responsibility to safeguard its parish wealth. The property and money has been in lay hands since 1891 when another archbishop, Peter Kendrick, helped set up the parish-run corporation. Its assets have grown to $9 million. The parishioners want to continue to operate the corporation.

That seems reasonable, particularly in light of the hierarchy’s foot-dragging on the laity’s persistent demand for greater financial accountability and transparency, annual and complete published audits and diocesan-wide forums with financial council members present to answer parishioners’ questions. Such procedures were to be instituted across all parishes and dioceses three years ago.

Mr. Coday’s article reports that while 77 percent of weekly Mass-attending Catholics want dioceses to comply with the bishops’ conference disclosure standards, 38 percent say they don’t know if it’s happening. This means that the dioceses are not being fully open and informing their laity.

Small wonder that St. Stanislaus’ board remains steadfast in spite of Archbishop Burke’s interdict. It knows the status of the money and property now. In a bishop’s hands, who knows where the assets will go?

St. Paul, Minn.

* * *

If there ever were a poster child for what torments many faithful Catholics about the institutional church today, it would be Archbishop Burke of St. Louis, regaled in his sumptuous robes, clutching his staff, topped with his miter, telling the good people of St. Stanislaus Parish that because they want to hold onto what they have worked for, they do not understand the church -- when they are the church. Obviously, in Archbishop Burke’s view, his consecration as bishop entitled him to the hard-earned money accumulated by the members of this parish and those who have gone before them. What happened to the concept that bishops were the shepherds of their flocks, meant to nurture and protect the members, not bend them to their bishop’s will?

I would not place a picture of Jesus next to one of Archbishop Burke for fear that contrast would make me even sadder.

Roeland Park, Kan.

* * *

I am more than perplexed by the way different archdioceses seem to claim or disclaim parish ownership at will.

In the Feb. 18 edition of NCR, I see the Portland, Ore., archdiocese saying Portland parishes are not owned by the archdiocese as it files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the same edition I read about the St. Louis archdiocese issuing an interdict against a parish because it will not turn all its assets over to the archdiocese. It’s amazing how the bishops can have it both ways.

Fort Myers, Fla.

* * *

Regarding the article “Archbishop threatens lay board” (NCR, Feb. 18):

Archbishop Raymond Burke’s threat of interdict is explained by his resort to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which is terrific for church law before the new Code of Canon Law of 1917. Unfortunately, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. 2 (2003), doesn’t have an entry on “interdict.” You have to go to the 1983 code itself, which isn’t very helpful, since it doesn’t define the term but only says what it prohibits. Gone is the “local interdict,” by which an entire parish or diocese or kingdom was forbidden to partake of the sacraments. Nowadays it’s sort of like the old “minor excommunication,” a lesser penalty than major excommunication. If you are interdicted today, you are forbidden to celebrate or receive the sacraments. The same is true when you are excommunicated, but in addition you are forbidden “to discharge any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever, or to place acts of governance,” as the quaint English translation of canon 1331 puts it. That would seem to be closer to what Archbishop Burke would like to happen, so perhaps he should forget interdict and go straight to excommunication.

You may recall that some years ago, when Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., forbade membership in various organizations like “Call to Action,” he first threatened interdict, to be followed by excommunication if the offenders failed to desist. I had not encountered this use of interdict before, and when I was at a congress on medieval canon law, I asked a priest friend of mine, an expert on excommunication, what he thought of the bishop of Lincoln’s use of interdict. He said, “What bishop of Lincoln?” I said, “Bruskewitz.” He said, “Briscowitz? Was he before or after Grosseteste?” Robert Grosseteste, of course, was a famous bishop of Lincoln back in the 13th century. A different Lincoln, of course.

Los Angeles

Open politics

Colman McCarthy’s negative view of Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics (NCR, Feb. 18) makes me wonder if we both read the same book. His statements that Mr. Wallis and President Bush share the same spiritual view and that Mr. Wallis places his faith in government are both stretches that tear the truth apart.

I see Mr. Wallis as saying that the present political system is obsolete because it has in significant ways become opaque to the indwelling light of God’s ever-evolving presence. But should we therefore get rid of politics? With what would we replace it? Jesus didn’t tell us to get rid of the world but to change it for the better -- in the words of Vatican II, to help make it more human. Mr. Wallis knows that politics, left to itself, cannot make peace or care for the poor. This can happen only if it is informed by the universal Spirit of God. Mr. Wallis’ God is not one made in his own image but is the God of the Old Testament prophets and of the Beatitudes.

Mr. Wallis is calling Republicans and Democrats, right and left, to open their positions to the deepest and best insights and movements of the human spirit -- something that people of faith can help them do. He is part of a movement that is catching on in our country, one that can offer our country galaxies of new possibilities. May his movement grow.

Strasburg, Pa.

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National Catholic Reporter, April 1, 2005