National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
May 13, 2005

Letters Doctrine date correction

The four Madonnas in Mr. Tim Unsworth’s room (NCR, April 29) must have been frowning when he wrote that the definition of the doctrine of the Assumption of our Blessed Mother took place in 1870! My history books say that Pope Pius XII promulgated this teaching on Nov. 1, 1950. Mr. Unsworth probably was thinking about the Vatican Council I definition of papal infallibility in 1870.

North Andover, Mass.

African AIDS crisis

Teresita Schaffer’s letter (NCR, Feb. 11) regarding my “AIDS in Africa” article raised some extremely important issues.

First, I fundamentally agree with the essence of what she says. It is quite true in Africa as well as India that “thousands of women who are faithful to their marriages are infected by their husbands.” African men and women have made clear to me that AIDS is a “gender issue.” In fact, Teresita outlines clearly one of the dilemmas in thinking about AIDS control: We would like to think that condoms “may be the only hope of staying alive for millions of women.” Yet “because of women’s relative lack of power in the society, they are likely to be accused of immorality if they seek to protect themselves while maintaining sexual relations with their husbands.” The question is not about the morality of condoms, it is whether or not they will work in the culture.

At the beginning of the letter, she asks what I would do instead, what I would propose to control AIDS. If that question were easy to answer, there would not be such a massive epidemic in Africa. I think that all of the proposed methods of control, including condoms and behavior change, have merit -- though all methods are difficult to implement. But what I personally think is far less important than what Africans think about AIDS control, which is why I wrote the article. Not surprisingly, there is no simple “African agenda.” But I think all of us who are concerned need at least to begin our reflections and proposals with African perspectives.

Webuye, Kenya

Raymond Downing’s book, As They See It: The Development of the African AIDS Discourse, is now in print.

In the Noosphere

Thomas King’s article “Teilhard makes Christianity most exciting thing on block” (NCR, April 22) was an outstanding tribute to a truly great religious writer who was far ahead of his time, but who is now the answer to the “evolution versus creationism” debate. Commonweal writer Eugene McCarraher took a cheap shot at Teilhard in its Nov. 5, 2004, issue, calling him “a charlatan who can’t be ridiculed too often” and again, Dec. 3, 2004, defined his thought as “woolly headed theology, half digested evolutionary biology, and just plain bad, and even ugly writing.” True, Teilhard used some of his own terms, like “Christogenesis” and “Noosphere,” but Teilhard’s expressions and thought have helped me to clarify my thinking on Christianity and the creation/evolution debate.

Fern Park, Fla.

Future of Catholic schools

Thank you, thank you to Fr. Andrew Greeley (NCR, April 8). His article “The treason of the clerks” should be shouted from our Catholic rooftops. Somebody needs to protest the closing of Catholic schools. Ah, yes, money for so many refinements -- none for city kids who desperately need the excellence of a Catholic education. What a disgrace!

Dearborn, Mich.

* * *

I found Andrew Greeley’s article “The treason of the clerks” both delightfully playful and at the same time deadly serious. The current demise of most Catholic schools in this country is a sad event indeed.

I hope that those bishops who are contemplating closing parishes and schools have read this article and that it has opened their eyes to the consequences of such closings. Greeley asserts, “The combination of the neighborhood parish and the parochial school is one of the most ingenious community-building mechanisms that humankind has ever devised.” I’m inclined to agree. The cost to support them is prohibitive? Come now, digging a little deeper is not going to hurt many of us who have invested so much time, effort and money to build Catholic schools in the past. If we are seeing correctly the value of Catholic schools to ignite the faith and encourage vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, we’ll find a way. Maybe that has to be a high priority on the bishops’ annual financial appeal.

Carey, Ohio

* * *

Over the past 15 years, I have been working on how the Rochester, N.Y., diocese -- including its Catholic education system -- has changed as a consequence of Vatican II.

In presenting my research on change in the Catholic schools, I have talked to many principals and administrators. My experience is that there are future-oriented ones and past-oriented ones. The former allow me to review everything they have done: their advertising, central office evaluation forms, how they relate to various stakeholders. These see research as a valuable tool. There are others, especially in central diocesan and graduate school administration, who seldom go beyond an e-mail reply, hesitate to share syllabi or budgets and talk in generalities to “outsiders” to “their” Catholic school system.

I see this second group composed of those who have spent their entire life in the Catholic school system. They see their schools as a countercultural island in the midst of a threatening culture of materialism, promiscuity, death and irreligion and look to authoritative ecclesial and philosophical statements to form their judgments. They make decisions in secret, blind to deep divisions among their schools (race, economics and so on). They establish nostalgic support for the present schools while looking to the future with the conviction that if they keep true to their principles, things will once again be what they were.

Researchers are trying to help them bring their traditions into the future. Fr. Greeley asks: Why don’t they listen? Because they do not hear it the way we say it. Our research language sounds threatening, sometimes dishonest, sometimes unreal and sometimes overly complex in the face of their experiences.

I wish them hope.

Palmyra, N.Y.

Lay spirituality

I’m a simple lay Catholic, and I found Joan Chittister’s piece “Italian Catholics long for simplicity” interesting (NCR, May 6). Chittister lists the complaints of lay Catholics living in Italy regarding modern spirituality-based movements, adding her own apparent dislike for these movements by calling them “quasi-religious orders, defined, hierarchical and doctrinaire.” She seems to miss a yearning that her own order’s oblate program understands: Today, “ordinary people” want to live beyond the superficial. They want to share in the spiritual life. Is this not the same for members of the emerging lay movements who are now registered with the Congregation for the Laity as Catholic?

There is an authenticity within each of the movements’ spirituality, whether I agree with them or not on how they choose to live their Catholicism, and this is what the church recognizes. The Holy Spirit moves persons -- regardless of their religious or lay state -- to live spiritual lives. It does not matter in which age the spirituality was born, whether it was 1,500 or 50 years ago. Should someone dismiss the validity of these spiritualities because they do not espouse one’s own personal convictions or politics?

To say that differences among religious orders have never existed would be false. These exist among lay movements, too. Both were encouraged by John Paul II to work together and I hope this will continue under Benedict XVI.

Peoria, Ariz.

East-West unity

It has been a delight to read Sr. Joan Chittister’s columns from Rome these last few weeks. Like Sr. Joan, I have strong Benedictine roots. I was a Benedictine monk for more than 25 years until I transferred for pastoral reasons to help the Eastern Catholic Melkite parish in Britain.

The Eastern churches are vital for the future of the Catholic church. Their contemporary hardship and even martyrdom give a witness to those of us brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition. I hope that Sr. Joan’s words will be taken to heart by our pastors, for as Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote in his book That They All May Be One, the church is diminished if it does not have both halves working together. One of our Melkite patriarchs at Vatican II coined the now well-known phrase that the church breathes through two lungs, both East and West, and one of our bridges between them is the long heritage of monasticism.

I pray that Benedict XVI will inherit not only the peacemaking mantle of his namesake Benedict XV, but also the insight of Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule comes from a time when Orthodox East and Latin West were still one. If he reaches out to build a bridge with the East, then maybe the fear of the unknown at the beginning of this new papacy might turn, as St. Benedict states in his Prologue, to the “love that casts out fear.”


Fr. Robert Gibbons is pastor of St. John Chrysostom Greek Catholic Melkite Church in London.

Rome coverage

This is just a note to say how much I appreciate John Allen’s coverage of recent events in Rome. I am what some might call a “conservative” Catholic and not inclined to agree with the viewpoint of your paper. However, I found Allen’s coverage to be unbiased and exceptionally well informed. Thanks for having him on your staff. Who knows, I might even subscribe to NCR some day.

Willits, Calif.

Pope Benedict XVI

The day we saw the election of Benedict XVI I received the April 22 edition of NCR with the following headline: “Church in transition.” Sorry guys, you really missed it this time. There is no transition. Our only hope is for a short papacy.

Ashburn, Va.

* * *

Since the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI, I’ve been keeping track of my gains and losses. On the positive side, I read and learned a lot about all the cardinals in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

On the other hand, however, despite spring’s arrival in Minnesota, I’m sure I felt an autumnal chill descend on my soul on April 19. And it seems to have frozen whatever ecclesial hope and enthusiasm was fighting hard to stay alive there.

But I do have a question. Is there a customer service department at the Vatican where I can turn in my baptismal certificate and get back my enrollment fee and all the investments I’ve made in the church over the years?

I wish I were kidding.


* * *

It has been interesting reading reactions to Pope Benedict in your paper. What we find amazing is the constant theme of the pope as a conservative and the church as out of touch. The writers of these articles and opinion pieces really ought to get out into the parishes of the United States and speak with average parishioners.

We are 40-year-olds, grew up in the Vatican II era and have been buffeted by the currents of our times. My wife and I do not, however, feel oppressed. While many may find the roles defined for men and women within the church as sexist and the teachings about marriage and birth control as out of date, we do not. In our 20s we may have had to struggle a bit to understand the teachings, but we decided that 2,000 years of tradition and scriptural teaching surely outweigh our opinions and that we need to understand and accept what is, always has been and always will be the truth.

We are college-educated, professional, modern people. However, we are also intelligent enough to understand that the bishops, pope and the holy church possess far more understanding and insight into God’s plan and truth than we do. We use our intellect to understand and learn from the church, not to oppose those aspects that we may find restrictive. I think that many of us need to get over ourselves and embrace the truth embodied in Jesus and in his church.

Petoskey, Mich.

Historic papacy

For the past 40 years we have been most fortunate to have Vatican II as a major guidepost for our vision of what our church should be as we function in a dynamic world. I have been disappointed in John Paul’s somewhat sketchy implementation of the principles provided by the council, while at the same time awed at his wonderful presence on the world stage, especially as regards his stands on peace and justice.

Like many, I was turned off by the media’s field day covering the pope’s life and death as infotainment. Their commentary on him as a world leader was good, but too often larded with a superficial religiosity that was more DaVinci Code than Catholic. Little was accurately reported on his leadership of the church.

John Allen’s 14-page article in your April 15 issue did a superb job of providing a truly balanced report of this historic papacy.

Long Beach Township, N.J.

Gay Catholics and the Vatican

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the office of the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI fills me with deep concern as a gay man and Catholic priest. Undoubtedly Pope John Paul the Great did a power of good in ways that have been recognized and celebrated worldwide. There is nonetheless another side, which I would much prefer to forget.

The fact remains that Pope John Paul II did lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people untold harm. His writings and his teachings, promulgated and proclaimed by Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith, saw our struggle and us not only worthy of condemnation, but as some kind of sinister plot to undermine the foundations of civilization itself. If the truth were told, the present Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul in their consistent rejection of our struggle for equality tried to rob us of our souls.

I bore firsthand witness to this in my 24 years of priestly ministry to gay men suffering and dying from HIV/AIDS. Again and again during the ’80s and ’90s at the height of the pandemic in New York and London, it was my pain and privilege to hold the hands of young Catholic gay men in their 20s and 30s and try to reassure them that they were not condemned to eternal damnation because of what their church taught about their orientation and their loving sexual behavior. Men too young to have imagined their lives, never mind their deaths. Young people whom we hear “the pope loved” on the edge of despair as they went to meet their God.

Within the limitations of my knowledge, I understand the church’s reasons for counting me out. Scripture, tradition, natural law et al. But I am not interested, no matter how plausible their syllogisms or coherent their rhetoric and logic. Pope John Paul II was a good and holy human man, but along with me he too was a sinner. I pray his successor Benedict XVI may have a little more sight. If not, I shall still go on believing, hoping and loving until John Paul, Benedict and I embrace one another as coequals in God.


Punctuation solved

Regarding “Apostrophe, where art thou?” By E. Leo McManus (NCR, April 15):

Twenty-three years ago I compiled and edited the first diocesan directory for the San Jose, Calif., diocese. As we confronted the issue of the apostrophe in church names, our canon lawyer, the late Fr. Maurice Shea, was quite firm that the apostrophe did not belong in a parish name.

St. Anne’s Church suggests that the church belongs to St. Anne, as in Anne’s house or coat. St. Anne Church says that the church is named after St. Anne, much as Stanford University is named after Leland Stanford.

Seems pretty simple and clear that the apostrophe doesn’t belong in church names.

Sunnyvale, Calif.

‘Michelle’ Schiavo

Here’s a simple question: What would the reaction of the public, government and religious communities have been had Terri Schiavo’s life partner’s name been spelled Michelle instead of Michael? Interesting, no?

Oakland Park, Fla.

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005