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Aug. 4, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 47

John L. Allen Jr.

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Gambian theologian gives voice to the South; The pope's intervention for Africa; Benedict continues appeal for peace; Reader reacts to 'dove' label; Poland and the death penalty; A priest disappears; A note for Knights of Columbus


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As a slogan for the future of world Christianity, a paraphrase of that old tune "Age of Aquarius" by the Fifth Dimension might do the trick: "This is the dawning of the Age of Africa."

As a small, but telling, sign of the times, consider that the new mayor of Kiev in the Ukraine, Leonid Chernovetskyi, belongs to a Pentecostalist church called the "Embassy of God," founded by a charismatic Nigerian immigrant named Sunday Adelaja. The last place one might expect an eruption of exuberant African-style Christianity is a strict Orthodox stronghold, yet the "Embassy of God" now claims more than 25,000 members across Ukraine and is growing rapidly.

Africa, whose Christian population grew by 6,708 percent in the 20th century, adding something like 16,000 converts a day, has become a big-time exporter of evangelical zeal.

If this reality has yet to fully register on the Catholic radar screen, it may be because African Catholicism does not yet have the high-profile interpreters that Latin America enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s. Figures such as Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez and ex-Franciscan Fr. Leonardo Boff enjoyed massive international success, making Latin American "liberation theology" a household word. So far, there is no similarly prominent African voice.

What's missing, in other words, is a "Gutiérrez of Africa."

One candidate for that role may be Lamin Sanneh, a distinguished Gambian theologian and descendant of the nyanchos, an ancient African royal house, who teaches at the Yale Divinity School. He's also an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.

Sanneh grew up a devout Muslim. His grandfather and uncle were both influential Muslim clerics in West Africa, and he was destined to follow in their footsteps, attending a strict Islamic school where he became well-versed in Arabic and Islamic theology. Yet the more Sanneh studied, the more he became fascinated by the figure of Jesus in the Koran. [Jesus is mentioned roughly 100 times in the Koran, one of the reasons that Christians initially thought of Islam as a Christian heresy rather than a separate religion.]

Meditating on the deep meaning of the Cross, Sanneh came to what he describes as a decisive conclusion: Suffering is not alien to the nature of God, as his Islamic teachers had insisted, but is at the heart of God's compassion.

The precocious young Muslim then decided to convert to Christianity, well before he had ever been to a Christian liturgy or attended a Christian school. His astonished family initially thought he must have fallen in love with a Christian girl or simply wanted to drink booze, underestimating his determination by a country mile. Sanneh began a long journey, with stops in Methodism and Anglicanism before he became a Catholic in the mid-1990s.

In books such as Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003) Sanneh has traced a compelling vision of African Christianity, which he argues only really began to take shape after Western missionaries had largely abandoned the field. Among experts, his work has a growing following.

If Sanneh is not yet a celebrity, part of the explanation may be that just when you think you have him figured out, he zigs when Western logic dictates he should have zagged.

For example, he bluntly says too many Westerners talk out of both sides of their mouths, reciting the Creed at Mass but not seeming to take it seriously in their personal belief system. Yet he's also a passionate advocate of allowing Christianity to be shaped by the cultures it encounters, a strong critic of colonialism and the injustices associated with globalization, and he believes in an inclusive Catholicism without "litmus tests."

Similarly, Sanneh understands the dangers of jihadist Islam; he largely agrees with Benedict XVI about the difficulties of reconciling Islam with pluralist democratic cultures. Yet he's no Cultural Warrior. He speaks admiringly of the religious seriousness of Muslims, and says he's working on efforts to nudge them into a more moderate direction. Sanneh is a longtime collaborator of both Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, former President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, as well as Rome's Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies -- both reputedly "dovish" on Islam.

Conventional labels of "left" and "right," in other words, just don't fit. On July 24, I sat down with Sanneh in his New Haven, Conn., home. Below are excerpts from our interview.

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What will the rise of the South mean?
Believers in the South are less concerned with drawing borders and defending Catholicism in terms of what should be excluded. On the frontier, the borders are moving and dynamic. The Third World orientation to church is different. In the West, "the church" means the hierarchy. On the frontier, "church" means the People of God who turn up at Mass and receive the sacraments. They're less conflicted about papal authority, papal teachings, drawing borders, and so on. They're passionate about a church that is open to the world, embracing the world, and celebrating life in the world.

As one small example, in the West it's typical for someone not to come Mass if he or she is sick. On the frontier, the typical thing is for people to come to Mass saying we are sick, and we look to God to heal us.

Catholicism talks about the People of God in mission. Frontier Catholicism will help make that a reality. For example, the fellowship groups these people organize are very impressive. Small faith communities are a natural endowment of frontier Catholicism. ... Ordinary Catholics, for example, are doing heroic work in villages. The nature of church leadership in the future will reflect this.

We're beginning to see evidence of the same phenomenon in China. We're seeing the emergence of leadership in dynamic Catholic communities in rural areas, with little formal theological education but with tremendous wisdom. This is a tremendous pastoral gift. Bishops in these communities don't come through the normal career path. Theological education will change to reflect all this. ...

How will we notice it in the United States?
For one thing, the Irish Catholic leadership of the American church will change. It already is changing, becoming more Hispanic. This kind of Catholicism is more active in mission, and it's more Third World-oriented. It will bring a Third World point of view to issues such as immigration and asylum seekers, employment and labor, and so on. In previous eras, the Irish Catholics affected the inner cities of the United States. As the Protestant elites abandoned the inner cities, Catholic immigrants moved in. They acquired property, their children went to schools, they voted, and eventually had a political impact. Hispanics will do something similar to change American politics.

What about the argument that while the South may have the numbers, the North still has the money and the political power?
There are two forces in the church today. There's what I call "heartland Catholicism" in Europe and North America, which has great endowments, beautiful cathedrals, art, libraries, and great centers of theological study, but a declining membership. Then there's "frontier Catholicism," which is bursting at the seams, but which has no great legacy in philosophy, theology or art, and few financial resources. Eventually the frontier will overtake the heartland in terms of setting priorities, even if for now it has little money, clout, or administrative infrastructure. For example, I expect that China will help correct the one-sidedness of Western theology.

Let me run some images of southern Catholicism by you. Many believe that southern Catholics, especially in Africa, are more conservative on sexual morality, and that as they become more prominent, it will push Catholicism in a conservative direction on issues such as homosexuality. True or false?
False, because it depends on a completely false premise. There's nowhere in Africa or Asia that I'm aware of where Catholic bishops have supported laws criminalizing homosexual behavior. It's not criminal in Catholic Africa or Catholic Asia. It's where the Muslims are the majority that it's illegal.

I was at the Lambeth Conference [of the Anglican Communion] as an advisor to bishops from the Third World when this issue came up, and they said we don't want it on the agenda. They wanted to discuss issues such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, corruption and violence. In response, the West adopts the strategy of name-calling, that the church in the developing world is primitive, backward, superstitious, and so on.

Another image: Catholic leaders from the Global South, whether bishops, theologians, or pastoral workers, are generally more interested in external issues such as those you listed above than internal Catholic debates. True or false?
Certainly true. In frontier Catholicism, the most important question is, 'What can we do to help our neighbor?' rather than 'What are my rights in the church and how can I protect them, to make sure they're not infringed upon?' That's not Catholicism for them. We feel a real responsibility for the shaping of society. Our societies are new. They have to reinvent themselves, and Catholics want to be sure that their church makes a significant contribution. It would be fatal to be self-preoccupied, because others will fill the vacuum.

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Speaking of Africa, Fr. J. M. Pérez Charlin of the Missionary Society of Africa, the erstwhile "White Fathers," has recently penned an essay examining the messages of Benedict XVI to bishops from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Cameroon and Ghana making ad limina visits during the last year. Collectively, Pérez suggests, they amount to a papal "State of the Union" assessment of Africa.

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The pope's most direct appeal came in an address to the bishops of Congo: "I invite the international community not to forget Africa."

It's worth noting that over his first year and a half in office, Pope Benedict has spoken about Africa roughly four times more often than he has about sexual morality, though one wouldn't know it from disproportionate Western interest in the sexual topics.

Pérez found 10 themes in Benedict's meditations on Africa: peace and reconciliation, inculturation, formation, unity and diversity, the family, inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism, youth, social inequality, pastoral solidarity, and the upcoming anniversaries of several African churches.

Over the years, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had expressed reservations about "inculturation," worrying about a sort of relativism in which core Christian ideals or practices are set aside in the name of cultural diversity. Indeed, Benedict picked up this concern with the African bishops, warning that despite widespread polygamy in African cultures, spouses are called to "radical fidelity to the new life" in Christ. He told bishops from Ghana that the church must strive to "purify practices opposed to the gospel."

In general, however, Benedict endorsed efforts to preserve local African cultures threatened by the onslaught of globalization. In particular, he called on Africans to defend their spiritual and moral heritage in the face of an aggressively secularizing, Western-dominated global culture.

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Pope Benedict XVI appealed for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon last Sunday following his Angelus address, the last in Valle d'Aosta prior to his arrival at Castel Gandolfo, where he will spend most of August and September. The full text:

"In this moment, I cannot help but think of the ever more grave and tragic situation the Middle East is living though: hundreds of dead, and so many wounded; a growing mass of homeless persons and refugees; homes, cities and infrastructure destroyed; and in the hearts of many, hate and the desire for revenge seems to grow. These facts clearly demonstrate that justice cannot be reestablished, a new order cannot be created, and an authentic peace cannot be achieved when one takes recourse to the instrument of violence. More than ever, we see how prophetic, and yet at the same time realistic, is the voice of the church when, facing war and conflicts of every sort, she indicates the path of truth, justice, love and liberty, as the Blessed Pope John XXIII said in his immortal encyclical Pacem in terries. Again today, humanity must walk this path in order to reach the desired good and the true peace."

"In the name of God, I appeal to all the responsible parties in this spiral of violence: immediately lay down arms on all sides! To governments and international institutions, I ask that they spare no effort to obtain this necessary end of hostilities, and thus begin to construct, through dialogue, a durable and stable co-existence for all the peoples of the Middle East. To persons of good will, I ask that you continue and intensify the sending of humanitarian aid to those populations who are so needy and so afflicted. Above all, may a trusting prayer continue to rise from every heart to the good and merciful God, that he may grant his peace to this region and to the entire world. I entrust this anguished prayer to the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Prince of Peace and the Queen of Peace, so venerated in the countries of the Middle East, where we hope soon to see reign that reconciliation for which the Lord Jesus offered his precious blood."

During his General Audience on August 1, Benedict XVI issued another appeal:

"I invite everyone to continue to pray for the beloved and martyred region of the Middle East. Our eyes are full of the shocking images of the bodies of so many people torn to pieces, above all children -- I'm thinking, in particular, of Qana, in Lebanon. I want to repeat that nothing can justify shedding innocent blood, no matter where it comes from! With a heart full of affliction, I renew yet again a pressing appeal for an immediate halt to all the hostilities and all the violence, and I exhort the international community as well as those most directly involved in this tragedy to put in place as quickly as possible the conditions for a definitive political solution to the crisis, capable of providing a more serene and secure future for the generations to come."
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To the limited extent that the pope's words found an echo in the global press, it was his plea to lay down arms that drew attention. Yet in some ways, perhaps the most revealing element in the text was the word "realistic." http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
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It marked the second time in a week that a senior church official has insisted that war, not peace, is unrealistic.

If Bismark once famously declared that "not by speeches and resolutions of majorities are the mighty problems of the age to be solved, but by blood and iron," Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister, recently said that such thinking reflects only "superficial realism." Lasting peace, he argued in a statement following the Rome summit on Lebanon, "can only be, and must be, created with means other than the killing of innocent persons."

It's not a new debate.

In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, American and British officials repeatedly said, on and off the record, that the Vatican's opposition was well-meaning but naïve. Vatican officials responded that the war itself was unrealistic, that complex historical and political problems cannot be resolved by a "magic bullet" of armed force. The same points are being made, by both sides, this time around.

An August 1 statement from the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, echoed the argument.

"Experience in this conflict has proved that violence has only generated and even increased violence," Sabbah said. His statement was issued in French, Arabic and English to ensure maximum distribution.

As one senior Vatican official put it to me this week, "Picking up a gun is not realism, it's impatience."

In a footnote, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, carried extensive coverage of the crisis in Lebanon on August 1, including an essay by the founder of the Sant'Egidio movement, Andrea Riccardi, recalling Pope Benedict XV's denunciation of World War I in 1917 as "useless slaughter." The title of Riccardi's article was, not coincidentally, "Prophecy and Realism."

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On May 5, I wrote about differing attitudes in the Catholic Church towards Islam, pointing to remarks by Italian Senator Marcello Pera as illustrative of a "hawkish" approach, and testimony before the House International Relations Committee from Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida, who heads the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Policy, as more "dovish."

The item brought a response from John Carr, the veteran secretary of the Department of Social Justice and World Peace at the U.S. bishops' conference. Carr writes:

"I agree that a comprehensive Catholic approach to Islam must include elements of what you call the 'hawk' and 'dove' approaches. ... I hope you might take another look at the testimony [of Bishop Wenski] since it sought to reflect and express both approaches.

[It] clearly confronts the issue of the treatment of Christians in some Islamic countries. Bishop Wenski declares: 'In societies with growing militant Islamist influences there are often increases in intolerance and discrimination against religious minorities, including Christians ... This fact should not be denied or minimized.'

The testimony notes that reciprocity is required. 'Reciprocity means, for example, that the Catholic Church expects support for efforts to permit the construction of Christian churches, schools and other religious institutions in Islamic countries, and expects countries with Christian majorities to allow the same for their Muslim minorities.'

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been actively, consistently and persistently involved both in public and behind the scenes to protect the rights of Christians and others within several Muslim countries (in the Middle East, Africa and the Far East) and calling for greater attention and effective action on religious liberty. For example, no institution has been more deeply involved on the North-South conflict in Sudan, and religious liberty questions in Iraq. The USCCB played a decisive role in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and the establishment of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. We often address these issues in consultation and at the request of the affected local church and the Holy See.

The USCCB is hardly a 'dove,' but rather is a strong defender of religious liberty, an advocate for reciprocity and is a voice for candid, principled and substantive dialogue."

The full text of Wenski's testimony before the House International Relations Committee in March is on the U.S. bishops' conference Web site:

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The risks of associating the church with any secular political force were underscored this week, with news with that the Polish government under President Lech Kaczynski will campaign for a return of the death penalty in the European Union.

Kaczynski said that the EU, which has effectively banned capital punishment, would come to see it was justified for murder.

Kaczynski and his twin, Jaroslaw, the Polish prime minister, came to power last year promising a tough stance against corruption and crime; indeed, the name of their party is "Law and Justice." The Kaczynski twins also, however, promised to reawaken the Catholic roots of Poland, and have been embraced by important sectors of the Polish church.

It will be interesting to see if Benedict and the Polish hierarchy attempt to spend some of this political capital to sway Kaczynski's position on the death penalty -- and if so, what effect it might have.

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How attitudes around the world are changing towards clerical sexual abuse, and the struggles that remain, were both on display this week in the story of Salvatorian Fr. Joseph Henn and his disappearance from Rome ahead of an Italian extradition order.

In 2003, Henn was accused of sexually abusing three minor males while working in Phoenix between 1979 and 1981. When the charges surfaced, he was stationed at the order's Rome headquarters. Prosecutors in Maricopa County in Arizona sought extradition.

Henn denied the charges and resisted extradition, but decisions in two lower Italian courts went against him. During this time, Henn was under house arrest. The final blow came July 27, when Italy's high court again rejected his appeal and gave the Ministry of Justice 45 days to carry out the extradition.

In response, Henn fled. Salvatorian authorities issued a statement saying they are "surprised and saddened at the sudden disappearance."

The fact that three Italian courts ruled for extradition has been hailed as a sign that even in a country long deferential to the clergy, the legal system will no longer tolerate sexual abuse.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, told NCR July 28 that the Italian decision was a sign that "the ground is shifting."

On the other hand, Clohessy and others expressed dismay that the Salvatorians did not insist from the beginning that Henn return to the United States, and that now he has escaped their supervision.

As a footnote, while priests sought on charges of abuse have been extradited from other countries, a spokesperson for the U.S. bishops' conference told NCR July 28 that Henn's case would "apparently" have been the first time it happened in Italy. Observers see that as telling, given the strong influence of the church in Italian affairs.

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Even if they had no financial resources whatsoever, the Knights of Columbus would still be an important force in Catholic affairs. With 1.7 million members, principally in the United States, they are the largest lay Catholic organization in the world. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson is an influential Catholic intellectual and speaker. Members of the Knights are known around the world for their commitment, perhaps especially to pro-life causes.

Yet there's no doubt that the Knights' financial clout puts the group in a class by itself. A fresh reminder came this week, as some 1,000 Knights gathered in Orlando, Florida, for their 124th Supreme Convention. The gathering attracted some 80 bishops and archbishops, including ten cardinals.

During the meeting, Anderson informed the Knights that their insurance program, which boasts a staff of 1,400 agents, has grown by nearly 50 percent in the last five years. It now has $60 billion of life insurance in force, and a staggering $13 billion in assets. (Among other things, that figure towers over the Vatican's roughly $800 million in assets).

During the past decade, the Knights have donated more than $1.208 billion to charity; this year alone, the group has given $140 million. Yet the Knights also contribute to myriad ecclesiastical causes, making friends in high places in a way that other Catholic groups can only dream about.

A brief story illustrates the point.

Just after I arrived in Rome in the summer of 2000, a long-awaited refurbishing of the lighting system in the scavi, the excavations below St. Peter's Basilica where the bones of St. Peter are believed to rest, was unveiled. I didn't sign up for a tour for journalists, busy with my Italian classes. Shortly thereafter, however, I got a note from the home office saying NCR wanted a cover story on the scavi in a matter of days. I feared I had blown it, since normally it takes two weeks to get a tour. I faxed in an emergency request, however, and within five minutes I got a phone call asking if 8:00 am the following day would be convenient; I asked if my wife could join me, and was told "of course."

We arrived just before 8:00, and found a group of English-speaking pilgrims assembling. We assumed we had simply been added to the group, so we purchased tickets and waited. Just as the group was departing, however, a troika of distinguished-looking men in dark suits approached, calling out my name. It turned out to be Pietro Zander, from the Vatican's excavations office, along with Nazzareno Gabrielli, the avuncular director of scientific research for the Vatican museums, and one of Gabrielli's aides.

Gabrielli spent the next two hours with Shannon and me, explaining complicated points of microbiology and art history, taking us into sealed-off nooks and crannies that ordinary tourists never see. At one point, we stepped inside a locked area of the pagan mausoleum buried under the basilica because Gabrielli wanted to explain something about the masonry. He proceeded to thump the ornate first century B.C. walls, and encouraged us to do the same. His blows swiftly brought down a small chunk of the wall, which elicited little more than a bemused mama mia and a shrug.

Though the experience was delightful, I couldn't help but wonder if the brain trust at the scavi did this for every reporter who faxed in a request.

As we finished, we exited St. Peter's Basilica and came out under a portico. Zander took me by the arm, pointed up to an exterior part of the basilica, and explained that funding from the Knights of Columbus had paid for its restoration.

"I want you to know how grateful we are," he intoned. "Grateful," he repeated, for emphasis.

Then I got it: The VIP treatment had nothing to do with me. These officials had gone out of their way for an American Catholic in order to return a favor to the Knights. I suppose Zander assumed I would get word back to the right people. By no means am I suggesting there was anything sinister about this -- quite the contrary -- but it does illustrate how the generosity of the Knights spawns gratitude.

Come to think of it, I never did what Zander implicitly asked. So to the Knights, albeit six years late, on the occasion of your Orlando convention, this relayed message: The Vatican says "Thank You."

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