Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Levada on Clergy Sexual Abuse, Pope Benedict

Cardinal William Levada, an American who serves as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the job previously occupied by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has composed a letter from Rome on the issue of combating clergy sexual abuse of minors and Pope Benedict's track record on the same. He also deals at some length with how that record has been presented in the media. The letter is entitled "The New York Times and Pope Benedict XVI: how it looks to an American in the Vatican" and originally ran on the Web site of the Catholic San Francisco.

Full text is reprinted here with permission of the author:

In our melting pot of peoples, languages and backgrounds, Americans are not noted as examples of “high” culture. But we can take pride as a rule in our passion for fairness. In the Vatican where I currently work, my colleagues – whether fellow cardinals at meetings or officials in my office – come from many different countries, continents and cultures. As I write this response today (March 26, 2010) I have had to admit to them that I am not proud of America’s newspaper of record, the New York Times, as a paragon of fairness.

I say this because today’s Times presents both a lengthy article by Laurie Goodstein, a senior columnist, headlined “Warned About Abuse, Vatican Failed to Defrock Priest,” and an accompanying editorial entitled “The Pope and the Pedophilia Scandal,” in which the editors call the Goodstein article a disturbing report (emphasis in original) as a basis for their own charges against the Pope. Both the article and the editorial are deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness that Americans have every right and expectation to find in their major media reporting.

In her lead paragraph, Goodstein relies on what she describes as “newly unearthed files” to point out what the Vatican (i.e. then Cardinal Ratzinger and his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) did not do – “defrock Fr. Murphy.” Breaking news, apparently. Only after eight paragraphs of purple prose does Goodstein reveal that Fr. Murphy, who criminally abused as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school in the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 1950 to 1974, “not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to the documents and interviews with victims.”

But in paragraph 13, commenting on a statement of Fr. Lombardi (the Vatican spokesman) that Church law does not prohibit anyone from reporting cases of abuse to civil authorities, Goodstein writes, “He did not address why that had never happened in this case.” Did she forget, or did her editors not read, what she wrote in paragraph nine about Murphy getting “a pass from the police and prosecutors”? By her own account it seems clear that criminal authorities had been notified, most probably by the victims and their families.

Goodstein’s account bounces back and forth as if there were not some 20 plus years intervening between reports in the 1960 and 70’s to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and local police, and Archbishop Weakland’s appeal for help to the Vatican in 1996. Why? Because the point of the article is not about failures on the part of church and civil authorities to act properly at the time. I, for one, looking back at this report agree that Fr. Murphy deserved to be dismissed from the clerical state for his egregious criminal behavior, which would normally have resulted from a canonical trial.

The point of Goodstein’s article, however, is to attribute the failure to accomplish this dismissal to Pope Benedict, instead of to diocesan decisions at the time. She uses the technique of repeating the many escalating charges and accusations from various sources (not least from her own newspaper), and tries to use these “newly unearthed files” as the basis for accusing the pope of leniency and inaction in this case and presumably in others.

It seems to me, on the other hand, that we owe Pope Benedict a great debt of gratitude for introducing the procedures that have helped the Church to take action in the face of the scandal of priestly sexual abuse of minors. These efforts began when the Pope served as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and continued after he was elected Pope. That the Times has published a series of articles in which the important contribution he has made – especially in the development and implementation of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, the Motu proprio issued by Pope John Paul II in 2001 – is ignored, seems to me to warrant the charge of lack of fairness which should be the hallmark of any reputable newspaper.

Let me tell you what I think a fair reading of the Milwaukee case would seem to indicate. The reasons why church and civil authorities took no action in the 1960’s and 70’s is apparently not contained in these “newly emerged files.” Nor does the Times seem interested in finding out why. But what does emerge is this: after almost 20 years as Archbishop, Weakland wrote to the Congregation asking for help in dealing with this terrible case of serial abuse. The Congregation approved his decision to undertake a canonical trial, since the case involved solicitation in confession – one of the graviora delicta (most grave crimes) for which the Congregation had responsibility to investigate and take appropriate action.

Only when it learned that Murphy was dying did the Congregation suggest to Weakland that the canonical trial be suspended, since it would involve a lengthy process of taking testimony from a number of deaf victims from prior decades, as well as from the accused priest. Instead it proposed measures to ensure that appropriate restrictions on his ministry be taken. Goodstein infers that this action implies “leniency” toward a priest guilty of heinous crimes. My interpretation would be that the Congregation realized that the complex canonical process would be useless if the priest were dying. Indeed, I have recently received an unsolicited letter from the judicial vicar who was presiding judge in the canonical trial telling me that he never received any communication about suspending the trial, and would not have agreed to it. But Fr. Murphy had died in the meantime. As a believer, I have no doubt that Murphy will face the One who judges both the living and the dead.

Goodstein also refers to what she calls “other accusations” about the reassignment of a priest who had previously abused a child/children in another diocese by the Archdiocese of Munich. But the Archdiocese has repeatedly explained that the responsible Vicar General, Mons. Gruber, admitted his mistake in making that assignment. It is anachronistic for Goodstein and the Times to imply that the knowledge about sexual abuse that we have in 2010 should have somehow been intuited by those in authority in 1980. It is not difficult for me to think that Professor Ratzinger, appointed as Archbishop of Munich in 1977, would have done as most new bishops do: allow those already in place in an administration of 400 or 500 people to do the jobs assigned to them.

As I look back on my own personal history as a priest and bishop, I can say that in 1980 I had never heard of any accusation of such sexual abuse by a priest. It was only in 1985, as an Auxiliary Bishop attending a meeting of our U.S. Bishops’ Conference where data on this matter was presented, that I became aware of some of the issues. In 1986, when I was appointed Archbishop in Portland, I began to deal personally with accusations of the crime of sexual abuse, and although my “learning curve” was rapid, it was also limited by the particular cases called to my attention.

Here are a few things I have learned since that time: many child victims are reluctant to report incidents of sexual abuse by clergy. When they come forward as adults, the most frequent reason they give is not to ask for punishment of the priest, but to make the bishop and personnel director aware so that other children can be spared the trauma that they have experienced.

In dealing with priests, I learned that many priests, when confronted with accusations from the past, spontaneously admitted their guilt. On the other hand, I also learned that denial is not uncommon. I have found that even programs of residential therapy have not succeeded in breaking through such denial in some cases. Even professional therapists did not arrive at a clear diagnosis in some of these cases; often their recommendations were too vague to be helpful. On the other hand, therapists have been very helpful to victims in dealing with the long-range effects of their childhood abuse. In both Portland and San Francisco where I dealt with issues of sexual abuse, the dioceses always made funds available (often through diocesan insurance coverage) for therapy to victims of sexual abuse.

From the point of view of ecclesiastical procedures, the explosion of the sexual abuse question in the United States led to the adoption, at a meeting of the Bishops’ Conference in Dallas in 2002, of a “Charter for the Protection of Minors from Sexual Abuse.” This Charter provides for uniform guidelines on reporting sexual abuse, on structures of accountability (Boards involving clergy, religious and laity, including experts), reports to a national Board, and education programs for parishes and schools in raising awareness and prevention of sexual abuse of children. In a number of other countries similar programs have been adopted by Church authorities: one of the first was adopted by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in response to the Nolan Report made by a high-level commission of independent experts in 2001.

It was only in 2001, with the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (SST), that responsibility for guiding the Catholic Church’s response to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clerics was assigned to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This papal document was prepared for Pope John Paul II under the guidance of Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Contrary to some media reports, SST did not remove the local bishop’s responsibility for acting in cases of reported sexual abuse of minors by clerics. Nor was it, as some have theorized, part of a plot from on high to interfere with civil jurisdiction in such cases. Instead, SST directs bishops to report credible allegations of abuse to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is able to provide a service to the bishops to ensure that cases are handled properly, in accord with applicable ecclesiastical law.

Here are some of the advances made by this new Church legislation (SST). It has allowed for a streamlined administrative process in arriving at a judgment, thus reserving the more formal process of a canonical trial to more complex cases. This has been of particular advantage in missionary and small dioceses that do not have a strong complement of well-trained canon lawyers. It provides for erecting inter-diocesan tribunals to assist small dioceses. The Congregation has faculties allowing it derogate from the prescription of a crime (statute of limitations) in order to permit justice to be done even for “historical” cases. Moreover, SST has amended canon law in cases of sexual abuse to adjust the age of a minor to 18 to correspond with the civil law in many countries today. It provides a point of reference for bishops and religious superiors to obtain uniform advice about handling priests’ cases. Perhaps most of all, it has designated cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics as graviora delicta: most grave crimes, like the crimes against the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance perennially assigned to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This in itself has shown the seriousness with which today’s Church undertakes its responsibility to assist bishops and religious superiors to prevent these crimes from happening in the future, and to punish them when they happen. Here is a legacy of Pope Benedict that greatly facilitates the work of the Congregation which I now have the privilege to lead, to the benefit of the entire Church.

After the Dallas Charter in 2002, I was appointed (at the time as Archbishop of San Francisco) to a team of four bishops to seek approval of the Holy See for the “Essential Norms” that the American Bishops developed to allow us to deal with abuse questions. Because these norms intersected with existing canon law, they required approval before being implemented as particular law for our country. Under the chairmanship of Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and currently President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, our team worked with Vatican canonical experts at several meetings. We found in Cardinal Ratzinger, and in the experts he assigned to meet with us, a sympathetic understanding of the problems we faced as American bishops. Largely through his guidance we were able to bring our work to a successful conclusion.

The Times editorial wonders “how Vatican officials did not draw the lessons of the grueling scandal in the United States, where more than 700 priests were dismissed over a three-year period.” I can assure the Times that the Vatican in reality did not then and does not now ignore those lessons. But the Times editorial goes on to show the usual bias: “But then we read Laurie Goodstein’s disturbing report . . .about how the pope, while he was still a cardinal, was personally warned about a priest … But church leaders chose to protect the church instead of children. The report illuminated the kind of behavior the church was willing to excuse to avoid scandal.” Excuse me, editors. Even the Goodstein article, based on “newly unearthed files,” places the words about protecting the Church from scandal on the lips of Archbishop Weakland, not the pope. It is just this kind of anachronistic conflation that I think warrants my accusation that the Times, in rushing to a guilty verdict, lacks fairness in its coverage of Pope Benedict.

As a full-time member of the Roman Curia, the governing structure that carries out the Holy See’s tasks, I do not have time to deal with the Times’s subsequent almost daily articles by Rachel Donadio and others, much less with Maureen Dowd’s silly parroting of Goodstein’s “disturbing report.” But about a man with and for whom I have the privilege of working, as his “successor” Prefect, a pope whose encyclicals on love and hope and economic virtue have both surprised us and made us think, whose weekly catecheses and Holy Week homilies inspire us, and yes, whose pro-active work to help the Church deal effectively with the sexual abuse of minors continues to enable us today, I ask the Times to reconsider its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Here Comes Everybody ... Speaking Out on the Pope

In the midst of the recent media attention the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI have received on the painful issue of clergy sexual abuse, voices from across the colorful spectrum that is the U.S. Church have come to Pope Benedict's defense and restated the commitment of the Church to combating sex abuse. As he usually does, Archbishop Tim Dolan of New York summed it up incredibly well at Palm Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral:

May I ask your patience a couple of minutes longer in what has already been a lengthy — yet hopefully uplifting —Sunday Mass?

The somberness of Holy Week is intensified for Catholics this year.

The recent tidal wave of headlines about abuse of minors by some few priests, this time in Ireland, Germany, and a re-run of an old story from Wisconsin, has knocked us to our knees once again.

Anytime this horror, vicious sin, and nauseating crime is reported, as it needs to be, victims and their families are wounded again, the vast majority of faithful priests bow their heads in shame anew, and sincere Catholics experience another dose of shock, sorrow, and even anger.

What deepens the sadness now is the unrelenting insinuations against the Holy Father himself, as certain sources seem frenzied to implicate the man who, perhaps more than anyone else has been the leader in purification, reform, and renewal that the Church so needs.

Sunday Mass is hardly the place to document the inaccuracy, bias, and hyperbole of such aspersions.

But, Sunday Mass is indeed the time for Catholics to pray for “ . . . Benedict our Pope.”

And Palm Sunday Mass is sure a fitting place for us to express our love and solidarity for our earthly shepherd now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob, and scourging at the pillar, as did Jesus.

No one has been more vigorous in cleansing the Church of the effects of this sickening sin than the man we now call Pope Benedict XVI. The dramatic progress that the Catholic Church in the United States has made — — documented again just last week by the report made by independent forensic auditors — — could never have happened without the insistence and support of the very man now being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo.

Does the Church and her Pastor, Pope Benedict XVI, need intense scrutiny and just criticism for tragic horrors long past?

Yes! He himself has asked for it, encouraging complete honesty, at the same time expressing contrition, and urging a thorough cleansing.

All we ask is that it be fair, and that the Catholic Church not be singled-out for a horror that has cursed every culture, religion, organization, institution, school, agency, and family in the world.

Sorry to bring this up … but, then again, the Eucharist is the Sunday meal of the spiritual family we call the Church. At Sunday dinner we share both joys and sorrows. The father of our family, Il Papa, needs our love, support, and prayers.

While it's difficult to add to something that so eloquently frames the entire issue as that does, various commentators have teased out elements touched on by Archbishop Dolan, giving further context, detail and clarity to the ugly matters currently confronting the pope and the Church.

First, John Allen provided
this excellent piece for National Catholic Reporter that, as one might expect from Allen, lends a broader context to the issue of Pope Benedict and clergy sexual abuse. The most striking portion of Allen's analysis is his depiction of then-Cardinal Ratzinger's "conversion" from the old Church mindset to someone who really understood and, as a result of that understanding, became a leader on this issue. This underscores what Archbishop Dolan said about Pope Benedict doing so much to help the Church heal.

Allen also provides a narrative of Ratzinger's career that shows how, as Archbishop of Munich, the future pope probably wasn't involved with a decision to move an abuser priest. Of course this was before the New York Times ran a series of stories on the pope and clergy sexual abuse, generating even more media attention, the sort that Archbishop Dolan refers to as "unrelenting insinuations" that, in some cases, "seem frenzied to implicate" the pope himself.

In the wake of this, John Allen wrote
another piece, this one clarifying some of the oft-repeated claims against the pope being inaccurately, or at least imprecisely, proliferated in the media. While Allen debunks many of the criticisms being leveled at Benedict, attributing much of it to a lack of understanding of how the Church works, he stops short of clearing the pope and says a thorough accounting should be made of Ratzinger's Munich years. In the words of Archbishop Dolan, "Does the Church and her Pastor, Pope Benedict XVI, need intense scrutiny and just criticism for tragic horrors long past? Yes!"

The New York Times coverage also elicited some passionate rebuttals from voices in the Church that probably don't find themselves on the same side of many debates. Writing for America,
Michael Sean Winters castigates the Times for its treatment of Benedict, accusing the paper of bungling the facts and unfairly singling out the Church (the latter point also touched on by Dolan). Such shoddy journalism, Winters asserts, is beneath a great publication like the New York Times.

Writing for the First Things blog,
George Weigel isn't nearly as charitable. Not only did the Times get the story wrong, he argues, but this is part of a deliberate and consistent effort to destroy the moral authority of the Catholic Church, thus eliminating it from the cultural debate where it is seen as an obstacle to secular progress. Another point-by-point break down of the Times and its coverage of the pope can be found here. And a detailed account by the priest who served as tribunal judge in one of the cases the Times levies against the pope can be found here.

To be fair to the Times, they did run
this tough, but fair analysis on Palm Sunday.

And even as I finish compiling this round-up, the Executive Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement in
English and Spanish on the matter.

The bishops dedicate a great deal of their statement to the
safeguards they have put in place and their ongoing commitment to the protection of children and young people. This seems appropriate for a couple of reasons. First, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has already been through the painful purification now facing Europe. This is a good time to offer the rest of the world a model that is already bearing fruit

Second, these are the steps that will lead the Church out of this crisis once and for all. The Church can insist on fair coverage from the media and check their facts, but the most important fact-checking going forward will be to ensure that the Church as a whole remains committed to protecting young people, educating everyone to the realities of this crime, and demanding transparency, accountability and vigilance from its leadership.

Holy Week 2010: Suffering With the Lord

Holy Week is time when Catholics worldwide feel the pain of dying in Christ.

It comes this year as media reports bring up heartrending, often previously published, stories with a new twist – how the Vatican handled the cases. Efforts to link stories to culpable inaction by Pope Benedict XVI cause reasonable people anguish given all that the pope has tried to do to address this crisis.

Since 2002, the church in the United States has had a policy of zero tolerance, which means a priest or deacon who has admitted to or been found guilty of sexually abusing a minor can no longer engage in public ministry. Likewise, the church has developed screenings and processes to ensure that the children in its schools and religious formation programs today are not subject to abusive behavior, whether by a cleric or lay person. This has solved one problem by excising child abusers from parishes and dioceses.

Yet another problem has emerged. Society is finally seeing that sexual abuse of a child is a sin, a crime and often a sickness. Now we ask with hindsight why those in authority did not act more quickly in addressing the problem, more stringently in dealing with offenders, and more compassionately when hearing the victims. It is little comfort that many in charge acted with woefully inadequate knowledge, the same inadequate knowledge that has bedeviled psychology, law enforcement, even families for half a century or more. It is not an excuse – some things, such as not harming the weak, you should know instinctively. However, it is a fact that all of us now know more now than we did 50, 40, 30, 20, and even 10 years ago. We treat physical and mental illness today in ways different from how we did in the sixties. The police who once for the sake of peace in the precinct took a “Get out of Dodge” approach to many crimes no longer practice such expeditious law enforcement. And while we still believe in the power of prayer, no one in the church thinks a 30-day retreat and a firm purpose of amendment can cure a sexual abuser.

New knowledge means new obligations for church leaders, of course. Not knowing is no longer acceptable. Inaction will no longer be tolerated by law enforcement, fellow clerics and the Catholic community. Signs of such realization have been shown, for example, by Pope John Paul II who declared “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young” and Pope Benedict who said bluntly: “I am ashamed and will do everything possible to ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future.”

For many, the emphasis of Holy Week is on Good Friday, a day that’s good not because Jesus died a terrible death that day, but because the death led to His subsequent resurrection. It holds deep meaning for Catholics now who seek meaning from the tragedy of pedophilia.

Pedophilia has had terrible effect on many and reminds us of sinful humanity than is around us and within us. It has made a long Good Friday for many, especially those victimized by this sin and crime. But as the church has learned while dealing with these wounds, as it did with the crucifixion of Jesus, the pain can lead to a church purified of sin.

With the current spate of news stories about inaction in the face of pedophilia, Catholics rightly feel numbness like that of Holy Saturday when the Apostles and followers of Jesus were stunned by the events around them. The message, however, is that Jesus’ death led to new life. The Church is still learning through its pain. The comfort of Christ awaits, which is something victims/survivors need and deserve and something the entire Church, from Pope Benedict to the newest baptized child, can take hope in.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In All Things, Charity

The heat in the aftermath of passage of health care reform reveals the depth of feeling among those for and against the landmark bill that affects all Americans. Such heat, however, cannot justify the verbal and physical violence that has ensued.

If we needed health care because of the crisis affecting the sick, especially the weakest among us, we need even more a move toward civility, if not for our own betterment then at least for the betterment of our children.

Politics has become a kind of blood sport. News junkies over the weekend heard reports of crowds shouting racist remarks and individuals spitting at African American lawmakers, including John Lewis, who suffered violence years ago when he marched for Civil Rights. Surely he – and all of us – has a right to expect that that chapter of despicable, racist violence long over.

We’ve seen reports of homes and offices of lawmakers vandalized and heard of death threats. Anonymous messages are being left on voicemails – I even got one from a nun, for goodness sake. If that isn’t proof that we’ve gone astray I don’t know what is.

The wonderfully unedited Web may share some blame as it gives free reign to those who say whatever suits their strategic purpose, truthful or not. Their presentations – usually anonymous – underscore a significant failing of the Web, lack of editors and accountability.

We’ve seen columnists write with vitriol as they demonize those with whom they disagree. There’s a viciousness which goes beyond what can be called acerbic writing.

We need to address this climate.

The intolerance and incivility did not begin with legislation passed Sunday night. It is not unrelated to the divisions that exist in our country and, sadly, even in our church.
It starts with how we view others – as enemies rather than as fellow travelers on the journey of life. It includes whether or not we’re willing to give another the benefit of the doubt, accepting that their intentions are good, even if their goals differ from ours.

It involves accepting the fact that each of us is a child of God and precious to Him and our brother or sister.

It involves how we speak and terms for one another.

Last Tuesday, March 23, Cardinal Francis George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted the bishops’ disappointment that the health reform legislation did not include all they sought, especially adequate protection of rights of conscience and guarantees that federal funds would not go for abortion services. But he also noted that politicians on both sides of the aisle had worked nobly for the protection of life and decried those who would vilify them. Even in disappointment, the bishops were civil and generous. Their position is worth emulating.

In 1959, Pope John XXIII, in his first encyclical, "On Truth, Unity and Peace," in a Spirit of Charity, quoted a maxim attributed to St. Augustine, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity."

In all things charity surely is the message we all need today. It’s not a bad start to Holy Week.

Immigration March -- Statement and Slideshow

Just tying up some loose ends from last weekend in the midst of a hectic week. First, here are Cardinal Roger Mahony's remarks -- alternating between English and Spanish -- made on the National Mall last Sunday in support of immigration reform:

Archbishop of Los Angeles

March for America: Change takes Courage and Faith

March 21, 2010

I am so proud to be here today.


Citizens, residents, immigrants… We are here today to call upon our lawmakers to fix a broken and immoral immigration system -- one which preys upon the vulnerability of immigrants and their families; one which benefits from their labor without offering the protection of our laws; and one which drives human beings into the hands of smugglers and to their deaths in the desert!

¡El presente sistema de inmigración NO ESTA TRABAJANDO!

¡Tenemos un sistema inmoral que toma ventaja de los inmigrantes y sus familias; un sistema que beneficia de su labor sin la protección de nuestras leyes; y un sistema que manda a seres humanos a las manos de coyotes y hasta la muerte!

Hoy estamos aquí -- ciudadanos, residentes, inmigrantes -- todos unidos para que nuestros lideres puedan escuchar claramente la voz de nuestro pueblo inmigrante y de los millones de Americanos quienes apoyan una reforma migratoria.

Nosotros hemos visto el impacto de las leyes migratorias y las continuas redadas:
Nuestras comunidades inmigrantes viven con miedo…
Niños están siendo separados de sus padres…
Trabajadores están siendo explotados por un sistema que los mantiene como una permanente clase inferior que vive en las sombras de la sociedad.

Hoy compartimos con nuestros líderes y la nación esas historias que vemos todos los días.

Historias como la de María y Juan quienes vinieron a este país cuando eran niños. Tienen hijos nacidos aquí, hablan inglés, trabajan duro, pagan impuestos, y contribuyen en su comunidad como voluntarios. Son ejemplos del sueño Americano, pero viven cada día con el miedo que pueden ser separados de sus hijos.

Esa es una pesadilla que fue hecha realidad para la familia de Gabby, una niña de solo catorce años. Ella y sus hermanos, todos ciudadanos, perdieron a su padre que fue deportado hace cinco años y ahora viven con el miedo que su mamá también será deportada dejando a los seis niños completamente solos.

We are all here because we have seen first hand the impact of our immigration laws and continued workplace raids:
Our immigrant communities are living in fear…
Children are being left without their mother or father or both…
Workers are being exploited by a system that keeps them as a permanent underclass living in the shadows of society.

Today, we want our leaders in Washington to hear those immigrant stories we experience everyday.

Stories like that of Maria and Juan who were brought to this country when they were just children. Juan works the graveyard shift as a security guard. Maria works and takes care of their children who are US citizens. They speak English, they pay taxes, they volunteer in their community -- they work day and night to provide for their children. Their lives are here in the United States. They could be the picture of the American Dream, but they live each day with the fear that they will be taken away from their children.

Something that happened to little Gabby, an American citizen, who’s father was taken away at 5 a.m. from their own home when she was just nine and her baby brothers were only two. While most 14 year olds spend their free time hanging out with their friends, Gabby spends her free time taking care of her brothers while their mother tries to make ends meet, and all of the children have nightmares that one day “La Migra” will come and take their mother too.

But regardless of their pain and suffering Gabby’s mom holds out hope that Congress and the President will pass immigration reform, so her children, after five years, can once again feel the warmth of their father’s embrace and never again have nightmares that they will be left alone.

As Americans, as a nation of immigrants, we can’t just turn our backs on our immigrant brothers and sisters. We can do better…We must do better… We must pass comprehensive immigration reform!

On behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops, I want you to know that the Catholic Church stands with you and is in this fight until the end. We will not stop advocating on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters, and we will continue to defend their right to be full members of our communities and nation.

Como una nación de inmigrantes, no podemos rechazar a nuestros hermanos inmigrantes. Podemos y debemos mejorar esta situación. ¡La solución es una reforma migratoria ESTE AÑO!

Les aseguro que la Iglesia Católica seguirá luchando a lado de todos ustedes hasta que se realice una reforma. No vamos a parar de abogar por los inmigrantes y seguiremos defendiendo sus derechos como miembros de nuestras comunidades y esta nación. ¡Vamos a seguir llamando a nuestros líderes que paren con la política antiinmigrante y pasen leyes migratorias humanas!

Me despido con las palabras de Raúl, un estudiante universitario de Los Angeles con un futuro en el limbo por falta de papeles. El me dio este mensaje en inglés para nuestros líderes y la nación.

I leave you with the words of Raúl, a university student who was brought to this country when he was only one year old. He wants to contribute all his talents and skills to this country -- the only home he’s ever known. Through no fault of his own he is undocumented, and his future is now in limbo. Raul gave me this message for our elected officials and our nation:

“View us as human beings; view us as brothers and sisters…
We’re here to work hard and contribute to society…

We don’t want to harm anyone…

We want to come together as one for a better future.”

Despite the fact that our broken immigration system is failing Raul, he dreams of a better future not just for immigrants, but for all of us.

I ask you to remember Raul, Juan, Maria, little Gabby and the millions more who continue to suffer.

This is not about politics…

This is about real human beings.

You are in my prayers, and God bless you all.

Todos ustedes están en mis oraciones, y que Dios los bendiga.

Also from the immigration events last Sunday, Catholic News Service has launched a slideshow of photos from the Mass preceding the march at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, as well as from the march itself. Great shots, as always, from CNS.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Where It Stands With Haiti

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from Catholics across the U.S. in response to the needs of earthquake survivors in Haiti. So far, the special collection from U.S. dioceses raised over $55 million for emergency help, and other contributions have brought in an additional $50 million. The USCCB Subcommittee for the Church in Latin America is partnering with CRS in the response. CRS is focusing now on rebuilding efforts —such as moving people from makeshift camps to temporary housing as the rainy station draws near— while the Bishops’ Advisory Group for Haiti of the Church in Latin America Committee will help rebuild the Church’s fabric and infrastructure in the Caribbean nation. This video shows how CRS put those donations to action in the days immediately following the quake.

For the latest updates on CRS’ relief efforts for survivors of the earthquake in Haiti, please visit CRS’ Haiti emergency landing page.

For information on how to make donations to help rebuild the Church in Haiti and updates go to the Haiti page of the National Collections office of the U.S. Bishops.

Friday, March 19, 2010

CMSWR Backs the Bishops

Here's the statement issued yesterday from the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, posted on the organization's Web site:

March 18, 2010

In a March 15th statement, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, of Chicago, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke on behalf of the United States Bishops in opposition to the Senate’s version of the health care legislation under consideration because of its expansion of abortion funding and its lack of adequate provision for conscience protection. Recent statements from groups like Network, the Catholic Health Association and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) directly oppose the Catholic Church’s position on critical issues of health care reform.

The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the second conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious in the United States, finds the provisions of the bill to include expansion of abortion funding and fails to include conscience protection. We believe the bill needs to include the Hyde Amendment as passed by the House in November.

Protection of life and freedom of conscience are central to morally responsible judgment. We join the bishops in seeking ethically sound legislation.

Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, R.S.M.


On behalf of the Membership of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious

Apart from the support of the U.S. Bishops' position, what's particularly striking about this message is that Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, RSM, really is speaking on behalf of the entire membership of CMSWR. As the news cycle of the last few days has shown, that may not be every nun in the country, but neither does this purport to be.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

And Then There Were Nun

As someone who taught in Catholic schools, which Washington Post writer EJ Dionne attended, I applaud him for knowing sister is usually right. I can even excuse him for mistakenly accepting as true what a few dozen nuns said in a letter that was sent to Congress by Network, a nun social justice group.

Dionne made his case in a March 18 column titled “Listen to the Nuns” in the Washington Post. However, the signers he listened to were flat out wrong in many instances.

For example, they falsely said “we represent 59,000 Catholic sisters in the United States.” There were 55 names or groups listed as signers to the letter, with one, Sister Marlene Weisenback, signing twice (Does she have Chicago roots?). Sister Weisenbeck leads both the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) as well as her own community and signed for both. However, there are 793 groups of sisters in the USA, so there is no way that the 54/55 signers represent all the American nuns.

There are also religious order procedures to consider. Many of the endorsers signed on as individual teams -- that’s nunspeak for saying they represent only themselves, not their membership. It’s a way of keeping all heck from breaking out in the convent where opposition to abortion is stronger than what Network says (or doesn’t say, since it won’t take a position and avoids the issue).

There is also confusion by those who might equate Network with the LCWR. Network is a social justice lobby. In no way shape or form does it represent 59,000 nuns. Even LCWR, the organization of major superiors of hundreds of religious orders, can no longer claim to represent that many, since a percentage of U.S. orders belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). (With a hedge-your-bets style, some mother superiors belong to both. You can never be too careful!)

The Network letter also erroneously declares that the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. That would be true if the Senate version included Hyde Amendment language, but the Senate has refused to add this language. Maybe it’s pride. The Hyde Amendment came from the House of Representatives, the hoi polloi section of Congress. It’s hard to figure out why else the Senate would balk at language that has been satisfactory to the people since it was first passed in 1976. When applied, the Hyde Amendment says federal money cannot be used for elective abortion or programs that provide them.

EJ Dionne is a great guy. I know him personally and professionally. As a good Catholic school fellow has reason to trust the teachers who gave him his educational start. They were right when they taught him that two plus two equals four, so when they said 55 translated to 59,000 he believed them. That the nuns also tried to mislead the entire US Congress similarly is an embarrassment. But such may be political warfare where, as is said, the first casualty is truth.

EJ used Network’s letter to set the nuns against the bishops. That’s unfair. The bishops want health care that preserves the status quo in abortion funding, which means does not include expansion of abortion. The Senate seems to have dug in its heels and refuses to write in language from the Hyde Amendment (first passed in 1976), which says that no health care funds can be used for elective abortions or programs that provide them. That’s what the House did in its version of the health care reform legislation.

The media are having a good time with the nuns vs. bishops story. AP has called. CNN wants a Friday afternoon debate. CBS radio Boston has been on the phone. And Catholics in the pew want to know just what is going on.

All because of a letter from a group misrepresenting itself and the facts. Meanwhile the real problems with the Senate health care reform – unfair treatment of immigrants and threats to the child in the womb – get ignored.

Yet Another Health Care Round-Up

Just today, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien offered this on health care reform:

For decades, the Catholic bishops of the United States have been and continue to be consistent and strong advocates for comprehensive health care reform that leads to health care for all, including the weakest and most vulnerable.

In anticipation of a possible final vote on the U.S. Senate’s heath care reform bill, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien called for transparency throughout the voting process in both houses of Congress, and encouraged Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to urge their elected officials in Congress to work to uphold provisions against abortion funding, to include full conscience protection and to ensure that health care is accessible and affordable for all.

"Anything short of this would be unacceptable and irresponsible on the part of our elected officials," Archbishop O’Brien said. "The American people and the Catholic bishops have been told repeatedly that no federal funds would be used for abortion in any final bill. This is not the case. The Senate bill would depart from longstanding principles of the Hyde Amendment, which has enjoyed bipartisan support for more than three decades and would expand federal funding and the role of the federal government in the provision of abortion procedures. If allowed to stand, the Senate bill would constitute the most far-reaching relaxation of abortion law since Roe vs. Wade."

The Archbishop also cited the Catholic Church’s social justice teaching, which supports the principle of subsidiarity; the Church believes that decisions should be made as close to those effected by them as possible, commensurate with the common good. This is especially true "of the conscience-laden decisions often involved in health care," the Archbishop noted.

The Archbishop echoed the statement issued earlier this week by Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinal George, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Bishops said, "Two basic principles continue to shape the concerns of the Catholic bishops: health care means taking care of the health needs of all, across the human life span; and the expansion of health care should not involve the expansion of abortion funding and of policies forcing everyone to pay for abortions. Because these principles have not been respected, despite the good that the bill under consideration intends or might achieve, the Catholic bishops regretfully hold that it must be opposed unless and until these serious moral problems are addressed."

To read statements made by other U.S. Catholic bishops, visit
Very flattering that he links to this very blog at the bottom of the statement.

Here's an email message from earlier this week from Archbishop Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis to the Minnesota Congressional delegation:

March 15, 2010
E-Mail Message
Dear Senator or Representative,
I write to urge you, as a member of Senate or House, to commit yourself to enacting genuine health care reform that will protect the life, dignity, consciences, and health of all.

While I am grateful that the House health care bill, by way of the Stupak amendment, applies the existing prohibitions on federal funding for abortion, I am deeply concerned about the current Senate health care bill. This legislation fails to keep in place the current law. It requires taxpayers and the federal government to fund and facilitate plans which include elective abortion and then requires people in those plans to pay directly into a fund which only pays for abortions. This is unacceptable.

I thank you for your leadership to the state of Minnesota, and hope that you will continue to represent Minnesotans faithfully. No legislation should be finalized until and unless basic moral criteria are met. The only way we will get needed health care reform legislation that protects the life, dignity, conscience and health of all is if you continue to provide strong and consistent moral and political leadership. I hope that we as Minnesotans can count on your help in this urgent task.

Please know of my prayers for you and your families as you face these decisions that will impact us all.

With every good wish, I remain,
Cordially yours in Christ,

The Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt
Archbishop of Saint Paul and

Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Fort Worth sent this to Congress by fax:

The Catholic Bishops of the United States have long supported good and affordable health care for every citizen, because health care is a basic human right. As the shepherd and teacher to 700,000 Catholics in the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, I believe health care reform must protect human life and dignity from conception to natural death, particularly the voiceless and the vulnerable.

Rockville Bishop William R. Murphy, Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester outlined the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a letter to members of the House of Representatives dated February 24, 2010. As a final vote on health care reform appears eminent, I join my fellow bishops in asking members of Congress to adopt legislation which includes the following:

-- Ensures access to quality, affordable, life-giving health care for all
-- Retains longstanding requirements that federal funds not be used for elective abortions or plans that include them, and effectively protects conscience rights
-- Protects the access to health care that immigrants currently have and removes current barriers to access.

Catholic Bishops believe the Senate health care reform legislation has major flaws which are real and must be addressed. As approved by the Senate, this bill:

-- Provides for direct federal funding of elective abortions in community health centers

-- Provides federal subsidies for health plans that cover such abortions, violating longstanding federal policy under the Hyde Amendment and similar laws
-- Will force families to choose between their health needs and their consciences on abortion, by forcing all enrollees in many health plans to pay a separate fee solely for other people’s abortions
-- Fails to apply longstanding federal policy on the conscience rights of pro-life health care providers to the new funding provided under this bill.

I and all Catholic Bishops are grateful for your consistent and courageous votes to ensure that the national health care bill includes the existing prohibitions on federal
funding for abortions by voting for the Stupak Amendment. In short, the House bill simply follows current law. Unfortunately, the Senate version of health care reform does not contain the same stipulations. I urge you to insist that the final national health care reform legislation prohibits federal funding of abortions.

Outside the abortion context, neither bill has adequate conscience protection for health care providers, plans or employers.

We will have the much needed health care reform that protects the life, dignity,
conscience and health of all only if you continue to provide strong and consistent moral and political leadership. I pray that God will continue to give you the strength and courage to withhold your vote for national health care reform if the legislation fails to address these fundamental problems.


Bishop Kevin W. Vann JCD, DD
Catholic Diocese of
Fort Worth

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans issued the following today on behalf of all his fellow Louisiana bishops:

The Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly supports the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops in their opposition to the current Senate health care bill. Some in the Catholic Church maintain that the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for abortions and that it will uphold longstanding conscience protections. They are mistaken. It is our belief that the Senate bill fails to maintain longstanding policy against federal funding of abortion and does not include adequate conscience protections. Therefore, the bishops of Louisiana are disappointed in both the inaccurate interpretations of some within the church, as well as the confusion that this has caused. Our focus continues to be to advocate for health care reform that respects the life and dignity of all, while being both accessible and affordable. Please pray for those who represent us in Congress that they will re-examine the health care bill.

And if all of this didn't feel like information overload, here's a post from the Web site of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charlston, West Virginia:

To the Faithful of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston:

In the past several days, there has been significant public debate and pressure placed on certain members of Congress to support the Senate version of health care reform that is currently being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives.

There have been confusing messages sent from groups such the Catholic Health Association and Network, consisting of members of religious orders, which are not consistent with the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Furthermore, political action groups such as Catholics United—that are in no way affiliated with the diocese or Catholic Church—have started secular media campaigns that confuse Catholics with misleading images and messages that are not consistent with the position taught by the Bishops of the United States, including Bishop Michael Bransfield.

Based on the phone calls we have received at Diocesan offices in Wheeling, parishioners across West Virginia have grave concerns regarding deceptive political advertisements and public statements from Network and CHA that deviate from the USCCB’s stance on conscience rights and public funding of abortion. It is the clear and unchanged position of Bishop Bransfield and the USCCB that unless these flaws are addressed in the legislation, the Senate bill should not be passed in the House.

So yes, it's been a chaotic week in terms of the Catholic Church and health care reform.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Health Care: The Bishops Speak Out

As the health care debate enters yet another climactic chapter, individual U.S. Bishops are speaking out pretty extensively. Rather than go on and on about what they're saying, it's best just to let them speak for themselves.

Here's Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York: Keeping Health Care Universal

Here's Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver: Catholics, Health Care and the Senate's Bad Bill

Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington made today a day of prayer and fasting for health care.

This dates back to January, but here's Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence: Not Even a Penny for Abortion

This dates back to November but is still worth the read, Bishop Fran Malooly of Wilmington: Statement on Health Care Reform

We'll keep posting these as we find them online. And of course the bishops who chair the different USCCB committees overseeing health care reform still have plenty to say. Till then ...

UPDATE: Many thanks to the reader who sent the link to the October statement from the bishops of Texas: Health Care Must Place Poor, Vulnerable First

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bishop Cordileone Makes the Case

Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone appeared on Fox News on March 10. The full video of the segment is embedded below.

Especially this far into the now-months-long health care debate, Bishop Cordileone's interview underscores once again the constancy of the Catholic Church and the U.S. Bishops on this issue.

The bishops have said from the beginning of this debate that they've favored health care reform for decades, and they've said that their support includes a few basic principles -- that health care reform be genuine reform that is truly accessible and affordable, covering everyone, including the unborn, the elderly, the immigrant and the poor. Therefore, they've stated, health care reform shouldn't promote the taking of anyone's life (i.e. the unborn) and shouldn't force anyone to act against his or her conscience (i.e. by forcing someone to pay for abortions).

In all the twists and turns of the health care legislative process, this message hasn't wavered.

Another area where the bishops haven't wavered is their commitment to the agreement made by all sides in the health care debate that health care reform was too important in its own right to turn into a vehicle for the abortion debate. To paraphrase President Obama, this would be about health care reform, not abortion reform, meaning whatever health care bill passed, it should preserve the current and longstanding federal policies on abortion and abortiong funding. In this case, that would be the Hyde Amendment, which has been a part of every appropriations bill since the 1970s and prohibits federal funds from going to abortion or to health insurance plans that cover abortion.

This is what Bishop Cordileone and the rest of the U.S. Bishops are talking about when they speak of health care reform needing to reflect the status quo.

Going off of this, the bishops find the Senate bill, which is being used as the basis for a final health care bill, problematic because it opens up several new avenues of federal abortion funding. The bishops opposed the Senate bill when it was first passed on Christmas Eve for these reasons and still insist that these changes be made to the final health care bill.

An important aspect of this debate is also highlighted by the Fox News/Cordileone video. Prior to the bishop's segment, two representatives are shown speaking. The second one implies that health care reform is being derailed by people who want abortion to be illegalized and are blocking the vote.

The sad reality is that it's the supporters of federal funding of abortion who have derailed health care and who will ultimately be responsible should the legislation fail.

Again, the U.S. Bishops have stated from the beginning that they want health care reform, and they've offered unwavering criteria for morally acceptable reform from the beginning. Similarly, pro-life Democrats like Bart Stupak and others have stated that they too want to see health care reform, but would need legislation that did not violate the status quo on federal abortion funding.

The House met this modest requirement by adopting the Stupak Amendment to its bill. The Senate went out of its way to reject an amendment that would have done the same. Then, after building into the Senate bill the very provisions that would likely doom it, proponents of federal abortion funding are either exhibiting tremendous nerve or a poor command of the facts to say that they are the ones preserving the status quo and that the other side is somehow taking advantage of health care reform to promote an agenda. Or as a recent USCCB resource states it, "Genuine health care reform is being blocked by those who insist on reversing widely supported policies against federal funding of abortion and plans which include abortion, not by those working simply to preserve these longstanding protections."

Friday, March 5, 2010

When Newsweek Plays Bishops

A March 4 piece in Newsweek, When Bishops Play Politics: a New Generation Gets Righteous, by Lisa Miller, doesn't have too much to recommend it.

The article follows a predictable narrative, saying that the U.S. Catholic Bishops are meddling in the politics of health care reform. The article suggests that, because of their opposition to abortion funding, health care legislation in its entirety might fail.

This is problematic on several levels.

First there's the presumption that the bishops, who are after all private citizens, somehow shouldn't speak freely on civil matters, as if the First Amendment didn't extend to them. It's part of a pattern of thought recently described by USCCB President Cardinal Francis George as seeking to relegate religious values to the place of private devotion, with no place as a voice for good in the public square.

The article couples its criticism of the bishops' speaking out with the assertion that their voices don't represent anyone significant because 1. clergy sexual abuse et al has stripped them of their moral authority and 2. polls allege that a majority of U.S. Catholics don't even agree with the bishops on abortion.

As it attempts to undermine the bishops rather than engage them, the article ignores polls that show that the bishops are actually more in touch with the U.S. public on the issue of abortion funding in health care reform. As the bishops' Director of Media Relations, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, commented on the Web version of the story:

Polls show bishops are in touch with U.S. citizens. Few people want to pay for someone else's abortion. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey last November indicated 61 percent of the public opposes using public money for abortions; a Quinnipiac University poll in December found 72 percent of Americans oppose paying for abortions with their tax dollars under the health care bill in Congress.

The Hyde Amendment enacted in 1976 bans federal money from going for abortion or programs that provide them. The bishops want the same restriction in the health care reform legislation.

The article closes with the emotional appeal of how bad it will be for Americans who don't have health insurance if health care reform fails, casting the blame on the bishops and other pro-life figures who've decided to stand their ground.

Nevermind that the bishops have advocated for health care reform since the days of President Truman. It shows tremendous hubris on the part of people who insist that health care reform "isn't about abortion" while they demand expansion of abortion funding. It's as if it never occurred to them that this whole confrontation could be avoided, that health care reform could be saved, if they wouldn't insist on pushing the envelope on this one issue.

And it's not like it's any eleventh-hour surprise that the bishops oppose abortion funding in health care. Between the Church's teaching on abortion and the fact that the bishops have had a consistent message since this Congress first took up health care reform, the bishops have been trying to communicate their vision of health care reform that protects everyone -- including the unborn, the elderly, the immigrant, the poor -- all along.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

George and the Latter-Day Saints: One Approach to Dialogue

When Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including two of its top officials, at Utah's Brigham Young University on February 23, he became the first cardinal to address that student body. But that wasn't the only cutting edge aspect of the event. His call for more cooperation between Catholics and Latter-day Saints was not a dialogue in the traditional sense of relationships between Catholics and other religious bodies. It relied heavily on culture.

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, breakthroughs in ecumenical and interreligious relationships came as a result of extensive dialogue and self-examination by the parties participating in the dialogue.

For instance, when centuries of cultural anti-Semitism boiled over in the horrors of the Holocaust, the Catholic Church did some self-examination as to how Christian anti-Judaism may have helped create the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to occur. Exploring our relationship with Judaism more closely ultimately led to the groundbreaking Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, which rejected the idea that the Jewish people are somehow responsible for the death of Jesus and that God has rejected them. Today, when the Catholic Church engages the Jewish people, it does so from a paradigm that recognizes them as "our older brother in faith" and "the first people to hear the Word of God."

Another example is dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, which saw over 40 years of work come to fruition in 1999, when the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The document, in effect, cleared up over four centuries of division on the issue of how people are justified before God. Cardinal George himself does a fine job of explaining this ecumenical breakthrough here:

But the content of Cardinal George's address to Brigham Young University didn't reflect a theological dialogue or other internal matters. It instead focused on two issues in U.S. culture -- abortion and same-sex marriage. Cardinal George made the case that Catholics and Latter-day Saints can stand united on these issues because, whether through funding of abortion through health care reform or mandates to recognize same-sex marriage, both issues threaten religious liberty.

Cardinal George isn't the first high-ranking Catholic to take this approach -- Pope Benedict XVI has been a pioneer, reaching out to the Russian Orthodox Church (whose relations with the Vatican have tended toward the frosty at times) and insisting that Catholics and Orthodox should work together to combat secularism in Europe. Russian Orthodox Church leaders have been receptive.

In another instance, when Pope Benedict visited Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country, in 2009, he condemned religious extremism and violence in the name of religion. With radical Islam threatening the lives of countless people, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, around the world, this was a particularly powerful topic to bring to the table.

It's probably no accident that Pope Benedict has taken this approach. Going back to his days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he expressed skepticism that a purely interreligious dialogue was even possible, that an element of intercultural dialogue would always be present in the mix. Fittingly then, his major dialogue endeavors as pope have had a cultural emphasis.

It also works on a practical level. The conventional wisdom is that the best way to unify people is to give them a common challenge, some injustice to correct. Whether its secularism, violence or threats to religious liberty, the same principle applies.

Even before Pope Benedict was showing the way, the U.S. Church took this approach on certain issues. For instance, great strides in Catholic-Evangelical relations have come through collaboration within the Pro-Life movement. Now Cardinal George is acknowledging that such collaboration should extend to Latter-day Saints and go beyond abortion to all issues that might hinder the free expression of religion in the U.S.

As recent developments with Catholic Charities of Washington DC have shown, this approach of standing with other people of faith to address the culture with a unified voice may prove timely indeed.