Sunday, September 30, 2012

Episcopal Church finances

The Economist recently featured a scathing indictment of how the Roman Catholic Church manages its finances ("Earthly Concerns," pp. 19-23, August 18, 2012). 

Settlements in child abuse cases totaling $3.3 billion over the last 15 years, which have averaged more than $1 million per case, and the bankruptcies of several U.S. dioceses combined to pique the authors' curiosity about the Roman Catholic Church's finances.
The Roman Catholic Church has 196 dioceses in the U.S., divided into 34 metropolitan provinces with 270 bishops and about 100 million members. They comprise approximately 18,000 parishes, served by 40,000 priests and 17,000 married deacons.

Estimates for 2010, the latest year for which data is available, show that the Roman Church spent $171 billion. Healthcare institutions, colleges, and universities spent almost $150 billion of that total. Only $11 billion went to parish ministry and a relatively paltry $4.7 billion to charity, although Catholic Charities provides important services and is the nation's largest charitable organization. 

Altogether, the Catholic Church has about 1 million employees in the U.S. By way of comparison, General Electric's 2010 revenues were $150 billion and Wal-Mart employed 2 million people that year.

The Roman Church routinely comingles funds, mixing operating, pension, endowment, and other accounts. Dioceses facing bankruptcy move funds offshore, beyond the reach of claimants and creditors. The Roman Church provides no public accounting of its funds; a corporation sole holds all of the assets of each diocese, over which the diocesan bishop has complete authority, subject only to the Vatican.

The recent Vatican scandal over leaks from the Pope's butler suggests that financial problems extend across the Roman Catholic Church. No for profit entity could legally manage its finances using the unorthodox methods, accounting principles and secrecy upon which the Roman Catholic Church routinely relies.

The secrecy is counterproductive. The lack of transparency discourages donor support, a conclusion ample anecdotal evidence supports. The lack of transparency also promotes a culture of deceit and tacitly suggests that laity, clergy, and members of religious orders lack the spiritual maturity and intellectual ability to comprehend ecclesiastical finances.

Evil flourishes in the dark; light dispels the darkness and brings health. The Roman Catholic Church, of all institutions, should understand this basic spiritual concept that is so deeply rooted in the Christian faith. Financial management and use of funds express values and beliefs more powerful than can any amount of verbiage.

So, how well does The Episcopal Church manage its finances? Errors in budget proposals for the next triennium that were published before this year's General Convention implicitly raised questions about the competence of our financial management. From my review of national documents, reading several dioceses' financial reports, and hearing complaints about a lack of financial transparency in at least some TEC congregations, I know that our financial management is much better than what happens in the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., we require regular audits) but leaves room for significantly improving transparency.

No good reason exists to keep TEC finances shrouded in mystery. Shadows invite, even encourage, wrongdoing. Dioceses should publish a full accounting of their income and expenses - with three exceptions. First, financial reports rightly aggregate assistance provided to individuals into a single line item. Identifying the individual recipients of such aid demeans the recipients' dignity and provides no essential information to donors or other interested parties. Annual audits and appropriate oversight can ensure that the funds do not benefit the wrong people.

Second, financial statements rightly aggregate staff salaries and benefits - except for key employees. Donors and other interested parties do not have any legitimate need to know how much an office assistant or receptionist earns. Budget committees, managers, and auditors appropriately manage such matters. Organizations with salary scales or wage guidelines will usefully publish that information to promote transparency, demonstrate good stewardship, and model paying living wages with benefits.

However, financial reports should specify salaries and benefits for key employees, e.g., bishops, canons to the ordinary, etc. Making this information public helps to ensure that leaders do not manage the institution for personal benefit. I have served in key leadership positions where donors knew my pay. Although I'm an intensely private person, I knew of no other way to establish appropriate accountability and transparency. Conversely, religious organizations that have not followed this policy have too often experienced shattering scandals.

Finally, the diocese should report aggregated unrestricted gifts from individual persons without identifying the individual donors or the amount each gave. The diocese should identify donors and amounts of restricted gifts because the donor's restrictions, when the diocese accepts the gift, impose a form of control on the diocese and its operations. 

Similarly, a diocese should identify any grants, loans, or other funds received from foundations, corporations, or other entities because acceptance of these funds almost always entails an obligation to spend the funds in a particular way or use them for a particular program.

These same principles apply to TEC's national offices, its provinces, and all of its congregations. Most people will ignore published financial reports. Some will read the reports and find the reports uninteresting or too difficult to understand. 

But making a full public reporting of ecclesiastical is an essential step in establishing the transparency and accountability that God's people deserve. TEC and its constituent components have no "proprietary" or "trade" secrets to hide from the competition. We do have an obligation of full disclosure to our various stakeholders.

Full accountability and fiscal transparency are essential elements of good stewardship. 

Thankfully, TEC, its dioceses, and its congregations have had relatively few documented instances of financial wrongdoing. Regular audits help to ensure fiscal integrity and to encourage sound accounting methods and financial management.

Promptly acting to meet the standard of good stewardship through greater financial openness is the right thing to do, will proactively reduce the opportunity for fiscal abuses, promote healthy conversations about mission, and avoid both attempts to circumvent our democratic decisions making processes and ill-informed conflict about who has access to what information.

Can the Vatican Survive the Age of Digital Media?

Vatical-Banner.jpgStrange things have been happening at the Vatican this year. Beginning in January, documents written by high-level figures in the Catholic Church began finding their way into the Italian press, many of the letters to the pope denouncing instances of corruption and complaining about the direction and management of the Church.
When a book full of leaked documents, Sua Santità (His Holiness), was published in late May, the Vatican took the extraordinary step of arresting the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, a humble but trusted member of the papal household, and announced that officials had found numerous papal documents at Gabriele's apartment within the Vatican. At the same time, the Vatican Bank, under investigation for money laundering (charges the Vatican denies), fired its president, a respected Catholic banker, listing among the reasons for his dismissal allegations that sounded a lot like leaking: "Failure to provide any formal explanation for the dissemination of documents last known to be in the President's possession." Immediately after his firing, the former bank president hired his own bodyguard service and wrote a private memorandum to the pope, which he wished to disseminate "in case something should happen to him."

Power struggles and scandal are nothing new in the Vatican. Pope Alexander VI, for one, was accused of poisoning his enemies and sleeping with his daughter, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. But until now the pope had been able to count on the loyalty and discretion of his inner circle and a hermetically sealed culture of silence, discretion, and secrecy that has often been compared with that of the Kremlin at the height of Soviet power. Now the last and most ancient of the world's absolute monarchies is suddenly in the fishbowl culture of the 21st century, where the most-trivial and the most-important details alike become transparent.

The job of managing this transition from secrecy to openness has fallen to Father Federico Lombardi, the pope's official spokesman, a Jesuit priest who wears a uniform of simple black pants and a black shirt with a white collar. When I met him this summer in Rome at the end of another long day at Vatican Radio, he had the deeply exhausted look of a man bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. A thoughtful and kindly-looking man who trained as a mathematician, Lombardi now finds himself in the much messier world of media, in which appearance and reality, rumor and fact can all get mixed up in an impossible tangle.

For an organization famous historically for keeping its internal business as private as possible, the Vatican has gone out of its way since the scandal broke this spring to be as open and accountable as possible. Having been embarrassed by constant leaking, the Vatican has clearly decided to go on the counteroffensive, releasing information in anticipation of events so that it is not constantly caught off guard by embarrassing revelations. Lombardi has been giving nonstop press briefings since Paolo Gabriele was arrested on May 24; at an August briefing, he even took the extraordinary step of making public the indictment papers against Gabriele. The Vatican promised that his trial, set to begin September 29, would be made public (immediately after the May arrest, all the pretrial documents were posted on the Vatican press office's Web site). Also indicted but on lesser charges was a computer technician, Claudio Sciarpelletti, who is seen as a minor accomplice in the misappropriation of documents.

Suddenly, the word transparency, which was hardly pronounced during the first two millennia of the Catholic Church's history, is on everyone's lips at the Vatican, in what amounts to a kind of Copernican revolution -- an attempt on the part of an essentially medieval institution to join the Internet age. One medieval pope described himself as "the judge of all men who can be judged by none." The current Vatican has begun in recent years to accept, painfully, that this is no longer the case. If it does not want to be defined by others, the Church must respond to and even court public opinion, using modern media to shape its message.

Since he took the job as papal press officer, in July 2006, Lombardi has been dealing with one public-relations disaster after another. Just two months into the job and a year into the term of Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, Lombardi found himself in Germany, Ratzinger's birthplace where the pope was about to deliver a speech that contained this sentence: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman." The phrase was a learned quotation of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor in a long address on faith and reason, but journalists examining advance copies of the speech could see that, coming out of the mouth of a contemporary pope, the quote would seem like a frontal assault on Islam. They warned Lombardi, but the pope went ahead with his prepared speech, and a public firestorm followed, exactly as predicted. Then there was the 2009 fiasco in which the pope lifted the excommunication of four right-wing bishops, one of whom turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Lombardi had to endure 2010, known at the Vatican as the annus horribilis, during which hardly a week went by without new shocking revelations of child abuse by ordained priests and, perhaps far worse, complicity among higher-ups in the Church principally concerned with covering up the scandal, silencing victims, and transferring predator priests rather than removing them from positions in which they could do further harm. With some justification, people at the Vatican felt that Benedict was getting a bad rap: he was the first pope to deal somewhat forthrightly with the pedophilia issue, and the worst abuses had occurred during the reign of his predecessor, the soon-to-be-sainted John Paul II. Yet Lombardi had to stand up day after day and take his lumps, as the crisis risked defining Benedict's papacy and seriously undermined the Church's credibility.

* * *

Lombardi gets high marks from almost everyone in the Vatican press corps for his honorability, honesty, and integrity, but as he himself acknowledges, the Vatican has not ever had a media strategy: the pope does as he sees fit, and Lombardi tries to explain his words or actions after the fact.

And Lombardi speaks for an elderly and not particularly charismatic pope: a 78-year-old theologian at the time of his election, now 85 and increasingly infirm; a scholar with more-solitary habits than his predecessor. Lombardi is also dealing with a new media environment. Dozens of Vatican news Web sites named Whispers in the Loggia, Vatican Insider, and the like, pick up and report on Vatican scuttlebutt that traditional media rarely, if ever, did. Victims of priestly sexual abuse have their own Web sites and can organize online; copies of court decisions, grand-jury reports, and compromising documents make their way around the world instantly.

In this environment, not having a media strategy is no longer a viable option -- a reality the Vatican implicitly recognized this summer when it appointed a journalist, Greg Burke, the Fox News correspondent in Rome (and a member of the Catholic religious order Opus Dei), as the Vatican's director of communications, a position that never existed before. It is one of a series of decisive moves the Vatican has made in response to "Vati-leaks": The new director of the Vatican Bank took the unusual step of inviting journalists to the highly secretive institution's offices and discussed the intentions to comply with modern banking norms. Father Lombardi began his regular press briefings -- another novelty. During the past year, Benedict opened a Twitter account. Moreover, since the Vati-leaks scandal broke, the pope has been calling in a range of Church leaders for much wider and more regular consultation. The scandal has clearly served as a wake-up call: a sign that the pope is trying hard to regain control of a Church that has begun to seem badly adrift. The pope has even made some effort to seek out the views of people outside the Roman curia -- the Vatican equivalent of going beyond the Beltway.
* * *

The Vati-leaks scandal is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there is the mystery element: Did the butler do it? And if so, why? Did he have accomplices? Were they inside or outside the Church? Then there are the contents of the documents themselves, which provide a glimpse into the exercise of power within the normally closed world of the Vatican's highest levels.

"One way to understand this situation is to think of the Vatican as a medieval or Renaissance court," says Father John Wauck, an American priest with the Opus Dei movement and a former student of Renaissance history. It is a world in which one person, the pope, makes the important decisions and people jockey for the ear of that one person.

The scandal has strained some of the odd contradictions of the Vatican: it is the smallest independent nation in the world, with a territory of 109 acres and a population of more than 800 people, and yet it is nexus of a transnational Church present in virtually every nation, with an estimated 1.2 billion adherents. It is thus simultaneously one of the largest and most important entities in the world and one of the smallest.

But is a tiny medieval court capable of governing an institution of such great scope and complexity in the current age? "I wouldn't bet against it," Father Wauck said. "Find me another institution that has lasted 2,000 years."

The Vati-leaks scandal has accentuated the already serious problem of the chasm between the Church and its people, between the hierarchy composed almost exclusively of elderly white men in their 60s and 70s living in the isolation within the Vatican walls and the 1 billion Catholics in the world contending with much more basic, day-to-day problems of life and of faith.

The anxiety in the Vatican in the wake of Vati-leaks is palpable. One interview subject insisted that I remove my computer and my tape recorder from his office before we began talking for fear, I suppose, of being surreptitiously recorded. Another source insisted on the phone that he knew nothing about Vati-leaks, but agreed to see me if we might discuss other topics -- then, as soon as we sat down, he launched into a highly knowledgeable discussion of the scandal. There are rumors that Vatican security -- after all of these embarrassing revelations -- is at an all-time high. People are nervous about communicating anything of substance on the phone or through email. "Remember, you can't quote me by name!" one priest told me. "If you do, they'd send me to Central Africa tomorrow!"

Although there is much we still don't know about Vati-leaks, several things are already quite clear. Among the likely speakers at the trial are high Church officials who testified for and against Gabriele, who in the indictment papers are identified simply as X or Y. The court proceedings should give us a look at the inside workings of the papal court in a trial that appears to be without precedent at the Vatican. "The Vatican tribunal is open and has handled other cases, a small theft or something, but nothing of this kind that I'm aware of," Lombardi told me in a phone interview in September. The tribunal is likely to deal in a circumscribed fashion with the legal position of Paolo Gabriele. But the mere fact of a public trial is an expression of the Vatican's desire to show its new spirit of openness. As for showing the inner workings of the Vatican itself, the documents may tell us much more.

No one disputes the authenticity of the documents themselves. No one I spoke with believes that the butler acted principally on his own initiative. And no one believes that he was simply being bribed or manipulated by members of the press into stealing documents. If the press had been controlling this operation, you would expect lots of juicy details about the pope and his personal life: his favorite TV programs, whether or not he falls asleep in meetings or has to wear adult diapers at night. "But there is none of this among the documents released, in fact nothing against the pope at all," one priest told me. "This suggests that Paolo Gabriele did not think he was acting against the pope, to whom he is very attached. The documents released were almost certainly chosen by someone -- or a group of people -- highly knowledgeable within the church, for they all pertain to church policy." Gianluigi Nuzzi, the principal journalist who broke the story in Sua Santità, insists that he spoke with several Vatican officials, not merely one, and that it was they, not he, who took the initiative. The other journalist who has published the most leaked documents, Marco Lillo of the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (The Daily Fact), told me the same thing.

The Vatican in its indictment chose to cast some doubt on this idealistic motivation. The documents revealed that Gabriele had allegedly misappropriated some expensive gifts offered to the pope: a Renaissance translation of Virgil's Aeneid, a gold nugget, and a check for 100,000 euros, which, because it was made out to His Holiness the Pope, would have been impossible for him to cash or deposit. Gabriele acknowledged taking them but says he was planning on giving them back. The indictment also summarized the results of two psychiatric examinations. The court psychiatrists found Gabriele sound of mind and able to stand trial, but one of them found elements of "grandiosity" and "paranoia." Gabriele himself admitted having a flair for "intelligence" work, suggesting he may be a bit of a Walter Mitty, enjoying the spy craft of Vati-leaks. The decision to include this material in a document distributed to the public implies a desire on the Vatican's part to paint this as a case of individual pathology. 

Commenting on the investigation, Greg Burke, the new communications director, insisted that Vati-leaks, "is not a cancer. It's an injured toe that will heal. The body is healthy."

* * *

But if the pope's butler is the toe, there is clearly much more to this scandal.

Seen as a whole, the Vati-leaks documents have a common denominator: they describe a series of failed efforts at cleaning up aspects of Church life -- the finances of Vatican City, the Vatican Bank, and relations with Italian politics. And precisely because the leakers had lost an internal power struggle, they appear to have released the documentation of their struggle as their only weapon left, like the parting shot of a retreating army.

The principal target of the leakers is the current Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is seen by his critics as concentrating too much power in his own hands and of not using it wisely or well.

"There is no room for internal criticism or debate, all power is concentrated in a single place," one letter to the pope states. "In various positions, people are nominated to positions where they play the contradictory role of both supervisor and those being supervised ... One sees the demoralization of honest, dedicated officials who are genuinely attached to the Church, leading one to believe that the Pope is not aware of what is happening."

Bertone's supporters insist that this moralizing language masks a naked power grab, the resistance of members of the Vatican old guard, composed mainly of the diplomatic corps, against the encroachment of outsiders -- the real reformers, Benedict and Bertone himself.

Traditionally, the high levels of the Vatican bureaucracy are manned by members of the Church's diplomatic corps, generally graduates of the elite Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy (Pontificia Academia Ecclesiastica) in Rome. It is like the Vatican's foreign service, and rather than becoming parish priests its graduates train to work within the Vatican itself. "These men chose a career, and they regard the Vatican as theirs," one source very close to Bertone told me.

Although he spent 25 years in Rome as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was something of an outsider in the Roman curia, of which he is not particularly fond. Bertone is also a former academic, a longtime professor of Canon Law who was Ratzinger's trusted deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "They are personally quite close," one source says. "Bertone was with Ratzinger when his sister was sick and dying, and helped out in all sorts of ways from being a friend to doing the dishes."

This pope is a scholar, a rather timid and solitary man, who doesn't see that many people and is not that involved in the day-to-day management of the Church. Karol Wojtyla, at least before he got sick, was an extremely sociable person. "He always had six people at lunch, another six at dinner," one source told me. "He met with bishops, Cardinals, papal nunzios; he had a feel for the pulse within the Church." Benedict is more likely to have dinner alone with someone like Wojciech Giertych, a Polish-English Dominican priest, who is the official Vatican theologian. As a former professor of theology, Ratzinger much prefers discussing theology to daily Vatican business.

"The pope does not meet with the members of his government -- the equivalent of his cabinet -- but twice a year," said one ecclesiastical source. "Can you imagine a president who only held cabinet meetings twice a year? One reason for all this letter-writing and all this leaking is that there are not normal channels of communication." The pope has traveled much less than his predecessor and focused on writing and publishing books.


Many of the documents that have been leaked are direct appeals to the pope from high-level figures within the Church and attempts to buck the authority of Bertone, who began traveling widely overseas, acting almost like a surrogate for the pope. The secretary of state was generally someone who stayed in Rome and made the machinery of the Vatican administration run. So when things went badly, many in the Church would blame Bertone. Nor did Bertone endear himself to other Italian cardinals when he arrogated for himself the lead role in managing the Vatican's relationship with Italian politics, something that has traditionally been handled by the Italian Conference of Bishops.

Bertone is particularly close to Gianni Letta, the right-hand man of Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister from 2008 until last November and for much of the past 18 years.

The Church's close association with Berlusconi became a source of increasing tension as details began to emerge about his private life: his separation from his (second) wife in 2009, stories of bunga bunga orgies involving professional escorts and teenage girls, and, finally, a criminal prosecution for frequenting an alleged underage prostitute. He denies any wrongdoing, and the trial is pending.

The Church has been in a tricky position. On the one hand, Berlusconi could hardly seem a less suitable partner: a twice-divorced self-described playboy who has promoted through his private television stations a culture of pure materialism and erotic titillation -- the antithesis of everything the Church stands for. And yet, as the leader of a center-right government, Berlusconi has given the Church almost everything it has asked for on a legislative level: increased support for private religious schools even as public school budgets are cut, continued tax breaks on the Church's non-religious property, some of the most restrictive legislation in Europe on issues like artificial insemination, adoption and stem cell research, fierce opposition to living wills, end-of-life procedures and gay marriage.

As long as Berlusconi kept his private life private, the Church was prepared to close its eyes and hold its nose. But when the lurid details spilled out into the public arena, it became increasingly difficult to ignore. A split appeared to develop between the Conference of Bishops, who are closer to parishioners, and the leaders walled off in the Vatican, who were reluctant to abandon a political ally who had delivered so much in recent years.

The editor of the Conference of Bishop's daily newspaper, L'Avvenire, a man named Dino Boffo, became one of the few voices in the Church to speak out, criticizing Berlusconi's unbecoming conduct in a series of stinging editorials. Shortly afterward, Boffo found himself the object of a vicious attack by the Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, which outed him as gay and reported that he had been forced to plead guilty in a sexual harassment suit. Under the pressure of a massive press campaign, Boffo resigned.

This story would have simply been another chapter in the sleazy history of the Berlusconi media. But what came out demonstrates how tangled relations have become between the Vatican and Italian media. One of the two documents that Il Giornale published -- the supposed police file about Boffo's sexual orientation -- turned out to be a fake. And Boffo disputes the charge. In defending his decision to publish, the editor of the paper, Vittorio Feltri, insisted that he had received the dossier from high-level sources inside the Church itself. And that he had consulted with "a personality in the Church whom one must trust because of his institutional role."

In the documents published in Nuzzi's book, Boffo makes clear in a series of letters to the pope's secretary that he blames Bertone and the editor in chief of the Vatican daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano for the leak of the false documents. Boffo quotes Berlusconi's chief spokesman telling journalists off-the-record, "We did Bertone a favor." The idea, according to the letters, was a desire on Bertone's part to weaken the position of the Conference of Italian Bishops, reassert his own control over the Vatican's management of Italian politics, and punish the Conference for daring to criticize Berlusconi in their newspaper.

Along with a full telling of the Boffo affair, His Holiness documents a furious power struggle over the management and finances of the Vatican City itself.

The Vati-leaks crisis in fact began last January, when an Italian TV program called The Untouchables revealed the contents of a set of letters written by a powerful Vatican official, Monsignor Carlo Maria Viganò, denouncing corruption in the affairs of the Vatican itself. In 2009, Viganò took over the job of overseeing the expenses and income of the small Vatican state, known in Italian as the governatorato, with a budget of over $300 million a year, which involves everything from the considerable income of the Vatican Museums to maintaining the enormous physical plant of the Vatican palace and gardens to dealing with suppliers and contractors.

Viganò, who has a reputation as a rigorous manager, inherited a Vatican administration operating at a loss. By cutting costs and eliminating what he called "obvious situations of corruption," he produced a surplus within a year.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his successful cost-cutting measures, Viganò was called to a meeting with Bertone, who informed Viganò that he was being removed from his post and sent as papal envoy to Washington. Viganò then took the quite exceptional step of trying to go around the secretary of state and directly to the pope himself, trying to reverse the decision of his own order of transfer. "Holy Father, my transfer right now would provoke much disorientation and discouragement in those who have believed it was possible to clean up so many situations of corruption and abuse of power that have been rooted in the management of so many departments," Viganò wrote to the pope on March 27, 2011.

One of the things that set him off was a press campaign, again appearing in the Berlusconi family newspaper, Il Giornale, which preceded his defenestration. As resistance to his management grew inside the Vatican, a series of unsigned articles began to appear in the paper, clearly written, in Viganò's view, by someone with intimate knowledge of the Vatican. Viganò suspected that it was someone close to Bertone. Whatever the case, someone inside the Vatican was feeding stories to ll Giornale to grease Viganò's fall from power, just as they had in the Boffo affair.

What is common to these episodes is that Vatican leaking did not start or end with the Vati-leaks scandal. The furious letter-writing activity of both Boffo and Viganò was stimulated by what they perceived to be well-placed leaks from within the Vatican leadership itself. Leaking has become the weapon of choice in contemporary Vatican warfare.
* * *

Anonymous letters, damaging dossiers, and poison penmanship are old staples of Vatican intrigue. The big difference is that all this material was once kept rigorously private -- its power derived from its mere existence and the potential threat of being made public. In the 1930s, for example, the Vatican was trying to restrict the activities of Padre Pio, a monk from Puglia who claimed to have received the stigmata and who was developing a cult following, all of which Church authorities viewed with extreme suspicion. After the Vatican ruled that Padre Pio could no longer perform mass in public and ordered that he be transferred to a distant mountain retreat, followers of the Pugliese monk cooked up a meaty dossier that contained the alleged sexual and moral peccadillos of the region's clergy. A member of Pio's inner circle printed up copies of the dossier and brought them to a meeting at the Vatican. The result of the encounter was the Vatican bought up all copies of the dossier and lightened the restrictions on the suspect friar with the stigmata, who is now one of the Church's leading saints.

That was an example of the old way of doings things at the Vatican: avoiding scandal at all cost and keeping everything under the cloak of silence. Silence suited the Church perfectly. In the case of Padre Pio, it allowed the Church maximum flexibility. The Vatican could continue to assemble evidence against him should they later need to eliminate him while leaving open the option -- because the battle had remained private -- of later embracing Pio as a revered saint, as the Church ultimately decided to do. The contemporary world doesn't permit this. The scabrous details of the struggle between the Vatican and Pio would probably have been all over the Internet in no time.

The traditional aversion to scandal at all cost was notoriously -- and disastrously -- at work throughout the decades in which the pedophile priest scandal built and built. Starting in the 1980s, the reaction of Church officials was uniformly and appallingly similar in every corner of the planet -- whether in Louisiana, Ireland, Belgium, Australia, Austria, Malta, Phoenix, Boston or Los Angeles: deny there was a problem, blame the victims, transfer the perpetrators, and try to keep everyone quiet. When the victims sued, or the perpetrators threatened to make trouble, the strategy was pay them off and seal the court records. I remember a friend of mine who worked at the Vatican telling me in the early 1990's: "You wouldn't believe the amounts of money the Church is spending to settle these cases!" If that was well known to my friend, a middle-level functionary, it was well known to anyone in the Vatican hierarchy who cared to know. In the U.S., the costs were reaching the hundreds of millions and would eventually surpass $2 billion. Of course, if the Church had dealt honestly with the problem then, it might have limited the impact of the scandal and the cost of litigation -- not to mention the seemingly overlooked goal of protecting children left at risk and healing those already harmed.

The lesson of both the pedophilia scandal and Vati-leaks is that the Church can no longer control information about itself. In the past, when police arrested priests who were acting out, they generally took the matter to the local bishop, and newspapers often chose, out of deference, not to write about it. Changes in public opinion -- anger and outrage over wrongdoing in the Church -- and in information technology make it impossible to keep the lid on scandal.

There is much the Church can and has begun to do in this direction: adopting international banking standards; providing more information about internal finances; instituting better procedures for investigating and punishing wrongdoing among priests and nuns.

But transparency is not as easy a matter for the Catholic Church as it might be for secular organizations. A corporation or branch of government can actually gain in public legitimacy and consensus through greater transparency, issuing detailed data about their operations and finances, publishing the minutes of their meetings, and instituting freedom of information laws. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said of corruption. But there is a limited amount of sunshine the Vatican can allow into its walls without violating its very nature. Absolute monarchies are willfully opaque and mysterious; they are an archaic and charismatic form of leadership that derive much of their power from their mystery, unapproachability, and unknowability. In democracies, we expect national leaders to issue exhaustive medical and financial records. In Thailand -- one of the last monarchies with genuine power -- anyone can be prosecuted for criticizing the king or disclosing information about his health or finances.

The pope -- with his golden mitre and ermine-lined robes sitting upon a throne -- is part and parcel of this tradition. Although human, the pope is thought to have been filled with the Holy Spirit on his election and to become infallible (at least in some things). The Catholic tradition rests heavily on the appeal of mystery. The priest was traditionally a special, higher being, celibate and richly dressed in ancient garb. He celebrated mass with his back to the congregation, swinging urns of incense and repeating the liturgy in an ancient, incomprehensible tongue, Latin, which served as a kind of magic incantation. The holy communion that ends each mass is itself a kind miracle -- it is not a symbolic reenactment of the last supper but the wafer and wine that the priest serves to his humble parishioners is supposed to be, quite literally, the body and the blood of Christ. Too much transparency -- the equivalent of placing a Webcam on the Pope and his cardinals -- would strip away layers of mystery. It would be like pulling away the curtain at the end of The Wizard of Oz, revealing that the awe-inspiring figure we first see in Oz's throne room is nothing but a frail and highly fallible old man.


"The problem is that journalists only pay attention to the tiny part of the Church that is in the Vatican and ignore the tens of thousands of priests and nuns out in the world doing good work," the pope's spokesman, Father Lombardi, said with a resigned air. And it is quite true. Over the years, I have met extraordinary men and women who have sincerely given their lives to help others: feeding the poor and healing the sick. Just before coming to Rome, I visited a parish on the periphery of Florence, a neglected poor part of the city with bleak public housing projects, few services, and a largely immigrant population. But it has an extremely vital church -- an inexpensive prefab structure that looks like a warehouse building or an airplane hangar built in the hot and dusty empty lot between two high-rise public-housing buildings.

The priest, Alessandro Santoro, is trying to translate the life of Christ into contemporary terms: he lives in a small apartment in public housing like his parishioners, and he has a job doing manual labor (like his parishioners) on top of his priestly duties. Yet he has created an extremely dynamic parish church that hums with activity, a preschool and Sunday school, language classes for immigrants, a shop for products made by his parishioners and even a small publishing house. Santoro has created a significant microfinance project for his community, gathering some 160,000 euros in charitable contributions that can then be used as interest-free loans to people in the community. The lenders can withdraw their money when they need or want it but in the meanwhile the money is made available to others in the community. "So far we have a perfect record of 190 loans repaid on time for a total of 400,000 euros," Santoro explained. The visit was a refreshing contrast with the world of power and money conjured up by Vati-leaks: an example of someone trying (apparently with success) to put Christian principles to work in life.

But it is impossible to ignore the Vatican hierarchy, just as Father Alessandro has been unable to ignore it. In 2009, he was removed from his position in Florence when he celebrated the marriage of two parishioners, one of whom was a transsexual. "This person was born a man but had a sex change operation 30 years earlier in England years before it was possible in Italy," Santoro told me. "She was registered as a woman according to Italian law, and the couple had been legally married in Italy. They were good members of our congregation, and when they asked to be married in the Church, I didn't see how, in good conscience, I could say no." Almost immediately, Santoro was sent off for several months of reflection and penitence. In the meanwhile, the congregation rebelled and refused to cooperate with Santoro's replacement. After a standoff lasting nearly a year, Santoro refused to repudiate his actions but the bishop restored him to his post amid admonitions not to repeat his error. Santoro is delighted to be back with his old parish but lives a bit on edge in tension with his bishop.

"The Church has a single model of family that it considers acceptable: husband, wife and children. But 80 percent of my parishioners live in violation of Church doctrine," Santoro explains. "They are divorced, unmarried couples that live together, gay couples, children with different fathers. But they are my people, my family. I love them and I have no intention of treating them any differently from the rest of the congregation ... There is a terrible distance between what the Church preaches and the real lives of people. The Church has to reduce this distance or die."

The call for transparency goes hand in hand with a desire for greater dialogue between the community of believers and the Church hierarchy. The Internet world is a world of fragmented authority, of transparency, and one in which 3 billion users expect to participate and have their say. The Catholic Church is a top-down organization run from Rome with an unquestioned authority at its head. "Roma locuta, causa finita," "Rome has spoken, the case is closed," is a phrase often attributed to Saint Augustine, indicating that the word from Saint Peter's settles every argument.

The Vatican leadership is aware of this problem, but also very much believes that a Church that compromises too much to suit public opinion will weaken its own foundations. In a recent interview explaining the need to crack down on the main association of American nuns, The Leadership Conference of Women Religious [LCWR], Cardinal William Levada (Ratzinger's successor as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), said: "Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic Church, aren't representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity."

But holding the line on strict orthodoxy, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to do, has not reversed the negative trends for the Church: the dwindling number of aging priests and nuns, lower attendance at mass, and a growing majority of believers in the U.S. and Europe who are not convinced by the Church's teachings on contraception, divorce, premarital sex, the ordination of women, married priests, and gay marriage. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that lapsed Catholics are now the third-largest denomination in the U.S. after practicing Catholics and Baptists. (Overall numbers are up because of immigration from Latin America, and in the rest of world because of population growth in the developing world. But numbers and enthusiasm in the U.S. and Europe are low.) "Don't you think the leadership knows that its doctrines on birth control, divorce, homosexuality are out of step with the life that hundreds of millions of Catholics lead?" one Bertone supporter I spoke with told me. "The pope is trying to change things, but he has to move slowly. The times for an ancient institution like the Church are necessarily slow."

On the one hand, Pope Benedict has reinforced forms of traditional liturgy: relaxing the prohibitions on performing Latin masses, and reviving the papal vestments and pageantry that had fallen out of use. At the same time, he shows signs of flexibility and gentleness that belie his old nickname as "God's Rottweiler." In fact, he quietly undid one of Pope John Paul II's strictest -- and cruelest -- initiatives: refusing to let priests who have decided to marry be released of their priestly vows and remain members of the Church in good standing. Benedict allowed the use of condoms by male prostitutes in Africa in order to limit the spread of AIDS -- 30 years after the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, yes, but a big concession for a pope known for his orthodoxy. On a visit to Milan this summer, shortly after the Vati-leaks scandal hit its peak, Benedict went out of his way to reach out to divorced Catholics, calling their condition "one of the great causes of suffering for the Church today, and we do not have simple solutions." He insisted, however, that the Church "must do everything possible so that such people feel loved and accepted, that they are not 'outsiders' even if they cannot receive absolution and the Eucharist."

What does appear to be the case is that, paradoxically, the Vati-leaks scandal appears to have energized the pope and the Vatican leadership. The pope has broken out of his solitude, and appears to be taking a more active role in important Vatican business. He has reached out to cardinals from other parts of the world in a clear sign that he does not intend to remain prisoner of the Roman curia. The very fact of a public trial on such a delicate matter -- quite apart from what its proceedings may reveal -- reflects a newfound commitment at the Vatican to transparency.

There are two ways that the Catholic Church can interpret its mandate to become more open. One is a more limited form of transparency, seeing it essentially as a matter of better communication: providing information more quickly and readily so as to better shape the way the Church's story is told. A second and more radical way of thinking of transparency would be to embrace the bottom-up nature of the Internet world, to encourage greater internal democracy and engage in dialogue with the community of believers.

While the Vatican has clearly begun to adopt the first course, it is very unlikely to embrace the second and more expansive view of transparency, disappointing its liberal critics and followers. The retired Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who died in late August, left an interview from his deathbed as a kind of last testament to the Church. It was a surprisingly frank call for radical change. "We need to ask ourselves whether people are listening to the Church's teachings on sexual matters. Is the Church an authority in this or only a kind of media caricature? ...The Church is 200 years behind. Why doesn't it shake itself off? Are we afraid? Why fear instead of courage?"

And yet. The fact that Martini found the courage to speak so candidly only posthumously demonstrates that substantive dialogue within the Church is still a difficult, slow-moving proposition. As the current trial illustrates, the Church's traditional pace of change does not suit it to the age of the Internet.

The folly of German bishops making Catholics pay

Bishops pray at the Marien Dom churchThe German Bishops' Conference issued a decree last week warning those who opted out of paying the country's "church tax" that they would no longer be entitled to the sacraments, to a religious burial or to play any part in parish life.

The measure, which only just stops short of formal excommunication, has shaken the German Catholic church at a time when it is already facing serious challenges. The drive to designate non-paying adherents as outcasts who have committed "a grave offence against the Christian community" has been met with distaste by both liberal and conservative Catholic groups in Germany, and the issues that this case raises go right to the heart of the shifting nature of Catholic identity.

Germany's church tax is worth €5bn a year to the Catholic church, with those registered as Catholics paying an additional 8-9% of their income tax bill (Protestants and Jews also contribute to their own groups under the same terms). 

A simple de-registration will stop the tax being levied, but faced with haemorrhaging numbers (181,000 people left the German Catholic church in 2010 alone), the German bishops have upped the ante. 

Among those speaking out against the decree is the liberal Catholic group We Are Church, founded in Austria following the child abuse case of the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër – one of the earliest cases to come to light in the international church. 

This is the backdrop to the church tax case, and the nature of many German Catholics' disillusionment with their church was made clear by Christian Weisner of the group when he said that the hierarchy should seek to "be better bishops" rather than "introduc[ing] stronger lures for church membership".

Germany is not alone in readdressing the issue of how its churches fund themselves. 

In Poland a major shake-up of church funding is being proposed. 

The Polish state currently provides the Church Fund, which gives 89 million zloty a year (£17m) to support the dominant Roman Catholic church, as well as minority faiths. 

A more German-style contribution system is now being discussed, where Poles can opt in to allot a proportion of their taxes to their church. The clergy would lose state-funded social security and healthcare under the changes, and the Catholic church has protested that the fund is its right since it was set up by the communists to compensate for lost episcopal lands. 

However, the fact that around 80% of the funding of the Polish Catholic church currently comes from casual donations indicates that there is plenty of willing among the faithful to produce the cash.  

Secularist values may be on the rise in Poland, but the Polish church is unlikely to need to resort to the German bishops' strong-arm tactics if the proposal goes through.

The levying of a church tax is of course nothing new. 

Deuteronomy speaks at length of the tax due from the people to the Levite priests for the maintenance of the tabernacle, namely "the shoulder and the breast" of any ox or sheep slaughtered, as well as "first-fruits also of corn, of wine, and of oil, and a part of the wool from the shearing of their sheep". 

In the New Testament we hear of Jews paying a temple tax and of Jesus himself paying it on arrival in the fishing village of Capernaum (things being made easier by the required half-shekel miraculously appearing in the mouth of a fish). Here religious tax is an act of allegiance and a statement of identity. 

The more sceptical attitude towards state taxes, meanwhile, is illustrated by the story of the publican Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to watch Jesus enter Jericho. 

The local people see this tax collector for the Romans as a sinner, but Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus's house and he repents.

While the allegedly sacrilegious meeting of faith and the fiscal has been the focus of much comment in this case, the shadow of Zacchaeus is also present in it. 

The taxes he collected were resented because they were levied by an unaccountable, distant authority who seemed to care little for those it was taxing. 

In the German church tax controversy we see a similar sentiment being expressed and evidence of an increasing feeling of disconnect and estrangement from the church among the faithful. 

For many this is a matter of "no taxation without representation". 

Until German Catholics feel that their church really does represent their values, and they identify with it wholly and freely, the numbers leaving will only increase, and the reduction of Catholic identity to whether or not one has paid the membership subscription is unlikely to improve matters.

Catholic Church increasingly ‘isolated’ in attitude to homosexuality – Mary McAleese

THE Catholic Church is becoming increasingly isolated in its attitude to homosexuality, the former president of Ireland has warned.

Mary McAleese believes while the Vatican is losing its argument on its teachings, some youngsters in Catholic schools are left battling an internal conflict.

She said the numbers of young men who have died by suicide in Ireland is galling, with gay men one of the most at risk groups.

"They are the victims, one, of homophobic bullying; they are also frankly highly conflicted," 
said Mrs McAleese, who is studying canon law in Rome after her 14-year term which ended in November.

She said the vast majority of children in Ireland went to Catholic schools, where they would have heard the church's attitude to homosexuality.

"They will have heard words like disorder, they may have heard the word evil used in relation to homosexual practice," said Mrs McAleese.

"And when they make the discovery, and it is a discovery and not a decision, when they make the discovery they are gay when they are 14, 15 and 16 an internal conflict of absolutely appalling proportions opens up. They may very well have heard their mothers, their fathers, their uncles, aunts, friends use dreadful language in relation to homosexuality and now they are driven into a space that is dark and bleak."

She warned that with more debate, and greater research, the Catholic Church "is going to become increasingly isolated in its attitude to homosexuality" and gay people's civil and human rights.

The former president met the Papal Nuncio Charles Brown, who represents Pope Benedict XVI in Ireland, shortly after Easter to specifically draw his attention to the issue.

But she fears the issue will not be tackled until the "omerta" or code of silence on the issue is broken.

She also said the child abuse scandals have left "a massive hallowing out of trust" in the church's Episcopal leadership, but she believes it lost its grip on society years before as it insisted on obedience in a world where people were becoming increasingly educated and had access to other opinion.

The former president, who has published a book entitled Quo Vadis: Collegiality In The Code Of Canon Law, also criticised the church for not drawing in the views and anxieties expressed by its faithful.

She said: "Take, for example, the issue of abuse and the way the bishops handled that," she told Pat Kenny on RTE.

"The internal damage done to community, to trust, could in many ways have been avoided had there been much better lines of communication up through the system. If the people had been talking to their bishops, if the bishops had been listening, if the bishops had been talking freely and openly to the centre and had the opportunity at the centre to make their voices heard, part of the problem that we have has come from silence and come from a failure to set up structures where information flowed freely always."

Synod for the New Evangelization to counter skeptics of mission

From October 7 to 28 next, the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme "The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian faith" will be held in the Vatican. 

The celebration of the Synod - states the Instrumentum Laboris -... is expected to enliven and energize the Church in undertaking a new evangelization, which will lead to a rediscovery of the joy of believing and a rekindling of enthusiasm in communicating the faith."

However, instead of enthusiasm,  a certain skepticism and indifference pervades: little reflection, few debates, few contributions. Even in the missionary world there is a certain skepticism. 

Some believe that the new evangelization only regards the western world. An ad gentes missionary, lost in the forest, or among the deeply religious peoples of Africa or Asia, has little concept of the urgency of a growing insensitivity towards the faith and the veil of indifference of secularism. 

However this vision, somewhat Rousseauistic in nature, of naive indigenous far from the perils and poisons of the West,  is false. Firstly, because the force of globalization has succeeded in penetrating even the most hidden enclaves of forests and deserts - where radio, cell phones, coca-cola and money can be found, instilling new ways of thinking, and secondly because secularization understood as living as if God did not exist embraces the very world that tradition attributes to the mission ad gentes. 

Just think of the secularization rampant in many cities of the Philippines, or scientific atheism propagated in the Indian megalopolis - often in opposition to the intrusion of Hinduism and other religions - not to mention the giants of state atheism such as China, Vietnam, North Korea and several Central Asian countries, along with Russia. 

The countries of the Middle East are not even exempt, or those in Africa. In fact, the phenomenon of doing without God and a religious reference is global, universal and therefore affects Christians of all latitudes. It is not by chance that among the members of the Synod, the Synod fathers and experts,  there are dozens of outstanding personalities from the cultures of Africa, Asia and Latin America, confirming that the themes of the Synod affect  the entire planet just as they affect all cultures on the planet.

The same can be said for other horizons that the Assembly wants to tackle: migration, the economic and political scenario, scientific and technological research, communications, fundamentalism. In fact, the time has come for missionaries to consider themselves part of a Church that evangelizes the entire world: there can not be a foreign missionary who does not have the reawakening of faith in his country of origin at heart, and there can be no Italian Christian or from any other ancient Church who does not care for world evangelization. 

There where a heart catholic beats - in Italy, India, China - is momentum to universal mission. For this reason the Instrumentum Laboris speaks of convergence and complementarity between the mission ad gentes and the new evangelization (Nos. 76-89).

This Synod is of crucial importance not only for the mission ad gentes, but especially for the missionaries ad gentes. In fact, it aims to revive the mission understood as communication of a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Too often, mission has been reduced to an object, something to do. For too long, the origin of all this has been taken for granted, it has been forgotten that mission is primarily communicating faith with joy and enthusiasm. The Synod wants to put the mission of faith at the very center. It "is not just a doctrine, a wisdom, a set of moral rules, a tradition. Christian faith is a real encounter, a relationship with Jesus Christ" (18). Communicating the faith means really understanding the reasons why we believe, why we are Christians, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, offering others that "something more" that we enounter in the gift given to us by Jesus Christ.

For this to happen we must rediscover the living tradition of the Church, the Catechism and the Second Vatican Council, too often misunderstood and badly used. We must also find new ways to proclaim the faith even in the new areopaghi, such as media, which has perhaps, become the first area of universal mission, even mission ad gentes (Nos. 61-62). 

Vietnamese Court upholds sentence against three young Catholics

A Vietnamese court has upheld the sentence on appeal, handed down at first instance in May, against three young Catholic activists, guilty - according to the Communist authorities - for "propaganda against the state" and distributing "anti-government leaflets." 

The hearing was held on September 26 at the Nghe An province People's Court, in the north of the country. In recent weeks even the Vinh diocese' Commission for Justice and Peace had campaigned for their release, appealing for an appeal "in accordance with international law" and their subsequent release "because they are  innocent people."

The court upheld the initial sentence for Antonie Dau Van Duong and Pierre Tran Huu Duc.  The sentence of the third Catholic, Chu Manh Son, was instead reduced to six months. The fourth defendant, however, preferred not to appeal, for fear of an even harsher punishment being meeted out. The Catholics of the diocese of Vinh tried to gain access to the court, but a heavy deployment of police and the lack of transportation hindered the faithful. Unconfirmed reports speak of five or six people arrested.

To date, only four out of 17 Christian activists, who were arrested by the police in June 2011, have undergone trial. The first trial was held May 25 in Nghe An province people's court. In accordance with Articles 88 and 79 of the Penal Code, the judges issued a sentence of 42 months in prison, plus 18 months probation for Antonie Dau Van Duong, 39 months in prison and one year of probation to Tran Huu Duc; 36 months and one year of probation to Chu Manh Son, and finally Hoang Phong, was sentenced to 18 months.

For Catholic leaders, the first trial was a "sham" in which civil rights enshrined in the Constitution were violated: freedom of speech, press, assembly and information. The young people were only expressing personal opinions and could - in theory - rely on the basic human rights. They are "good students" and come from "poor and hard-working" families.

Producer of anti-Islam film arrested

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man who is believed to have been behind the anti-Islam film, which sparked widespread violence across the Muslim world, has been arrested for violating the terms of his probation.

His arrest is not related to the production, distribution and content of the film "Innocence of Muslims", which led to demonstrations and attacks on U.S. embassies around the world, including the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.

Nakoula, who says he is a Coptic Christian, had already been arrested in the past for drug dealing and bank fraud. In all these episodes he has often used pseudonyms. For this he had been forbidden to use the internet or other names without the consent of the government.

But in order to make the movie and publish it on the internet, he used false names.

One of the actresses in the film anti-Islam, Cindy Lee Garcia, denounced him for having presented a false name (Sem Basin) and for deceiving her about the content of the film. Other actors confirmed that they had been called to make a movie called "Warriors of the desert" and that the dialogue had no reference to Muhammad and Islam. Instead, dialogue was later dubbed, transforming it into an offensive and vulgar film that presents Muhammad as violent and bloodthirsty, as a pedophile and sexual deviant.

By itself, the film does not violate any law of the United States, where there is freedom of opinion. But Nakoula used fake names to open a mobile phone contract and a bank account, in contravention of his probation. And for this he has been imprisoned. He continues to say that he had produced the film, but is not the director nor the Arabic translator of the trailer posted on Youtube that has inflamed scandal and violence in various Muslim countries.

Vicar says church must shed its boring image

The Rev Dr Miranda Threlfall-HolmesAt a time when attendance is falling across the country, the Rev Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes believes the church must move with the times if it is to remain relevant.

As she takes up her new post as vicar of Belmont and Pittington in County Durham, Dr Threlfall-Holmes has a vision for the church to be vibrant and exciting.

She admits that people are being put off attending church because they find it boring.

Dr Threlfall-Holmes is an academic specialising in church history and comes to the post after being Interim Principal of Durham University's Ustinov College.

She argues that the church has always had to adapt to new situations, and needs to be addressing 21st century issues.

Dr Threlfall-Holmes said: “I think it is important to answer the questions people are asking now and not those they were asking four hundred years ago. There is a danger that we retreat into a historical golden age. We need to acknowledge that society has changed. The church needs to be challenging. It needs to be exciting for people. We need to enthuse people about the idea of Jesus so that it’s not a case of why don't they believe but rather how can they not?”

Although her new parish is well attended, Dr Threlfall-Holmes says there is still a need to engage more with children and young families.

"There has been an increase in young families as new families move in to the area. There is a huge appetite to engage with them, through schools and celebrations as well as through church activities," she said.

She already has lots of ideas to utilise the church's prominent position in Belmont, such as running an Easter garden with local school children.

“I want to have people talking about what the church does, to have people talking about God, whether or not they come to church services," she said.

“We need to accept that Church has sometimes been boring for some people. So there are two things we have to do. First, we need to make sure everything we do as a church is really high quality, and secondly we mustn't wait for people to come to us, but go out to where people are, whether it be schools, the local play park or the shopping areas.”

Dr Threlfall-Holmes is about to launch her new book, the Essential History of Christianity, at Durham Cathedral on 17 October.

The book has been written with the intention of making Christianity accessible to a wide range of readers.

New course to boost rural evangelism

The Arthur Rank Centre has developed a new training course to help churches in the countryside share the Christian faith.

The course has been put together in recognition of the difficulty some churches have with the "concept and practice" of evangelism.

The ARC said rural churches may struggle with evangelism because they do not understand what it is or because they have a "fear" of speaking out about the Christian faith.

Other reasons may include a lack of experience, the small size of the congregation or "confusion over who might be expected to bear witness".

"Some of these reasons are magnified by the circumstances of many rural churches and the communities they serve," the ARC said.

"They are also sometimes made worse by a lack of help – whether resources or training – that takes rural church & community life seriously."

The Journey to Faith resource is not designed for personal evangelism but rather to equip the local congregation as a whole.

The course can be run by any local church – or group of churches - over two half-days and does not require any outside or expert help.

It has been developed by Church Army Captain and Chichester Diocesan Evangelist Gordon Banks, and Arthur Rank Centre Training & Resources Officer, Simon Martin.

To download the course material, visit

Digital theology library breaks new ground in knowledge sharing

A new online theological library is offering free access to thousands of articles, dissertations and documents covering theology and ecumenism.

More than 10,000 have already signed up to the GlobeTheoLib, launched jointly by the World Council of Churches and

There are more than 600,000 full text documents in the library, which is available in Chinese, English, French, German and Spanish.

GlobeTheoLib aims to use new digital models of information exchange to create greater visibility for theological knowledge and insights from churches of the global South.

"A strength of GlobeTheoLib is its networking potential as a hub linking other theological initiatives online," said Prof Dr Christoph Stückelberger, executive director and founder of

"The digital library project represents a quantum leap in sharing theological knowledge and making available resources for theological education, particularly South to South, East to West and South to North," said the Rev Dr Dietrich Werner, the WCC international programme coordinator for Ecumenical Theological Education.

The WCC and are also working on an online directory of theological education institutions.

On the web:

Top historian criticises St Mary’s for ‘grotesque’ treatment of professor leading Catholic historian has denounced events at St Mary’s College Twickenham as “grotesque” and resigned as an honorary fellow.

Professor Eamon Duffy, in a resignation letter to Principal Philip Esler of St Mary’s University, expressed his dismay at the suspension of a member of staff and raised concerns about its Catholic and Christian ethos.

In a letter dated September 18, referring to the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, Professor Duffy wrote: “The grotesque incident yesterday, when a senior member of staff was interrupted in the course of a lecture and forcibly escorted from the premises, is for me a decisive sign that things have gone badly amiss with the Christian and Catholic ethos of St Mary’s.”

The letter continued: “When I was made an honorary fellow of the college in 2003 I was delighted to be associated with a distinguished Catholic institution which for over a century and a half had contributed so much to Christian education in this country, and which seemed to be adapting to changing circumstances with fidelity and imagination. In the face of recent events in the College I no longer feel that confidence, and I therefore ask you to take whatever steps are necessary to remove my name from the list of honorary fellows of St Mary’s.”

Professor Duffy was also critical of the plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts. He wrote: “I have been unable to see how the demotion of one of the most successful and prestigious of the college’s schools can be justified on any but the bleakest financial grounds, all the more so because the high profile of theology in the college has been a signal to the outside world of its continuing commitment to the historic mission of St Mary’s in promoting Christian education.

He continued: “That the merger has been pressed on at great speed in the face of so much strong opposition from staff, students and informed commentators has been for me a cause of growing disquiet.”

Dr Robin Gibbons, who lectures in theology at the college, has also resigned following the controversy. Dr Gibbons said that he was resigning from St Mary’s College “on the grounds of conscience.”

Dr Anthony Towey, meanwhile, issued a statement this afternoon through his lawyers. Steel and Shamash Solicitors said: “Our client, Dr Towey, is dismayed and disappointed at the action taken by St Mary’s University College in suspending him and the public statements issued by St Mary’s following his suspension as Head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History. Our client believes that he has been suspended unfairly, that he has been victimised and that his academic reputation gained over 25 years has been publicly damaged. In addition, there appears to have been a failure of due process. Through us, Dr Towey is exploring all the legal avenues that are open to him in order to seek the appropriate redress. Dr Towey has the full support of his union.”

Following the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, St Mary’s College released a statement which said: “We can confirm that Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, was suspended yesterday pending investigations into a very serious disciplinary matter and a grave breach of his professional duties at the University College.
“This action was taken fully in accordance with our internal human resource procedures and with written, external legal advice. Arrangements are being put in place to ensure that all programmes and teaching will be fully covered.”

It has since emerged that the serious “disciplinary matter” was an email that Dr Towey sent to students in August but which senior management did not find out about until last week.

The email from Dr Towey expressed concern about plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and stated: “Since the principal specifically invites comment…it may be appropriate to raise any concerns with him or with Bishop Richard Moth, the chair of Governors. As an inter-disciplinary team, no school has worked harder to create a sense of learning camaraderie where staff and students ‘know each other by name’. It is a tremendous sadness that this sense of community is being dismantled.”

Following a board of governors meeting on Thursday evening, Bishop Moth released a statement endorsing the college’s plans to merge departments. He said: “At a meeting of St Mary’s University College Governors last evening it was decided to go ahead with the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Catholic Theology and to implement the merger of the Schools of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and Theology, Philosophy and History into a new School of Arts and Humanities."

He continued: “The governors expressed regret over the actions of certain individuals, both those associated with this institution and those whose identity remains unknown, who have been maintaining a campaign of misinformation leading to a distorted picture of recent events. St Mary’s continues to be committed to providing research-based high-quality teaching in theology and religious studies. This is reflected in buoyant student recruitment in this area and across St Mary’s. Our relationships with collaborative partners are very important to the life of St Mary’s and our long tradition of service to the Church will continue to be at the heart of all we do.”

A group of students has also mobilised to voice their opposition to the merger and has organised a petition which carries over 200 signatures.

About 50 students attempted to hold a peaceful protest outside the board of governors meeting on Thursday evening.

Middle Eastern speakers in Rome denounce Western interference, neglect

Western nations need to respect the people of the Middle East and trust them to solve their own problems, said an Iraqi diplomat, an Iraqi archbishop and a Syrian-born representative of the Melkite Catholic Church.

The two religious leaders also called for an end to foreign military intervention and other interference in the region that they said only foment strife and hinder their citizens' desire for peace.

Their comments came during an event sponsored by the Iraqi Embassy to the Vatican Sept. 24. Ali Nashmi, a Muslim professor and historian spoke on the contribution by Iraqi Christians throughout history to the preservation of both eastern and western cultures.

In his opening remarks, Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican, Habeeb Mohammed Hadi Ali Sadr, urged Arab nations to support Christians within their own borders and abroad, noting the contributions of Christians to national cultures and to providing social services, including schools and medical facilities.

"It's also up to the Christian west to change its mistaken beliefs about Islam," and recognize that "real Islamic values do not clash with other religious values," he said, arguing that acts of violence committed in the name of Islam are the work of unrepresentative "degenerate groups."

The ambassador called on western nations to "treat important Arab and Islamic issues objectively and with balance," steering away from double standards and focusing on shared interests.

By sharing its cultural, economic and social assets for the promotion of peace worldwide, the west can join forces with the east in facing the world's challenges -- particularly religious fanaticism, intolerance and "abuse" of other religions "in the name of freedom of opinion," he said.

Sadr said the recent video mocking the prophet Mohammed was an example of such abuse, and was a setback in the common cause for peace.

Iraqi Archbishop Jules Mikhael Jamil, the Syrian Catholic Church's representative to the Vatican, said he felt the west had little regard for Middle Eastern Christians.

"In broad terms, we in the east feel that the western policies generally don't think about eastern Christians," he said.

"Western policies would prefer that eastern Christians not be there" because in some way their presence is hindering any foreign attempt to control the region's natural resources, he said.

Melkite Catholic Msgr. Mtanios Haddad, the Melkite Catholic Church's representative to the Vatican, addressed the audience and received loud applause when he said: "We don't want protection from Europe or America; mind your own business."

He said people in the Middle East don't want to be treated as "ignorant (people) who need saving."

The Syrian-born priest said the region can use help in negotiations and dialogue between conflicting parties, but that foreign help must be "without arms, without money, without terrorists. We want nothing but peace."

Australian bishops pledge cooperation with abuse inquiry

The Catholic bishops of Australia’s Victoria state have said the Catholic Church in Victoria will cooperate “fully” with the Australian state’s parliamentary inquiry into child abuse.
“Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has caused deep concern among Catholics and the wider community,” Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said Sept. 21. 

“It is shameful and shocking that this abuse, with its dramatic impact on those who were abused and their families, was committed by Catholic priests, religious and church workers.”

The Victorian parliament has launched an inquiry into how religious and other non-governmental organizations handled child abuse, following suicides by dozens of people abused by clergy, Agence France Presse reports.

The Catholic bishops said the incidence of abuse has fallen “dramatically” from the “appalling numbers” in the 1960s and 1970s. In the last 16 years, the Catholic Church in Victoria has upheld about 620 cases of criminal child abuse, with most claims regarding incidents between 30 and 80 years ago.

The bishops said there have been “very few” complaints of abuse since 1990.

Michael Holcroft, President of the Law Institute of Victoria, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that there is a need for independent investigations.

“Obviously there’s a public perception that the church investigating the church is Caesar judging Caesar, and I think that the community is now looking for somebody external, someone independent to get to the bottom of what's obviously been a big problem for a long, long time,” he said.

Chrissie Foster, the mother of two daughters raped by their parish priest in the mid-1980s, objected that the Church only revealed the figure on Sept. 21. Foster also accused the Church of doing nothing to stop abusive priests.

Archbishop Hart stated the Church’s support for “brave” victims of abuse who come forward and speak to the inquiry and the Church’s support for those who do not testify.

“We acknowledge the suffering and trauma endured by children who have been in the Church’s care, and the effect on their families,” the archbishop said. “We renew our apology to them.”

He said the Catholic Church’s submission to the inquiry examines what the Church has learned from “past failures” and how it has changed its approach to victims and offenders.

The submission discusses the Church’s commitment to caring for children and developments in society’s and the Church’s understanding of “the pernicious nature of pedophilia.”

“The Church, both internationally and in Australia, has continued to review and refine its processes, procedures, and practices,” he said. “We put the child first, and our refined measures promote the protection of children.”