Australian bishops resist calls to overturn seal of confession in abuse cases

[Austen Ivereigh]

The Australian bishops have accepted “98 per cent” of the recommendations of a five-year major inquiry into institutions’ handling of sex abuse, but have rejected the commission’s calls for a change to church law that would oblige priests to break the seal of the confessional. 

The bishops said the call was “contrary to our faith and inimical to religious liberty” and that there was no contradiction between the safeguarding of children and vulnerable people and maintaining the seal.

The BBC story is here. The bishops’ response document is here. 

The royal commission inquiry, which ended last year, heard more than 8,000 testimonies about abuse in churches, schools and sports clubs. Among its recommendations specifically related to the Catholic Church, the commissioners said Catholic priests should face criminal charges if they failed to report sexual abuse disclosed to them during confession.

“Laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge of suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession,” the royal commission said last December. 

Responding to the findings yesterday in its 57-page report, the Australian bishops accepted almost all of the recommendations. But they said that while clergy should be obligated by mandatory reporting requirements, an exception had to continue to be made in respect of information revealed during celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). They said: 

Children will be less rather than more safe if mandatory reporting of confessions were required: the rare instance where a perpetrator or victim might have raised this in Confession would be less likely to occur if confidence in the sacramental seal were undermined; and so an opportunity would be lost to encourage a perpetrator to self-report to civil authorities or victims to seek safety. Mandatory reporting of confessions would also be a violation of freedom of religious belief and worship.

The call for the Church to revise its strict adherence to the confidentiality of confession is not new, especially in relation to sexual abuse of children. The argument is favour is apparently reasonable: that priests who have received absolution for abuse in the confessional later go on to commit further acts that might have been prevented if they had been reported to the police. In some cases, an assumption is made that receiving absolution in the confessional is seen by an offender as a kind of alternative (and far more lenient) punishment than he would have received by going to the police. 

But in reality, offenders who are not ready to turn away from their behaviour are very unlikely to go anywhere near the confessional, and those that do confess their abuse will be told to present themselves to the authorities as a condition of receiving absolution. In other words, the seal of the confession, as the Australian bishops say, makes it more, not less, likely that victims will be protected from depraved acts. 

Like doctor-patient confidentiality or a journalist’s commitment to protect her sources, the seal of the confessional is all about trust. It is inviolable because once an exception is made, the trust on which it depends breaks down. Like a journalist prepared to go to jail to protect her source, a priest cannot violate the seal, even if the law of the land demands it, and must be willing to suffer to protect, for the sake of the greater good. 

But the Australian bishops have promised to consult the Holy See on two related issues. 

The first is to clarify whether information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession. There has been disagreement among canonists in relation to this issue, because in this instance the child is not confessing. 

The second is whether canon law should make mandatory what is almost always the case, namely, that absolution can and should be withheld from someone confessing abuse until they report themselves to civil authorities. 

Listen to Austen Ivereigh on BBC World Service here.

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Pope Francis in Ireland – Final Mass

[Melissa Byrne from Dublin]

“The joy of love, a joy for all God’s family”, my sisters and I sing at top volume as we walk alongside hundreds of others making their way to the Phoenix Park. As we sing, other voices belonging to strangers start to join in and as smiles are exchanged I feel as though I’m surrounded by family. Excitement seems like too passive a word to sum up the look on everyone’s faces as they see Papal flags flying alongside the River Liffey.

Pope Francis arrives at the World Meeting of Families closing mass in Phoenix Park

I was lucky enough to see Pope Francis in Poland at World Youth Day two years ago but being able to see him in the country I have grown up in was an experience I’ll never forget. Hearing visitors from other countries speak of the Irish welcome left me with an exceptional amount of pride for this country. How lucky we are to have held such a joyous and momentous occasion that provided an opportunity to reawaken the love of the church in Ireland.

One particular moment during the Mass which I found particularly emotional was the penitential rite. Pope Francis asked, on behalf of the Catholic church, for forgiveness for the grave sins of some members of the church in Ireland:  “We ask forgiveness for the abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, of conscience, and sexual abuses perpetrated by members with roles of responsibility in the church”. I cannot imagine the pain, heartbreak and betrayal victims of abuse and their families and friends must feel. It pains me to imagine my younger siblings being abused by the person who is supposed to be a representative of Christ in their lives. Pope Francis makes it very clear that these actions were and are inexcusable and that we must be in constant pursuit of truth and justice. Those who committed these horrific crimes were living a life far removed from the teachings of Catholicism. I, like Pope Francis and many others in the Catholic church, pray for justice, peace and healing for all those affected by abuse.

Applause was heard from the crowds after this plea for forgiveness and I have no doubt that I wasn’t the only one who was glad that Pope Francis had made very clear the condemnation of these actions by members of the church.

In his homily, Pope Francis spoke about imitating Christ’s self sacrifice, being reborn to a more enduring love and how, through this love, we can save our world from selfishness, greed and its indifference to the needs of the less fortunate. Pope Francis has always spoken on the unique dignity of every human being and the value that each person has.


How Pope Francis acted during his time here shows how he lives his life in accordance with what he preaches. His visit to the Capuchin Day Centre forced me to look at my life and evaluate how I treat those less fortunate than myself. Candice Hartigan, a woman who avails of the services provided by the centre, said “They’re non-judgmental. They don’t ask you why you want something. You just put your name down and that’s it.” We are not called to the bare minimum, but rather to extreme selflessness for others, whether they be those less fortunate or our family members.

Pope Francis when speaking to people at the Capuchin Day Centre said, “They help you without taking away your dignity. That is the face of Jesus Christ.”. To truly live as Jesus Christ requires us is to reach out to those who feel marginalised and excluded from society. “Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart.”

Another line in his homily that made me think was when he said: “The task of bearing witness to the good news is not easy”. This has never been more applicable than it is for the church in Ireland today. We can be timid in our sharing of the faith and often worry about how we may be perceived by others who don’t share our views. There is no room in Catholicism for a passive faith that we hide away from others. Our faith is beautiful, joyful and loving! Through our witness of the faith we can reignite the fire of Catholicism in Ireland!

We don’t need to hide away, but rather stand together in unity as we proclaim, as Pope Francis said, “The joy of the Gospel!”.

After many people had left the Phoenix Park, my family and extended family were still there. They’re always afraid they might miss some craic! As I witnessed crowds of people flooding the altar to take selfies, children singing and dancing as they threw ponchos up into the wind and my dad putting his arm around my mom, I felt hope. Not a meek hope, but a fiery hope for the future of the Catholic church in Ireland. A church that is very much alive!

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Pope Francis in Ireland – Day 1

[Jason Conroy from Dublin]

On Saturday, Pope Francis once again reaffirmed that he is, above all, a pastor.


His arrival in Ireland was marked by all the pomp and formality of an official state reception. He made the obligatory visit to the head of state, President Michael D Higgins, in Áras an Uachtarån, for a ceremonial tree planting, which was followed by a trip to Dublin Castle where he met the political and cultural establishment of Ireland.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime Minister, officially addressed the Pope with a speech touching firmly yet tactfully on the main points of controversy about the Catholic Church which have increasingly occupied the media in recent years. He fairly acknowledged the good done by a Church which had provided for the education and healthcare of the nation in the earliest years of independence when the state could not.

On the other hand, he also addressed the public scandals of the Irish Church, the historic abuse of children by priests and mistreatment of women in religious run mother and baby homes. He mentioned the successive referendums in Ireland which legalised divorce, same sex marriage, and abortion, ending his speech with the prevailing theme that the country has changed and progressed a lot since John Paul II’s visit in 1979 and expressing hope that a new and positive relationship between the Church and the State can be developed for a modern Ireland.

The Pope responded with a brief address to an audience which included Varadkar’s partner Matthew, and many of the leading campaigners behind the abortion and gay marriage referendums, reminding listeners that Ireland is once again missionary territory. The main themes included the importance of family, the throwaway culture that discards even the child in the womb, and the ‘challenge to our conscience’ of homelessness and poverty, all issues of especial relevance in today’s Ireland.

In typical Francis style, having spent about half an hour at the Dublin Castle reception, he then proceeded to spend over 90 minutes in private with eight Irish victims of clerical sex abuse, followed by a meeting with homeless families at the Capuchin Day Centre, which provides shelter, food, and medical help the marginalised and deprived.

We’re all very used to this reputation of Francis, true to his namesake, and hearing about it on the internet or on television, but those of us who were among the 80,000 present in Croke Park stadium during that evening’s Festival of Families felt his warmth of character very clearly..

It became clear to many how much more Francis enjoys being among his flock, ‘the People of God’, than with officials and dignitaries – though I was only one in a huge crowd, I was struck by how closely I felt the affection of the Pontiff. It is an affirmation and a huge encouragement for the faithful in Ireland who have felt harassed and dejected, with more and more revelations of abuse and corruption surfacing in recent weeks, and ever higher figures in the hierarchy implicated.

The theme of the Festival of Families, like the World Meeting of Families Congress of the preceding week, could be summed up as ‘solidarity amongst the family of families’, with an emphasis on the international nature of this family which, though flung far across the globe, nonetheless experiences together the shared challenges of new technology, addiction, poverty, family breakup, even violence.

The crowds it gathered came from across the globe, with typically large detachments of Latin Americans from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, but also Angolans, Nigerians, Kenyans and Ugandans, Filipinos, Russians, and Iraqis, to name just a few – in total, there were 82,000 people from 130 different nations present, and performers from Ireland and around the world, including the renowned singer Andrea Bocelli.

While most great rallies of this size are about great political movements and campaigns, issues that fill news headlines, only in the Catholic church could you find such a rally about the pressing importance of washing the dishes and the urgent need to spend quality time together as a family – indeed, Pope Francis’ revolution of tenderness really is a revolution of the little things, such as reconciling after a fight before bedtime, or helping one another with the daily household chores.

Among the performances of the night the sounds of 500 youths performing Riverdance was an altogether unrepeatable experience. The testimonies of families from around the world, from couples who recovered from heroin addiction, to Iraqi refugees, left a deep impression, and once more the theme of solidarity, not only between family members, but between families, was hammered home.

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World Meeting of Families in Dublin: a joy for the whole world and a joy worth sharing

[Maria Byrne]

There has been a lot of excitement in Ireland in anticipation of the long awaited visit of Pope Francis. Those of us who are old enough still have fond memories of the last time a pope visited Irish shores. In 1979, almost everyone I knew travelled to the Phoenix Park in Dublin where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass for over a million people. The iconic message delivered to throngs of young people at a youth Mass in Galway, “Young people of Ireland, I love you” which was followed by rapturous applause has gone down in history as the most memorable moment of the whole visit. That one expression of a heartfelt love and the enthusiasm of the response from thousands of teenagers and young adults captured the imagination of the nation and was reported on with glowing positivity.

Fast forward almost 40 years as we are about to welcome Pope Francis and we are in a very different Ireland. In the lead up to the visit, the reporting and media coverage has been generally negative. There were stories about the need to be up to date with one’s vaccinations; that large crowds could be a health risk; with mention of pop up morgues and risks for the elderly or infirm. The old arguments also resurfaced centring on the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality, its place in education, women’s role in the Church, the sexual abuse of children and accusations of the Church excluding gay people.

This approach to the visit of Pope Francis may give the impression of a Church that is on its last legs; not quite dead, but rapidly heading in that direction. After three days attending the World Meeting of Families 2018 Pastoral Congress in the RDS in Dublin, I saw a very different Church, one that has a valuable message for our times, a message that is as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago.

The theme song for the World Meeting of Families 2018 is “The Joy of Love”, the joy of the family of Christ which, even when broken, bowed or wounded, has a hope that shines brightly in the darkness. There was a visible sense of that joy among the people who came from Ireland, the UK and all over the world to pray, to listen, to learn, to interact and to celebrate. Over the course of the week of the congress, there was an ambitious programme with an impressive lineup of speakers, daily Mass, music and adoration and so many stands and displays in the main hall that it would have been impossible to visit them all. Like the other pilgrims, I spent three days racing around, being both inspired and humbled, challenged and enriched.

There were numerous different subjects touched on but all centred on the unique dignity and value of every human being and the importance of the family as a school of learning Christian values. On the first day, I opted to attend Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s presentation – Choose Life: Pope Francis on the “throw-away” Culture. In his appealingly good-humoured way, Cardinal Tagle traced the history of planned obsolescence and the production of products with an artificially limited useful life and linked this to a culture of viewing people as expendable. Drawing on Laudato Si, the care for our common home and Amoris Laetitia, he talked about how, in our present world, people can be viewed in a “transactional fashion” and treated as commodities.

After the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland, Cardinal Tagle’s reference to the words of Pope Francis on the throwaway culture rang very true. The unborn child, the elderly, the sick and those with disabilities, prisoners, migrants and those who have been victims of human trafficking are often discarded, cast aside as being of lesser value.

Archbishop Eamon Martin in his homily, during a celebration of Mass in the family arena, also spoke of the key place in society of the family quoting St Pope John Paul II, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” He pointed out that the welfare of the family is crucial to the welfare of the world and how supporting families in all their complexity should be a prime consideration of those concerned with promoting the common good of society. We should approach our politicians and ask them to what extent their policies support families and life.

The week of the congress was a time of great grace. The various speakers on topics affecting families included Dr Mary Aiken on turning technology to the greater good; talks on marriage, marriage preparation and sexuality in marriage; a harrowing account of human trafficking from “Maya”, a survivor of slavery and abuse and topics that explored every possible family situation and every challenge that families might face.

There was a packed hall for Bishop Robert Barron who described the family as “the place par excellence for the growth in virtue” and how growing in virtue makes us truly free. Seeing the large crowds queuing to get into the hall for his talk, I pondered on how the recent portrayals of the Catholic faith as a relic of the past is way off the mark. I think Bishop Barron’s upbeat and insightful words would have attracted the greatest cynic to what the faith of Christ offers us and our families. He spoke in a language that parents could understand about training our children, the self-giving that is central to true love and the challenges of trying to raise a child in the faith.

I was really uplifted and energised at seeing how many initiatives and projects have been started, many directly responding to the social justice doctrine of the Church reaching out to the poor, the homeless and the vulnerable.

Those who had been dragged down by unrelenting negativity left with bags full of books and information, medals and pencils and hope in their hearts, refuelled spiritually and really to take on the task of evangelising our lovely country.

Ireland is often called Ireland of the thousand welcomes. The Irish are known for their great welcome; as we welcome Pope Francis to Ireland, we must also work hard to ensure that there is also a welcome for our ancient values, ones that are forever new and that have a place in the public square. Seeing the mothers, fathers, teenagers and small children singing joyfully together during the final Mass of the week, I felt sure that what we have, the joy we have as Catholics, is a joy for the whole world and a joy worth sharing.

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Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse: Interim report released on Downside and Ampleforth Schools

[Joe Ronan]

A report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was released on 9thAugust. This document, one of a number already released, with others planned, reported specifically on the sexual abuse that took place in Ampleforth and Downside Schools over the last 50 years, and on the response to that abuse by the schools’ authorities. It makes grim reading.

IICSA was set up in 2015 to look at the response of public bodies and important institutions to child sexual abuse in their organisations.  This was in the wake of the revelations about Jimmy Savile and of abuse in various public bodies including the NHS, the BBC, and the prison service.

IICSA is looking into the response to child sex abuse in institutions including custodial institutions for children, children’s homes, Nottinghamshire Councils, Rochdale Borough Council, as well as the Catholic and Anglican churches. Its remit is to “consider the growing evidence of institutional failures to protect children from child sexual abuse, and to make recommendations to ensure the best possible protection for children in future.”

In this case study on Downside and Ampleforth the report says there was “blatant openness”in describing how abusive behaviour took place in group settings, but contrasts that with the secretive and evasive approach to child protection. “For decades, they tried to avoid giving information, other than what was specifically requested,  to the statutory authorities, that might have assisted the investigation of the abuse of children in their care.”

Conclusion 5 states “On the few occasions where parents raised complaints about sexual abuse, or were informed about it by either institution, some preferred not to have the matters treated as a crime requiring police investigation, but to keep it quiet at all costs. Their interest was to protect the school, the Benedictine Congregation and the Catholic Church. In some instances, parents also wished to protect their children from the process of police investigation.”

The report contains harrowing descriptions of the abuse suffered by children at the school, and of the completely inadequate and evasive response both by individuals and the institution as a whole.

The IICSA report also criticises the way that “Even after the Nolan Report, when monks were obliged to work with the statutory authorities and gave the appearance of cooperation and trust, their approach could be summarised as a ‘tell them nothing’ attitude.”

The English Benedictine Congregation (both schools are owned and managed by Benedictine monks) has recognised the failings shown by this report. The current Abbott President of the EBC said “Once again I apologise unequivocally to all those who were abused by any person connected with our abbeys and schools. The report highlights how flawed many of our past responses have been. We continue to work conscientiously to ensure our communities are safe environments for young people both now and in the future.

Damning as the conclusions are, the frightening truth is that the facts that come out of this report are by no means unique in today’s society or confined to the Catholic Church.

IICSA has reported similarly on abuse in Rochdale children’s homes and has on-going investigations into Lambeth Council, Children in custodial institutions, Residential schools, the Anglican Church and Westminster.  Even this wide purview is a cut-down version of the original intention to include the BBC and the NHS in the investigations.

The Catholic Church around the world has in the past failed in many ways to protect children in its care, but starting with the Nolan report in 2001, it has begun to create the environment in which safeguarding and protection of children is a primary concern.

In 2001 Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor asked Lord Nolan to study the situation regarding safeguarding and child protection within the Catholic Church and to make recommendations for the future.  His eventual report resulted in a sea-change in the way that Catholic Dioceses and institutions responded to child protection. Five years later the Church commissioned the Cumberlege Commission to review the way the Nolan recommendations had been put into place.  That report (‘Safeguarding with Confidence”) showed that the Church was then a safer place, had implemented 79 out of the 83 recommendations either completely or partially, and made further recommendations to improve things further.  This process of improvement continues to this day with the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission producing an annual report monitoring the effectiveness of responses to abuse, and publishing statistics on new allegations.

The IICSA report acknowledges that good data on the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions is very scarce.  In November 2017 the Inquiry published a review of existing research on child sexual abuse within the Anglican and Catholic Churches. This highlighted that the best published quantitative information on abuse within the church was commissioned by the US Catholic Church in a report known as the ‘John Jay Report’. This report has been followed up subsequently by further study, forming perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of abuse in any institution.

The analysis by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows clearly the extent of abuse within church structures, but also puts that in the context of the level of abuse throughout society.  It shows that children are significantly less at risk in Catholic dioceses than in US society as a whole.  It also indicates that the level of clerical abuse in the USA rose from a low level in the 1950’s, peaked in the 1970’s and has dropped back to a low level in recent years.

The Catholic Church having acknowledged its failings, has in commissioning such studies as the Nolan Report and the John Jay Report shown that it is very serious about understanding the problem and scale of institutional abuse, and establishing suitable systems to address it.  The summary of the follow up report to the John Jay Report “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 contains a call to other institutions to follow suit:

“No other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church. Other organizations should follow suit and examine the extent of sexual abuse within their groups to better understand the extent of the problem and the situations in which sexual abuse takes place.”

Individual Church Institutions such as Downside and Ampleforth need urgently to review their responses and ensure that such abuse as has been described can never happen again.  But only if all institutions, secular and religious, take to heart the fact that sexual abuse of children is widespread, in families and public bodies, religious organisations and secular ones, will we be on the path to eliminating it in our society.

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Humanae Vitae: A prophetic and empowering document

[Joe Ronan]

Fifty years ago today saw the publication in 1968 of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (‘On human life’). That document went on to become one of the most controversial Papal Encyclicals of the twentieth century.  It was contentious not because it changed the teaching of the Church in any way, but because it restated the same position on contraception that the Church had held for centuries when many had expected this to change.

Compared with many recent Papal documents, Humanae Vitae is notably short, just 31 paragraphs, and a surprisingly easy read. It is written in a very direct and warm style.  It describes the value of human life, and the proper enjoyment of the gift of sex.

Much of the commentary on its 50th Anniversary is centred on the furore surrounding its release. The real story of Humanae Vitae is however how relevant and empowering it is for today’s world.

Pope Paul starts with an explanation of the context of the document. The world was in the grip of the sexual revolution and he was under considerable pressure from within the Church and without to change the teaching on contraception, particularly due to the advent of hormonal methods (‘the Pill’).  He consulted widely, and in Humanae Vitaegave his considered response – that the teaching would stay in place.

In reaching this conclusion he says that:

… human procreation, like every other question which touches human life involves more than the limited aspects specific to such disciplines as biology, psychology, demography or sociology. It is the whole man and the mission to which he is called that must be considered. [HV7]

He then goes on to analyse the demands of married love and responsible parenthood.  He describes marriage as a wise and provident institution of God which in consequence

…husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves , which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.  [HV8]

That description is sometimes summed up more succinctly as ‘bonding and babies’; or more formally as the unitive and procreative elements of marriage.

In discussing responsible parenthood, Pope Paul recognises that for many reasons people will decide to have children; these he calls ‘prudent and generous’.  He also acknowledges that there will be those who for “serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts” decide not to have children.  He goes on however to say that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life. They are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God.   It is here that the necessity for ‘being open to the possibility of life’ is established, and becomes the reason for rejecting the ‘contraceptive mentality’; the closing of the door to new life, and the essential selfishness of that state. [HV10].

Later in the encyclical he talks of the natural methods of controlling conception, such as use of infertile parts of the woman’s cycle which he describes as a faculty provided by nature.   This gave rise at the time to a more rigorous exploration of such cycles (e.g. the Billings Method) and the natural family planning movement.   These methods have seen a resurgence in recent years, with continued research developing methods of natural fertility control that not only help with spacing children but also provide young women with a far better understanding of their bodies and their fertility, and so enable them to live without becoming dependent on medication or devices to control their fertility.  These methods may also provide women with fertility problems a real and effective alternative to the IVF treatments now almost exclusively offered to them.

In paragraph 17 Pope Paul made what is widely regarded as a prophetic statement.  He talks of the consequences of using artificial methods of preventing conception.  He lists these as:

  • The increase of marital infidelity;
  • A lowering of moral standards;
  • Reduced respect and care for the woman, and reducing her to a “mere instrument for satisfaction”;
  • The eventual intervention of governments in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

The remainder of the document addresses in turn married couples, their priests and bishops, scientists, public authorities and doctors and nurses. It asks them to realise the value of self-discipline and the promotion of chastity.  It also emphasises the importance of support and guidance, rather than admonition, and that the teaching should be given with confidence, but also with compassion.

At the time although the document was seen as counter-cultural – an attempt to hold back the tide of modern thought – it had its strong supporters. The great philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in  a famous 1972 paper called Contraception and Chastity makes a spirited defence of the long established Christian approach, and this makes excellent complementary reading to Humanae Vitae.  Her rather pithy style of expression includes the following description of the contraceptive mentality:

Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be.

Fifty years on someone who had not read the document, but had ‘heard all about it’ might have in their minds the caricature of the out-of-touch church wagging its collective finger at the new and liberated generation.  In fact reading the document the surprise is in how understanding Pope Paul VI was of human nature and its failings.  He draws a wonderful picture of the value of marriage, and the importance of the couple to each other as a counterpart of the relationship between God and his Church.   He understands the difficult task he is asking people to undertake in being faithful to Church teaching but also assures them of the love and the grace of God that makes it possible.

It is not often one would recommend a Papal document as an introduction to the more complex parts of Catholic doctrine, but Humanae Vitae is, along with Rerum Novarum, one of those pieces of writing that everyone should read at least once.

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Pope proposes a “new ecumenical spring” at the World Council of Churches

[Christopher White]

Pope Francis has relentlessly pursued joint ecumenical efforts with the hope of achieving Christian unity. For that reason, the very man who often avoids trips to centers of power made a special daylong “ecumenical pilgrimage” to Geneva, Switzerland on 21 June to mark the 70thanniversary of World Council of Churches (WCC).


I was on the plane covering the trip for Crux, and as I wrote prior to the trip, the theme of building a “culture of encounter” has been central to the Francis papacy. Now, in Geneva, it was time for an “encounter of churches,” where Francis joined Christian leaders from around the globe to add an extra booster shot to the Catholic Church’s collaboration with the WCC.

The WCC includes membership of 350 Christian churches from around the world, representing 560 million Christians — effectively making it the most consequential body for the task of Christian unity. While the Catholic Church is not a formal member — primarily owing to its size, which would massively overshadow the other participating churches — it does have permanent representation on one of the major committees of the WCC.

By way of background, working alongside other Christian traditions has been in Francis’ blood since he was a priest in his native Argentina. He famously would preach to thousands of Catholics and Protestants alike at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park stadium.

One of the early memorable ecumenical markers of his papacy came when in January 2014, Francis filmed an iPhone video with a close friend of his, Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer, that was screened for thousands of participants at a major Charismatic Christian convention in which Francis issued an impassioned plea for Christian unity.

“Let us allow our longing to increase so that it propels us to find each other, embrace each other and to praise Jesus Christ as the only Lord of history,” he said then. Palmer died in a tragic motorcycle accident that following July, although the Pope’s indefatigable efforts to bring about Christian collaboration have continued.

In October 2016, Pope Francis celebrated a joint prayer service with Archbishop Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, to mark the 50thanniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey, which was an initial effort to bridge long standing divides between Catholics and Anglicans. Welby and Francis have met in person on four occasions and are planning a joint trip to the South Sudan in an effort to bring hope and healing to the war-torn country.

Also in October 2016, Pope Francis made a historical ecumenical pilgrimage to Lund, Sweden to sign a joint statement with the global Lutheran leader Bishop Munib Younan on the 500thanniversary of the Reformation. During that meeting, they pledged to work together in hopes of sharing the same Eucharist.

More recently, in February 2017, Francis visited an Anglican parish in Rome, the first time a pope visited an Anglican church in his own diocese.

All this to say, dotted throughout this papacy there have been significant gestures toward healing old wounds of conflict and bridging internal divides in Christianity.

In that spirit, he arrived in Geneva yesterday where at a joint prayer service, Francis said that living the Christian life requires both a loss of individualism and one’s particular party preferences in order to fully live out the gospel.


“To choose to belong to Jesus before belonging to Apollos or Cephas, to belong to Christ before being ‘Jew or Greek,’ to belong to the Lord before identifying with right or left, to choose, in the name of the Gospel, our brother or our sister over ourselves…in the eyes of the world, this often means operating at a loss,” he said.

Later in the afternoon — after an informal lunch with ecumenical leaders that he would go on to speak about with much enthusiasm on the in-flight press conference back to Rome — Francis recast his vision for Christian unity, where he called for a “new ecumenical spring.”

Speaking to the World Council of Churches, he challenged them to become more “missionary” in their work. Francis reminded them that in order for this new ecumenical spring and new evangelical outreach to occur, the Gospel must be first made attractive, not by “tailoring” it to the ways of the world, but instead, by living it on in joy, harkening back to his very first apostolic exhortation as pope, “The Joy of the Gospel,” which is widely considered the blue print for understanding his papacy.

For Francis, the work of Christian unity has long been centered on building the right relationships rather than a reliance on institutions to facilitate the process. While the formal work of the WCC is obviously critically important, Francis was clearly most excited about the opportunity to commune with fellow Christian pilgrims during his time on the ground.


Capping off the day, Francis celebrated a mass for 40,000 Catholics, where despite preaching to the “home team,” he still focused outward by offering the “Our Father,” — a prayer said by all Christians — as a tool for reclaiming shared Christian roots.

“The ‘Our Father’ is the prayer of us, of the Church,” he said. “It says nothing about me and mine; everything is caught up in the you of God… ‘Our Father’: these two simple words offer us a roadmap for the spiritual life.”

While many of Francis’ remarks on Thursday were focused on the specifics of Christian life, starting first with one’s own daily habits and devotions, as the necessary conditions for creating the proper spirit for unity, he didn’t hesitate to enumerate specific challenges for Christians that he said required joint witness and collaboration — among them being protecting the unborn, the elderly, migrants and refugees, persecuted Christians around the globe, and combatting the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.

En route back to Rome, many of the questions on the in-flight press conference — now considered the journalistic highlight of the trip for Francis’ free-spirited answers and candor — focused on the broader topics that he enumerated, specifically on the duty to welcome refugees and the challenges of peace.


“Every country should [welcome new arrivals] with the virtue of government, which is that of prudence, because they should welcome as many refugees as they can, educate, integrate, relieve hunger, and help them find work,” Francis said when asked about the duties government’s have to welcome those seeking refuge.

In order to make progress on any of these issues, however, Francis believes a unified church is a prerequisite.

“Our lack of unity is in fact ‘openly contrary to the will of Christ, but is also a scandal to the world and harms the most holy of causes: the preaching of the Gospel to every creature,’ he said during his first address in Geneva.

“The Lord ask us for unity; our world, torn by all too many divisions that affect the most vulnerable, begs for you,” Francis said.

Upon landing in Rome, Francis made his customary trip to pray at Santa Maria Maggiore — entrusting the fruits of his labors to the Virgin Mary — and perhaps, also saying a few lines from the Our Father, that in seeking unity, things may also be “on earth, as it is in Heaven.”

Christopher White is the national correspondent for Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212

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