Church's Role in Policy Debates Hits a Nerve

Opponents Increasingly Critical of Its Influence

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ROME, OCT. 1, 2005 ( The Church is prepared to undertake whatever war is necessary to defend its position, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, reportedly told a high-ranking government official, Gianni Letta, in a recent telephone call.

The bellicose words came out in Wednesday’s edition of one of Italy’s major dailies, the Milan-based Corriere della Sera. But, as the episcopal conference pointed out in a note issued later that morning, the phone call referred to never took place. The story was «completely false,» the fruit of a «pure invention,» according to the Italian bishops’ press office.

The incident took place as some traditionally anti-Catholic sectors have become increasingly annoyed at the Church’s success in recent public-policy debates. In mid-June the Church backed a campaign to dissuade voting in a referendum that sought to ease restrictions on in vitro fertilization.

Despite wide media support for the referendum — including the almost-daily articles published by the Corriere della Sera — Italian voters overwhelmingly heeded the plea not to vote. The proposals failed because less than half the electorate went to the polls.

The latest conflict came after Cardinal Ruini declared the Church’s opposition to proposals for the legal recognition for cohabitating couples. At a bishops’ conference session Sept. 19, the cardinal argued that, given the extremely low birthrate in Italy, the government would do better to give greater support to families, instead of heeding calls to give juridical status to de facto couples.

Italian political groups have splintered over whether, and how, to deal with the petitions by some party leaders to mimic other European countries and grant legal status to relationships outside the bounds of traditional marriage. The Church’s intervention in the debate has led to vociferous criticisms that it is meddling in the political sphere.

Aggressive campaigns

Undaunted, the secretary of the episcopal conference, Bishop Giuseppe Betori, in an interview broadcast Wednesday by Vatican Radio, declared that the Church would continue to speak out in spite of the «aggressive and intimidatory campaign» against it.

For his part, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, in an interview published last Sunday in the Catholic newspaper Avvenire, recommended that the intellectual class and the mass media pay more attention to the views of the general public, which, he said, are often closer to the reality of things.

The debate has led some to call for the state to end its cooperation in passing on to the Church a small percentage of each citizen’s taxes, used mainly to defray the costs of Church-run social welfare programs.

A similar issue has arisen in Spain too. During the last year the Church came into conflict with the government over the latter’s legalization of same-sex unions, and some politicians and organizations have called for an end to the current agreement on financing.

The government has just agreed to renew the payments for another year, the Spanish newspaper El País reported Thursday. The matter is unlikely to go away, however, and the Church relations with the government are set for further conflict, with debates already under way over the organization of the education system and religion classes in schools.

In England, too, Church involvement in the public arena was debated in a television program broadcast Wednesday night by BBC2. The show, titled «God and the Politicians,» caused problems even before its transmission. On Tuesday the Public Affairs Office of the Diocese of Westminster sent out a note to the media containing the full text of the remarks made in the program by the archbishop, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

The cardinal, explained the press office, had been «selectively quoted» in some media reports. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor spoke about the proposed establishment of Muslim schools and faith schools in general. Christian schools, he commented, «are not only beneficial for the Christians of this country but also enhance the country as a whole.»

He also noted that a number of Jewish and Muslim families are happy to send their children to Catholic schools. But he expressed reservations over the idea that a large number of Catholics could go to Muslim schools. He also noted that the government had a legitimate concern over the values taught in faith schools, and Muslim institutions in particular.

A further intervention in Church-state debates came from the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. According to a report Tuesday in the Irish Independent newspaper, the archbishop said that Christians must not be excluded from helping to shape the laws and values of Europe.

Speaking at a conference on the future of the European Union, held at All Hallows College, in Dublin, Archbishop Martin said that Christians «have a responsibility to work to build a body of legislation which is consonant with the moral law and where possible to correct morally defective laws.»

Reporting on religion

The debate over religion and politics is also a frequent topic in the United States. Earlier this year the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center published in book form a series of forums it has held on the subject. Edited by Michael Cromartie, «Religion and Politics in America: A Conversation» (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) is based on six encounters held for journalists to help them raise the level of reporting on religious matters.

In his introduction, Cromartie contended that while the mainstream press notably increased its coverage of religion during the 1990s, «there was very little understanding of theology or religious belief in religious news.»

Catholic author George Weigel addressed one of the meetings. Weigel noted that the 61 million Catholics in the United States come from a wide range of backgrounds and hold differing political views. «Yet for almost 40 years, the Catholic story has been reported in starkly black-and-white terms,» he commented.

Weigel explained that since the times of the Second Vatican Council, reports have overwhelmingly tended to adopt a familiar liberal/conservative, good guy/bad guy, matrix for analyzing anything Catholic. He also noted that this outlook led the media to concentrate on topics that lent themselves to preset stereotypes, such as the debate over women’s role in the Church.

Media coverage that did not set out from pre-conceived ideas would be more open to reporting on issues that are often more important and relevant, Weigel contended. As examples he pointed to the impact of the Catechism; conversions to Catholicism by intellectuals; the renewal of devotional life; increased efforts in the area of ecumenism; and the flourishing of ecclesial movements.

Weigel also argued that in his contribution to Catholic social doctrine, Pope John Paul II has made «what is arguably the most comprehensive proposal for the free, prosperous and virtuous society on offer in the world today.» Useful advice for the media, within and outside the United States.

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