Say what? A Polish spy in the Vatican?

pope stamp.jpgI was flipping through the back pages of the news section of my local newspaper this weekend and this Associated Press story stopped me in my tracks.

It didn’t surprise me that Polish authorities had worked overtime to try to stop the newly enthroned Pope John Paul II from making an early return to his beloved homeland. It would have shocked me if they had cooperated.

But then I hit this element of the story, based on a report from Leon Kieres, head of Poland’s National Remembrance Institute:

On Wednesday, Kieres identified a Polish priest working at the Vatican, the Rev. Konrad Stanislaw Hejmo, who he said had collaborated with communist-era secret police during John Paul’s papacy. Hejmo has said he never knowingly informed on the church.

Kieres denied in the La Repubblica interview that his claim of alleged informers within the Roman Catholic Church was politically motivated. Kieres also told the paper that hundreds of clergymen collaborated with the communist regime in Poland as part of a network of informers in operation for several decades.

Once again, it isn’t all that surprising that there were undercover informers in Poland. Still, that is a major story. What rocked me was the news of the informer inside the Vatican.

Heading to Google News, I found that international newspapers have been all over this story, while American papers have either ignored it or downplayed it big time. The experts say Americans don’t care about global news, and I assume that is true. But I think this is a story people would have wanted to read.

Nice headline (yes, all in caps) in the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia: “HEJMO: NAIVE AND STUPID, BUT I’M NOT A SPY.”

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Will TV Land defile Salem, Mass.?

Montgomery.jpgKathy McCabe of The Boston Globe reported this week that the TV Land cable network wants to honor Elizabeth Montgomery’s Bewitched character, Samantha Stephens, with a statue in Salem, Mass.

The network’s plans upset some residents who believe the statue, to be placed in a city park, would dishonor the memory of the Salem witch trials’ victims:

“It’s insensitive to what happened in 1692,” said Jean Harrison, one of several Salem residents opposing the plan. “She was a fictional witch, but the people who died were not witches.”

Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz Jr. said the statue will bring a bit of whimsy to town and maybe a boost to Salem’s seasonal tourist trade. He said the city insisted that the statue be placed away from sites associated with the witch trials, such as a park dedicated to the memory of the 19 accused witches hanged on Gallows Hill in 1692.

“I see this as something like the Red Auerbach statue in Boston,” he said of the bronze figure of the former Celtics coach on a bench at Quincy Market. “It’s a place where people will stop, get their picture taken, and have a little bit of fun while they’re visiting Salem.”

In a brief editorial today, the Globe opposed statue for reasons similar to those expressed by Harrison: “A happy fictional TV witch in a place of so much historical sadness could soften realities for some people — especially children, who get enough mixed messages from television. Better to keep Montgomery in reruns, and out of the park.”

McCabe also sought comment from a local Wiccan:

Not everyone is bothered by the return of “Bewitched” to Salem, the self-proclaimed “Halloween Capital of the World.” Some in the city’s Wiccan community say they welcome the tribute to one of America’s best-loved witches.

“Many of us love and adore the show; we grew up watching it,” said Jerrie Hildebrand, 50, a graphic designer and practicing Wiccan. “But it has nothing to do with our religion. . . . I only wish I could twitch my nose and make my house clean.”

Neither the ACLU nor Americans United has weighed in on whether the statue would establish a kitschy TV version of witchcraft as a city-sanctioned religion.

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Der kidding me, right?

Ratzinger-Report.jpgWow, check out this reaction to the election of Benedict XVI in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. I mean, the editors might as well have assigned a heavily sedated Matthew Fox to write the piece on the election of the first German pope since 1048. The long subhead reads:

Joseph Ratzinger has spent his entire life trying to ignore real life. He has been more successful at doing this in Rome than at home in Germany. Now the world’s Catholics hope that this rigid guardian of the faith will transform himself into a good shepherd.

The portraiture of the pope in his previous life is so shaded that it often veers into caricature. We read about Ratzinger the borderline autistic worker:

Every day at precisely the same time, Joseph Ratzinger would leave the apartment, carrying his briefcase in his left hand, and walk diagonally across St. Peter’s Square to his office . . .

Ratzinger the monomaniac:

“He could write as if possessed, spending 12 or 13 hours without eating,” says a [quasi-anonymous] priest . . . “The sisters would put sandwiches on his desks, only to find hours later that they hadn’t been touched.”

Ratzinger the German out of step with the march of his fellow countrymen:

There was apparently only one German cardinal who voted for Ratzinger in the first round of the election: Joachim Meisner, the ultraconservative Archbishop of Cologne, unpopular with many in his diocese.

Ratzinger the young theological radical:

He was called the “teen-ager” of the [Second Vatican] Council.

Ratzinger the wimpy neoconservative:

At some point he heard his own students utter the scandalous words: “Jesus be damned.” Horrified, he left Tuebingen for a position at the more conservative and tranquil University of Regensburg. . . .

He has inherited St. Augustine’s theological pessimism, his conviction that there is no real future when it comes to earthly matters. In this world view, neither history nor nature can offer any hope or expectation, and nothing good can be expected to transpire in the world beyond the walls of the Church and the Vatican, especially when that world is represented by shabbily dressed, unshaven students calling for revolution in the name of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ.

And, finally, Ratzinger the preacher to whom grace has become a foreign concept:

Even his last sermon before the conclave was harsh and didactic. As in the past, man is delegated to the sidelines in Ratzinger’s perspective. And as he had done so many times before — and perhaps for the last time? — he claimed that Jesus died for the truth, not for our sins. Indeed, one of the Church’s main functions is to continue repeating this message, always in a fresh and timely manner. (Emphasis added.)

I hardly know where to start here, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll stick to the claim highlighted in the last paragraph as a great example of how the Der Spiegel writers fail to . . . get religion.

In his final homily before Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he said, in part,

Saint Peter says: “He himself bore our sins in His body upon the cross.” And Saint Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,’ that the blessing of Abraham might be extended to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

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A simple story: God, Zo and a kidney

Mourning2.jpegAccording to the seminars offered by our friends at Poynter.org, one of the quickest ways to improve religion news coverage in the MSM is for journalists simply to stop removing the faith elements of stories in which they are already present.

This is the opposite of trying to find religion news.

The goal is to stop ignoring it or, worse, editing it out of the lives of oridinary people all around us. Click here for a fine essay on this by Poynter fellow Aly Colon.

Well, Alonzo Mourning of the NBA’s Miami Heat is not an ordinary person — he is one of those stunning towers of mind, heart, talent and muscle that achieves riches and fame in media and sports. Down here in South Florida, he has been a major force in community life, and his life-and-death struggle with kidney disease is more than a sports story. It has been an epic human drama.

And this is precisely how The Miami Herald‘s NBA-beat reporter Israel Gutierrez (is that a South Florida byline or what?) handles a little-known part of the Zo comeback in a sports-page feature about the relationship between the superstar and the cousin, Jason Cooper, who donated the kidney that saved his life.

There is a faith element to the story and Gutierrez does not play it up, but he also does not ignore it. He just lets the people tell their story, and that is enough.

This was, apparently, one of those private, personal stories in which chance events took place that the people involved later decided were not chance at all. It was, they said, a God thing. Here is the key passage. You need to read the whole story to understand the part about the television set.

Cooper offered to take the necessary tests to see if he could donate one of his kidneys to Mourning. It was an eerie coincidence that Cooper decided to make the trip to visit his grandmother on that particular day, and that the news came across the TV screen at that particular time. Some would say it’s more than a coincidence. Whatever the explanation, that moment put in motion an act of selflessness and kindness that would reinvigorate an NBA star, and created an unbreakable bond between two cousins who didn’t figure they would ever be this close again.

“Jason, man — he’s a lifesaver,” Mourning said. “It’s just God sent how it all worked out. Things don’t happen like that just because it happens. People just say, ‘Oh, it’s a coincidence.’ No it’s not. There’s a reason why Jason went to that hospital to see his aunt on her deathbed and I just so happened to come up on the television. I mean, come on, that’s not a coincidence. That’s somebody higher than us planning all that out.”

It’s a simple story, the kind that people tell all the time. It’s nice to see it in the sports pages of a major newspaper, where fans are more likely to read about steroids and sucker punches than faith and the family ties that bind.

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No alt-del-esc for Microsoft

StrangerApril28.jpgIt’s always a pleasure to see an independent weekly breaking news of national importance, which The Stranger (Seattle) is doing in a story involving Microsoft, an African American megachurch pastor and a proposed gay-rights bill in the state legislature.

In a cover story from this week’s issue, Sandeep Kaushik reports on how Pastor Ken Hutcherson and Microsoft vice president and general counsel Bradley Smith have sharply different memories of their conversations about the gay-rights bill. Microsoft says it decided to take a neutral stance on the bill before Hutcherson met with Smith. Both Hutcherson and the bill’s sponsor believe Microsoft is not telling the truth.

Well, Hutcherson puts it more bluntly than that:

In previous days, Microsoft had confirmed to other publications, in particular the New York Times, The Stranger‘s original report that Smith had met with Hutcherson, and that the company had taken a “neutral” stance on the bill this year after supporting it in previous years. However, in an e-mail to the company’s 35,000 United States employees last Friday night, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer denied that the meetings with Hutcherson had influenced the company’s switch. Ballmer wrote that he had “done a lot of soul searching over the past 24 hours on this subject,” and that the company was “thinking hard about what is the right balance to strike — when should a company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not?”

Hutcherson expressed disappointment with Ballmer’s statement — “Steve Ballmer, I believe, is a liar” — and said in no uncertain terms that Microsoft was not being forthright about the substance of the conversations company executives had with him, and about the timing of the company’s decision. “The company lied, and ‘the Black Man’ is not going to lie down and say ‘okay,’” he said, referencing his nickname around the church office. He added, “Evidently they don’t know that I won’t keep my mouth shut about unrighteousness.”

Hutcherson’s further explanation of his meeting with Smith shows that he has no shortage of memorable remarks:

Hutcherson said that he asked for a meeting with Microsoft after becoming upset that two company employees had testified in favor of the bill on February 1. He first met with Smith and three other lower-ranking executives on February 23.

At that meeting, Smith made it clear to the pastor that the company supported the bill, Hutcherson said. Smith told him, he said, that the company had recently been asked by GLEAM, the gay and lesbian employees group at Microsoft, to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, but the company had said no. Smith went on to say that Microsoft did support the anti-discrimination legislation, and he described it as a “civil rights issue” — a red flag for Hutcherson, who is African American — Hutcherson said. The pastor recalled asking Smith a question: “You won’t stand up for two men or two women getting married, but you will put your power behind a guy who wants to dress up in a dress and come to work?”

Smith replied, according to Hutcherson’s recollection, “That’s our policy. We thought this is a good bill to stand behind.” Hutcherson then said he told Smith he would organize a national boycott of the company if it did not withdraw its support for the bill. “You’re not going to like me in your world. I am going to give you something to fear Christians about,” he said he told Smith. “I told him, ‘You have a week’” to decide, Hutcherson said.

Smith replied to inquiries from The Stranger during a business trip to Europe:

Smith offered a very different impression of the discussion. He said the bulk of the conversation was taken up with a discussion of the confusion about Microsoft’s position on the bill that had been created by two employees who had testified on February 1. Smith had read the testimony that morning, and felt there was some confusion. Smith recalled telling Hutcherson that “the company wasn’t involved in this” and that “the company hadn’t taken a position” on the bill.

“He told me that he thought that we should fire the employees,” Smith said. He added, “It didn’t strike me as a situation where it was appropriate to fire people.” He did agree with Hutcherson that the testimony “created the impression that the company was supporting a bill when the company wasn’t involved,” he said, adding, “In my mind, that was what the meeting was about.” Smith also added that Hutcherson had requested that the company issue a letter stating that it was neutral on the bill, or that the bill was unnecessary, but that he declined.

Both sides in this debate have spoken of boycotting Microsoft (blogger John Aravosis, for instance, recommends using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer as one punitive response). Some of us who spend much of our time shackled to a laptop can enjoy the idea of a Microsoft-free workday, if only on the grounds of aesthetics and supporting innovative shareware.

Smith argues that Microsoft does not make policy based on impending boycotts: “Almost every large corporation does receive at least monthly — often weekly — letters from groups threatening to organize boycotts. You can’t run your business on that basis.”

That could well be true, though the battling boycott threats of this story make it more interesting as a news story.

Tim Gill, founder of Quark Inc., has long linked his software (including Quark XPress) to pro-gay activism. Are there other examples of software companies that take clear sides in the nation’s debate about sex and marriage?

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Galloping Air Force Academy fundamentalism

Air Force chapel.jpgNo doubt about it — David Kelly at the Los Angeles Times has found a good story out in the red-zone wilds of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Here’s the headline update from a few days ago: “Loosening Religious Grip at Air Academy: The school launches a sensitivity course in response to complaints about evangelical Christians infringing on other faiths.” This is a follow-up story to “Non-Christian Air Force Cadets Cite Harassment: The academy, which has received more than 50 complaints, says it is requiring students to attend a class on religious tolerance.”

Let me start by stressing that it is pretty clear some outrageous stuff has gone on at the academy, in terms of evangelicals making life uncomfortable for some of the nonbelievers. No doubt about that. Here is a sample of Kelly’s coverage, picking one sample out of waves of similar material:

Lt. Col. Edie Disler, an English professor who helps run RSVP programs, said some Christians questioned the value of the classes. “They have said: We are in the majority, why do we have to do this?”

Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and lawyer in Albuquerque, has a son who is a sophomore at the school. The cadet has been called a “filthy Jew,” among other things, Weinstein said.

“This is not a Jew-Christian thing, it’s an evangelical versus everyone else thing,” he said. “I am calling for congressional oversight and for the academy to stop trivializing the problem by calling it nonsystemic. If they can’t fix it and Congress won’t fix it, the next thing to do is go to the federal court and file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the Constitution and civil rights.”

By the way, that RSVP reference is to the new “Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People” classes that cadets and employees must attend. No sign, at this point, of “Respecting the First Amendment Rights of all People” sessions on the calendar.

This is the problem, you see. It is clear from Kelly’s reporting that the evangelical air in Colorado “Wheaton of the West” Springs is pretty thick with spiritual jargon and symbolism. But these reports are so one-sided, in terms of source material, that it seems like they were dictated by someone at Unitarian-Universalist national headquarters. No, I take that back. The U-Us I know are much more comfortable with opposing points of views.

What we need here is some attempt to verify basic facts and accusations from both sides of the story. Who finally gets to speak for the evangelical world? Is it someone from the academy? Nope. It’s the totally predictable source — a Focus on the Family spokesman.

Once again, this is a free-speech story. This cuts both ways, in terms of the freedom of people to voice strong opinions and for others to oppose them. It’s clear that some people have crossed the line and pushed their theological agendas in a military forum fueled with tax dollars. But does this mean the academy needs some kind of viewpoint discrimination that is enforced by the state?

Do all student groups lose the right to post news about events? To send emails? To debate issues at the heart of their worldviews? Does this apply to Islam? Orthodox Judaism? NPR listeners? Grateful Dead fans?

Here is another glimpse into that RSVP classroom:

. . . Capt. Paula Grant, a law professor, told participants they must balance their right to exercise their religion with the right of others not to be intimidated or harassed.

“We are not trying to stamp out religion,” Grant said. “It’s a matter of how you go about it. You cannot use your uniform to further your personal agenda, whether it’s religion or sports or anything.” . . .

As the class ended, one participant, Lt. Col. Marcia Meeks-Eure, paused before leaving. “I think this sort of thing is very good because it underscores what we are supposed to be doing,” she said. “I am Baptist but I won’t talk about my faith unless someone asks.”

That is chilling, if you know anything about Baptists and their historic defense of free speech. You see, Meeks-Eure has a right to talk to people about her faith in a wide variety of settings. And other people have every right to ask her to stop. That may be a bit tense, but that’s what free speech is all about.

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Some things never change

ErnestoCardenal.jpgErnesto Cardenal’s time in the media spotlight was brief but iconic. The bearded poet of the Sandinista revolution removed his beret and attempted to kneel when greeting Pope John Paul II in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1983. John Paul not only stopped Cardenal from kneeling but also delivered a finger-wagging scolding about the priest’s volunteering his talent for verse to the Sandinista cause.

Cardenal popped up on one of many video summaries of John Paul’s 26-year papacy — just long enough to say the pope misunderstood Marxism. Reed Johnson of the Los Angeles Times has written a 1,700-word Column One piece on Cardenal’s continuing commitment to the Sandinista vision (though not to former president Daniel Ortega, “whom Cardenal has accused of acting like a dictator by quashing dissent within the Sandinista party and cutting cynical deals with the party’s former opponents”).

Johnson’s piece is a reminder that although Cardenal has no use for U.S. foreign policy, he’s been shaped by American culture, including a time as a disciple of Thomas Merton (who also was no slouch when it came to opposing U.S. foreign policy):

Cardenal’s life is one of active solitude. He spends much of his time reading and writing. He receives visitors at home but doesn’t use the Internet, entrusting a secretary with his extensive correspondence. He still sculpts, a passion that began during his student days at New York’s Columbia University in the late 1940s. With satisfaction, he points to an elegant abstract piece modeled after a tropical plant.

And he still writes poetry.

In a country where poets are treated like movie stars, Cardenal is admired for his plain-spoken candor, technical innovations and sheer productivity. His wide-ranging intellect, epigrammatic style and blank-verse emotional immediacy recall such key influences as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

In his longer narrative poems such as “With Walker in Nicaragua,” about William Walker, the Tennessee soldier of fortune who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s and tried to transform it into a slave society, Cardenal uses the canto form to spin history into verse. Reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” in its lush, symbolic imagery and haunted, backward-glancing point of view, “With Walker in Nicaragua” is a masterpiece of historical re-imagination.

Only in some later works does Cardenal occasionally fall into polemics. “He can be such a superb poet,” critic Richard Elman wrote in the Nation in 1985, “that his occasional wordiness and heavy-handedness is all the more unforgivable.”

Cardenal’s emphatically mixed feelings about the United States surface in many of his poems, as well as in his latest memoirs. As a young man he honed his beliefs while living in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where he became a disciple of Thomas Merton, the monk who was a poet, theologian and social justice advocate. Though his spoken English is limited, he has read widely in that language and has translated English poetry into Spanish. “American poetry has influenced me more than that of any other country,” he says.

Although Cardenal has not, like Dominican-turned-Episcopalian Matthew Fox, prepared 22 questions for John Paul’s successor, he shares Fox’s pessimism about the Catholic Church under Benedict XVI: “Asked about the new pope in an interview last week with a Nicaraguan publication, Cardenal described Benedict as an ‘inquisitor’ and called his election a ‘fatal’ decision by the church.”

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God: dead but lively

haggard.jpgGiven that newsstand copies of the May Harper’s have an ad flap that reads “The Christian Right’s War on America,” it was only a matter of time before one of us GetReligion sleuths broke down and bought a copy to investigate.

As Giblets would say, “Interesting stuff.” Editor Lewis Lapham’s Notebook item, “Wrath of the Lamb,” contains a lot of the usual snobbish bashing of the Republicans/Romans, but it also has this little biographical digression that tells us something about the Ivory Tower of yesteryear:

As an unbaptized child raised in a family that went to church only for weddings and funerals, I didn’t encounter the problem of religious belief until I reached Yale College in the 1950s, where I was informed by the liberal arts faculty that it wasn’t pressing because God was dead. What remained to be discussed was the autopsy report; apparently there was still some confusion about the cause and time of death, and the undergraduate surveys of Western civilization offered a wide range of options — God disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, assassinated in eighteenth-century Paris by agents of the French Enlightenment, lost at sea in 1834 while on a voyage to the Galapagos Islands, blown to pieces by German artillery at Verdun, garroted by Friedrich Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp, and the body laid to rest on the consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud.

The two long pieces that comprise the cover package are an article on National Religious Broadcasters by the very annoying Chris Hedges and a report from Colorado Springs by The Revealer‘s Jeff Sharlet. The Hedges story was about as predictable as one would imagine. As usual, the former New York Times writer passes over any opportunities for empathy to instead sneer at his subjects. But the Sharlet piece, “Soldiers of Christ,” is fascinating.

The Revealer editor went to Colorado Springs to learn about New Life (mega)Church — its history, its founder, Pastor Ted Haggard (pictured), its influence on politics and culture — to turn out a long, frustrating, occasionally rewarding piece:

Long: It clocks out at 14 pages. At, let’s say, 1,000 words a page, you won’t be able to breeze through it. Frustrating: I’m into literary openings, but the page and a half of framing is so breathlessly Harper’s-esque that I nearly gave up.

Rewarding: Sharlet actually took the time to try to get to know and understand how Haggard put together this 11,000-member megachurch and what it says about evangelicals and the United States.

There’s a lot to note here — the Frank Peretti-style unabashed talk of angels and demons and visions and spiritual warfare, for starters — but I think this was the most revealing passage of the piece about the ways in which modern megachurchism separates itself from that old time religion:

Free-market economics is a “truth” Ted says he learned in his first job in professional Christendom, as a Bible smuggler in Eastern Europe. Globalization, he believes, is merely a vehicle for the spread of Christianity. He means Protestantism in particular; Catholics, he said, “constantly look back.” He went on: “And the nations dominated by Catholicism look back. They don’t tend to create our greatest entrepreneurs, inventors, research and development. Typically, Catholic nations aren’t shooting people into space. Protestantism, though, always looks to the future. A typical kid raised in Protestantism dreams about the future. A typical kid raised in Catholicism values and relishes the past, the saints, the history.”

Haggard uses this insight into Catholicism to cast a skeptical glance at certain forms of immigration:

“In America, the descendents of the Protestants, the Puritan descendants, we want to create a better future and our speakers say that sort of thing. But with the influx of people from Mexico, they don’t tend to be the ones that go to universities and become our research-and-development people. And so in that way I see a little clash of civilizations.”

There’s more, but I’m done excerpting for the morning. If you’ve read the essay and want to chime in with comments, go to it.

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