Catholic Values for a Secular World

Bishops Speak Out in Midst of Hostility

By Father John Flynn


ROME, MAY 13, 2007 ( Verbal hostility and even death threats have heightened tensions in the clash over same-sex couples in Italy. Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa received an envelope containing a bullet and a message with the star-shaped symbol of an Italian terrorist group, reported the ANSA news agency April 30.


In the face of government proposals to introduce a series of legal rights for same-sex couples, both the Catholic Church and lay groups have spoken out strongly in defense of marriage and the family. The problems started for Archbishop Bagnasco, who was named by Benedict XVI as the president of the Italian episcopal conference in early March, after a speech March 30 in his Genoa Archdiocese to those working in the area of culture and communications.


He explained that the Church’s support for the family based on marriage between a man and a woman is founded on solid anthropological reasons, reported the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire the following day. Therefore, the Church is not imposing its faith in a pluralistic society.


He warned, however, that if the criteria for laws are reduced to a mere question of public opinion, then there is no basis to reject calls to allow incest, or to deny initiatives such as the recently proposed political party for pedophiles in the Netherlands.


Archbishop Bagnasco’s comments sparked off a series of threats, graffiti daubed on the Genoa cathedral and other protests, culminating in the bullet received late April.


The ensuing hostilities have extended to the Pope. In its April 30 report, ANSA noted that posters appeared in Genoa’s city center showing Benedict XVI shaking hands with Hitler or standing in front of a firing squad.


May Day animosity


Then, during a May 1 rock concert in Rome, one of the presenters, Andrea Rivera, had harsh words for both Benedict XVI and the Church. Both the Italian labor unions, who organize the annual concert, and political authorities were quick to condemn Rivera’s statement, reported Italian daily newspaper La Stampa on May 3.


Rivera refused to back down, however, and graffiti attacking Genoa’s archbishop continue to appear. In addition to a police escort, the prelate has recently started to use a bulletproofed car, reported ANSA on May 6.


In an interview published April 30 in La Stampa, Cardinal Julián Herranz, until recently president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, expressed concern over the climate of intolerance being created against the Church.


The cardinal stipulated that he did not want to overly dramatize what had occurred in the protests against Archbishop Bagnasco, but at the same time warned against attempts by some minority groups to silence the Church. In addition, the cardinal adverted that those who provoke hate only give ammunition to violent extremists.


Slippery slope


The warnings of Genoa’s archbishop against incest and other problems that result once society loses sight of a sound anthropology are based on legitimate concerns, as experience in other countries demonstrates.


— Patrick Stuebing and Susan Karolewski of Leipzig, Germany, are siblings, although they did not grow up together. They now live together as a couple and have four children. The law prohibits incest and Stuebing has already served a two-year jail sentence. After another recent conviction his lawyer has lodged an appeal with the German Constitutional Court, seeking to overturn the ban on incest (BBC, March 7).


— Paul Lowe of Ohio has been convicted of incest with his stepdaughter and has appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. Lowe is using the precedent of the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case that struck down a prohibition against homosexual sodomy. At the time, critics warned it would be used as a precedent to eliminate other laws regulating sexual conduct (The Boston Globe, May 2).


— Sara Wheeler gave birth to a son, Gavin, through artificial insemination in Georgia, in the United States, in 2000. Her lesbian partner, Missy, took Sara’s surname and together they jointly adopted Gavin. In 2004 the couple split and now Sara Wheeler is taking legal action to invalidate the adoption of Gavin by her former partner. The case is now before the Georgia Supreme Court (Associated Press, March 25).


— Last year the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that Isabella Miller-Jenkins has two mothers. The civil union registered under Vermont’s state law between Isabella’s biological mother, Lisa Miller, and her former lesbian partner, Janet Jenkins, broke up, and the two were in conflict over parental rights. The decision is in conflict with a 2004 ruling by a court in Virginia, where Lisa Miller now lives with Isabella, that granted sole custody to the biological mother (New York Times, Aug. 5, 2006).


— A ruling by a court in the Canadian province of Ontario left a 5-year-old boy with three legal parents, two mothers and a father. A lesbian couple and the sperm donor entered into conflict over access to the boy, leading to the ruling (National Post, Jan. 4).


God in the public square


Faced with challenges of such nature, and of similarly worrying developments in areas such as bioethics, bishops in a growing number of countries are speaking out in clear terms about the need to preserve moral values.


Prior to the recent local elections in Scotland, the Catholic bishops published a letter, read at all masses on the weekend of April 14-15, that spoke of a “conflict of values in society.”


The bishops mentioned legislation on subjects such as abortion, embryo experimentation, schools and family law. “There are signs of a desire for an authentic Christian voice in politics serving the common good of people of all faiths and none,” the letter stated.


“We invite you to look beyond the superficially attractive and fashionable to recognize those policies and values which are most in tune with the dignity of the human person and with the common good of our society,” declared the bishops.


Argentina’s bishops have also written a pastoral letter addressing the question of politics and faith. The letter, dated April 28, was written to guide Catholics prior to elections this October.


After urging the faithful to know and apply the social teaching of the Church, the letter highlighted a number of themes of particular relevance. Among those mentioned was the question of protecting human life from the moment of conception until its natural end, and the need to protect the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman.


Meanwhile in Spain, Bishop Ricardo Blázquez of Bilbao addressed the issue of faith in a secular society. Bishop Blázquez gave the inaugural discourse April 23 at a meeting of Spain’s episcopal conference, of which he is president.


Christians, he noted, have the mission of announcing the message of God’s love, which strengthens human dignity. A secular state should not seek to reduce religion to a merely individual sentiment, to be hidden away in private, Bishop Blázquez urged. The Church, also, should be free to defend and promote those values that give meaning to life and safeguard human dignity.


Even in a pluralistic society, Bishop Blázquez continued, there is a need for some consensus on moral issues based on what is true for all persons, whether they be religious believers or not. Liberty needs to be in harmony with what is the truth about the human person, that is, with the natural law. As a consequence, he said, freedom needs to be educated, so it does not lose its way or converts itself into egoism. A counsel bishops in many countries are now offering with increasing vigor.


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