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Shocking "gospel"
  By Terry Mattingly  
  ANYONE who attends one of the national church assemblies that dot the calendar every summer knows that they are highly ritualized affairs.

Officers will be elected.

Political issues will be discussed. Lofty resolutions will be passed. At least one long business session will include a proposal about clergy benefits and salaries.

In recent decades, gatherings in the "seven sisters" of mainline Protestantism have also -- to varying degrees --
featured battles over sex. These flocks are, in descending order of size, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

But as the hours pass, veterans know that they can take breaks whenever the word "greeting" appears in the agenda, marking a polite mini-speech by a visiting civic leader or religious dignitary.

But something unusual happened recently during the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). An official "ecumenical advisory delegate" -- Father Siarhei Hardun of the Orthodox Church of Belarus -- used his moment at the podium to deliver a message that was courteous and stunning at the same time, if not genuinely offensive to many in the audience.

"Frankly, he was pretty sly about what he said and how he said it," noted the Rev. Carmen S. Fowler, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee. "People are used to dozing off during these greetings, so this caught them off guard... Most of the General Assembly yawned its way through the most provocative moment of the whole event."

Speaking in clear, but careful, English, Hardun thanked the Presbyterians for the economic aid that helped Orthodox churches in his land rebuild social ministries after decades of bloody Communist persecution. Only 20 years ago, he noted, there were 370 parishes left and, today, there are more than 1500. He thanked the assembly for its kindness and hospitality.

However, the Orthodox priest ended by offering his take on the assembly's debates as it prepared for another attempt to modernize Christian doctrines on sexuality. Shortly before his "greeting" the commissioners voted 373-323 to approve, for the fifth time in two decades, the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. Regional presbyteries must now approve the measure, which is the stage at which previous efforts were defeated -- by increasingly smaller margins.

"Christian morality is as old as Christianity itself. It doesn't need to be invented now. Those attempts to invent new morality look for me like attempts to invent a new religion -- a sort of modern paganism," said Hardun, drawing scattered applause.

"When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible, if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the Holy Orthodox Church not to change anything in Christian doctrine and moral standards. But if it is the same Spirit, I wonder... if there are different spirits acting in different denominations and inspiring them to develop in different directions and to create different theologies and different morals?"

The priest closed with a quote from St. Paul, urging the Presbyterians: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

Later in that business day, a slim 51 per cent of the assembly voted to defeat a proposal to redefine marriage as a holy covenant between "two people," rather than one between "a man and a woman."

General Assembly moderator Cindy Bolbach -- an outspoken advocate of the gay-rights measures -- offered no comment whatsoever about Hardun's remarks when he left the podium, but quickly moved on to other business. However, before her election she urged her church not to fear the repercussions of an era of change. The denomination has lost half of its members since the 1960s.

"We have to learn how to proclaim the Gospel in a multicultural age where Christianity is no longer at the center," she said, in a survey of the candidates for the moderator post. "We have to learn how to tell people who have grown suspicious of institutions why an institution like the P.C. (USA) can be of value to them... And we have to accept the loss of the church we have always known -- as the church transforms itself into something new."
 
   
   
A father's fight
  By Terry Mattingly  
  It wasn't hard to connect the dots when, after decades of lurid news about the sexual abuse of the young, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a Good Friday sermon bemoaning "how much filth" was in the church, including "the priesthood."

Weeks later that signal in 2005, the cardinal became Pope. Then at World Youth Day 2008, he said, "I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured... These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation."

The Pope's recent letter to Irish Catholics also made headlines, of course. After new cries for repentance, Benedict XVI told the victims: "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Ö It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church."

All of these words were spoken in public and, thus, led to debates and discussions around the world. However, in recent months tuned-in Catholics have been reading about a private, strategic statement -- by a Catholic layman -- that may have had the greatest practical impact in American sanctuaries. The St. Louis Beacon, an independent online newspaper, recently published the document.

The 10-page memo was written by David Spotanski, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Belleville in Southern Illinois, and given to his bishop on Feb. 22, 2002.

It's crucial that Bishop Wilton D. Gregory had recently become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- just as another wave of abuse reports hit the news. When the bishop began scanning the document, Spotanski took it back and read it aloud, behind closed doors.

"The truth is that our bishops are not doing all they CAN to stop sexual abuse of minors by their brother priests; they're doing all they CARE TO," wrote Spotanski. "Like most Catholics I'm stunned and horrified that there's a distinction... For a Church that can be so outspoken and uncompromising about the splinters in the eyes of our culture, She has apparently for decades hypocritically concealed a plank in Her own eye from which one could hew an ark."

In addition to handing the bishop the memo, Spotanski provided a photo of his daughter and two sons, who were 14, 11 and 9 when it was taken. He then placed a copy of the photo in Gregory's briefcase before every major meeting the bishop attended that year -- including a face-to-face meeting between Pope John Paul II and the president of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Gregory also met with Cardinal Ratzinger and other top Vatican officials.

This led to a crucial Vatican summit on the abuse crisis and, eventually, much tougher policies to protect children in American churches.

While that charter didnít take every action advised by Spotanski, noted commentator Ross Douthat, it's safe to say that "while the princes of the American church were immobilized by denial ... the rough draft of the policy that righted the ship was being written by a middle-aged layman in the Midwest, in consultation with the Catholic dads on his local softball team."

The New York Times columnist, who is an active Catholic, called Spotanski, the "man who saved American Catholicism."

If so, the key to the memo was its blunt, personal tone and its emphasis on the damage done to the lives and faith of ordinary Catholic children and their parents. For example, Spotanski asked, what Jesus would say to a cardinal who has "shown himself to be dishonest about his knowledge of the forcible anal rape of children?" He then quoted a bishop as observing, "I don't think I'd like hell very much."

Most of all, he argued, Catholic bishops needed to start thinking about their own vows and the church's future and, thus, stop treating victims like "lepers, sinners, nuisances or threats." At some point, faithful Catholics would close their hearts and their checkbooks.

When that happened, warned Spotanski, bishops in "tainted dioceses" would have to "choose between their missions and their mansions, their food buses and their limousines, the 'least of their brothers' and Brooks Brothers... The depleted bottom line is that you simply can't run a major American archdiocese for very long on 30 silver coins."
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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