Making sense of limbo

Last year, Sister Sara Butler was nice enough to walk me through limbo. So to speak.

Butler, who teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, is a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, which studies heavy duty questions at the request of the pope.

I talked to Butler because the commission was known to be looking at the thorny and age-old question of what happens to the souls of infants who die before baptism. Since the Middle Ages, the Catholic answer has been limbo — a happy place, but not heaven. And separate from God.

At the time, Butler told me:

“Generally speaking, people everywhere believe that God in his mercy will certainly find a way to bring these children to heaven But it’s not possible to simply say that. The pope can’t just announce the abolition of limbo. We have to study closely all the implications and then say clearly what this means.”

On April 20, the commission finally released its report: The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.

I’ve been hoping to speak with Butler again, but simply haven’t found the time (hey, there’s a lot going on). But Inside the Vatican magazine has just published an “interview”: with her, so I’ll include some highlights here:

Inside the Vatican: Sister Butler, your commission’s latest document about limbo has sparked a lot of controversy. In essence, what is the International Theological Commission trying to say in its document about the fate of unbaptized infants?

Sister Sara Butler: The commission is trying to say what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1260, 1261, 1283) has already said: that we have a right to hope that God will find a way to offer the grace of Christ to infants who have no opportunity for making a personal choice with regard to their salvation. It’s trying to provide a theological rationale for what has already been proposed in several magisterial documents since the Council. Continue reading

Another Mormon moment

Non-Mormons seem to be endlessly fascinated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Maybe it’s the church’s American roots? The long BANNED polygamy? The westward journey that created something like a kingdom in Utah? The church’s amazing growth? The tall spires on the temples? The foreign and mysterious rituals?

Probably all of the above.

With Mitt Romney’s run for the GOP presidential nomination, many Americans are taking a fresh or deeper look at the LDS.

And so is PBS. Tonight and tomorrow night, PBS’ Frontline will debut…”The Mormons.”: Two hours each night, from 9 to 11 p.m.

Tonight’s show will deal with the history of the Mormon church. Tomorrow, we learn about the modern church.

PBS offers this:

THE MORMONS traces the Latter-day Saints’ transformation in recent decades from the status of outcasts to mainstream players in U.S. politics and culture and into a global religion with as many as 240,000 converts annually, thanks to the efforts of Mormon missionaries. Each year, 50,000 Mormon teenagers join “God’s Army” and march across the planet from Latin America to Mongolia to Zimbabwe. “You go,” says Bryan Horn, a returned missionary. “Dad went. Grandpa went. And Grandpa, who’s a descendant of Wilfred Woodruff, who was taught by Joseph Smith, went on missions.”

If that’s not enough, on Friday we get the release of “September Dawn,”: a major motion picture that deals with the so-called “Mountain Meadows Massacre” of Sept. 11, 1857, when a group of Mormons killed 120 settlers from Arkansas who were traveling through Utah. It stars Jon Voight as a “fanatic Mormon bishop.”

Yes, I forgot to ask Voight about it when I talked to him last week.

Interestingly, the “Mormon History Association”: is meeting in Salt Lake City next month to discuss the massacre and other subjects. “What caused these Mormon settlers to kill 120 immigrants is a question still hotly debated by researchers and descendants today,” according to release from the historians.

No papal trip this year

In case you missed it, it appears that Pope Benedict XVI will not be visiting the U.S. this year.

“Catholic News Service”: is reporting that Vatican sources say that no steps are being taken toward a papal visit to the United Nations in September for the opening of the General Assembly.

The pope has accepted an invitation to visit the U.N. Maybe next year?

Now Jews are talking about Hispanics

So the other day the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a major “report”: on how Hispanics are affecting Christian practice in this country.

Now the American Jewish Committee is also focusing on Hispanics — suggesting that the Jewish community had better spend more time getting to know the fast-growing Hispanic community.

“Existing research supports the conclusion that Hispanics hold more negative views of Jews than non-Hispanics do, but the extent of that difference and its pattern are unclear,” writes Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center and author of a new AJC report, Hispanic Attitudes Toward Jews.

Smith offers several possible reasons, including “anti-Semitic elements in Latin American Catholicism; fascist political movements in Latin America; little positive exposure to the Jewish community in both Latin America and the U.S.; and socio-demographic and attitudinal differences separating the Hispanic and Jewish communities in the U.S.”

The AJC report is “here.”:

Voice of Faithful still kicking, looking at financial accountability

It’s been almost five years since Voice of the Faithful came together in Boston to call for a greater lay voice in the Catholic Church.

These days, you can’t say that VOF is thriving. The group has a tiny presence in most regions of the country and has hardly caught on in the Archdiocese of New York (there are only three or four chapters).

But Voice is surviving. An active group in the Diocese of Bridgeport continues to meet, bring in speakers and provide a lay voice — whether or not anyone is listening.

Tomorrow (Saturday, April 28), the Bridgeport group is holding a provocative conference at Fairfield University (in Fairfield, Conn.). It’s called: “Follow the Money: Financial Accountability in the Catholic Church.”

A few months ago, a Villanova University study found that, over a five-year period, money was embezzled from 85 percent of Catholic dioceses surveyed (45 percent of the nation’s dioceses responded). In 11 percent of the cases surveyed, the amount stolen exceeded $500,000.

Mary Pat Fox of NYC, who was elected national president of VOF last year, will speak about “Our role in financial accountability.”

A Jesuit, the Rev. Aloysius Kelley, the chair of Catholic studies at Fairfield U, will also take part, which some folks at the Diocese of Bridgeport probably won’t like.

The conference will go from 9:30 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. at the Oak Room of the Barone Campus Center at Fairfield.

For information, go to the Bridgeport VOF “website”: and look to the left.

Religious intellectuals speak out

There are so many good programs and lectures in NYC and the burbs, where do you begin?

But if you’re interested in the role that religion should play in the public square, this one should be good.

The Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC is holding a forum on Wednesday, May 2, on the responsibility of religiously committed intellectuals to speak out on the political, cultural and social questions that affect everybody. It’s at 7 p.m.

Taking part will be: Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect, JTS; Lenn Goodman, the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Vanderbilt University; the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, head of the FIRST THINGS religion journal; and Os Guinness, the writer and social critic.

It’s a real good line-up. They’ll chew it up, for sure. But I have another commitment that night.

“JTS”: is located at 3080 Broadway (at 122nd Street).

A quiet black church group of 7 million

I was very surprised today to receive a press release from the National Baptist Convention USA, the nation’s largest African-American church group. Apparently, an NBC delegation left Sunday for a 12-day trip to the Vatican, Switzerland, South Africa and Kenya.

I don’t often hear from the “Convention.”: I know more than a little bit about the group because I twice covered the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon when he ran for the presidency of the Convention. He came in a close second to the Rev. William Shaw of Philadelphia in 1999 and then lost to the incumbent again in 2004.

The Convention keeps a low profile, except during periods of controversy. When Richardson, the pastor of Grace Baptist Church, ran, he insisted that he would make the Convention a political and social force on the national scene. But he never got the chance.

I met Shaw a few times, and there’s no doubt that he is a good and faith-filled man. He brought the Convention out of a dark period (his predecessor went to prison for stealing from the group), but has pretty much stayed out of the news.

The Convention may reach out to the black press. I don’t know. But it has very little contact with the mainstream media, something I’ve never been able to understand. The Convention has something like 7 million members from thousands of churches.

When I covered Richardson’s last run for president at the New Orleans Convention Center (exactly one year before Katrina), the only reporters there were me and Bruce Nolan, the fine religion reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

There were 35,000 African-American Baptists there.

Anyway, the delegation plans to meet with representatives of the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, the South African government and the All Africa Conference of Churches, among others. I hope I hear how it goes.

Voight brothers praise their Catholic education

I know this isn’t Surburbarazzi, but I have to say that Jon Voight and his brothers were kind and gracious and very funny when I chatted with them last night at the VIP Country Club in Rye.

The three brothers were inducted into the Stepinac High School Hall of Fame and were quite eager to “talk”: about the importance of their Catholic upbringing and Catholic education.

The oldest, Barry, a prominent volcano expert at Penn State, was a hoot, wearing a Stepinac baseball hat and joking about mixing it up with his brothers when they were kids in Yonkers.

The youngest, James, is better known as Chip Taylor, the writer of “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning” and still a successful singer/songwriter. (For music fans: I asked him which were his favorite versions of “Wild Thing.” He mentioned the classic original by the Troggs, the classic cover by Jimi Hendrix and a lesser-known but equally great version by punk pioneers X.)

tjndc5-5b5jshshdq8jslzwezi_layout.jpgJon Voight looked to be having a ball meeting old classmates (that’s his yearbook photo from 1956). He must have posed for 100 pictures, every inch the movie star.

Jon wasn’t too connected with the Stepinac community for many years after he made some risque films, particularly “Midnight Cowboy.” But he played Pope John Paul II in a TV mini-series in 2005, getting good reviews from Benedict XVI, and soon after reconciled with his alma mater.

People keep asking me (half-jokingly, I’m sure) whether I ask him about his daughter. No, I did not. Sorry.

Rosie O’Donnell will need a new forum for her views

Rosie O’Donnell is out on “The View,” AP is reporting, because she could not reach a new contract with ABC.

In the wake of the Don Imus situation, I wonder if ABC did not want to continue to draw the ire of Christian groups for O’Donnell’s statements.

She said a while back that “radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America.”

And after last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, Rosie really went off:

“You know what concerns me?” she said on “The View.” “How many Supreme Court judges are Catholic?”

“Five,” Barbara Walters answered.

“Five,” O’Donnell said. “How about separation of church and state in America?”

Then O’Donnell said: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

Hispanics changing Catholic life, study says

We’ve all heard that growing numbers of Hispanics are leaving the Catholic Church for the evangelical and Pentecostal worlds.

Well, a more significant trend may be how Hispanics are changing the Catholic Church from within.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released today a major study on the religious beliefs and practices of Hispanics in America. Pew found that 68 percent of Hispanics still identify themselves as Catholic, while 20 percent say they are Protestant.

But more than half of Hispanic Catholics say they are charismatic, living a Spirit-filled faith is that commonly associated with Pentecostal tradition. Only 8 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics say they are charismatic.

“The major findings in this study leave little doubt that a detailed understanding of religious faith among Latinos is essential to fully appreciating the evolving nature of religion in the United States and of the role Latinos will likely play in the country’s politics and public life,� said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.

You can read the study “here.”:

I will have to give it a full reading soon and blog about what else Pew has to say.