Evolution and religion: Like peanut butter and jelly

Almost 13,000 members of the clergy have signed a statement supporting the teaching of evolution.

They include — as of today — 11,813 Christians, 432 rabbis and 126 Unitarians.

According to a statement from the Clergy Letter Project’s organizer, Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis:

For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.

Feb. 12 is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. And 2009 is the 150th anniversary of his publication of “On the Origin of Species.”

The Clergy Letter Project is encouraging religious congregations to celebrate “Evolution Weekend” from Feb. 13 to 15.

So far, 885 congregations from all 50 states have signed up.

‘To deny the Holocaust is not a heresy even though it is a lie’

The pope’s decision to nullify the excommunication of four “traditionalist” bishops is getting a surprising amount of attention because one of the bishops appears to be something of a Holocaust denier.

A bit of background: The Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X was founded in 1969 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. He and others were opposed to many of the reforms that came out of Vatican II, including the decision to allow the Mass to be celebrated in local languages and the Roman Catholic Church’s new emphasis on ecumenism and interfaith relations.

Four “bishops” who were consecrated by Marcel — without papal consent — were excommunicated by Pope JPII 20 years ago.

It has been a clear priority of Pope B16 to reconnect with the Society. He quickly met with the group’s current leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay. Soon after, the pope eased restrictions on the Latin Mass.

Now he’s chosen to erase the excommunication of the four bishops, a move that has been anticipated and would be of interest primarily to Catholics who follow this sort of thing.

In other words, not most.

However, one of the rehabilitated bishops, British Bishop Richard Williamson, recently said in a Swedish TV interview that there is no evidence that Jews were gassed by Nazi Germany. Watch:

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And Jewish groups are not that happy.

The ADL’s Abe Foxman says:

We are stunned that the Vatican has ignored our concerns by welcoming back into the fold a bishop who denies the Holocaust and rejects the seminal reforms of Vatican II.

This decree sends a terrible message to Catholics around the world that there is room in the Church for those who would undermine the Church’s teachings and who would foster disdain and contempt for other religions, particularly Judaism. Given the centuries-long history of anti-Semitism in the Church, this is a most troubling setback.

The American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi David Rosen:

While the Vatican’s reconciliation with the SSPX is an internal Catholic Church matter, embracing an open Holocaust denier is shameful. By welcoming an open Holocaust denier into the Catholic Church without any recantation on his part, the Vatican has made a mockery of John Paul II’s moving and impressive repudiation and condemnation of anti-Semitism.

The Association of Italian Rabbis, according to the AP, pulled out last week of the Italian Catholic Church’s annual celebration of Judaism, saying that the rehabilitation of Williamson was “canceling” 50 years of interfaith progress.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, said today that the rabbis’ reaction was “unjust.” But he also denounced Williamson’s views on the Holocaust, calling them “unfounded and unjustified.”

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told the AP: “They are his personal ideas … that we certainly don’t share but they have nothing to do with the issue of the excommunication and the removal of the excommunication.”

Monsignor Robert Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told the AP: “To deny the Holocaust is not a heresy even though it is a lie. The excommunication can be lifted because he is not a heretic, but he remains a liar.”

Jewish groups, of course, have often spoken out regarding Catholic actions related to the WWII era (the actions of Pope Pius XII, the canonization of Edith Stein, etc.). Things get hairy when Jewish leaders weigh in on internal matters like who the church should or should not canonize or excommunicate.

The way these things go, if Jewish groups and others continue to denounce what they perceive to be the Vatican’s “endorsement” of Williamson, the Vatican will likely release a statement of some sort distancing itself from Williamson’s views. If such a statement has already been made — other than Lombardi’s quote — I’ve missed it.

LATE ADD: Catholic analyst John Allen adds this in a NCR column about the affair:

In retrospect, however, it would be disingenuous for anyone to feign surprise.

A troubled history with Judaism has long been part of the Catholic traditionalist movement associated with the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre — beginning with Lefebvre himself, who spoke approvingly of both the World War II-era Vichy Regime in France and the far-right National Front, and who identified the contemporary enemies of the faith as “Jews, Communists and Freemasons” in an Aug. 31, 1985, letter to Pope John Paul II.

He later notes:

Observers of the traditionalist landscape caution people not to paint with too broad a brush, as if every Catholic attracted to the older Latin Mass or to traditional views on doctrinal matters is somehow tainted by anti-Semitism. Similarly, experts also warn that critics of Catholic traditionalism can sometimes be quick to label as “anti-Semitic” attitudes that may be controversial theologically or politically, but that don’t in themselves reflect real prejudice.

Monsignor William Smith had a way with words

Anytime I called Monsignor William Smith, which I did many times over the years, I knew that he wouldn’t say much. But I knew he would get right to the point and that all his words would count.

Talking to me about the late Mother Teresa in 2003, he said: “She was very nice, very proper, very much like the pope, with that Slavic dedication toward pursuing a goal, but she could be blunt, and I wouldn’t say she was a sentimental lady.”

I loved that: “I wouldn’t say she was a sentimental lady.”

When I talked to him in 2005 about the pope’s concerns about religious relativism, Smith said that there are core Christian beliefs — “the golden oldies” he called them — that cannot be ignored. “This does not sit well with people who have a secular notion of academic freedom,” he said.

When we talked at St. Joseph’s Seminary in 2001 about cloning, stem cell research and other areas of scientific “progress,” Smith said: “People tend to see progress as inevitable. No one has accused America of being very philosophical. We are a pragmatic, basically utilitarian people. If it works, it works. But Pope Paul VI said that all progress is ambivalent. Something can be invented for good, but then be used in other ways.”

I’ve lost one of my favorite sources on “moral” matters. Smith died Saturday at the age of 69 from pneumonia. I last saw him at Cardinal Dulles’ funeral a few weeks ago and could see that he was not well (I thought the same thing that day about Father Richard John Neuhaus, and he died on Jan. 8).

Smith was the professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary since 1971. I understand that he was the longest serving faculty member in the history of the seminary. He taught a good number of the priests serving in New York today.

He grew up in Yonkers and, after a few stop-overs elsewhere, stayed in Yonkers.

He was smart, honest, funny (in a really, really dry way) and very modest. He always looked to me to be completely at home shuffling through the vast (and, today, mostly empty) halls of the seminary. He was not a guy who was looking for attention — even though he was interviewed many times about abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and all those issues that cause great angst in the public square.

He probably came across as dour to people who didn’t know him. He was unapologetic about being an orthodox Catholic and often said that many people who describe themselves as Catholic are not really getting the job done. But he was really a warm fellow who liked to talk to people about whatever was on their minds.

Smith was a heavy smoker, probably one reason that he had a deep, deep voice.

I once asked him whether smoking, which could cut down his life span, was an affront to the natural processes of life that the Catholic Church — and he — holds dear. I thought it was a question worth asking, but I was a little nervous to ask him. He looked down and took a deep breath. I could tell he had wrestled with this question before. Then he answered. “Maybe,” he said.

Smith advised archbishops and Vatican officials on moral questions. But he never, to my knowledge, wrote a book for either an academic or popular audience. He seemed quite content with whatever audience he had.

When I called him about cloning in 1997, he delivered this beauty: “It’s ironic that people have spent years trying to have sex without having babies. Now, they want to have babies without sex.”

He said that sort of thing without a chuckle.

It’s PopeTube

The Vatican has launched its own channel on YouTube.

Check it out HERE.

The AP’s Nicole Winfield reports:


VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI joined U.S. President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II on Friday by launching his own YouTube channel, the latest Vatican effort to reach out to the digital generation.

The Vatican said it was launching the channel to broaden Benedict’s audience while also giving the Holy See better control over the papal image online.

In his inaugural foray, Benedict welcomed viewers to this “great family that knows no borders” and said he hoped they would “feel involved in this great dialogue of truth.”

The site, www.youtube.com/vaticanit, was launched the same day the pontiff praised as a “gift to humanity” the benefits of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace in forging friendships and understanding.

But Benedict also warned that virtual socializing had its risks, saying “obsessive” online networking could isolate people from real social interaction and broaden the digital divide by further marginalizing people.

And in his message for the World Day of Communications, he urged producers of new media to ensure that the content respected human dignity and the “goodness and intimacy of human sexuality.”

The 81-year-old pope has been extremely wary of new media and their effect on society, warning about what he has called the tendency of entertainment media, in particular, to trivialize sex and promote violence.

But Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, who heads the Vatican’s social communications office, said the pope fully approved of the Vatican YouTube channel, saying Benedict was “a man of dialogue” who wanted to engage with people wherever they were.

“It’s true that not all of humanity is found on YouTube, but millions of people meet on YouTube,” Celli told reporters. Continue reading

David and Goliath — without swords and stones

How do you “update” the story of David and Goliath for a modern TV audience?

By putting it in a fictional modern-day kingdom called Gilboa, apparently.

The LA Times writes of the upcoming show, to be called “Kings:”

The time period is now; the place, a kingdom called Gilboa, a land that looks much like the Northeastern United States. The capital city, Shiloh, is a gleaming metropolis that resembles a scrubbed-clean New York. It is ruled by King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane–pictured), a wily monarch who favors power suits over regal robes. When his son, Jack, is taken hostage by enemy troops, a young soldier named David Shepard risks his life to save him. The impetuous act makes him a media darling and propels him into the sphere of the royal family.

The show premieres on NBC on March 19 and then takes a weekly Thursday night time slot.

Michael Green, the creator, says he got the idea during a trip to Jerusalem: “A lot of feelings and emotions of the Bible are still resonant today,” he said. “I’ve always been taken with a hero’s journey, and the King David story in the Bible is one of the most classic hero journey’s tales.”

Torture ban draws applause

Not surprisingly, religious groups that have condemned the use of torture on terrorism suspects are quite excited that the new president agrees.

Obama has signed an executive order banning torture. On behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard, chair of the committee on international justice and peace, says: “Based upon the teachings of the Catholic Church, our Conference of Bishops welcomes the executive order. Together with other religious leaders, we had pressed for this step to protect human dignity and help restore the moral and legal standing of the United States in the world.”

He added: “A ban on torture says much about us – who we are, what we believe about human life and dignity, and how we act as a nation.”

Faith in Public Life, a group of religious leaders from many traditions who advocate the pursuit of “justice and the common good,” says:

For three years, religious leaders and organizations from across the faith and ideological spectrum have worked tirelessly to end America’s torture of detainees in its custody. Today, the faith community applauds President Obama’s executive orders banning torture, closing the prisons at Guantanamo Bay and secret locations, ensuring Red Cross access to all detainees, and ending extraordinary rendition. Together, we call for continuing diligence in the effort to ensure the US government never tortures again.

No word yet from those in the religious community who may disagree…

March for Life no inauguration ball

Busloads of Americans from all corners of the country are converging on Washington for the annual March for Life today, the 36th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.

About 200,000 people are expected. And they won’t be celebrating President Obama’s inauguration, at least not as it’s been celebrated until now.

The anti-abortion world is fearful that Obama will promote the Freedom of Choice Act, an abortion-rights bill that would override all other federal, state and local efforts to interfere with abortion rights. Obama was a co-sponsor of the 2007 Senate version of the bill and has said he will sign it as president if it is passed by Congress.

This promises to become an extremely contentious issue that could unravel whatever plans Obama has to get past politics as usual (liberal vs. conservative).

In an uncompromsing letter to Obama, Nellie Gray, president of the March for Life, wrote: “There is no common ground or ‘moderate’ position between ‘to kill or not to kill.’ “

Believers, non-believers and ‘radical amazement’

I can’t believe how many people have told me in the last 24 hours that they noticed when President Obama mentioned “non-believers” in his speech yesterday.

It stood out to me, but I listen for that sort of thing. I guess I’m not the only one.

Here’s what Obama said: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”

Non-believers are generally not mentioned when politicians, especially presidents, list off religious groups. One could imagine Obama and his aides going back and forth on whether to add the heathen (just kidding).

Or maybe not. Maybe he just went with it.

Now, if you spend a lot of time talking to people about faith and reading about faith, you may come away with the impression that the distinction between belief and non-belief is not always as stark as we might think.

A lot of people fall somewhere on a spectrum between belief and non-belief — and move back and forth along the scale.

I was thinking about this last night — and then, this morning, happened to come upon the FaithStreams website, which offers videos of religious teachers and authors doing their thing.

The homepage offered a chat with Neil Gillman, a Jewish philosophy prof at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC. He’s a provocative guy, so I clicked in.

And he offered this: “There is no faith without doubt. Faith is not something that you have and you hold on to. Faith is something you achieve – and you lose it – and you achieve – and you lose it.”

He quotes Rabbi Yitz Greenberg saying that the difference between believer and non-believer is the “frequency of doubt.”

He also talks about his famous, late teacher — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — and how he said that the human perception of God requires “radical amazement.”

Gillman says:

To be able to see a grain of sand, the most ordinary thing in the world, as a drama requires what he calls radical amazement. It is not fleeting curiosity…It is a basic way of looking at the world and seeing the entire work as revealing the presence of God.”

Of course, non-believers only see sand. At least most of the time.

Which wolf will you feed?

“Dancing ’till dawn? What were you thinking?”

With that line early in her sermon this morning, the Rev. Sharon Watkins got a nice laugh from President Obama and all of those in attendance at the National Prayer Service that concluded a while ago at Washington National Cathedral.

Then Watkins, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainline Protestant denomination, got more serious.

In a pretty lengthy and emphatic address, Watkins warned the new president that the many pressing challenges and dangers facing the U.S. could “draw you away from your ethical center.” She then repeatedly pressed Obama to hold to “your deepest values.”

“We will follow your lead,” she said.

Watkins recited a short tale from “Cherokee wisdom,” in which a grandfather tells his grandson that each of us contains a bad wolf — angry, fearful, self-pitying — and a good wolf — compassionate, faithful, hopeful. The wolves fight our internal battles.

The boy asks which wolf wins. His grandfather answers: “The one you feed.”

Message understood.

Watkins, the first woman to deliver the sermon at a National Prayer Service, said that economic and/or international crises can entice us — and our new president — to feed the wrong wolf.

“We need you to feed the good wolf within you, to listen to the better angels of your nature, and by your example, encourage us to do the same,” she told Obama, who was sitting in the front pew with the First Lady, the Bidens and the Clintons.

To work for justice in tough times, she said, “is the biblical way. It is also the American way.”

‘…and God bless America…’

God, as expected, played a big role in the inauguration.

President Obama, early in his speech, said this: “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Later, he said: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”

Non-believers. Has a president ever cited the role, even the existence, of non-believers in a major address?

He also spoke directly to the Muslim world:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

And talking about the great challenges facing our nation, and the price and promise of citizenship, he said: “This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

And he closed his inaugural address with this: “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

No, Rick Warren did not mention gay marriage in his invocation.

He did close his prayer by stating that Jesus is his savior — and by saying the Lord’s Prayer. Some didn’t want to hear an explicitly Christian prayer, but most didn’t mind, I would guess.

Warren also prayed: “Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood, but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all.”

He also said: “One day, all nations and all people will stand accountable before you.”

And: “We know today that Dr. King and a great crowd of witnesses are shouting in heaven.”

I don’t know how many people kept their TVs on to hear the Rev. Joseph Lowery pray after Obama’s address. The 87-year-old civil rights leader from Atlanta offered a very universal vision: “Because we know that you have got the whole world in your hands, we pray not only for our nation but for the community of nations.”

And he said: “Help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate, on the side of inclusion, not exclusion, tolerance, not intolerance.”

At the end, he said “Say amen” several times. And the great crowd did.