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Amy Welborn refers to the review of Garry Wills’ new book on Jesus in the current F IRST T HINGS , and then goes on to wonder about what makes Mr. Wills tick. The best she can figure it out, he is really angry that someone as bright as he is hasn’t been put in charge of the world, although he would settle for being in charge of the Catholic Church. The main obstacle to that happening is the popes. Popes persist in pitting themselves against the “People of God” whose tribune is Garry Wills.

But Amy confesses that she was not quite prepared for the following in a radio interview Mr. Wills did with a Boston station:

Wills: There is . . . a message of life and love in the New Testament. Little of that comes out of Rome now. People are dying of AIDS all around the world now especially in places like Africa and Indonesia now, …when the Pope refuses to allow people to have contraception, he’s killing them. He’s responsible for murder. This is hardly a gospel of life and love.

Interviewer: You say that Pope Benedict is responsible for murder?

Wills: Sure, sure. More people are more resentful and hateful toward the Catholic Church because of that than because of the sexual molestation problem . . . sexual molesters are terrible it’s . . . you know here in Boston, but for the most part, not always, but for the most part they didn’t kill people. This is killing people on a grand scale, and it’s a horrendous scandal, much greater than any sexual molestation scandal.

Amy Welborn comments: “Pope Benedict: responsible for the HIV-infection of the masses because the men who rape and sexually exploit girls, prostitutes, and their wives have the Catholic teaching against contraceptive use in mind as they rape and exploit. I thought so.”

The fracas in Boston over Catholic Charities and the decision to shut down its adoption program is dispiriting on many scores. The Church says it cannot continue to place children with gay and lesbian couples, the board of Catholic Charities overwhelmingly rejects the Church’s position, and Fr. Bryan Hehir, head of the organization, says the “simpler” solution is just not to do adoptions at all. Well yes, the really simple solution would be to shut down Catholic Charities, and perhaps the Archdiocese of Boston itself. Think of the many advantages. The Boston Globe would not have the Catholic Church to kick around any more.

The Church says it has “rules” that preclude the gay placements. What has not appeared anywhere is a reasoned case that such placements are bad for the children, and it is the interest of the children that must come first. (For a critical survey of the studies and arguments relative to placing children with homosexual couples, see cosmos-liturgy-sex .) The claim that 50 or 60 percent of children reared by male homosexuals turn out to be homosexual or bisexual doesn’t cut any ice in some quarters. So what’s wrong with being homosexual or bisexual? And, if the incidence of sexual abuse of children in such settings is many times the norm, well, isn’t it time we reconsider the legitimacy of intergenerational love? The Church’s position is very straightforward: Children need a father and mother, and to deny them a father and mother is a form of child abuse. Put differently: Children should not be made the objects of “progressive” social experiments in redefining what is meant by a family.

The state of Massachusetts and the social work apparat is pushing the gay campaign without inhibition, and the Church caved. Governor Mitt Romney said he wanted to be helpful in defending the Church’s religious freedom rights in running its own charities, and a few legislators indicated a willingness to help. A number of able lawyers volunteered their services to fight the Commonwealth’s dictates in court. All to no avail. It would be “simpler” to avoid a fight.

When John O’Connor was Archbishop of New York, God bless him, the city and state tried to bully Catholic social programs into violating church teaching on contraception, sexual education, homosexual adoptions, and much else. O’Connor called the government’s bluff, saying that, if the Church were not able to pursue her mission in accord with her beliefs, the Archdiocese would just stop cooperating with state and city social services altogether. The Church would continue with her services, but would raise funds independently to do it her way. The state and city quickly backed down.

In New York, something like 50 percent of social services across the board were at that time operated under Catholic auspices, although they were in large part government-funded. For the Church to pull out from its cooperation with the city and state would have thrown into chaos the government’s vast social work bureaucracy, and, not incidentally, thrown many thousands of government employees out of work.

There was no such muscular response in Boston. Perhaps the leadership of the Church there is simply too beleaguered to do anything but acquiesce. True, the adoption program, according to reports, accounted for only three percent of the state monies received by Catholic Charities in Boston. But a very big principle was at stake: the religious freedom rights of the Church to pursue her mission in accord with her own teachings.

Make no mistake about it, there are powerful pressures aimed at undermining religious freedom, and not only the religious freedom of Catholics. Out in Colorado, the feisty and resourceful Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver is leading the fight, backed also by evangelicals and Orthodox groups, against state efforts to extend or abolish the statute of limitations in cases of sex abuse. Politicians say that their only concern is to protect the children, but that doesn’t wash. The great majority of children in Colorado are in government schools, but the government schools are protected from the proposed removal of statutes of limitations, as they are protected in other ways from serious liability for sexual and other abuses, even though such abuses are well known to be much more frequent in public schools. The proposed laws are clearly aimed at church-related schools and other institutions.

It may strike many as very odd that, at a time when religion is publicly resurgent in American life, there are intensified efforts to restrict the role of religion in education and social services, or to force such ministries into the service of alien agendas. There are no doubt many and complicated reasons why this should be the case. Much of it has to do with the Catholic sex abuse scandal that broke in January 2002, marking the beginning of the Long Lent that has no end in sight. Blood is in the water and the sharks continue to gather.

There has already been an estimated billion dollars in pay-offs, mainly to trial lawyers. Dioceses have gone into bankruptcy, and judges have ruled in some places that every last acre and brick and altar and tabernacle can be sold to satisfy endless claims. Obviously, enough is not enough. The trial lawyers are insatiable and unscrupulous, and those devoted to all-encompassing government control sense a long-sought opportunity to eliminate the nuisance of the “mediating institutions” of society — institutions that, in education and many other areas, are chiefly operated under religious auspices.

We are witnessing a multi-faceted assault on religious freedom. Of course this is not new. The tensions, and sometime conflicts, between God and Caesar are a perennial in Christian history. Protestants, Jews, and others are awakening, but are not yet fully awakened, to the fact that this is not a Catholic problem. Sad to say, most Catholic leaders are not awake to what is happening, as witness the dismal developments in Boston. What is very much needed is more leaders with the savvy and courage of the late John O’Connor of New York and the indomitable Charles Chaput of Denver.

In addition to which :

“I always start at the back with ‘The Public Square.’” We hear that times beyond numbering, and it will likely be the case also with the April issue of F IRST T HINGS . This time Father Neuhaus takes on, inter alia: The New York Times skewed reporting on the Intelligent Design debates; how the Air Force Academy came to terms with religion; Pope Benedict’s appreciation of American evangelicals; Stanley Fish’s curious views on religion and tolerance; the remarkable rehabilitation of Pius XII by his intrepid defenders; Danish cartoons of Muhammed and the caving of the West; Todd Gitlin and “keeping faith” with a superannuated Left; the end of The Vagina Monologues on Catholic campuses; Commonweal and liberal pretensions to magisterial authority; the Vatican’s tougher line on Islam; why the Wall Street Journal trashes the Legionaries of Christ; how the late Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation changed the world; and the beauty of the life and person of Jacques Maritain. Whether you begin at the back or the front, isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :

"When it comes to ‘Catholic matters,’ Father Richard Neuhaus’ thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."

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