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VATICAN LETTER Sep-16-2005 (1,010 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Church and politics: Throughout the world, variations on a theme

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The theme of church and politics was a big part of last year's U.S. presidential election campaign, but a recent look around the globe shows the United States holds no monopoly on the issue.

On questions involving the family in Europe, religious freedom in Asia, corruption in Africa and economics in Latin America, church leaders have shown up on the political radar in recent weeks.

In Italy, where political parties are preparing for elections next spring, the head of the center-left coalition, Romano Prodi, came out in support of legal rights for long-term unwed couples -- provoking a storm of objections by the Vatican and Italian church leaders.

The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said Prodi was trying to relativize the family, an institution founded on marriage. The Italian bishops' news agency, SIR, said Prodi's coalition would pay politically if it tried to imitate Spain, where gay marriage was legalized earlier this year.

Prodi insisted that it was not about gay marriage as such, but about the more than 500,000 Italian couples who have lived together for years without social benefits. He supports legislation that would grant cohabiting couples administrative and financial benefits similar to those of married couples.

The controversy sounded like the opening bell in a long round of verbal sparring. While Italian church officials have been careful not to shut the door completely on benefits for unwed couples, they say it cannot be done on a scale that, in effect, equates cohabitation with marriage.

Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke strongly about protecting the institution of the family shortly after his election, has not weighed in on the current debate. Church sources said that because of lingering resentment over the Vatican's historical political role in Italy the pope may leave it up to the Italian bishops to mark out the church's position during the election campaign.

A different kind of dynamic was being played out in Brazil, where church leaders organized some of the biggest protest rallies in August and September against corruption in government and inaction on social programs.

Participants in demonstrations organized by Cry of the Excluded, a movement founded by the Brazilian bishops' conference and the Landless Peasant Movement, called on the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to keep its land reform promises and punish those charged in a recent corruption scandal.

In Africa, Sudanese and Ugandan church leaders joined military and tribal chiefs Sept. 1-4 in a southern Sudanese village to explore ways to end civil strife in northern Uganda. The Ugandan delegation was headed by Catholic Archbishop John Odama of Gulu and Anglican Bishop John Charles Odurkami of Lango.

The leaders proposed ways in which the estimated 20,000 children kidnapped by the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army over the past five years can return home. Humanitarian groups say the children have been forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves.

The meeting, which brought together 120 people, was considered a significant move forward. Archbishop Odama said he would discuss the results with officials of the Ugandan government.

The Ugandan rebels have so far refused to participate in negotiations to end the conflict, which has left an estimated 100,000 people dead and forced 1.6 million people to leave their villages for the safety of refugee camps.

In other parts of Africa, bishops, priests and lay people have been involved in promoting the sometimes slow movement toward democracy. In Tanzania, where elections are scheduled for the end of October, the country's bishops have issued a pastoral letter criticizing corruption and asking that more resources be devoted to education and health care.

Sometimes the church is on the front lines of basic political formation. The Vatican missionary news agency, Fides, described the unusual work of Sister Odette Musubusu, a member of the Sisters of Mary in the Democratic Republic of Congo; she has organized a 100-person team of "sociopolitical animators."

The group travels to remote villages and holds lessons on democratic participation. Team members often find that people not only have no idea of the approaching elections, but also think that any political discussion is illegal.

In Asia, meanwhile, the church was awaiting word on whether China would allow four Catholic bishops to attend the October Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. Pope Benedict appointed them synod members in a surprise move in early September.

The Chinese government has never allowed bishops to participate in a synod before, reflecting its fear that the bishops' ties to Rome represent a dangerous foreign "allegiance." The Vatican considers attending synods a case of religious liberty, and the invitation was seen by many as a decision to push the issue with the government.

The entire Catholic community in China, estimated to number anywhere from 5 million to 13 million, was praying and fasting so that the government would give exit visas to the bishops.

The initial reaction by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the government-backed wing of the Catholic Church, was not encouraging. According to China's Xinhua news agency, an unnamed official of the association said the invitation showed no respect for China and its Catholic population.

But China's political reality is not so simple. There were indications that the Vatican may have astutely recognized that the stakes for the government -- and its human rights image -- would outweigh the objections of the Patriotic Association.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, a longtime Vatican China-watcher who runs the missionary news agency AsiaNews, said in an editorial that there has been a growing divergence between the policies of the Patriotic Association and the decisions of the government. He said the association's hostility toward the underground Catholic community in China may, in fact, be considered an impediment to President Hu Jintao's campaign for "social harmony."

When the Chinese government gave tacit approval to the Vatican's choice of several recent bishops, it was considered a real advance for the church. The pope's synod invitation shows that he wants to accelerate the opening, even at the risk of political fallout.


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