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Fifty years ago this week the largest gathering of bishops ever assembled heeded a call from Pope John XXIII to attend the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

It was a remarkable event. Each time the council was in session between 1962 and 1965 more than 2,000 bishops were present. They came from all corners of the world and, in sheer numbers, they were triple the total number of bishops (almost entirely European) who attended the First Vatican Council a century earlier. The Catholic world had never seen anything like it and, in many regards, Catholicism has not been the same since.

The Church today is better because of Vatican II. It’s not perfect, far from it. The task of interpreting and implementing the council’s 16 documents is ongoing. But Vatican II wasn’t a quest for perfection. It was about spiritual renewal and Christian unity in a post-war world on the cusp of extraordinary social, economic and technological revolution. Space flight was turning our thoughts to the heavens and Pope John sought to ensure God’s place on that journey.

“It is not that the Gospel has changed,” the Pope said at the time. “It is that we have begun to understand it better . . . the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.”

Vatican II lasted three years (with a nine-month hiatus after Pope John’s death in 1963) and the Church did indeed emerge spiritually invigorated. But, regrettably, not totally united. Considerable disagreement remains between those who say the council went too far and those who say it didn’t go far enough, between those itching to hit the rewind button and those longing to push fast forward. That disagreement won’t blacken the golden anniversary celebration but, unfortunately, it could soften the glow.

This issue of The Register devotes eight pages of special coverage to Vatican II but barely skims the surface of those historic days. What’s important to note, however, is that Vatican II was about evolution of Church practices, not revolution of Church doctrine. The council produced no radical doctrinal break with the past but, in keeping with Pope John’s intent, it emboldened the bishops to be future-looking.

The past half century has witnessed a whirlwind of social, scientific and economic innovation that, today, regularly pits society’s shifting values against the Church’s fundamental teachings. It might be a stretch to suggest Pope John saw all this coming. But he sensed something was up. The Second Vatican Council was the fruit of that foresight.

But, in the words of Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, it could take 100 years to fully understand all the implications of Vatican II. It’s a journey and we may only be half way there.

Family society’s rock

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New data from Statistics Canada that shows the traditional family is in decline comes as no surprise but that doesn’t make the findings any less troubling.

Canadians who live alone now outnumber couples with children. Fewer people than ever are getting married and they’re having even fewer children. Single parenting is rising, as is common-law and same-sex parenting.

It is premature to declare the traditional family structure as dead, far from it, but it’s certainly suffering. From 2006 to 2011, the number of children living in either common-law or single-parent households shot up by 22 per cent. One-third of Canadian children are now living in non-traditional family households, compared to about 10 per cent 50 years ago. That gap between traditional and non-traditional parenting will only become more narrow as young people continue to reject marriage to live common-law, as high divorce rates and pre-marital births create more single-parent homes and as same-sex parenting increases. The data has been moving in that direction since the 1970s and nothing indicates the trend will change.

What is surprising, however, is the nonchalant reaction of Canadian society to this radical reconstruction of family. Studies have found that stable, loving, two-parent (mom and dad) families make for a healthier society. Indeed, many studies suggest society suffers when traditional families and the values they instill are replaced by alternate child-rearing arrangements.

Families are the bedrock of civil society. They are the primary teachers of right and wrong, the place where values and morals are instilled and the foundation is laid for good citizenship. They are the place where children learn to love, give, co-operate, compromise and pray. It is also where they learn how to be good moms and dads.

Children raised in traditional families are less likely to fall into drug or alcohol abuse, criminal activity, depression, promiscuity, and they are less likely to grow up in poverty. They have better success rates in school, work and marriage, and they tend to become better parents themselves.

Catholics further recognize the sacredness of family as rooted in Scripture and promulgated by the saints and Church leaders. Speaking recently to a group of French bishops in Rome, Pope Benedict called family the foundation of society but said the foundation is threatened by “a faulty conception of human nature.”

“Marriage and family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.”

So the prudent reaction to the decline of the traditional family would be a thorough evaluation by society of this worrisome trend. To blithely accept it as an inevitable, even commendable, evolution of society is something we do at our peril.

Emissary of hope

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As war raged in Syria and an anti-Muslim film ignited violence across the Arab world, Pope Benedict calmly arrived last week in Lebanon as a “pilgrim of peace.”

The 85-year-old pontiff would have been excused if, citing age and security concerns, he’d postponed this trip. During his three-day stay, 25 people were injured and a man killed in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, during protests aimed at an American film that mocks Islam. The day after he left, missiles from Syrian jets hit Lebanese territory. The region, habitually unsafe, is particularly dangerous right now.

The purpose of the trip was to officially endorse the Apostolic Exhortation that was drafted following the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. That task could have been accomplished in the Vatican, of course, and transmitted live worldwide by video-conferencing and Internet technology. Yet the Pope dismissed that option.

Instead, he made the right and courageous decision to stand beside the Christians of the region and, by his physical presence, acknowledge the hardships they endure by living in nations that are often hostile to Christianity. That simple act alone says much about the Pope. Then, addressing some 20,000 young people from several Middle East countries, he urged them to be the vanguard to keep Christianity alive in the lands of its birth.

Middle East Christians, facing social and economic discrimination and seeking safety for their families, have been emigrating in droves to Europe and North America. At the current pace, Christianity might virtually disappear from the region in a generation. It is asking much of young Christians to endure financial and religious hardship, but that is exactly what the Pope implored. To be effective, the message had to be delivered in person.

“I am aware of the difficulties you face daily, on account of instability and a lack of security, and your sense of being alone and on the margins,” he said. But, he added, “You are meant to be protagonists of your country’s future.”

The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation lays a common-sense framework for Middle East Christianity to endure. It emphasizes dialogue, respect, equality, tolerance and forgiveness among Christians, Muslims and Jews, while denouncing secularism and fundamentalism. The Pope urged young people to never be afraid or ashamed of being Christian and he affirmed their right to religious liberty, to live publicly as Christians and to participate fully in civil life.

The Pope arrived in Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace but departed as an emissary of inspiration and hope. He ignored the latest regional upheaval and chose boldly to stand among the anxious Christians to let them know in person that he will not abandon them. That may have been the most important message of all.

Unjust law must go

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The photos were startling: a military helicopter, heavily armed soldiers and a mentally handicapped girl being rushed through a prison courtyard to board a flight to safety.

Rimsha Masih must have been terrified. A blanket shrouded her head to hide her face from the many fanatics in Pakistan demanding her death. But shielding her identity also had the powerful effect of exposing yet again the outrage of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Masih was accused of burning pages of the Quran, arrested, charged with the capital offence of blasphemy and locked up for three weeks. Amid howls for justice and decency, a judge ruled the charges defied belief and granted her bail. Soon afterward, Masih’s jail cell was given to a Muslim cleric who had incited a crowd against her. He was arrested on suspicion of planting evidence on the girl in a plot to foment hatred for Christians and drive them from their homes.

Masih’s case quite rightly garnered international headlines. Even before the cleric’s plot was exposed, demands for her release were heard around the world. Her age is disputed (her family said she is 11 while a medical report puts it at 14) but it is clear she is a minor with the mental capacity of a much younger girl.

Her release and the arrest of her accuser are welcomed signs that, at some level, the condemnation by various governments, Church groups and lay organizations of Pakistan’s blasphemy outrages are being heard. The Canadian government and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name just two, have been commendably vocal in denouncing the blasphemy laws. They’ve been joined by a core of Pakistanis, both Christian and Muslim, who’ve advocated bravely for tolerance despite obvious risks.

Yet it would be a mistake to crow too loudly over one small victory.

Masih received bail but she is still facing the original charges and a conviction could still bring the death penalty. Many Pakistanis were outraged at her arrest but many others still call for death to her and her family. The judge acted humanely in granting bail but prosecutors still have not dropped the outrageous charges against the traumatized girl.  The army provided a helicopter and soldiers to fly Masih to safety but the government still shows no readiness to replace these vile laws with laws that guarantee dignity and respect for religious minorities.

A Pakistani study reveals that 250 blasphemy cases have occurred there since 1987 and 52 people have been killed after being accused, often falsely, of blasphemy. So Masih’s case is an international reminder of Pakistan’s obstinacy on this issue. The blasphemy laws must go.

Showing compassion to one traumatized, fraudulently accused, mentally handicapped child really is the least Pakistani authorities could do.

Return to civility

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Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none.” But 250 years later Franklin’s wise words have been turned upside down. Public discourse today is often about being enemies to many and civil to few.

That is increasingly evident in our media, homes, schools and even churches, but is particularly true in our political dialogue. Intelligent, civil debate has been bludgeoned to death by crass, dishonest personal attacks that demean the political process and alienate voters.

For that reason, the Knights of Columbus and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan are to be commended for promoting civility as an issue in the American presidential election. It’s about time people of influence told political leaders to smarten up.

Dolan has asked the Republican and Democratic candidates for president and vice-president to sign a Knights of Columbus petition seeking a return to civility in politics. That includes refraining from personal attacks for the duration of the campaign.

No doubt the cardinal realizes this is a tough sell. But it is one well worth pitching. There is a close connection in any society between civility and morality. People must first treat each other with respect and decency in order to advance those values across society as a whole. Cynical politicians create soulless governments that pursue selfish agendas rather than advance the common good.

That is as true in Canada as it is in the United States. On this mud-ward slide, Canadian politicians are tumbling right behind their American counterparts.

Dolan may not have been speaking to Canada but we should be listening anyway.

“We need to remind those running for office and those in office that how we disagree with each other says as much about us as a nation as what issues we disagree on,”said Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus.

For that reason, the Knights launched a Civility in America campaign to remind society in general and politicians in particular of the Christian ethos to act always with respect and dignity towards others. It is a non-partisan campaign developed after a survey showed 74 per cent of Americans believe political campaigns are increasingly negative and 66 per cent believe candidates spend more time attacking opponents than discussing issues.

“Candidates aren’t running to become the next American Idol,” Anderson said. “They are running to become our public servants. They ought to behave in a manner that keeps faith with that goal.”

Spirited debate and disagreement are signs of a healthy society. But dialogue must be conducted with civility. Otherwise conversation becomes confrontation and society is demeaned. We all have a stake in making courtesy common again.

No repeat of Iraq in Syria

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The insurrection to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is entering its 18th month but despite international condemnation of his brutal methods and economic sanctions against his regime, the dictator refuses to release his grip on power.

The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 Syrians — most of them civilians — have died in the fighting. Other groups cite fatality figures twice that number. In addition, more than a million people have fled their homes, including about 200,000 Syrians, mostly families, who’ve sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries.

Few if any people can feel safe today in Syria. But that is particularly true for Syria’s two million Christians. Under Assad, and his father before him, Christianity was tolerated and some Christians even held prominent government positions. Now Syria’s Christians expect a Muslim backlash when Assad’s overthrow, which seems inevitable, is completed.

Their fear is based on the winds of Christian persecution that blew through Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like his  Sryian neighbour, Hussein was also tolerant of Christianity. But when his regime fell, thousands of Christians lost their homes and businesses. Many more were harassed, assaulted and large numbers killed. Tens of thousands fled as refugees, reducing Iraq’s Christian population by half.

It may already be too late to save Syria’s Christians from the same fate. But the international community has an obligation to flex its muscle and try. It must learn from its failure in Iraq and act decisively in Syria so that a civil rebellion to end repression doesn’t install a regime that imposes a new type of intolerance.

Pope Benedict has appealed for peace in Syria and for humanitarian aid to support the uncapped flow of refugees. Later this month, he will visit Lebanon and is expected to renew the Vatican’s call for religious freedom throughout the Middle East, home to 5.7 million Christians.

The Canadian government has pledged $10-million in humanitarian aid, including $2 million for emergency medical supplies. That’s a good start, but the aid must go quickly and efficiently into trusted hands who can ensure it is actually spent on humanitarian relief. There are several reputable agencies and NGOs (including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association) that know the political terrain and whose expertise the government should utilize. Even then, the government can do more. It must become vocal at the United Nations and other forums in demanding that Syria’s next government respect human rights, particularly those of its religious minorities. It should also heed calls from the opposition Liberals and temporarily relax immigration policies to make Canada more accessible to Syrian refugees.

Iraq showed what can happen when persecuted minorities are abandoned. A repeat shouldn’t be allowed to happen in Syria.

Protect all rights

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Quebec society has been chipping away at its religious foundation for years so it should be no surprise that the party poised to form the province’s next government is championing a full-blown Charter of Secularism.

Still, this is a sad testament on the state of spiritual life in what was once Canada’s most faith-filled province. Although there has been some opposition to the proposal, Quebecers have not risen up en masse to denounce the notion of a secular charter or to criticize its authors, the Parti Quebecois, which proposed this unfortunate piece of legislation.

PQ leader Pauline Marois intends to make her secularist charter a priority should her party form the government after Quebecers go to the polls Sept. 4. The gist of the policy is to prohibit public-sector employees from wearing “conspicuous religious signs.” The PQ has not released details, but the legislation is expected to target such religious items as the Jewish yarmulke, Muslim hijab and Sikh kirpan.

Such legislation would be a clear contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects religious expression. But Marois said she’ll override the Charter by invoking the notwithstanding clause because, she said, “we insist on conserving our identity, our language, our institutions and our values.”

Catholic expressions of faith, however, are to be mostly exempt. Civil servants, for instance, will be permitted to wear a chain with a crucifix if it is “discreet,” and a large crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly will remain because, said Marois, it is a part of Quebec history and “we don’t have to renounce our history.”

Catholics should find little consolation in these concessions. All of society has a stake when any government disrespects fundamental rights. And all people of faith should be particularly alarmed when any group’s religious freedom is threatened.

Religious freedom is an inalienable right that is essential to the dignity of all people and, as such, it must be protected by civil authority, according to the catechism. Pope John Paul II said all social and cultural discrimination, including religious discrimination, must be “eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” Pope Benedict once called it “inconceivable” that people should be forced to suppress their faith or “denied the right to act in accordance with their religious convictions.”

Pope Benedict’s comments were in response to violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa.  What the PQ proposes is tame by comparison. But it is discrimination nonetheless and should be denounced; freedom of religious expression is an inalienable right of all people.

Christian nations can hardly demand foreign governments respect the rights of religious minorities if Christians are unwilling to defend full expression of those fundamental freedoms at home.

Positive change

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The Vatican has made commendable efforts to integrate modern communication tools into its daily routines. Even the Pope has embraced the Internet and encouraged such social media innovations as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Yet it’s been like entering a Ferrari in the Formula 1 racing circuit without hiring a professional driver.

That has changed, however, with the recent appointment of a seasoned journalist who brings impressive newspaper and television credentials into the new role of senior communications advisor in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Greg Burke, 52, left Fox News to take the wheel of the Vatican’s communication machine. His daunting challenge is to steer the Church clear of the public relations potholes that, in recent years, have so often jarred all Catholics.

Hiring a qualified professional for this critical role is long overdue. The Church has been hammered in the international media almost from the day in 2005 that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, chided in the press as the Vatican’s bulldog, became Pope Benedict XVI. In countless media accounts, the new Pope suffered in comparisons to his popular predecessor, John Paul II. It has been a losing battle since then to usher the secular media past its bias and stereotyping and have them report fairly and accurately on the Pope and Church events.

That now become’s Burke’s job. His resume suggests he is up to the challenge. He came to Rome in 1988 as a correspondent for the U.S.-based National Catholic Register and has covered the Vatican ever since. After a decade as a Time magazine correspondent,  he joined Fox News in 2001 and has covered the papacy extensively, developing a reputation for fairness and accuracy. Burke, a member of Opus Dei, calls himself an old-fashioned mid-western Catholic.

A sense of what he faces was evident in a snide account of his hiring in a prominent London, England, newspaper. It read: “The scandal-plagued Vatican has hired a U.S. news specialist to drag its public-relations operations out of the dark ages.” The Vatican is hardly “scandal-plagued” or stuck in the “dark ages” but those types of messages are consistently delivered to Catholics and non-Catholics by the secular media.

Burke’s unenviable task is to not only reverse the negative messaging but, in a dizzying world of media overload and sound bites, he must show Vatican leaders how to effectively communicate the Church’s message. That won’t be easy. It requires a confident communications strategy to rebuild the Church’s image, but also a resolve to respond quickly, directly and candidly to harmful, often inaccurate stories about the Church.

Burke acknowledges that counselling the Pope and his advisors is “a little bit scary.” He says any turnaround will take time, but putting a qualified professional behind the wheel is a positive start.

Virtue of sport

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Blessed John Paul II, an avid sportsman in his youth, once lauded the moral value of sports. “They are a training ground of virtue,” he said.

His wisdom is worth contemplating during a busy summer that, in addition to the usual menu of baseball, football, tennis, golf, etc., offers the Olympic Summer Games in London, England.

Unfortunately, virtue can sometimes be difficult to find in modern sport. Multi-million-dollar professional salaries, bloated  TV ratings and lucrative endorsements frequently breed a cult of celebrity that often spawns immoral behaviour both on and off the playing field.

The Olympics are supposed to represent sport in its purest form but, even if that was once the case, that purity has been compromised. Commercialism is rampant and, in many glamour sports, the financial stakes are high. Organizers in London will spend millions of dollars on drug testing and it will be a shock if they fail to expose some cheaters.

But those inevitable incidents shouldn’t detract from the overall celebration of virtue that Pope John Paul II believed was the essence of sport.

John Paul II was affectionately known as the “athlete pope.” As a student he was a runner and soccer player and later became an ardent swimmer, skier and hiker. He believed that sport, in its pure form, could provide an arena for evangelization because the attributes required to become a champion — sacrifice, passion, obedience, discipline — were similar in many respects to those required to become a saint.

Sportsmanship, as an ideal, is all about character. It’s about humility, honesty, loyalty, respect and generosity. It is not a quest for perfection but, like a faith journey, is a quest for virtue. There will be moments of temptation and times of failure but the true sportsman, like the faithful person, will acknowledge setbacks with integrity and strive to become better.

John Paul II once said the Church values sport because it advances the complete development of the body and soul and contributes to the advancement of a more human society. He believed the virtues evident in true sport could cultivate harmony among cultures and peace among nations.

“Sports have, in themselves, an important moral and educative significance,” said John Paul II. “They are a training ground of virtue, a school of inner balance and outer control, an introduction to more true and lasting conquests.”

He called sport a gift from God to mankind. And like the late pope, the 19th-century founders of the modern Olympics believed in sport as a training ground of virtue.

That noble ideal may have taken a beating over the past century, but the pursuit of virtue is still worth championing and, when it bubbles to the surface in a young athlete, well worth celebrating.

Julian Fantino must be an advocate for the poor

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At first glance, the appointment of Julian Fantino to replace Bev Oda as Canada’s Minister of International Co-operation seems an odd choice.

Fantino inherits responsibility for overseeing a $5-billion aid budget co-ordinated through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Becoming the public face of Canadian charity is a big leap for someone best known as a hard-nosed cop who, if he has a soft side, keeps it well hidden.

Then again, Fantino may be exactly what CIDA needs.

Canada was founded on freedom

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Canada Day is a time to give thanks for the many blessings we enjoy as Canadians. Few nations are so fundamentally committed to freedom, democracy and peace. These common values are the building blocks of a society of unparalleled diversity and tolerance that, while still a work in progress, deserves a national celebration.

But we shouldn’t allow the fireworks to divert our attention from a troubling trend. A belligerent secularism has a hold on popular culture and is causing a re-interpretation, if not a re-definition, of two fundamental Canadian rights — freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.