Benedict in America
What will Pope Benedict XVI say during his visits to Washington, D.C., and New York City? Will he hew to a simple proclamation of the Gospel? Or will he tackle hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and the Iraq war? Likewise, will he take aim at neuralgic issues in the church, like the sexual abuse crisis or religious fidelity at Catholic colleges? During the pope’s Palm Sunday homily, he asked, “Is our faith open and pure enough?” That had some Vaticanologists wondering whether he will focus more on the sacred or the secular.
Most likely he will give attention to both. While his address at The Catholic University of America  will certainly speak of the proclamation of the Gospel, listeners should expect at least a few mentions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae . While the crowds at Nationals Park and Yankee Stadium will hear about the love of God, they will also hear about the perils of American consumerism. In any event, it is a false dichotomy: the Gospel always has something to say about the secular world. When Pope John Paul II came to Yankee Stadium in 1979, he used the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to remind Americans about their obligation to the poor: “You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them.”
Unfortunately, many people may hear only what the pope has to say on the hot-button issues. “Christ is risen!” may be the boldest of proclamations, but to the media it is not news and not worth reporting. All the more reason to read the complete talks of Benedict, a teacher par excellence, and not rely solely on the media’s boiled-down commentary.
The State of Rajasthan in northwest India, home to the cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur, has majestic mountains, spectacular ancient forts, wildlife preserves and a newly passed anti-conversion law. It shares this last dubious distinction with five other Indian states since the end of last month, when its legislative assembly again approved a bill that had been withdrawn after it was passed in 2006. The stated aim of the law is to prevent conversions that are said to be effected by use of force, allurement or fraudulent means. The penalties for violators include five years in prison and a $1,200 fine. Local Catholic authorities fear that the law could provide an excuse for further violence against Christians.
Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, C.Ss.R., the archbishop of Ernakulam and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India , has criticized this legislative action. “This so-called Freedom of Religion Bill is a slur on the culture of our nation. India has long been respected in the international community as a country of tolerance, peace and respect for cultural and religious diversity, and this is a black mark for our nation.” He said that such bills are against Indian constitutional freedom, since India’s founding fathers included in the Constitution the right to the practice, profession and propagation of faith.
As a practical matter, available statistics suggest that Rajasthan is unlikely to be disrupted by mass conversions from the nearly 90 percent Hindu majority or from the nearly 10 percent Muslim minority. It has been suggested, instead, that passage of the bill was a pre-election ploy to attract extreme Hindu fundamentalist voters. Whatever else it may have been, it is surely a bad sign for the cultural and religious diversity praised by Cardinal Vithayathil and hoped for by all people of good will.
Polar Bears at Risk
The U.S. Department of the Interior  announced plans early this year to permit oil drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Carl Pope, the Sierra Club ’s executive director, has said that an oil spill in that body of water could be catastrophic for polar bears, because “where there is off-shore drilling, there are oil spills, and there is no proven method for cleaning up oil in the Arctic’s broken sea ice.” Another environmental organization points out that oil-covered polar bears have little chance to survive spills, because the oil the bears ingest while trying to clean themselves could cause death.
The threat to the bears is already great because of global warming; as sea ice diminishes they face starvation and drowning. The Interior Department has been considering placing polar bears on the list of endangered species. The department has the responsibility not only of managing oil leases, but also of protecting U.S. wildlife, two roles that in cases of this kind seem to require the department to work virtually against itself. Some environmental groups are therefore skeptical about the department’s ability to balance wildlife interests and those of energy developers. The department was to have made a decision in early January listing polar bears as threatened. Three conservation groups are suing it for missing its original deadline. Given the twin threats of oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea and ongoing global warming, the Interior Department should lose no more time in adding polar bears to its list of threatened species. They need federal protection.