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March 16, 2011

The devastating natural disaster in Japan -
Uncivil discourse within society and within the church -
When a parish council needs renewal

In this edition:
1. Catastrophe strikes Japan.
2. What to do when a parish council needs renewal.
3. What calling a parish council "consultative" means.
4. Further notes on parish councils.
5. Current quote to ponder: U.S. bishops' illegal immigration position.
6. Uncivil discourse in society and the church.
7. Will a Christianity of the public square respect others' rights?
8. The human project and respect for human dignity.


1. Catastrophe Strikes Japan

A stunned, concerned response to the massive March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami events that ravaged parts of Japan was just taking shape in the worldwide Catholic community as this edition of the jknirp newsletter was written. Images of the earthquake and tsunami "have left us deeply horrified," Pope Benedict XVI said in St. Peter's Square March 13. He encouraged all those who "with laudable speed" were "working to bring help."

It was becoming clear in the early days after the natural disaster that it would elicit a great response of compassion and aid, and would again bring out in the human family the capacity of each part to support the others. At the same time, given the explosions that occurred at nuclear power plants in Japan after the disaster struck, it appeared that a discussion of the risks and ethics of nuclear energy also was commencing in the religious community.

The painful natural disaster in Japan "may be an opportunity to spread the values of the Gospel, that is, the fraternity of all men and women, the building of the common good, the recognition that every person has the dignity of a child of God and is important in the eyes of God," said Father Daisuke Narui, director of Caritas Japan.

Bishop Marcellino Daiji Tani of Saitama, a diocese hit hard by the disaster, accented the reality of human vulnerability brought into the light by natural disasters. He told Fides, the Catholic missionary news agency, that this catastrophe is a reminder that "life is in the hands of God and that life is a gift from God." The bishop called the tragedy a challenge for Christians during Lent "to practice and witness to the commandment of love and brotherly love."

Bishop Martin Tetsuo Hiraga of Sendai, another hard-hit diocese, described the situation to Fides as "very difficult" and said, "We are not yet able to comprehend the enormity of the disaster." In a Fides report March 14, Bishop Hiraga said that "we still do not know how many people have died, how many have been displaced and how many are missing." He said people were "exhausted and disoriented," and that "the emotional and financial impact on society is enormous."

In the words of Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, a disaster like this "is often difficult to comprehend and accept." People's "lives and communities have been devastated beyond belief" in Japan, he said on the Catholic Charities website.

Archbishop Philip Wilson, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said he not only was "saddened to hear of the magnitude of [Japan's] crisis," but was "humbled" too "by the immense scale of what has taken place."

2. When a Parish Council Needs Renewal, Refreshment

Parish councils "function like a living organism," moving over time through various "life cycles" - blossoming at times, other times slowing or experiencing waning enthusiasm among their members. When the latter occurs, some people conclude that "parish councils don't work," though the real message may be that the council needs to take steps to refresh itself, according to materials posted on the new parish pastoral councils website established by the Australian Catholic bishops (www.ppc.catholic.org.au/ppc/).

In the beginning, a parish council may well experience a period of "blossoming," the website says. It notes how a pastoral council's operations gradually "become more streamlined, helpful strategies are developed to deal with challenges that arise, enthusiasm grows, the council becomes more of a faith community and fruitful outcomes ensue."

Over time, however, even given the best of intentions, "the pressures of life and the normal growth of a group can mean that there is some slowing of enthusiasm and perhaps a degree of loss of focus and direction." In addition, it can happen "that some members may have to resign because of changed life circumstances, and so the dynamics of the group change."

This is when "the observation may be made that 'parish councils don't work,' when in fact it is simply the strategies being used and the approaches being taken that need to be refreshed," the website says. It suggests the following steps to get the process of refreshment under way:

-- "Revisiting the role and function of the council in the context of the mission of the church.

-- "Setting aside time for further relationship building.

-- "Recording all the projects and issues which have been considered by the council in the last term of office or previous year. The size of the list can be quite surprising and encouraging.

-- "Reviewing meeting operations, for example: What are we doing well at meetings? What could we do better? This gives an opportunity to all members to offer constructive suggestions.

-- "Reviewing and updating the parish pastoral plan or the list of pastoral council goals."

3. ... What Calling a Parish Council "Consultative" Means

It frequently is asked whether parish councils are decision-making bodies or simply "window dressing," the Australian bishops' parish councils website points out. It examines this issue, acknowledging that "from time to time pastoral councils have been demeaned in this way by being used simply as rubber stamps.'" However, that is "far from their true purpose," it says.

"The term 'consultative' in canon law is much stronger than many people suggest," according to the website. It continues:

"Consultative" does not mean "simply giving advice which nobody has to follow. There is a real sense in canon law's use of the term that supports the full participation of people in the decisions that affect them , as well as supporting the understanding that ignoring the consultation of people with refined skills in various fields is foolish in the extreme and, indeed, quite perilous to the well-being of the community."

At the same time, what should be "avoided at all costs is any sense of power' attached to the decision making in which parish pastoral councils engage," the bishops website cautions. The parish council "is not about power in the sense of 'control over,' but about people bringing their diverse gifts to bear collaboratively on the pastoral needs of the parish."

The website explains that according to Canon 536, a pastoral council is "consultative" and not "deliberative." The site says that "in the spirit of the Code of Canon Law, this simply means that the council, without the pastor who is integral to it, does not make decisions in its own right.

"However, with the pastor's concurrence and collaboration in pastoral council processes toward consensus, real decisions are actually made and implemented by the council."

4. Further Notes on Parish Pastoral Councils

a) Purpose: Parish pastoral councils "have the single purpose of ensuring that the local church community has every possible opportunity to carry forward the mission of Jesus Christ," says the Australian bishops' newly established website on parish councils.

A parish council is "one of the key catalysts for [the] life of the parish to grow into its potential," the website states. It describes the pastoral council's role as one of promoting "the church's mission to live and communicate the love and values of Christ in our world."

b) Representative: The website urges that parish council members be characterized by "an overall concern for the whole parish, not just their own particular special interest." The parish council, it says, "is to be a representative group" of the parish as a communion, but not "a group of representatives of elements within the communion."

At another point, the website reinforces this point -- that a parish council member does not simply serve as a representative of a particular group within the parish. The site refers to a parish council as "a representative group, not a group of representatives."

c) Pastoral: The website examines the meaning of the term "pastoral" in "parish pastoral councils." It says the term "pastoral" is important because:

"The parish council that it describes is called to leadership specifically to foster pastoral action - action that is inspired by the Gospel, as well as being centered in its proclamation; action that is intended to build warm human community in which members' faith is nourished and they are enabled to celebrate their lives in liturgical worship, as well as witnessing to their faith in daily life."

In order to fulfill this role, the website says that a parish pastoral council needs to "listen to and explore the hopes, needs and gifts of the community, reflect on them in the light of the Gospel and come to appropriate pastoral action."

d) Formation of members: Another of the website's observations accents the formation of parish council members. Members of the council need to "engage in purposeful formation," it says. "In particular, the continuing spiritual development of parish pastoral councilors is integral to the life of the council and the parish because of the nature and responsibility of the role of the council."

The website drives this point home by saying that the ministry of parish council members is underpinned by their spirituality, their "ability to be inspired by reflection on the Gospels," their "growth in the tradition of the church" and an "active prayer life that is personal and communal."

5. Current Quote to Ponder

How the U.S. Bishops Approach Illegal Immigration: "The U.S. bishops in no way condone or encourage illegal immigration. Illegal immigration does not benefit the common good of our society. The bishops support an earned legalization process that would require undocumented workers to pay a fine and work their way down a path to legalization. Earned legalization is not amnesty. There are several stipulations and eligibilities that must be met by individuals seeking it. This position of the bishops recognizes a law has been broken and sets about a way to make amends for that in a just and humane manner. The position of the bishops also exhibits the reality that, under the current system, individuals are being exploited in poor working and living conditions, and families are being painfully separated. Respect for the dignity of human life is what is at the heart of the Catholic Church's position on immigration. Yes, we should be concerned about laws being broken and our national security. We should also be concerned that the current proposed state legislation eats away at the very fabric of our nation's ideals and the fabric of humanity." (Bishop Joseph Latino of Jackson, Miss., in a statement this winter on a proposed bill in the state legislature that he said mirrors the Arizona immigration law)

6. Uncivil Discourse in Society and the Church

The verbal attacks people often launch today against those whose thinking disagrees with their own too often are uninformed and inaccurate, and even violent, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington suggested in two columns published during February in his archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Standard.

It is possible to defend the truth and to do so with charity - to weave together "freedom of speech" and "respect for others," he insisted.

"Over and over again, we are hearing in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords [in Tucson, Ariz.] that it is time to examine the tenor and tone" of America's civil discourse, the cardinal wrote. He said, "It would be a tragedy to accept as a principle of discourse that the end justifies the means so that 'winning' would validate any destructive behavior or speech."

It is a "disservice to the truth" when, even though "all the facts are available to us," our opinions, positions or proposals are based "on unverified gossip, unsupported rumor or partial information," according to Cardinal Wuerl. He said that "we are not free to say whatever we want about another, but only what is true."

Cardinal Wuerl observed that "when we listen to news accounts or read what is presented in the print and electronic media, we are too often reminded that spin, selecting only some of the facts, highlighting only parts of the picture, has replaced an effort to present the facts - the full story."

Toning down the rhetoric is important today because "no community, human or divine, political or religious, can exist without trust," he said. For, "at the very core of all human relations is the confidence that members speak the truth to each other."

It unfortunately is commonplace these days to identify "some people as 'bigots and 'hate-mongers' simply because they hold a position contrary to another's," said Cardinal Wuerl. He pointed to a growing "tendency to disparage the name and reputation, the character and life of a person because he or she holds a different position."

He likened "irresponsible blogs, electronic and print media stories, and pulpit and podium people-bashing rhetoric" to "anonymous violence" in many of its forms. "Spin and extremist language should not be embraced as the best this country is capable of achieving," he said.

In his view, "the preacher's pulpit, the politician's podium and the print and electronic media all bear some responsibility to encourage a far more civil, responsible and respectful approach to national debate and the discussion of issues." Moreover, he said, "basic to Christian discourse is the belief that truth itself is strong enough to win the day."

A wise, ancient Catholic maxim insisted "that we are to 'hate the sin and love the sinner,'" Cardinal Wuerl noted. He said, "At the heart of this time-honored wisdom is the simple recognition that some things are wrong, and yet we still distinguish between what is done and who does it."

Followers of Christ "must not only speak the truth, but must do so in love," the cardinal insisted. He wrote:

"It is not enough that we know or believe something to be true. We must express that truth in charity with respect for others so that the bonds between us can be strengthened in building up the body of Christ."

Catholics, the cardinal said, "need regularly to reflect on how we engage in discourse and how we live out our commitment as members of the church, people with profound respect for the truth and a family of faith committed to expressing our thoughts, opinions and positions always in love." (The columns by Cardinal Wuerl appear in the March 17 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

7. Will a Christianity of the Public Square Respect Others' Rights?

Religion's capacity "to do good in the public forum" is one reason to promote religious freedom, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, said in a March 2 speech at the London School of Economics. In fact, he proposed, the accent in Catholic social teaching on human dignity, as well as on the connections among the members of the human family, serves to illuminate the purpose of the economy, of government and of society itself.

However, Archbishop Nichols pointed to a "wariness and latent concern about religion" in society that underlies the wish of many that people who "cannot manage to give up" their religion would at least manage to "do it in private." One fear is that religion leads to the undermining of basic human rights.

If the understanding of human dignity in Catholic social teaching were better known, people might be less suspicious of religion's role in the public square, the archbishop thinks. He said that one way religion does good in the world is by fostering a fuller understanding of what it means to be human.

But Archbishop Nichols also indicated that forces of individualism within society itself play a role in keeping this fuller understanding of the meaning of human life in the shadows. He explained, "We have become used to a highly impoverished way of thinking which minimizes our connectedness and emphasizes our private lives, and leaves society as the space in which we get on with our own thing and allow others to do the same."

A "pervasive assumption" is very much alive today - an assumption "that we are little more than separate individuals who happen to share the same space, who ultimately owe nothing to society and have no necessary bonds with others," said the archbishop.

But he believes that "attending to and promoting religious freedom, understood in its richest sense, invites us to inhabit a subversive and different story." This new story "begins with the acceptance that we do not come into life as separate individuals but as fundamentally relational."

8. The Human Project and Respect for Human Dignity

Archbishop Nichols told his audience at the London School of Economics that "to be fully human is to be more than an individual - it is to be a person-in-relationship." This understanding of the human person, he said, is what "the project of human rights actually seeks to promote today: an individual, certainly, but one whose personhood depends on connections with others."

In his address, Archbishop Nichols stressed the role that respect for human dignity plays in keeping religious faith from undermining the human rights of others. He attempted to show why respect of this kind is a positive force in the world.

Because of their relationship to God, Christians believe "it makes sense to say that we are all members of a single human family," the archbishop said. He added:

"We are social beings, whose identity is in part constituted by the relationships we have with others. We none of us can find our true fulfillment entirely apart from other people. It follows from this understanding that there is a clear purpose to society, to the market and the state. Each in its own way exists to be at the service of the human person at every level, to allow people either as groups or individuals to reach their fulfillment more fully or more easily."

Catholic social teaching insists upon "the flourishing of all," out of respect for their dignity, Archbishop Nichols said. "Each person matters, and no one is to be excluded." Moreover, the emphasis of Catholic social teaching "on the human dignity of all immediately takes us toward a particular concern for the weakest members of society."

In Catholic social teaching, "cultivating a disposition of care for others is an integral part of living a good life," according to Archbishop Nichols. Thus, he said, "it is clear that the tradition of Catholic social teaching has something to say about the project of revitalizing civil society."

In the Catholic tradition, the commitment to human dignity reflects faith in the incarnation, which "reveals what it is to be human," including human life's "intrinsic nobility, value and purpose," said Archbishop Nichols. Because of the incarnation, moreover, "Christianity can never abandon the human project or despair of it," since "in Christ, God has definitively and irrevocably chosen to be with us."