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May 22, 2014

Empathy: Beyond a globalized indifference -
Ten principles for a church active in cyberspace -
Developing a comprehensive respect-life strategy

In this edition:
1. The Internet, a new Areopagus.
2. Ten principles: A church in cyberspace.
3. Current quotes to ponder:
a) A world freed of nuclear weapons.
b) Do priests weep for the suffering?
4. From globalized indifference to empathy.
5. A comprehensive respect-life strategy.
6. Vatican guidelines: Interreligious dialogue.
7. Interreligious relationships locally.

1. The Internet, a New Areopagus

Ten principles to guide the church's presence in the digital universe were proposed May 20 by Coadjutor Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh in Northern Ireland. But before listing his principles, the archbishop discussed two possible ways to use the new communications media in the work of evangelization.

One way "is to see the new media as yet another tool to reach people with the message of the Gospel," Archbishop Martin said. Thus, "by means of the various forms of new media, we can reach out to the peripheries and draw people in so that they can hear the word of God and understand it better."

A second way to use of the new communications media in evangelization "is to see the digital, online or virtual world itself as a new space which is in need of evangelization," the archbishop said. He commented, "It is in this context that we notice references to a 'digital continent to be won for Christ,' a 'digital sea in which the barque of Christ must set sail,' a 'virtual world ripe for mission.'"

In Archbishop Martin's eyes the Internet is like a "new Athens" -- a "new marketplace or Areopagus, a 'global village' to be won for Christ." In this sense, it is a 21st century version of the Areopagus St. Paul visited, where people constantly discussed the latest new ideas. "Our challenge is to become witnesses for Christ in this strange new world, to enter into dialogue with the digital culture," said Archbishop Martin.

He thinks "the Internet has become like the nervous system of our culture, in which more and more people are expressing and exploring their identity, picking up and discarding their values and attitudes, expressing their feelings and prejudices, befriending and unfriending each other, measuring each other's status and importance, relevance and appearance."

2. A Church in Cyberspace: Ten Principles

Archbishop Eamon Martin's first principle for a church that wants to be an effective presence in cyberspace is to remain "positive and joyful." He recommends offering "digital smiles" and having "a sense of humor." Do not forget "that it is the joy of the Gospel that we are communicating."

Second, the archbishop hopes that "aggression and 'preachiness'" will be avoided. "Try not to be judgmental or polemical," he advises. For, "there is enough of this online already!" Instead, "try Pope Francis' approach of 'tenderness and balm.'"

Third, "never bear false witness on the Internet," the archbishop said.

The fourth principle is to "fill the Internet with charity and love, always giving rather than taking." The archbishop recommends continually seeking "to broaden and reframe discussions" and "to include a sense of charity and solidarity with the suffering in the world."

Fifth, he urges having "a broad back when criticisms and insults are made." When possible, he adds, "gently correct."

The sixth principle is to "pray in the digital world!" The archbishop's advice is to "establish sacred spaces, opportunities for stillness, reflection and meditation online."

Seventh, "establish connections, relationships, and build communion." For, the church always has been about "gathering." Here "it is worth considering an ecumenical presence for the Christian churches online," since the "scandal of disunity among Christians can be easily exploited and exaggerated" in an environment of ethical and intellectual relativism.

The archbishop's eighth principle calls for educating young people "to keep themselves safe and to use the Internet responsibly."

Ninth is to "witness to human dignity at all times." This involves giving "a soul to the Internet," in the words of Pope Benedict XVI. Here the archbishop mentioned "the pervasive prevalence of pornography on the Internet," which can "reduce persons to objects for gratification" and "draw millions into the commodification and commercialization of sex."

Finally, Archbishop Martin's 10th principle is to "be missionary, be aware that with the help of the Internet a message has the potential to reach the ends of the earth in seconds." It is important, he suggested, to "call forth charisms in younger, committed people who understand the power and potential of the net to bear witness."

3. Current Quotes to Ponder

A World Freed of Nuclear Weapons: "For many years, the Holy See has called for the abolition of nuclear weapons in order that the world may be freed from the potential specter of mass destruction. Today, we renew that moral call. . . . It should not be the case that the nuclear-weapons states continue to spend more than $100 billion per year to maintain their nuclear weapons, while this precious financial resource is so desperately needed for economic and social development. . . . Indeed, the question of peace and security as a prerequisite for sustainable development becomes moot in the face of the threats posed to humankind by existing nuclear arsenals." (Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, apostolic nuncio to the United Nations, speaking at U.N. headquarters in New York April 30.)

Do Priests Weep for Those Who Suffer? "Tell me: Do you weep? Or have we lost our tears? . . . How many of us weep before the suffering of a child, before the breakup of a family, before so many people who do not find their way? The weeping of a priest: Do you weep? Or in this presbyterate have we lost all tears? Do you weep for your people? Tell me, do you offer intercessory prayer before the tabernacle? Do you struggle with the Lord for your people, as Abraham struggled?" (Pope Francis, speaking March 6 to parish priests of the Rome Diocese.)

4. From Globalized Indifference to Empathy

Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell titled a May 20 entry to his blog on the diocesan website, "We have eyes but will not see." His topic was "empathy," meaning to suffer with another. Empathy recognizes that a suffering individual is not just a member of a group, but is an individual and suffers as an individual.

But "it is so easy to isolate and insulate ourselves from the suffering of others in our society," the bishop observed. He said, "Our gated communities and patrolled neighborhoods are safe and secure enclaves."

Many mothers had empathy for the suffering of all the Nigerian mothers whose daughters were kidnapped recently, Bishop Farrell said. "When mothers heard of the kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria, they suffered with those Nigerian mothers. They more than understood and sympathized; their hearts ached for them."

The bishop cited a remark by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. When the president was told "that people in general had enough food, he replied, people do not starve in general, they starve in particular," the bishop wrote.

Pope Francis went in July 2013 to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a crossing point for immigrants making their way from northern Africa to Europe. But Lampedusa is a destination many do not reach, instead losing their lives to the sea. Bishop Farrell wrote of the pope's visit to Lampedusa:

"He went where he could see them and smell them and weep with them over their loved ones and others who didn't make it across the sea to safety. He said to those present, 'Our society has forgotten what it means to cry with others, to empathize. It's the globalization of indifference, which has taken away our ability to feel.'"

Society's poor "are not invisible by nature, but because we refuse to see them," said Bishop Farrell. To globalize indifference is to see "faces in a crowd," but not to see "a suffering woman or child." Yet, he concluded, "we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers; the love of Christ demands it."

5. A Comprehensive Respect-Life Strategy

Initiatives aimed at developing "a statewide respect-life strategy" that is "coordinated, comprehensive, communal and authentically Catholic" were reported by Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., in his May 15 column for the Inland Register, the diocesan newspaper. The three bishops of Washington state "all agreed to devote significant time and effort" to developing "a fully Catholic approach" to respect for life, he said.

To craft "a truly Catholic way of promoting respect for human dignity" in the state, the bishops committed themselves "to developing an approach that includes the full range of life issues and which stands above the partisan political fray," Bishop Cupich explained. He wrote:

"We also committed ourselves to taking an approach encouraged by Pope Francis, one that aims at creating an environment where honest and civil dialogue, especially with those who oppose us, can take place, and one in which the most vulnerable receive the broad support of society."

Bishop Cupich observed that some groups concerned about the dignity of life "use tactics and harsh language that the bishops consider counterproductive to the cause." Some groups and individuals, he wrote, "focus exclusively on one or a select few of the various aspects of the respect-life agenda."

The resulting divisions within the respect-life community "understandably leave many Catholics alienated to the point that they withdraw from being actively engaged," the bishop said. He called this "a pastoral problem we cannot ignore, as the promotion of respect for human life is a duty of us all."

Two initiatives planned by the bishops include a statewide conference in October titled "The Cornerstone Catholic Conference: Building a Culture of Life." Presentations during the conference are expected to cover a "full range of topics, including protecting the life of the unborn (abortion), the elderly and sick (doctor-assisted suicide) and those on death row (capital punishment)," said Bishop Cupich. Discussions of the poor and those living on society's margins also will likely be heard.

A second initiative, called PrePareS, relates to pregnancy and parenting support. Bishop Cupich said that this "is a clearly identified statewide Catholic initiative serving women and couples during and after pregnancy, even to the fifth year of the child."

The goal of the bishops' efforts is "the promotion and protection of the life of the unborn, not only until the moment of birth, but afterward," Bishop Cupich made clear. He wrote, "We are saying by this approach that we are not just pro-birth, but authentically and fully prolife."

His own pastoral experience taught him, Bishop Cupich said, "that oftentimes women contemplating abortion are motivated by the fear of being isolated and left alone, not only in bringing a child into the world, but raising the child."

6. Vatican Guidelines: Interreligious Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue encompasses more than discussions and ought to lead to "constructive relations" with the members of other religions, both individuals and communities, according to a set of guidelines released in mid-May by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

The pontifical council published the guidelines on the 50th anniversary of its creation. The council's roots lie in Pope Paul VI's 1964 establishment of the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians.

The guidelines are designed for use by pastoral leaders and others in the church "who live and work with the people of other religions." The text encourages "an attitude of respect and friendship" in interreligious relationships. It calls at the same time for a recognition of the important ways the members of different religions can work together on society's behalf.

Among issues to be addressed in interreligious relations is the presentation of other religions in children's textbooks. There is a risk in religious education that the texts used "can sustain negative stereotypes and unsound interpretations of a religion's beliefs and practices," the document explains.

The right of religious freedom also deserves attention in interreligious dialogue. Religious freedom encompasses the right to practice a religion, to transmit its teachings to others of that religion, to change religious affiliation and to believe or not believe, the document explains.

The Catholic Church "laments the fact that in some regions civil and even religious authorities adopt a one-sided approach" to the right to adhere to a religion or to change one's religion, according to the guidelines. The guidelines state as well that "everyone has the right to invite others to an understanding of one's own religion, but such an invitation should never deny another's rights, and it should take religious sensibilities into account."

Participants in interreligious dialogue need to be firm in their own religious convictions. They also need to be ready "to understand people of other religious traditions without prejudice or closed minds. "Genuine love, humility, prudence, honesty and patience" are important qualities in this kind of dialogue, the pontifical council states.

7. Interreligious Relationships Locally

Experience shows that "for the individual firmly rooted in his or her own religion, dialogue can offer a unique occasion to deepen one's own religious beliefs, thereby facilitating growth and maturity," the new guidelines by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue state. They add, "In the measure that a person is strongly aware of his or her identity, he or she becomes capable of mutual enrichment with the other."

The pontifical council considers it basic, in order "to realize sincere and fruitful dialogue among people of different religions," that relationships among the participants be characterized by "reciprocal respect, not only theoretical but also practical" -- born of a "recognition of the inherent dignity of the dialogue partners and, in particular, their religious freedom."

The guidelines call Catholics "to work with all people of good will, including followers of other religions, to build a peaceful society." However, the document says, " peace can come to fruition only when human rights are respected, especially the right to profess one's own religion according to the dictates of a properly formed conscience and within just limits legitimately set by civil society."

Violence and terrorism perpetrated in religion's name are rejected by the guidelines. "All forms of religiously motivated violence are to be considered an attack against religion itself and the true good of human society," the document says. It adds, "Christians are called to work with followers of other religions to prevent the instrumentalization of religion for political or other ends and to counter terrorism positively."

The guidelines encourage Catholic leaders to "reach out in friendship to their local counterparts in other religions." For, "relationships among local leaders begin and blossom when they share a common desire to meet and to listen to one another in an atmosphere of respect and openness to the values that are found in their respective religions."