Category Archives: Leaders & Institutions

Nixon felon and evangelical icon Charles Colson dies at 80

Chuck Colson in prison. Photo via Religion News Service archives.

By DAVID MARK and ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) Charles W. Colson, the Watergate felon who became an evangelical icon and born-again advocate for prisoners, died Saturday (April 21) after a brief illness. He was 80.

Despite an early reputation as a cutthroat “hatchet man” for President Richard M. Nixon, Colson later built a legacy of repentance, based on his work with

Prison Fellowship, a ministry he designed to bring Bible study and a Christian message to prison inmates and their families.

Colson founded the group in 1976 upon release from federal prison on Watergate-related charges. Prison reform and advocating for inmates became his life’s work, and his lasting legacy.

Colson had undergone surgery on March 31 to remove a pool of clotted blood on his brain. On Wednesday (April 18), Prison Fellowship Ministries CEO Jim Liske told staff and supporters that Colson’s health had taken a “decided turn” and he would soon be “home with the Lord.”

Due to his illness, for the first time in 34 years, he did not spend Easter Sunday preaching to prisoners, his ministry said.

”For more than 35 years, Chuck Colson, a former prisoner himself, has had a tremendous ministry reaching into prisons and jails with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said evangelist Billy Graham in a statement. “When I get to Heaven and see Chuck again, I believe I will also see many, many people there whose lives have been transformed because of the message he shared with them.

He will be greatly missed by many, including me. I count it a privilege to have called him friend.”

In many ways, Colson’s life personified the evangelical ethos of a sinner

in search of redemption after a dramatic personal encounter with Jesus. He also embodied the evangelical movement’s embrace of conservative social issues, although often as a happy warrior.

Today, Prison Fellowship has more than 14,000 volunteers working in

President George W. Bush listens to Robert Sut...

President George W. Bush listens to Robert Sutton, left, a graduate of the Prison Fellowship Ministries InnerChange Freedom Initiative, during a roundtable discussion in the Roosevelt Room Wednesday, June 18, 2003. The initiative is is part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice System and the new prisoner reentry and treatment program proposed by the Department of Justice. White House photo by Tina Hager (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

more than 1,300 prisons across the country. More than 150,000 prisoners participate in its Bible studies and seminars every year.

The organization founded by Colson also provides post-release pastoring for thousands of ex-convicts, and supplies Christmas gifts to more than 300,000 kids with a locked-up parent through its Angel Tree program.

Colson also founded Justice Fellowship, to develop what he called Bible-based criminal justice, and advocate for prison reform. In 1993, Colson won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and donated the money to his ministry.

As recently as February, Colson was still contributing to political debates, writing an open letter with fellow evangelical leader Timothy George that criticized the Obama administration’s health care contraception mandate.

”We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime,” he wrote with George, comparing the mandate to policies of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

In 2009, Colson was a chief architect of the “Manhattan Declaration,” which advocated grass-roots resistance to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. He called the manifesto “one of the most important documents produced by the American church, at least in my lifetime.”

”The Christian’s primary concern is bringing people to Christ,” Colson told Christianity Today magazine in 2001. “But then they’ve got to take their cultural mandate seriously. We are to redeem the fallen structures of society.”

Colson also was a key figure in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a network of religious leaders who found common ground supporting a “culture of life” and reaffirmed their stance in 2006 when they called abortion “murder.”

Religion was far from Colson’s mind during his early adult life, when his main passion was politics. A Boston native, Colson showed early signs of political acumen as a star debater in high school.

After graduating from Brown University, Colson enlisted in the Marines and rose to the rank of captain. Following law school and a stint in the Pentagon, Colson worked on Capitol Hill as a top aide to Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, R-Mass.

After serving on Nixon’s 1968 election team, Colson was appointed by the newly elected president as special counsel to the president. During Nixon’s first term, he was known as Nixon’s feared but respected “hatchet man.”

Colson once bragged of a willingness to “walk over my grandmother if necessary to assure the President’s reelection,” and was roundly known within the Nixon administration as the “evil genius.”

”I was known as the toughest of the Nixon tough guys,” he said in 1995.

Nixon himself described Colson as one of his most loyal aides. “When I complained to Colson I felt confident that something would be done, and I was rarely disappointed,” the former president wrote in his memoirs.

Among other activities, Colson helped set up the “Plumbers” to plug news leaks. The Plumbers engaged in illegal wiretapping of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex, triggering the scandal that took down the Nixon White House.

Colson was also involved in the creation of the Special Investigations Unit, whose members broke into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who had given copies of the Pentagon Papers, a secret account of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, to newspapers.

Nixon aides justified the break-in on the grounds of national security, but

Colson later admitted that the agents were trying to dig up damaging information about Ellsberg before his espionage trial.

As the Watergate scandal mushroomed, Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 1974, and the felony led him to serve seven months of a one- to three-year sentence at Alabama’s Maxwell Prison as Prisoner 23226.

Colson later said he became a Christian before going to jail, and his time behind bars cemented his faith.

”There was more than a little skepticism in Washington, D.C., when I announced that I had become a Christian,” he said in 1995. “But I wasn’t bitter. I knew my task wasn’t to convince my former political cronies of my sincerity.”

In addition to his work with Prison Fellowship, Colson authored more than 30 books that sold more than 5 million copies, including his seminal 1976 autobiography, “Born Again.”

Colson became an evangelist for better prison conditions and championed what he called “restorative justice,” in which nonviolent criminals should stay out of jail, remain in the community where they committed their crime, and work to support their families and pay restitution to the victim.

Colson also forcefully advocated President Clinton’s impeachment and removal from office in 1998 over what he called perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

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Study says no evidence that death penalty deters crime

Some Catholics wonder if the death penalty is a priority for the U.S. hierarchy after their Respect Life Month statement made no mention of church opposition to capital punishment. Photo of San Quentin death chamber courtesy California Department of Corrections.

By KEVIN JOHNSON
c. 2012 USA Today
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) In the more than three decades since the national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, there is no reliable research to determine whether capital punishment has served as a deterrent, according to a review by the National Research Council.

The review, partially funded by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, found that one of the major shortcomings in all previous studies has included “incomplete or implausible” measures of how potential murderers perceive the risk of execution as a possible consequence of their actions.

Another flaw, according to the review, is that previous research never considered the impact of lesser punishments, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Fundamental flaws in the research we reviewed make it of no use in answering the question of whether the death penalty affects homicide rates,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel Nagin, who chaired the council’s study committee.

Nagin said Wednesday (April 18) that the panel reviewed the work of “dozens” of researchers since a 1976 Supreme Court decision ended a four-year national moratorium on executions.

“We recognize that this conclusion may be controversial to some,” Nagin said, “but no one is well served by unsupportable claims about the effect of the death penalty, regardless of whether the claim is that the death penalty deters homicides, has no effect on homicide rates or actually increases homicides.”

The council’s review comes exactly a week after the Connecticut Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment for future crimes following a lengthy debate that cited a lack of evidence about deterrence among the reasons for its repeal in favor of life in prison without parole.

“For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,” Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy said following the vote. “Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

Malloy has pledged to sign the legislation, which will leave 33 states with the death penalty.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which closely tracks capital punishment in the U.S., said deterrence has always been “hard to measure,” partly because of the time it often takes for states to carry out executions.

In Connecticut, for example, there are 11 people on death row, but only one person has been executed in the past 52 years.

As a result, Dieter said, the issue of deterrence has faded from the public discussion about capital punishment. It has been overtaken, he said, by such considerations as whether the death penalty remains an appropriate punishment for particularly heinous acts.

“If the death penalty is going to be justified, it has to rest on other grounds,” Dieter said.

Isaac Ehrlich, the University of Buffalo’s Department of Economics chairman, stands by his research that supports capital punishment as a deterrent to homicide.

“This is not the first time people have raised questions (about the research),” Ehrlich said, rejecting the council’s claim that prior research did not account for murderers’ considerations of the possible risks.

“A lot of murder is calculated, and people do take into account what might happen to them as a result,” he said.

(Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today.)

Southern Baptists to probe Richard Land’s Trayvon Martin remarks

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, preaches Nov. 11 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned a master's degree and met his future wife in the 1970's. Land often acts as a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, articulating the denomination's positions on issues such as abortion, same-sex unions, bioethics and race relations. Photo by Bryan S. Berteau.

By ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Southern Baptist leaders will investigate whether their top ethicist and public policy director plagiarized racially charged remarks about the Trayvon Martin case that many say set back the denomination’s efforts on racial reconciliation.

Richard Land, who leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, was accused of lifting remarks for his radio show that accused Democrats and civil rights leaders of exploiting the case of the unarmed Florida teenager who was shot and killed by a volunteer neighborhood watchman.

Even though Land has apologized for both the remarks and not attributing their source, the commission’s executive committee said it was obligated “to ensure no stone is left unturned.” An investigatory committee will “recommend appropriate action” to church leaders.

“They need the Travyon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma Alabama circa 1965,” Land said on his radio program, speaking of civil rights activists.

Those comments, included in a partial transcript published by Baptist blogger and Baylor University Ph.D. student Aaron Weaver, were previously written by Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner.

While conceding that talk radio has different attribution policies than traditional journalism or academic scholarship, “we nevertheless agree with Dr. Land that he could, and should, do a better job in this area,” the Executive Committee stated.

In a statement, Land said he serves “at the will of the trustees,” and “I look forward to continuing to work with and under the oversight of my trustees.” A commission spokeswoman said Land was not commenting beyond his statement.

The commission trustees, along with other Southern Baptist leaders, noted Land’s role in the passage of the 1995 resolution in which Southern Baptists apologized for their past defense of slavery. They also credited him for “engaging the culture and our political leaders on matters of religious conviction.”

Yet others have criticized Land, including the Rev. Fred Luter, the New Orleans pastor who’s expected to become the SBC’s first African-American president, who called the remarks “unhelpful.”

Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist researcher who blogged about Land’s comments without mentioning him by name, said the firestorm threatens to undo progress made by the overwhelmingly white denomination.

“The Southern Baptist Convention still must earn a better reputation for racial inclusion and justice,” Stetzer wrote. “As such, perhaps SBC denominational leaders are not the best persons to speak into racially charged situations, critiquing the actions of African Americans or African American leaders.”

Vatican orders crackdown on American nuns

By DAVID GIBSON
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Vatican has launched a crackdown on the umbrella group that represents most of America’s 55,000 Catholic nuns, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.

Rome also chided the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)

for sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The Vatican’s disciplinary action against the LCWR was announced on

Pope Benedict XVI during general audition

Pope Benedict XVI during general audition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wednesday (April 18), one day before Pope Benedict XVI marked seven years as pontiff.

In many ways, the Vatican’s actions against the LCWR encapsulated the kind of hard line that many expected Benedict — the Vatican’s former doctrinal czar — to take when he was elected in 2005.

“The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregations in other parts of the world,” said the eight-page statement issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict led for a quarter century before his election.

The directive, which follows a two-year investigation by Rome, also comes as the Vatican appeared ready to welcome a controversial right-wing splinter group of Catholic traditionalists back into the fold, possibly by giving the group a special status so that they can continue to espouse their old-line rites and beliefs.

The CDF, now led by American Cardinal William Levada, appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to lead the process of overhauling LCWR’s governance and reviewing its plans and programs and its relationship with certain groups that the Vatican finds suspect.

One of the groups singled out in the criticism is Network, a social justice lobby created by Catholic sisters 40 years ago that continues to play a leading role in pushing progressive causes on Capitol Hill.

The Vatican announcement said that “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.”

It added that “crucial” issues like “the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”

Many bishops were angered when LCWR and Network, along with the Catholic Health Association, endorsed President Obama’s health care reform over the bishops’ objections. LCWR and Network recently endorsed Obama’s compromise with the bishop over a mandate to provide insurance coverage for birth control for employees at religious institutions, even as the bishops continue to fight it.

The Vatican said the LCWR defended itself in part by arguing that the group “does not knowingly invite speakers who take a stand against a teaching of the church church ‘when it has been declared as authoritative teaching.'” The LCWR also said that assertions made by speakers at LCWR conferences are not necessarily their own. The Vatican called that response “inadequate” and unsupported by the facts.

While LCWR did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said she was “stunned” that the Vatican document would single out her group, probably over its support for health care reform.

“It concerns me that political differences in a democratic country would result in such a a censure and investigation,” Campbell said.

Campbell also strongly defended LCWR. “I know LCWR has faithfully-served women religious in the United States and worked hard to support the life of women religious and our service to the people of God.”

Throughout church history, and in particular in the United States, women in religious communities who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience have directed their work toward charitable and educational ministries — running schools, hospitals, orphanages and a range of social services that have become as much a hallmark of Catholicism as the moral doctrine that the bishops oversee.

Increasingly, however, the hierarchy in Rome and the U.S. is focusing on promoting doctrinal orthodoxy and curbing dissent.

Many women religious (as both sisters in active ministry and cloistered nuns are known) have viewed their ministry as primarily one of service, but some have openly disagreed with church leaders on a number of hot-button issues.

In 2009 the Vatican launched a wide-ranging investigation of all women religious in the U.S., prompted by concern over their commitment to doctrine and tradition as well as the sharp decline in vocations. The number of nuns in America has dropped from 179,954 in 1965 to just 55,000 today.

Some newer, more traditional communities are growing, though they still represent a small minority of the total number of sisters. They are represented by a parallel organization that is considered more Vatican-friendly than the LCWR.

That broader investigation, called a visitation, was seen by critics as a heavy-handed maneuver and prompted widespread resistance among U.S. nuns, which led the Vatican to recalibrate its approach. The final report on that investigation was delivered to the pope in January, and the results are expected to be announced in the coming months.

The LCWR investigation was a separate probe that was begun in 2008 and concluded in 2010. Benedict gave the CDF the go-ahead to take action against the LCWR in January 2011, more than a year ago. There was no explanation for the delay in publicly revealing the crackdown.

Pope turns 85 amid speculation of resignation

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24. RNS photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

By ALESSANDRO SPECIALE
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI turned 85 on Monday (April 16) amid renewed speculation about his declining health and possible resignation.

The German-born pope has appeared tired and fatigued in recent months and admitted at a morning Mass to being in “the final leg of the path of my life.” But on Sunday, he signaled his resolve to carry on with his duties as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, asking the faithful to pray that he have the “strength” to “fulfill his mission.”

This week will mark a double milestone for Benedict, with Thursday being the seventh anniversary of his election as pope.

Last October, Benedict started using a movable platform to carry him down the central aisle in St. Peter’s Basilica, and he leaned on a cane before boarding the plane for a recent weeklong trip to Cuba and Mexico. He his now the sixth-oldest pope since at least the 1400s; the oldest, Pope Leo XIII, died in 1903 at age 93.

Talk of possible resignation has been swirling around the pope ever since his 2010 book, “Light of the World,” in which he said that if a pope felt “no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office,” he would have “the right, and in some circumstances the obligation, to resign.”

Last month, prominent Italian journalists who are considered Benedict loyalists openly suggested that the pope might resign in the near future, adding new fuel to the rumor mill.

Still, despite sounding hoarse during the intense liturgical schedule of Holy Week, the pope has not canceled any appointments.

Celebrating Mass with a delegation from his native Bavaria on Monday, an emotional Benedict said he was sure God would help him “proceed safely” despite having entered “the final leg of the path of my life.”

“I don’t know what the future holds for me but I know that … God’s good is stronger than all the evil in this world,” he confided.

He later attended a small Bavarian-style festival in the Vatican. Benedict joined bishops and leaders from his native region in singing the Bavarian national hymn and watched as children performed a traditional dance. Benedict was joined by his older brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who flew in last weekend from Germany.

Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, died in 2005 at age 84 after years of failing health. After his death, it was revealed John Paul considered resigning twice, on his 75th and 80th birthdays, but decided to continue serving “as long as (Jesus), in the mysterious designs of his providence, will want.”

 

 

Mitt Romney on the cusp of making major Mormon history

By THOMAS BURR and PEGGY FLETCHER STACK
c. 2012 The Salt Lake Tribune
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) With Rick Santorum’s exit from the White House race, Mitt Romney stands on the cusp of history as the first Mormon to appear at the top of a major party ticket in a general presidential election. Romney, a Brigham Young University-educated, Mormon-family scion and beloved Utah figure, is now the inevitable Republican nominee and will take on President Obama this fall.

The news is sure to bring a surge of excitement unseen in Utah since Romney led the triumphant 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and helped usher the state — and the Mormon Church — onto the world stage.

“Romney has family here, he’s lived here, he’s worked here, he went to school here,” says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who has campaigned this year with the former Massachusetts governor. “It feels like he’s one of us.”

He is the seventh Latter-day Saint to attempt a presidential bid — six others, including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman this year, and church founder Joseph Smith in 1844, fell short.

Many Latter-day Saints feel connected to Romney, says Darius Gray, former head of the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons, and others will believe that “Mormonism has arrived.”

For so long, Latter-day Saints have had a “sense of being the underdog, due to our history and persecution we’ve experienced in our 182-year history,” Gray said. “For some, (Romney’s nomination) will be a kind of vindication. But with it will come great scrutiny about who we are as a people.”

Gray’s advice to Mormons: Don’t overreact to questions about the faith’s past and its present.

“We should not be thin-skinned,” he said. “It will behoove all of us at all levels to be prepared to answer well and fully questions that are bound to arise.”

Regardless of the fallout, Gray looks forward to “an interesting confrontation between visions of the future — that of Brother Romney and that of President Obama.”

Romney’s quest for the Oval Office already has seen rumblings of anti-Mormon sentiment carry over to the ballot box. He lost much of the evangelical-dominated South. Some prominent pastors have dismissed Mormonism as a cult. Others have questioned the faith’s exclusion of full membership for African-Americans until 1978.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is likely to see more scrutiny than it did during the Olympics — now through a political lens. Ben Park, a Mormon doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England, said Mormons will face a host of new perspectives.

“Prior to this,” Park wrote in an email, “it’s only been evangelicals and the religious right. … This will be the first time they confront thoughtful secular criticisms — the kind that can’t be shrugged off as anti-Mormon bigotry and will actually cause reflection.”

That may prompt a bit of a pause with some of the Mormon faithful, who find themselves hopeful for a candidate but also wary of the spotlight.

“There is a curious mixture of excitement and apprehension among Mormons, whatever their political persuasion,” said Mormon writer and blogger Jana Riess in Cincinnati. “We are hyperaware of our minority status in America and concerned that increased public scrutiny of our faith will prove painful.”

However faith surfaces in the fall campaign — Obama’s team has said Romney’s Mormonism will be off-limits despite GOP allegations that it won’t be — the candidate’s newfound stature pushes the LDS faith into a new political stratosphere.

Romney’s nomination is “the outcome of the many changes to Mormonism since World War II,” says Jan Shipps, a respected historian of American religions. “It is a key episode in the life of the Utah-based faith.”

That’s true even for non-Romney supporters.

State Sen. Ben McAdams, a Salt Lake City Democrat and devout Mormon, conceded that having a Mormon presidential nominee is an exciting prospect that will create national exposure for the church.

“I’ve long maintained that as America gets to know my faith, they’ll find a lot of virtue and value in who we are, and we have a lot in common with the American people, and we have a lot to bring to the table,” McAdams said. “As Americans will learn during the course of this campaign, Mormons are mainstream America.”

McAdams says he wants a Mormon as president — though he doesn’t want Romney to be that Mormon.

Nationally, nine in 10 Mormons (86 percent) in the GOP-dominated faith give Romney positive marks, according to a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life earlier this year. Even 62 percent of Mormon Democrats have a favorable view of their fellow believer.

Shipps, who is writing about post-World War II Mormonism, is now waiting to see how the presidential showdown ends.

“I can’t finish my book,” she said, “until this plays out.”

(Thomas Burr and Peggy Fletcher Stack write for The Salt Lake Tribune. Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.)

“The 700 Club” to end WWAY broadcasts after Good Friday

WWAY is reporting that evangelist Pat Robertson’s show “The 700 Club

The 700 Club

The 700 Club (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

will end its local broadcasts on that station on Good Friday (April 6).

The show had been airing on WWAY at 9 a.m. each day but said it wasn’t making enough money. The show pulled out of several small markets recently, including Wilmington.

Read the full story here.

– Amanda Greene

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba benefits both Vatican and the Castros

Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedict XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN
c. 2012 USA Today
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, he called for the island nation “to open to the world and for the world to open to Cuba.”

Pope Benedict XVI now will walk in that wider doorway.

The official reason for the trip is pastoral. Just weeks before his 85th birthday, Benedict is mustering his strength to bring encouragement to the Cuban flock after his first stop in Mexico this week.

The pope will bless the patroness of Cuba, La Caridad, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, on the 400th anniversary of her statue found floating in the sea.

Experts say his two-day visit to Cuba benefits the Vatican with increased opportunity to promote the faith in a country that once imprisoned priests, confiscated church property, shuttered religious schools and deprived active Catholics of education and job opportunities.

In turn, the visit benefits the Castro brothers — ailing revolutionary Fidel and his now-ruling brother Raul — who know the Roman Catholic Church has always opposed the half-century-old U.S. trade embargo.

Thousands of U.S. Catholics are streaming in to see the pope, 500 from South Florida alone. Historian and Benedict biographer Matthew Bunson says the pontiff “wants to give a vocal and open show of support for the Cuban church and the Cuban people — 60 to 70 percent of whom are Catholic — and translate their historic faith into a more active and vibrant Catholic life.”

Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, who has been to Cuba frequently in the past decade, sees this visit as possibly as transformative as John Paul’s visit.

Wenski estimates churchgoing is still weak in Cuba — maybe just 500,000 attend Sunday Mass among the nation’s 12 million people. But when La Caridad was loaded onto a pickup and toured around the island for 15 months, an estimated 4 million people came out to greet her.

Still, the relationship between church and state is “not yet what it could be. The church doesn’t have the complete freedom it enjoys in other free societies,” Wenski says.

Even so, Wenski can tick off signs of progress, including:

— A newly completed seminary campus is the first major construction project by the church since the revolution.

— Renovations are now underway in several churches.

— Cuba’s first program offering a master’s in business administration is offered at a new Catholic cultural center in Havana.

— St. Thomas University, owned by the Archdiocese of Miami, gives training programs to public school teachers in Cuba.

National Catholic Reporter Vatican expert John Allen says the Castro brothers “want international legitimacy. Wrapping the pope in a warm, loving embrace, showing they’re not enemies of the faith, is a good way to get it,” Allen says.

But the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist, says Benedict might also “shake his finger at the Castros and challenge them to pay attention to religious liberty.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.)

Cuba Libre

Franklin Graham meets with black church leaders

Evangelist Franklin Graham apologized recently for questioning President Obama's faith. RNS file photo.

By ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Religious leaders from the NAACP met with evangelist Franklin Graham Tuesday (March 20), less than a month after they accused him of “bearing false witness” when he questioned President Obama’s Christian faith.

“All parties were in agreement that it is essential to our society and our faith that we refrain from demonizing Christians and people of other faiths when they do not agree with us,” said the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, a NAACP vice president, in a statement released after the meeting at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.

“We look forward to continued discussions with Rev. Graham.”

On Feb. 28, prominent clergy from the NAACP accused Graham of “bearing false witness” and inciting racial discord when he said he couldn’t say whether Obama is a Christian and added that “under Islamic law, the Muslim world sees Barack Obama as a Muslim.”

Later the same day, Graham issued an apology, saying, “I regret any comments I have ever made which may have cast any doubt on the personal faith of our president, Mr. Obama.”

On Tuesday, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham expressed appreciation for the meeting.

“While we may agree to disagree on certain political issues we agreed to work together against injustice both in and outside the United States,” he said in the joint statement. “I look forward to continuing the dialogue we began today.”

The statement said the leaders discussed “the use of faith as a political weapon” and creating “a new narrative about evangelicalism.”

Son says sibling rivalry fueled Crystal Cathedral downfall

By ADELLE M. BANKS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) As the Crystal Cathedral tries to find its footing without any members of founder Robert H. Schuller‘s family at the helm, the only son and one-time successor says “sibling rivalry” played a key role in the California megachurch’s decline.

“They didn’t want to be accountable to me, their brother,” said Robert A.

Robert H. Schuller’s only son, Robert A. Schuller, says sibling rivalry played a key role in the California megachurch’s decline. RNS photo by Steve Anderson Photography

Schuller, the church’s former senior pastor, of his sisters and brothers-in-law, some of who were board members and ministry staffers. He chalked it up to “sibling rivalry.”

“So they took steps into their own hands to make sure that they had job security.”

In an interview Monday (March 19), Robert A. Schuller, 57, said his siblings took advantage of his father’s signs of dementia and halted the younger Schuller’s 2006 succession to his father’s ministry within two years. He left the gleaming megachurch in 2008.

The onetime heir apparent said the memory of his 85-year-old father has been failing for at least 10 years.

“My sisters were able to manipulate that because of his mental capacities,” said Schuller, now co-owner of YouToo TV, a television and social media network. “It was the demise of the ministry.”

Family members could not immediately be reached for comment. Schuller’s parents recently resigned from the ministry they founded more than 50 years ago over financial disputes with the board. Their daughter, former Crystal Cathedral Senior Pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman, started a new church in an Orange, Calif., movie theater on Sunday (March 18) and it is scheduled to meet at a nearby hotel for the next four weeks.

Schuller said the ministry his father led was able to thrive without the glass-walled building for which it became known, and its prime years began in the 1970s, before the large edifice was dedicated. He thinks business decisions to focus on the “Hour of Power” television show and to not have an independent board led to the ministry’s decline.

But he nevertheless believes both Coleman’s new congregation and the current congregation at the cathedral — which had a significantly larger attendance last Sunday than the week before when his sister was still there — could continue.

The cathedral worshippers will have to move within three years after the megachurch campus was sold in bankruptcy proceedings to the Catholic Diocese of Orange, Calif.

“I think there’s definitely a potential there for a congregation to survive without the Crystal Cathedral,” he said. “The congregation is the people. It’s not the building.”

And he also thinks family-run ministries can survive, despite the inherent risks.

“I think family-run ministries are fabulous but they have to be placed in proper governance,” he said, noting that potential big donors were uncomfortable with the way Crystal Cathedral Ministries was run.

The younger Schuller has attended his son’s church in Orange, and said he has been invited to preach a sermon at Crystal Cathedral. Steve Yount, a spokesman for the ministry, said the new board chairman, John Charles, was not aware of any such discussions.

Schuller also said he is willing to serve as an adviser and might be open to helping the troubled church in other ways.

“I’m willing to do whatever I can to assist, but I just want to make sure that whatever participation I had was going to help and not hinder anything,” he said.

Schuller’s new book, “When You Are Down to Nothing, God is Up to Something,” uses the ministry as Exhibit A in every chapter to guide others through unexpected personal loss.

“It would be as if a surgeon lost his eyesight and could no longer perform surgery — that’s where I was in my life,” he said. “It was devastating. From that period of pain I had to reinvent myself and that’s what I’ve done.”

Schuller said he didn’t speak to family members for 18 months, but he now sees his parents regularly and talks with his siblings periodically.

“It’s not good to hold onto grudges,” he said. “Even though they’ve done this, it’s kind of like over now and time to move on.”