Catholics around the world can’t afford ‘luxury issues’

Originally at:

by John Allen

Americans may have lost their dominance in many sectors of the global economy in the early 21st century, but there’s one industry where we still unquestionably lead the pack: the manufacture of controversy.

American Catholics are no exception, and this week a fresh row broke out over Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official overseas development arm of the US bishops. It turns out that CRS has a non-Catholic employee working in a technical post, nothing to do with faith or morals, who’s in a same-sex marriage.

Predictably, some folks are upset and are letting everyone know about it.

Whatever the merits of the fuss, here’s an observation you won’t find in most American debates: For Catholics in many other parts of the world, the whole thing seems a great example of a “luxury issue,” meaning the kind of argument that only affluent cultures and churches can afford to have.

In Kenya, for instance, Bishop Anthony Muheria of Kitui reported this week that Christian pastors are wrestling with whether to teach their people to recite a line from the Qur’an in Arabic, so the next time an Islamic terrorist shoves an AK-47 in their face they may be able to pass as a Muslim and stay alive.

The question arises in the wake of an April 2 attack on a university in Garissa, Kenya, near the Somali border, where gunmen separated Christian and Muslim students, killing the former while leaving the latter unscathed. All told, 150 people died and 80 were injured, and it’s hardly the only time something like this has happened.

“We are under threat as Christians, and our institutions are not defending us,” Muheria said on Monday during a trip to Rome.

Or take Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Greek Melkite archbishop of Aleppo in Syria. (The Greek Melkites, concentrated in Syria and Lebanon, are one of 22 Eastern churches that are fully part of the broader Catholic Church.)

Jeanbart currently is in the United States on a consciousness-raising mission, and Crux caught up with him at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Brooklyn, New York. His trip is being sponsored byAid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organization supporting persecuted Christians.

The cities of Aleppo and Homs in Syria have seen some of the most intense fighting during the civil conflict, which makes the 72-year-old Jeanbart, whose family has been in the country for generations, the bishop of a war zone.

Here’s the sort of thing Jeanbart is compelled to have on his mind: What happens if he or one of his priests is kidnapped?

Kidnapping Christian clergy has become a cottage industry among armed factions in Syria. In February 2013, the website “Ora Pro Siria,” operated by Italian missionaries, reported that the going price for a kidnapped priest at that stage was in the neighborhood of $200,000.

Jeanbart said that so far only one of his priests has been abducted, and there’s been no ransom demand. He knows there is a real possibility it could happen to him; two Orthodox bishops from Aleppo were taken in 2013 and are still missing.

I asked Jeanbart what he would want his Church to do if he were grabbed and the kidnappers demanded money to release him. Agonizing over the question, he said the raw truth is that he raises enough money around the world to keep his people afloat, funding food baskets, scholarships, and basic health services, that it would probably be a good investment on their part to pay.

In general, Jeanbart is obviously worried about the future of his flock.

“We are in grave danger; we may disappear soon,” he said. Any hope of moderate opposition in Syria has been hijacked by “radical Muslim factions calling for jihad and exclusion, a kind of apartheid for all non-Muslims.”

In terms of American foreign policy, he said that what the situation requires is less boots on the ground than the United States using its influence to pressure other nations in the region, especially Turkey, to cut off the transit points for arms and mercenaries to make their way into Syria. Accomplish that, he said, and Syria could do the rest itself.

Lest anyone think that situations such as those in Kenya and Syria are exceptions, let’s recall that two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today live outside the West, many in some fairly rough neighborhoods.

Even when those Catholics aren’t facing religious persecution or war, many of them are still stuck with the realities of grinding poverty, bad governance, and unstable social and political situations.

Not long ago, that two-thirds world watched with astonishment as American Catholics spent more than a decade debating the translation of terms in the Mass – for instance, whether people should say “And also with you” or “And with your spirit” when the priest says, “The Lord be with you.”

Many were stunned to learn that we apparently have so much time on our hands, and so little of life-and-death urgency to occupy it.

Ask prelates such as Muheria and Jeanbart today what they think about matters such as the CRS controversy, and you may eventually get an opinion. What you’re likely to get first, however, is irritation that more dramatic situations around the world, in which America is undeniably involved, don’t seem to arouse a similar passion.

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