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British Muslim pol tells pope, 'Europe needs confident Christians'

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ROME -- When you’re talking about the Vatican, it’s a good idea to be careful about using the word “unprecedented.” Over hundreds of years of history, almost everything has happened at least once.

tThis afternoon, however, brought something you definitely don’t see every day: A prominent Muslim woman standing in the heart of Rome, opining that Europe needs to become “more confident in its Christianity.”

tBaroness Sayeeda Warsi, a cabinet minister in the U.K. and the highest-ranking Muslim woman in the West, made that case before present and future Vatican diplomats at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. She spoke as part of a high-level delegation of U.K. officials in town for working meetings with Vatican officials.

tPope Benedict XVI, whom Warsi will meet tomorrow, previously has proposed a grand “Alliance of Civilizations” with Islam, one thrust of which is that Christians and Muslims should be natural allies against radical currents of secularism seeking to exclude religion from public life.

Today’s speech amounted to a signal that at least one influential British Muslim, and a woman to boot, is ready to sign on.

An embarrassing campaign gone awry

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I have to cringe every time I read the latest front page headline or see the TV update on the biggest Catholic story of 2012 -- the U.S. bishops' struggle for "religious freedom." However, it turns out, whether the hierarchy wins the day, the Obama administration triumphs or there's a satisfactory compromise, this roiling controversy is an embarrassment.

Why, people wonder, would the bishops spend what little public relations capital they have at this point in history by battling against contraceptive coverage in insurance plans for employees of church-related organizations? It's like this is the fight they've been hungering for, like the Armageddon clash between absolute good and absolute evil, as if the very essence of Catholicism is on the line and our backs are up against the wall.

Kathy Kelly: A Valentine message from Afghanistan

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February 14, 2012

It's Valentine's Day, and opening the little cartoon on the Google page brings up a sentimental animation with Tony Bennett singing "why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart."

Here in Dubai, where I’m awaiting a visa to visit Afghanistan, the weather is already warm and humid. But my bags are packed with sweaters because Kabul is still reeling from the coldest winter on record. Two weeks ago, eight children under age five froze to death there in one of the sprawling refugee camps inhabited by so many who have fled from the battles in other provinces. Since January 15, at least 23 children under 5 have frozen to death in the camps.

And just over a week ago, eight young shepherds, all but one under 14 years of age, lit a fire for warmth on the snowy Afghan mountainside in Kapisa Province where they were helping support their families by grazing sheep. French troops saw the fire, and acted on faulty information, and the boys were all killed in two successive NATO airstrikes. The usual denunciations from local authorities, and Western apologies, followed. (Trend News, February 10, 2012).

Bishops are not 'Obama haters,' Dolan insists

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ROME -- Insisting that the Catholic bishops of America are not “Obama haters,” soon-to-be Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said this morning that while the bishops regard a recent compromise on insurance mandates announced by the administration as unacceptable, he’s committed to “dialogue” and a “posture of openness” in trying to reach agreement.

tThere’s still “a little glimmer of hope,” Dolan said, that an acceptable solution can be found.

Vatican appeals for calm in teeth of leaks and scandals

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ROME --tIn effect, the Vatican spokesperson addressed a plea to the media Monday night. Facing a seemingly never-ending series of leaks of confidential documents, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi called on the press to “make careful distinctions,” to not “just throw everything together,” and to not allow the reality of the situation to be “swallowed up in a whirlpool of confusion.”

tBetting houses did not immediately open a line on the odds of calm prevailing, but they would have to be astronomic.

tIn recent days, confidential correspondence related to charges of corruption and cronyism in Vatican finances, internal memos suggesting loopholes in a new papal anti-money laundering law, and even an anonymous letter hinting at a plot to kill the pope have all created media sensations.

Though in each case the Vatican has played down, even ridiculed, the content of the documents, they’ve also been forced to admit that the documents themselves are authentic.

An Accomplishment for the American Catholic Laity

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Whatever else the Obama compromise on birth control may turn out to be, it is a singular triumph of U.S. Catholic laity.

Bishops touched off the public furor by claiming that the original Obama mandate infringed on their religious rights, but the White House took its cue from the laity's acceptance and use of artificial birth control to craft a solution that has largely carried the day.

Except for the bishops who sidelined themselves by resisting the proposal and, as it were, stubbornly insisting that they still held clout.

The polls consistently have shown that a majority of Catholic citizens support the availability of means of contraception, personally and in principle. While Obama heeded the bishops' warnings that the original mandate was an intrusion, the President followed the laity's lead in deciding a proper outcome.

That's no small victory for the collective conscience of Catholic lay people. In the past, politicians tended to take directions from bishops. This policy struggle is, therefore, a departure from looking only to the top for what Catholics stand for.

I blame myself and everyone like me

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I feel like an idiot.

When the U.S. bishops came out so strongly against the new government rules regarding contraceptives and health insurance, they said the issue was one of religious freedom.

And I believed them.

When the bishops argued that it was not the administration's place to decide whether Catholic hospitals or colleges fit the "faith mission" exception to the insurance rule, it made sense to me.

And I believed them.

I thought the bishops were trying to make an argument apart from the politics of the moment, separate from the polarizing stances they have so often taken in the last few years, stances that had placed them in league with odd allies from the far right.

I feel like an idiot.

After the Obama administration announced adjustments to the contraception rule that would remove the church from directly having to pay for contraceptive coverage in health plans, many Catholics responded with relief, including Catholic Charities and the Catholic Health Association. The bishops' objections seemed understood, and the public at large was not denied access.

Conservatives see a war on religion; I see compromise

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In the midst of this controversy over contraception in health care coverage and religious liberty, some Republican candidates for president have engaged in overblown rhetoric that is just plain crazy, even in an election season already punctuated with over-the-top rhetoric and vitriol.

Newt Gingrich recently told voters in Ohio that President Barack Obama "declared war on the Catholic church." Both he and Rick Santorum have accused the administration of waging a "war on religion" when they devised a rule covering contraception in health care plans because the exemption was not broad enough to cover religiously affiliated universities and hospitals.

Santorum talks about the "intolerance of the left," as if no people with progressive views ever embraced a faith or darkened the door of a house of worship. He even suggested that the United States is heading for something like the French Revolution, complete with guillotines, because of the alleged intolerance for people of faith by the "left." Really, Rick? Really? How many progressive people do you know?

Now is the time to discuss prison sentences

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I've made a couple of trips to Jefferson City, Mo., the last few weeks to advocate for reducing prison sentences. This is the right time. Legislators are listening.

They are listening for a lot of reasons. First, incarceration is expensive. Second, in the case of many first-time offenders, prison is ineffective, to say the least; fellow inmates teach criminal behavior. Third, prison is the least effective treatment for addiction. Fourth, other states are reducing their prison populations while crime continues to go down.

Crime is going down in Missouri, too, but the population continues to creep up. Turns out Missouri has a high rate of re-incarceration for technical parole violations like missing appointments, testing positive for a drug, getting a traffic ticket. In 2010, two-thirds of prison admissions were parole and probation revocations. That's different than being charged with and convicted of a new crime.

Accountability, 'fraternal correction' for bishops

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ROME -- Bishops and other church officials from around the English-speaking world have been meeting in a gathering called “The Anglophone Conference on the Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults” since 1996, comparing notes and trying to identify best practices in fighting child sexual abuse.

This year’s gathering is taking place in Rome at the Domus Sanctae Martae, the $20 million hotel on Vatican grounds where cardinals stay when they gather to elect a pope.

tArchbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia, who’s served since 2006 as President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, is in Rome for the event this week. Over the years, Wilson has carved out a reputation as a “healing bishop” on the abuse scandals, and became the first Australian prelate to address the U.S. bishops when he was asked in 2002 to provide advice as the abuse crisis exploded in America.

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